Heresy Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Are you a Christian? Are you sure? A new survey finds that most American evangelicals embrace heretical notions. More evidence that the real meaning of “evangelical” isn’t really theological, but something else.religion as personal belief

Christianity Today reports on new data from Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. Even among evangelical believers, majorities of respondents disavowed orthodox theology. As CT reported,

When it comes to Americans with “evangelical beliefs”. . . the survey found that a majority say:

  • Most people are basically good (52%)

  • God accepts the worship of all religions (51%)

  • Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father (78%)

The last point, especially, has a long and contentious history. The ancient church kind of settled it at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but as this survey proves, ideas about a three-part God are still thinly settled.

Why does it matter? Just like other large religious bodies (by way of comparison, ask any self-described Catholic about Catholic theology), evangelical Protestantism in practice is not defined by theology. Rather, American evangelicalism is a cultural identity that includes religious ideas, but isn’t actually based primarily on religious ideas. To make things more confusing, most religious identities assume that they are based primarily on theological definitions.

In other words, when you ask an evangelical what makes her an evangelical, she’ll likely give you a religious answer. But if you ask her about actual beliefs, she is likely not to know or care much about evangelical theology. The reasons she identifies as evangelical are described in religious language, but they are really a bigger mix of family, tradition, politics, and culture.

This was a big part of my argument in Fundamentalist U. If we really want to understand American evangelicalism we need to push beyond and behind the official dogma that evangelicals have used officially to define themselves. Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, the leaders of evangelical colleges had to continually prove to a nervous evangelical public that they maintained the standards of evangelical culture—even when those standards weren’t really based in conservative evangelical theology.

To cite just one example, when fundamentalist intellectual J. Gresham Machen left Princeton Seminary in 1929 to open his own, purer Westminster Seminary, he got grief from other college leaders because Machen allowed his seminarians to drink alcohol.

There was no theological reason to ban alcohol, Professor Machen concluded, so he didn’t. Other college leaders were scandalized. The ban on alcohol might not have been a theological requirement–at least for Presbyterians–but it was written so deeply into the cultural bones of America’s conservative evangelicals that it had assumed sacred status.

We can see similar examples everywhere we look today. For instance, why was administrator Randy Beckum chastised at Mid-America? Theologically, there can be little reason to criticize a reminder that Christians need to put their faith before their patriotism.  Culturally, however, that can come as a shocking notion.

Evangelicals like to talk about doing more than just avoiding sin, but even avoiding the appearance of sin. If we want to make sense of the complicated realities of evangelical identity, we need to add a cumbersome caveat. It’s not only that evangelicals need to avoid the appearance of sin, but that they need to even avoid the appearance of things that aren’t really sins but America’s evangelicals think they are. On the flip side, they are free to embrace heresy as long as no one seems to care.

Shoot ‘em Up at Fundamentalist U

Christians, get yr guns. That’s the message this week from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. The message for us fundamentalism-watchers is that we’ll never get the whole picture about conservative evangelical religion if we limit ourselves to theology alone.

In response to shootings in San Bernardino and elsewhere, Falwell told students at his booming megaversity that they could “end those Muslims.” He told students about the concealed .25 in his own back pocket, joking that he didn’t know if it was illegal or not.

Cole-Withrow-Jerry-Falwell-Commencement-Liberty-University-20130517

Jerry, Get Your Gun

For Liberty watchers like me, this is not the first time the school has taken an aggressive pro-gun position. And for fundamentalism watchers like me, it is more proof that a fundamentalist is never only a fundamentalist.

To put it in nerdy terms, some historians have suggested a theological definition of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Protestantism has been explained as the tradition of millennialism. It is best understood, others say, as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” These definitions are helpful for distinguishing fundamentalism from close cousins such as Pentecostalism, Holiness Wesleyanism, and conservative Anabaptism.

Such definitions fail to explain, however, outbursts like the one from President Falwell. There’s nothing about the apocalypse in his yen for guns. Rather, it is a product of the simple fact that fundamentalists—like all people—are amalgams of multiple identities. Falwell is a fundamentalist, true, but he’s also an American. He’s also a Southerner. He’s also a conservative. And, of course, he’s also a gun-lover.

It is not only Liberty U that has struggled with this conundrum of fundamentalist identity. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, a popular administrator at Mid-America Nazarene University took considerable heat for reminding students that Christian religion did not always come wrapped in the American flag. From a theological position, what Dean Beckum said was utterly unremarkable. But conservative evangelical religion in America is more than just religion. It is also conservative. It is also American.

President Falwell and Liberty University, as I’m arguing in my current book, are emblematic of the complicated nature of conservative evangelical higher education. As institutions, they are driven by humdrum factors such as tuition, enrollment, athletics, and accreditation. As evangelical institutions, they’re driven by a desire to maintain a religiously pure, “safe space” for their students. As conservative institutions, they’re driven by a wide variety of political impulses, including the overpowering urge to shoot em up.

Jesus and American Sniper

HT: SD

Every smart Christian knows that real religion is bigger than any one country, any one patriotic tradition. But in the United States, conservative evangelicalism has become so tightly bound with traditions of patriotism and national pride that it can be difficult to separate the two. Just ask Randy Beckum.

Until Monday, Dr. Beckum served as both University Chaplain and Vice President for Community Formation at Mid-America Nazarene University, a small-ish holiness school in Kansas. After a controversial chapel talk, Beckum found himself out of a job. Beckum had wondered aloud if America’s fascination with the film American Sniper meant that “our culture is addicted to violence, guns, war, revenge and retaliation.”

Evangelical Christians need a reminder, Beckum said, that

We have to be very careful about equating patriotism with Christianity.   We never say God and…anything.  God is above all, everything else is underneath. I love my country and am thankful for freedom. But the earliest Christian creed was very politically incorrect and dangerous. Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. We have put “our way of life”/freedom on the top rung.

For those of outside of the world of MidAmerica Nazarene University, these seem like rather unremarkable sentiments. But at that school, they sparked a firestorm of controversy. As one MNU student tweeted, “So your [sic] saying that my long list of family members in military [sic] are not good Christians?”

MNU President David Spittal denied that Beckum’s removal from the VP job had anything to do with the patriotism controversy. But Blake Nelson, a “resident educator” at MNU, objected. As Nelson wrote in an open letter to the MNU community,

When one exercises his or her right to wrestle with big questions, and is demoted the next week, it feels as if we have all been demoted. If someone’s job security isn’t safe in the aftermath of their wrestling with the Word of God, none of us are safe. No matter what language it is couched in, a demotion like this creates fear where there should be freedom. Whether or not it was intended to be, this is an implicit attack on free expression. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. The message is clear. This is a censure.

For conservatives throughout the twentieth century, too, it has been difficult to separate patriotism from religious sentiment. As I argue in my new book, educational conservatives have long blended the two into an organic whole. Conservative Texas leaders Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, always linked creationism, traditional Protestantism, patriotism, and free-marketism in an seamless conservative fabric.  As an admiring biographer wrote in 1986,

They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise. Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.”

Dr. Beckum and the MNU community are finding out just how hard it can be for conservatives to separate out their love for Jesus with their love for America.