Tag: Emma Green

The Christianity Today Editorial: Eleven Days Later

When I saw the news that Mark Galli had penned a pro-impeachment editorial in Christianity Today on December 19th, I wasn’t sure what to think. Obviously, it was good to see an evangelical opinion leader speak out on the current political moment. Having read and heard Mark over the years, I knew he was not the kind of evangelical leader who would come to such a conclusion easily. I think it is fair to label him a traditionalist and certainly no bomb-thrower. Sure, he was a never-Trumper early on, but lots of evangelical leaders wrote similar things over the years.

Galli centered his critique on two principal pillars: the illegality of the Ukraine scheme as documented in House Intelligence Committee testimony and the president’s moral challenges (lying, attacking, demeaning, damaging norms). For the first, he recognizes that impeachment is a feasible (if unlikely) remedy. For the second, he is advocating discernment when it comes to the 2020 election, especially in consideration of the witness of the church to a world in need of the Gospel.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure that Galli’s editorial would make much of a splash. After all, many others like Micheal Gerson and Peter Wehner have been regularly raising the same critiques for years. In addition, releasing such an important editorial the week before the world shuts down for Christmas suggested that it would make a brief splash and then fade away (I realize that Galli wrote the piece when he did because he was about to retire).

Of course, my supposition that this would be an important but soon forgotten editorial was way off the mark. Here we are, over a week later, and the story has been the center of both broadcast and social media discussions. By the end of the first day, a number of what John Fea calls “Court Evangelicals” plus the president himself, had pushed back. They argued that Christianity Today represented “cosmopolitan evangelicals” and the magazine was “left-leaning” and “progressive. Another common refrain was to suggest that somehow CT was arguing that Democrats would better match evangelical values (which nobody had suggested). CT President Tim Dalrymple, himself no liberal, wrote a wonderful follow-up underscoring that the real issue presented by the Trump-aligned evangelicalism is the diminution of the witness of the church itself. He concluded, “We nevertheless believe the evangelical alliance with this presidency has done damage to our witness here and abroad. The cost has been too high.”

What is also intriguing to me is that it is the CT critics who have kept this story in the center of the media narrative. They regularly list the imagined harms that would come if Democrats were to win election. As John Fea said on MSNBC the other night, this is the result of 40 years of rhetorical excess that resulted in the current political alignment. The letter from the 200 pastors identified themselves as “Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans”, which is one of the clearest statement of Christian Nationalism I’ve seen in print. The critics have also argued that Trump has accomplished many things that directly benefit these political evangelicals: pro-life judges and justices, support for Israel (including moving the embassy to Jerusalem), fighting for “traditional” stances in terms of religious accommodation (Masterpiece and Hobby Lobby), and standing for Christian values in the public square (Merry Christmas, everybody!).

But nearly all of those anti-Democrat and pro-Trump arguments seem focused on what primarily benefits conservative evangelicals. This view, which last week I labeled “evangelical ethnocentrism”, suggests that these evangelicals are less concerned about the common good than on protecting their own interests. Today, Grudem’s response focused on the promise of liberty in the Declaration of Independence which is distinctly different than the Constitution’s “in order to create a more perfect union.”

They have also adopted right wing talking points verbatim. They dismiss Galli’s concerns about Ukraine, arguing that there was nothing wrong with the July 25th call. Never mind that the Ukraine incident ran from May to September and involved attempts to subvert normal governmental process through private, non-accountable actors. They list Trump’s accomplishments in ways that sound as if they came out of the White House press office (Record Stock Market! Low unemployment! Executive Orders! No Iran Deal!).

Every Court Evangelical response to the CT editorial has resulted in careful analysis by scholars and opinion leaders identifying the challenges evident therein. It has caused moral stances like that of Napp Nazworth who left his role at Christian Post upon learning how that site was responding to CT. The news of Napp’s courageous resignation made news and launched another media cycle.

It encouraged a fascinating and disturbing analysis from Paul Djupe in which he identified an “inverted golden rule. Expect from others what you would do to them.” It spurned PRRI’s Robbie Jones to update his argument of demographic change among religious populations and how that relates to the fears the Trump Evangelicals have.

It must be noted that most evangelical churchgoers may not be paying any attention to these conflicts. They are happy to go to their Sunday Services and worship Jesus in song and word. Emma Green had a great interview with former head of the National Association of Evangelicals Leith Anderson. He argues that evangelicalism is about faith and not about politics. Emma tries valiantly and compassionately to get him to address the conflict therein, but he never gets there. Sarah McCammon interviewed a pair of Southern Baptist pastors (note: lots of evangelicals are not Southern Baptists!) on Saturday’s Weekend All Things Considered. The pastors argued that while there are broad social conflicts, people “at the level of the pew” don’t experience that division.

It needs to be recognized that the privatization of faith is what has allowed a public political stance that is largely divorced from deep theological insight. If we ever need serious work on political theology, it is today. Even though it runs the risk of causing short-term discomfort within local congregations, it would create a more healthy body of Christ as it interrogates matters of politics and public policy.

The most intriguing outcome over the last ten days is that way in which the media has begun to be more articulate on the definition of evangelicalism, what the core values ought to be, and how we square the circle of public and private belief. While they are often stumbling in their coverage (at best), the fact that we have been talking about morality, politics, and faith within the public sphere has been a net positive.

For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that the Galli editorial will change the forty-year alignment between evangelicals and the Republican vote that John Fea mentioned. There are many correlates of voting (rural, education, age, race) that disproportionately represent evangelicals.

