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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The Evangelical Vote: ABT

Who will conservative evangelicals vote for? Over the past forty years, it has become a common assumption that the “Religious Right” can make or break a presidential campaign. Among some evangelical pollsters and opinion-makers, a new “ABT” attitude—anyone but Trump—seems to be emerging.

For lots of WORLD's evangelical insiders, it's ABT...

For lots of WORLD’s evangelical insiders, it’s ABT…

Thomas Kidd of Baylor University made his position clear. “I will not support Trump under any circumstances,” Professor Kidd wrote,

and I would use what little influence I have to stop him from being elected president. If that means that Hillary Clinton or another Democrat gets elected by default, I am fine with that.

Russell Moore, too, the public face of the Southern Baptist Convention, denounced Trump in no uncertain terms:

We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society.

At evangelical WORLD Magazine, J.C. Derrick recently defended his survey of evangelical attitudes. The WORLD poll, Derrick explained, does not sample randomly from the population. It picks 103 people who have substantial claim to the label “evangelical insiders.” Who do THEY think should be president?

Ann Coulter accused the WORLD survey of being an anti-Trump set-up. Only Trump, Coulter fumed, displayed “real Christian courage.”

WORLD’s evangelical insiders disagreed. These days, they prefer Marco Rubio. Most telling, more than a third of respondents said they would either vote Democrat or stay away from the polls if Trump were the GOP candidate.

Ouch.

Similar stories emerge from another evangelical poll from the National Association of Evangelicals. NAE leaders were not in agreement about whom they thought best represented their values, but they seem heading toward the ABT camp. As the NAE report put it,

Trump did not perform well in the NAE poll with some leaders specifically noting ‘Not Trump’ or ‘Anyone but Donald Trump.’

With primaries and caucuses just around the corner, I wonder if this sort of evangelical ABT will catch on among conservatives.

Conservatives: Keep Religion Out of Public Schools

Do American religious conservatives want more Jesus in public schools?  That’s usually the assumption, from Kountze, Texas to San Diego, California.

Recently in the pages of The American Conservative, Leah Libresco argued the conservative case against more religion in public schools.  When religion is used by the state, she points out, it puts religion in the service of the state, not vice versa.

One commenter pointed out the paucity of this sort of sentiment among religious conservatives in the past thirty years.  Fair enough.  But let’s not forget how common such notions were among religious conservatives, especially for those from the Baptist tradition, throughout American history.

For example, as historian Jon Zimmerman argued in his 2002 book Whose America, the battle over weekday religious education in public schools pitted conservative Christians against liberal Christians.  Both sides wanted more good religion in public schools, but they disagreed bitterly over the content of that religious education.  Conservatives and self-identified “fundamentalists” often made the case that no religion was better than false religion for public school students.

Similarly, we need to remember the response among conservative evangelicals to the Supreme Court’s anti-prayer ruling in Engel v. Vitale.  In that important 1962 decision, SCOTUS ruled that public schools could not lead students in even the blandest, most ecumenical prayer.  As I argued in a recent article in the Journal of Religious History, many conservative evangelical intellectuals were well pleased.

The National Association of Evangelicals approved of Engel.  So did Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire.  As William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute put it, “The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.”

For Culbertson as for the other conservative Protestants who agreed with him, it would be better for public-school students not to pray at all in school rather than for them to chant the pablum imposed by the New York Regents.  That Regents prayer, after all, offered only the thinnest gruel of religion; it crushed any orthodoxy in its well-meaning goal of ecumenicalism.  “Almighty God,” students prayed, “we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country.”

As Leah Libresco argues in her recent conservative indictment of public-school prayer, that sort of religiosity does not teach young people the religion of their families.  It only teaches them a confusing lesson about the vague existence of a higher power.  For religious conservatives, the words of a prayer matter.  Better by far to ban meaningless prayers from public schools than to embrace a state-directed vision of the Almighty.

 

Reds Under the Bed? Christians Under the Couch!

Conspiracy sells.  Just ask Dan Brown.  But unwarranted anxiety about conspiracy also poisons our shared public life.

