I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I’m not reading much that isn’t from the 1820s these days, but there were some stories this week that just couldn’t be ignored:

What vouchers will do: Orlando Sentinel explores fundamentalist textbooks paid for with tax dollars.

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Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

John McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates: “more . . . performance art than thought.” At AI.

Mormon and gay—inside the process at BYU. At CHE.

Dollars for scholars: Koch spending on campus, at CHE.

Franklin Graham tries to win California voters for conservative evangelicalism, at NYT.

Title IX at Moody Bible Institute, “The West Point of Fundamentalism:” Molly Worthen at NYT.

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Why Won’t They Admit They’re Political?

Nobody would be fooled this time. So why do conservative “court evangelicals” like Franklin Graham still pretend that they’re not into politics?

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Graham’s “religious” rally.

Here’s what we know: A recent NYT profile of Franklin Graham’s California bus tour leaves little doubt. The goal of Graham’s crusade, as NYT writer Elizabeth Dias puts it, is

to urge evangelicals to vote and to win California for Jesus.

It’s a political rally on wheels. So why does Graham pretend it’s not? In his official crusade propaganda, Graham explains his political goals in thinly disguised religious language. He says,

The goal isn’t to turn California red, but to get Christians involved in the everyday happenings of their communities so that others come to know Christ through them. That often means standing up for Christlike values.

When asked to explain his goal to puncture Calfornia’s liberal “blue wall,” Franklin Graham retorts,

I want to pierce that blue wall but not for politics. I want to pierce that blue wall for Christ.

And when the evangelistic association tries to describe the bus tour “in a few words,” none of those words are about explicitly about politics, even though they’re clearly about politics. As they explain,

It’s part prayer rally. Part evangelistic outreach. Part energizing and challenging the church to live out their faith in Jesus Christ.

For too long—as I’ve argued in my new book and in recent posts in these pages—pundits and even historians have accepted these sorts of statements at face value. They’ve accepted the self-serving myth of conservative evangelical preachers that they retreated from politics after the Scopes Trial in 1925, only to re-enter the political fray in the late 1970s, led by “New Christian Right” leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr.

It doesn’t hold water. As great historians such as Daniel K. Williams have established beyond any sort of reasonable doubt, conservative evangelicals have ALWAYS been into politics. The change of the 1970s was simply an aggressive embrace of one political party, the GOP.

So why bother? Why does Franklin Graham bother to pretend he’s not staging a political campaign, when everyone knows that he is?

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.