« Is “American Evangelicalism” still Christian? »

Some in this conversation have challenged the propriety of a phrase like “American Evangelicalism.” Sarah Ruden, for example, rightly laments that the “American” part of this phrase is quite worrisome. I want to pick up on this discussion a bit.

For most of my adult life I would have construed “evangelicalism” to be fundamentally a religious term, a label for a particular group of Christians, like Catholics or Quakers. My spiritual formation as a Christian took place in a Canadian evangelical setting, with strong fundamentalist influences. I believe “evangelical” in that setting was an authentically Christian label that located my church in a certain theological place. There were, to be sure, cultural and political glosses but, at its heart, it was an expression of Christianity.

A few decades have now passed. During those decades “American Evangelicalism” evolved dramatically into an entirely new species. What was once a gloss has become the heart and the heart is now the gloss.  I now think of “American Evangelicalism” as a political and cultural movement—like environmentalists, the GLBT, or vegetarians—with a gloss of Christian rhetoric.

The new post-Christian species of “American Evangelicalism” is doing very well financially. Having abandoned any serious concern about the love of money, it is wealthier than ever. Its leaders enjoy lavish “lifestyles of the rich and famous” free of any criticism. Its constituents have embraced self-serving political positions like “cutting food stamps helps the poor.”  Or “unemployed people are just lazy.” Or “climate change is a hoax.” Or “raising the minimum wage hurts the poor.” Or, my favorite, “lowering taxes on the rich makes us all better off.”  A consistent theme runs through all these positions, namely that American Evangelicals want to get richer, love being led by the fabulously wealthy, and that poverty should be ignored.

The interests of American Evangelicals are now being advanced by some of the world’s wealthiest people: the Koch brothers, without whose wealth the Tea Party and its menagerie of curious candidates would be long gone; or Sheldon Adelson, who single-handedly funded Newt Gingrich in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.  The GOP platform is now the creed of American Evangelicals; Fox News is its voice; fighting Big Government is its cause.  And Jesus, who Fox News assures us was “white,” was a first century capitalist who is often misunderstood as a champion of the poor.

This over-simplified picture of American Evangelicalism is certainly not what any authentic evangelical wants for their tradition. So how did we get here?  We got here the same way that the gridlock got into our political system:  by gradually oversimplifying the world into “us” and “them.”  Our discourse is now such that we cannot distinguish between a criticism of “us” and an affirmation of “them.” Witness the hostility that Chris Christie received when he embraced Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Christie being “nice” to Obama was somehow the same as being “not-nice” to the GOP.

Two dangerous things happen when things get this polarized: First, people are often forced to make choices that should have been unnecessary; and sometimes they decide with their feet, as I did when I said “enough” and joined an Episcopal church. Evangelicalism, not surprisingly, is experiencing a steady and intellectually corrosive “brain drain” now by forcing its educated leaders to pick sides—which often means they take their voices elsewhere. The second and more damaging thing that happens is the silencing of reforming, even prophetic, voices with the evangelical community.  We hear calls to embrace those in our community, set aside our differences, and reserve criticism for those outside our community.  So what happens when those within our community need to be criticized by their extended family? How does that work?  The sad reality is that it does not work and the result is the “American Evangelical Jesus” has become almost invisible.

I am skeptical that “American Evangelicalism” can recover its lost soul. There is just too much money at stake.  If it were to happen, it would require decoupling its religious commitments from its politics and the many interests that are exploiting it. Let me suggest the following as examples of what needs to start happening on a large scale:

1)    Evangelicals need to adopt a much more critical stance toward those with great wealth.  If Mitt Romney or John McCain asks evangelicals for their votes, we should ask them why they have not disbursed their vast fortunes to the poor as Jesus commanded the rich young presidential hopeful in his day. We should demand that televangelists like Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar return their vast wealth to the poor from whom they extorted it. We should ask every politician seeking our vote how they plan to deal with America’s growing wealth disparity.

2)    We need to reject political hate speech, even when it comes from people on “our side.” Three of the nation’s leading purveyors of hate speech—Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Michelle Malkin—present themselves as loyal Christians speaking up for Christian values. This is unacceptable. As an experiment I have raised this concern with many of my evangelical facebook friends. With no exceptions, the response has been that “hate speech from right wing pundits is OK because there is also hate speech from left wing pundits—like Ed Shultz and Martin Bashir.” That evangelicals think like this shows how thoroughly they have been politicized, and how insignificant Jesus has become.

3)    We need to embrace diversity and even controversy; we need to value critical voices from within, recognizing that internal criticism makes you stronger and larger but external criticism only makes you defensive and smaller.  When our colleges run off professors for being too “liberal” on this or that issue, or our churches run off our young people frustrated by their community’s lack of interest  in social justice, we are all weaker. Indulging our obsession with uniformity and tradition exacts a large toll on our communities.

There are, of course, millions of authentic Christian voices in American Evangelicalism, genuine followers of Jesus.  Many of them are my friends and my family. But their communities need better leaders, not opportunists driven by agendas that have nothing in common with the teachings of Jesus. Until American Evangelicalism rejects the growing cancer of its own politicization, no progress on any meaningful religious front is possible.


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