Source: The Guardian

Conspiracy hunting used to be a sport dominated by conservatives.  Think Joe McCarthy waving his sweaty lists of communist infiltrators.  In recent years, though, politicians and commentators have found a new subversive threat: the Religious Right.  A new book by former GOP functionary Mike Lofgren, for instance, warns of the ways his Republican Party was infiltrated and taken over by “stealthily fundamentalist” religious conservatives.

This kind of “paranoid style” has a long history in American public life.  Witches were fiendishly difficult to detect in seventeenth-century New England.  Scheming Catholics worried nineteenth-century WASPs.  Communists emerged as the primary subversive threat in America’s twentieth century.

Leaders of the Religious Right have often worked up convincing conspiracies of their own.  As historian William Trollinger has described, this tradition started with the first generation of American fundamentalists in the 1920s.  One of the most prominent leaders of that Scopes generation, William Bell Riley, finally blamed evolutionary theory on a far-reaching plot of “Jewish Communists.”

In 1926, as I describe in my 1920s book (now in paperback!), one of the new grassroots fundamentalist organizations, the Bible Crusaders, announced the root of the evolution problem.  “Thirty years ago,” the Bible Crusaders revealed,

“five men met in Boston and formed a conspiracy which we believe to be of German origin, to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”

A generation later, writing in the magazine of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, one evangelical writer shared his experience with the famous progressive educator John Dewey.  This writer told a cautionary tale of secularist conspiracy, with a story of Dewey’s eighty-fifth birthday party in 1944.  Our evangelical witness had been invited to the celebration, the other guests unaware of his theological commitment.  Celebrating the life of the prominent progressive educator, the guests proudly recalled their efforts to transform America’s schools from Christian institutions to secular training centers.  “A generation has passed since that birthday gathering,” reported the evangelical spy to the MBI readership,

“and the plan has been immeasurably advanced by a series of court decisions that have de-theized the public schools.  As a result, American state-supported schools are as officially secular and materialistic as are their counterparts in Communist countries.  Are we awakening?”

Such warnings shouted by Christian conservatives have occasionally attracted enormous audiences outside of religious circles.  In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth became a runaway bestseller.  With his co-author Carole Carlson, Lindsey spun a premillennial dispensationalist reading of the Bible into a riveting tale of international conspiracy.  In the premillennial dispensational interpretation, popular among some conservative evangelical Protestants, the Antichrist will return in the guise of a savior, combining governments into a massive superstate.  What seems like secular salvation is quickly revealed as the ultimate cosmic conspiracy, dedicated to binding all of humanity to a Satanic anti-religion.

Image source: Wikipedia

These themes saw another burst of popularity in the late 1990s, when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated Lindsey’s feat.  LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Left Behind series fictionalized Lindsey’s tale, again turning a conspiratorial interpretation of the apocalypse into beach reading for millions of Americans.

These Christian conspiracies have not been without cultural cost.  Though LaHaye and Jenkins carefully included a righteous Roman Catholic Pope among their fictionalized true Christians, other Christian conspiracy theorists, like William Bell Riley, have been too quick to implicate anyone outside of their circle of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

The dangers from conspiracy theorizing are not limited to the conspiracies imagined by conservative Christians.  Overheated accusations about the threat from subversive groups have long posed a profound danger to our public life, as any blacklisted Hollywood writer or interned Japanese-American could attest.  The threat is not limited to false conspiracies.  Satan may not have inspired Salem’s witch troubles, but historian Ellen Schrecker has argued that the communist-hunters of the 1950s often targeted real communist conspirators, if in a clumsy and overly aggressive way.

Similarly, Lofgren’s ominous warnings are not spun of whole cloth.  Lofgren warns vaguely of the “ties” of many leading Republican politicians to extreme positions such as Christian Dominionism.  This theology, associated most closely with the late Rousas John Rushdoony, wants to establish Christian fundamentalist control over American political life.  As Lofgren emphasizes, such thinkers approve the need to act “stealthily.”

Lofgren did not make this up.  Dominionism exists.  Prominent Republican politicians such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann really do work with groups who support such notions.  But the way Lofgren and other commentators discuss such threats from the Christian Right distort the public discussion over the role of religion in the public sphere.  As with warnings about President Obama’s connections to the “terrorist professor” Bill Ayers, this kind of conspiratorial rhetoric encourages a no-holds-barred approach to politics.

