Which Neighbor Should Evangelicals Love?

Evangelical Protestants are on fire to help Syrian refugees. Except, they’re not. As Chris Gehrz points out, journalists who jump too quickly to define the “evangelical” position on refugees usually miss the boat.

Franklin Graham

What Would Billy Do?

There’s no doubt that leading evangelical organizations have taken the lead on welcoming refugees. The National Association of Evangelicals, for example, has warned policy-makers not to let fear of terrorists get in the way of Christian charity. As President Leith Anderson put it,

We are horrified and heartbroken by the terrorist atrocities in Paris, but must not forget that there are thousands more victims of these same terrorists who are fleeing Syria with their families and desperately need someplace to go.

At flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today, too, editor Mark Galli has recently reminded Americans of their moral requirement to welcome and assist refugees.

As usual, though, Professor Chris Gehrz asks a more complicated and insightful question: Do such official and quasi-official statements really represent the thinking of most evangelicals? Gehrz worries it does not. He cites recent poll data that show large majorities of white evangelicals opposing a pro-refugee policy.

Gehrz wonders if other prominent evangelical voices might have more pull than do Galli or Anderson.  For instance, what about Franklin Graham’s warning that Islam is a clear and present danger? In a Facebook post, Graham wrote,

We cannot allow Muslim immigrants to come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war of terror. If we continue to allow Muslim immigration, we’ll see much more of what happened in Paris – it’s on our doorstep.

Similarly, at evangelical WORLD Magazine, Cal Thomas has called a pro-refugee policy “wishful thinking.” Even US passport-holders, Thomas writes, should not be allowed back into the country if they have visited countries that host ISIS training camps.

At The Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung has suggested that the entire question is not cut-and-dried for compassionate Christians. As he wrote,

Christian charity means loving the safety of the neighbor next door at least as much as loving the safe passage of the neighbor far away. It’s not unreasonable or unfeeling to think that in some cases supplying refugee camps with humanitarian aid or protecting safe havens elsewhere could be a responsible approach that avoids the risks of immediate resettlement in the United States.

Those of us who aren’t evangelical Christians should learn a couple of important lessons from this back-and-forth. First, as I’m arguing in my current book about evangelical higher education, there is no simple way to define “evangelical” in strictly religious terms. Throughout the twentieth century, at the very least, to be an evangelical has meant an irreducible blend of religious, cultural, political, and social identities. It may be tempting to try for a clean-and-clear religious definition of “evangelical,” but the term has always been and will always be a mix of things.

Second, as Professor Gehrz points out, we need to be wary when people tell us about the “evangelical” position on any question, political or even theological.

What do “evangelicals” think about refugees? All sorts of things.

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What Unbroken Leaves Out

**SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read Unbroken or seen the recent movie, you might want to skip this. But it’s so interesting, you’ll be sorry.**

Unbroken?...or Un-Finished?

Unbroken?…or Un-Finished?

What is the takeaway message from the life of Louis Zamperini, subject of the new film Unbroken? The power of resilience? The unplumbed depths of human courage?

…or is it the healing power of Protestant fundamentalism?

In the pages of World Magazine, Cal Thomas asks an intriguing question: Why did the recent film leave out the central role played in Zamperini’s life by the fundamentalist revival of Billy Graham?

When protagonist Louis Zamperini returned home from his hellish ordeals at sea and in Japanese prison camps, he struggled with alcoholism and depression. As the original book by Laura Hillenbrand makes very clear, Zamperini overcame these demons through fundamentalist faith. After attending a 1949 revival by fundamentalist preacher Billy Graham, Zamperini turned his life around.

This conversion was not an incidental part of Zamperini’s story. Zamperini, we could say, gave America a powerful demonstration of the healing power of a particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism. But that is not the way celebrity director Angelina Jolie saw it. Thomas wants to know why Jolie left that part out. As Thomas puts it,

it is puzzling why Jolie, who directed the film, and the Coen brothers, who wrote it, left out the most important part of Zamperini’s story.

Not only is Zamperini’s conversion a central part of his life story, it reflects the power of a specifically fundamentalist religion. Some readers may be more familiar with Billy Graham’s later work, when Graham had begun to articulate a kinder, gentler evangelical faith. In the 1940s, however, at the time of Zamperini’s conversion, Graham’s crusades packed a firmly fundamentalist punch. Not just theologically, either, but politically.

In his 1940s campaigns, for instance, the message of conversion was wrapped in a conservative anti-communist package. At the blockbuster Rose Bowl campaign of 1950, for example, theologian Harold Ockenga introduced Graham’s sermon as “The Answer to Communist Aggression.”

And just as Billy Graham was helping Zamperini defeat his demons, Graham insisted on his loyalty to the fundamentalist message. Though later a split developed between the most conservative fundamentalists and Graham’s famous crusades, that split had not yet developed by 1949. At that time, Graham loudly proclaimed his loyalty to the fundamentalist message. In a 1949 letter to staunch fundamentalist leader Bob Jones Sr., for example, Graham called Jones the

model toward which we are patterning our lives. Your counsel means more to me than that of any individual in the nation.

During the late 1940s, Billy Graham remained a staunch fundamentalist partisan. The message that saved Zamperini was not just one of generic Christian healing, but one of specifically fundamentalist rigor. In this one famous case, at least, we can see the ways fundamentalism’s unyielding moral stance pulled a suffering soul out of a personal hell.

We can’t help but echo Cal Thomas’s question: Why didn’t Angelina Jolie include this part? Jolie no longer returns my calls, but I can’t help but think that she might have some aversion toward fundamentalism.

I’m no fundamentalist myself. American fundamentalism has its share of skeletons in its closets, as we’ve explored here at ILYBYGTH. It may be fair to accuse the latter-day followers of Bob Jones Sr., for example, of terrible misconduct. But if we really want to be fair, shouldn’t we also acknowledge the ways that fundamentalism has saved lives?