Should Christians Be Afraid?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH have heard it all before. For the past century, conservative evangelicals have warned that their religious beliefs have made them the target of anti-Christian religious discrimination and persecution. Today we hear the same warning from radical young-earth creationist Ken Ham. So should Christians be afraid?

ken ham ny lawFirst, the history: In spite of today’s rosy nostalgia, evangelical Protestants have always felt themselves the targets of creeping secular attack. To pick just one example, when SCOTUS ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools in 1963, evangelicals responded with apocalyptic alarm.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.”  No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried.  Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America.  In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed.  The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

But! We might say that those conservatives were wrong, but today’s might be right. As Ken Ham warned his Twitter followers this morning, perhaps “It’s coming!” Maybe New York’s new gender law really will put conservative evangelical pastors in a legal bind.

After all, it is not only radical young-earthers who are concerned. Conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher have similarly warned of the creeping overreach of today’s secular gender ideology.

And in some ways, as higher-ed watchers like me have noticed, changes really are afoot. Institutions such as universities that rely on federal student-loan dollars to stay afloat might face intense pressure to comply with anti-discrimination guidelines.

But will a preacher ever be pulled out of his pulpit for “preach[ing] faithfully from God’s Word that there’s only two human genders God created”? No. That’s not how religious discrimination works in the USA. Just ask any historically persecuted minority.

For example, the federal government has long shelled out huge subsidies to farmers, including hog farmers. Does that mean that religious preachers who tell their audiences that eating pork is sinful are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Similarly, the federal government has funded school textbooks that teach basic chemistry. They teach that the core of a substance is determined by its molecular makeup. Does that mean that Roman Catholic priests who tell parishes that wine has been transubstantiated into blood are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Or, to take the most painful 20th-century example from the world of evangelical Protestantism, when the federal government passed legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, were white evangelical preachers ever stopped from including racist content in their Sunday sermons? No.

In spite of what alarmist preachers might say, the problem for conservatives won’t be about their pulpits. When they want to refuse service to same-sex couples or refuse admission to transgender students they might have to deal with a new legal reality.

But the idea that the amped-up gender police will storm into churches to arrest pastors is more Thief in the Night than Queer Nation.

Fundamentalism’s Retreating American Horizon

It’s not about Darwin. It’s not even about Jesus. We see again this morning that radical young-earth creationism—at least Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis brand—is built on a vision of American history in which fundamentalists are always under more and more attack.ken ham on the moon

Here’s what we know: This morning Ham tweeted a nostalgic video about Apollo 8. On that mission, astronauts circled the moon for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1968. In a live broadcast, astronauts read the opening verses from Genesis.

We can ignore the obvious stuff, like the fact that Ken Ham misdescribed this 1968 moon circling as the 1969 moon landing. We’re more interested this morning in Ham’s take-away from the video itself. What lesson did Ham draw?

2: The culture has changed–NASA sadly would not allow this today

Of course, as historians and SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, back in the 1960s, Ham’s predecessors were articulating very similar laments about the dangerous trends in American culture. In early 1963, for example, Samuel Sutherland of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) warned of the dangerous effects of the recent SCOTUS ruling against Bible-reading and teacher-led prayer in public schools.

What would happen now? Sutherland warned the SCOTUS decision might

Make our country an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself. . . . in prohibiting the name of God to be used in any form of prayer, [SCOTUS] are in effect advocating that the children be taught atheism.

Sutherland wasn’t alone in warning that 1960s America had gone to the atheist dogs. In 1965, for example, in the pages of Carl McIntire’s Christian Beacon magazine, one writer warned that the banishment of teacher-led Christian devotions from public schools

will mean the division even more sharply of this nation into communities of the secular and the Church, which will inevitably lead to more expression of the secular and more repression of the Christian. When this happens, repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution will be the natural course to follow in secular opposition to Christian witness.

In the glorious 1960s, then, Ken Ham’s predecessors were making the same kinds of warnings that Ham is making today: Things used to be better for conservative evangelical Protestants. Public schools and public policy used to speak in the tones of evangelicalism.

Over and over again, across the decades, fundamentalist Cassandras have articulated a similar historical vision. The past was always better. The present–no matter what year–is characterized by a bitter sense of loss, by a grief for a glorious Christian past stripped away by scheming secularists and soft-minded false Christians.

It doesn’t have much to do with actual creationism, of course, or with evolutionary science. But this relentless alarmist nostalgia does a lot to help us understand why some evangelicals yearn to Make America Great Again.

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.