After all, as Lofgren intones, the “‘lying for Jesus’ strategy that fundamentalists often adopt” gives anti-fundamentalists a reason to punch below the belt in their culture-war battles.  If they did not, the warning goes, they would be helpless before the wiles of the Christian Right.  This is the primary danger of such breathless exposes as Lofgren’s.  They build a shaky and fantastic argument upon a foundation of authentic examples in order to convince the convinced.  Activists swallow the outlandish examples without demur.  Such true believers do not consider the real complexities of their opponents, but rather paint a simplistic and terrifying image to shock and motivate their own side.

As with the real communist movement, the real world of American conservative Christianity is not such a simple place.  Nor is it so headline-grabbingly power hungry.  Consider a recent leadership poll by the National Association of Evangelicals.  This organization, an umbrella group for conservative evangelical Protestants, asked just over one hundred of its leaders if the United States constituted a “Christian Nation.”  Sixty-eight percent said no.  One respondent told the NAE, “I hope others will learn to love Christ as I do, but that will happen more authentically through the Church and individual Christians sharing the Good News and demonstrating the person of Christ through our words and actions.”

This kind of statement from a conservative Christian does not sell books.  What does sell is a cherry-picked catalog of statements by Christian leaders revealing their plans to take over American politics and public life.  It was easy enough in Cold War America to discover evidence of a world-wide subversive communist movement.  But as America learned from Senator McCarthy’s outlandish claims, there is a danger in stripping down the image of subversives to cartoonish bogeymen.

I am not a conservative Christian myself.  I do not hope to apologize for the excesses of some conservative Christians.  Indeed, I believe denunciations of the schemes of conservative Christians have some basis in fact.  But when they serve only to encourage anti-fundamentalists to fight dirty, they do more harm than good.  When such conspiracy-hunters ignore the complexities and ambiguities of their targets, they attack more than their real enemies.  They smear innocent bystanders and poison the political life of the nation.

The Bible in America: The Thunderbolt, Part I: Engel v. Vitale

Lots of fundamentalists feel that America has foolishly kicked God out of its public schools.  Try a simple Google search of “God kicked out of public school,” and you will find an endless collection of news alerts, opinion pieces, and videos from fundamentalists decrying the de-theized state of public education.

Many of these fundamentalist pundits insist that the start of the breakdown of public religion and morality was the US Supreme Court’s decision in 1962’s Engel v. Vitale.  In this case, the court ruled that New York State had no Constitutional authority to impose a short, bland, state-written prayer in its public schools.  The prayer mushed along in a no-man’s-land of interdenominationalism: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Due to both the blandness of this prayer and its imposition by state authorities, though, most leading Protestant evangelicals at the time SUPPORTED the court’s decision.  As opposed to later conservatives who locate the start of America’s public decline at the precise moment of the 1962 anti-prayer decision, the majority of conservative evangelical Protestants in 1962 thought the court had made the right decision.  As I argue in an article appearing soon in the Journal of Religious History, leading evangelical and fundamentalist intellectuals in 1962 showed surprising unanimity in their approval of Engel v. Vitale.

For example, William Culbertson of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute praised the decision.  “The public as a whole,” Culbertson argued,

“and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.  On the other hand, the case raised the ominous question of whether any kind of non-sectarian prayer or acknowledgement of dependence on God would be upheld by the Court.”

The editors of Christianity Today agreed that much conservative reaction to Engel had been “ill-informed and intemperate.”  Similarly, the National Association of Evangelicals commended the court’s decision.  Even the separatist fundamentalist Carl McIntire, who would soon become the pointman for conservative Protestant school activism, told a US House of Representatives committee in 1964 that he had originally supported the 1962 decision.

Not every conservative Protestant intellectual supported the Engel ruling.  Samuel Sutherland, president of Biola University, attacked Engel as pandering to a “very small, loud-mouthed minority.”  The decision was a sign, Sutherland believed, that the US was becoming “an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These days, with the benefit of hindsight, most prominent fundamentalist voices agree with Sutherland.  But at the time, conservative Protestants of many different backgrounds thought the court had done the right thing.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp and the de-theization of America’s public schools.