And yet, there is a sense that something has shifted in the last week and a half. There is a conversation underway about how evangelicals should relate to the broader culture, especially in this pluralistic age. The coming weeks likely will prove to be just as problematic, but I’m moderately hopeful that these dialogues will strengthen religion in the public square. As Dalrymple suggested, this could be good for the witness of the church to the broader culture.

Religion is more complicated than our reporting suggests

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece reflecting on the question of how religious people were characterized in the recent election. Michael Wear had an intriguing interview with Emma Green in the Atlantic. Right before that, Ruth Graham had written on how white evangelicals didn’t support Clinton. In my piece, I pointed out the role that an evangelical infrastructure played in creating that context. Recent reporting has me exploring that observation more closely.

The PRRI group released data this week in anticipation of President Obama’s Farewell speech (which was an outstanding statement on the nature of civic democracy!). They summarized the data in the following chart.

pew-obama

Just 24% of white evangelical protestants had a favorable view of Obama, 1% more than those identifying as conservatives. I somewhat facetiously suggested on social media that maybe it was time to stop thinking of these as two distinct groups. Data has shown that white evangelical protestants are the most republican religious group, most nostalgic, and most opposed to a variety of social issues like same-sex marriage.

I’ve been arguing throughout this election cycle that it’s quite possible that this close relationship between white evangelical protestants and conservatives is really a spurious relationship. It may be that region, attitudes toward abortion, non-urban, and socioeconomic status may be driving both evangelical commitment and political conservatism.

The above mentioned infrastructure makes it more likely that the white evangelical protestant group is seen as THE religious group in America. They have the publications, the conferences, and the spokespeople who use broadcast and social media to advance their agenda and make it clear that they are the largest religious block in America.

That statistical claim is true, barely. Self-identified evangelicals make up a larger share of the population than other groups. The 2014 Pew Landscape survey  shows 25.4% white evangelicals, 22.8% unaffiliated, 20.8% Catholic, 14.7% mainline protestant, and 6.5% Black protestant.

Not only is that evangelical infrastructure focused on defining what “religious voters” care about but it also focuses on the maintenance of the definition of who is Really Christian. This has created a context in which the focus of politicians and press has been on a specific subset of the white evangelical grouping.

On Monday, the Religion News Service reported this story titled “Christian groups express ‘grave concerns’ about Trump agenda, appointments“. It reports how the National Council of Churches (among others) had released a report strongly criticizing the new administration’s positions as backward thinking, discriminatory, and counter to scripture.

I was struck by the title of the article because I realized that many in the white evangelical protestant infrastructure believe that the NCC and its members aren’t “real Christians” but only adopting cultural trappings of religion in their political pursuits. Has the NCC every been invited to speak at the Values Voters Summit?

As the RNS story explains, the NCC membership includes “6 of the 10 largest denominations in the United States.” They are mainline churches but are still a vital part of the story of religion and civic life.

Another story in RNS documented President Obama‘s positions on faith over the course of his presidency. It’s a remarkable story, especially when contrasted with the dismissive views of many on the right (that’s even ignoring all the “secret Muslim” claims). Contrast this story with the 24% approval rating and you have to scratch you head. Part of the answer there may be that President Obama takes a big tent approach to faith where white evangelicals may be using a much narrower screen.

Last week there was a story in the Washington Post reporting on mainline churches and what their pastors believed. Written by one of the researchers of a Canadian study, it explains how there is a correlation between conservative theology (especially that of the pastor) and church growth. The research  involves 22 mainline congregations in Ontario. Of these, 13 were declining and 9 were growing. The research shows a correlation between the theological orthodoxy of the pastor/congregation and the likelihood that the church is growing. Demographics play a part but orthodoxy appears to be key.

Given the state of reporting on mainline religion, I’d expect people might be a little surprised to see that 41% of a sample of mainline congregations is growing or that overwhelming majorities of all congregants say they’ve committed their lives to Christ. (I do need to observe that the majority of US mainline protestants have an unfavorable view of Obama and voted for Trump — my point is that we don’t tend to talk about them at all).

I recently watched a remarkable presentation by Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina black pastor of a Disciples of Christ church who has been the leader of the Moral Mondays movement. He has a classical civil rights blend of a prophetic religious voice and a political engagement like we saw in MLK. In the same fashion, I realized that the politicians and the press have not seen those perspectives as representing religion in the public square.

In a rapidly changing society, it is important that religion continues to a vital part of our public engagement. Democrats and media figures do need to be more versed in how that religion is expressed as an important part of modern life. But its also important that we understand religion in its complexity and not limiting that view to one segment. It’s also important that the religious groups model the diversity that actually exists.

In closing, I commend two articles making similar points. This piece by Roger Olson raises concerns about the “The ‘Disappearing Middle’ in American Political and Religious Life“. This piece by Philip Yancey looks for ways of “Bridging the Gap”. He closes his piece with this reflection on Francis Shaeffer:

Toward the end of his life, as he saw the word evangelical become synonymous with political lobbying, Schaeffer sometimes wondered what he had helped set loose.  He based The Mark of the Christian on some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Schaeffer added, “Love—and the unity it attests to—is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world.  Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.…It is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”  I see that as the biggest challenge facing committed Christians in the new year.

 

Emotions and Elections: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

Last week, I wrote on two books that helped me reflect on our current political moment. One, Hillbilly Elegy, told the story of how limited opportunity connects to family dysfunction (a story told more sociologically in Robert Putnam’s Our Kids). The other, Evicted, detailed the complex interplay between poverty, tenant law, and the institutional forces that trap some populations in inner-city substandard housing. (The author, Matthew Desmond, will be speaking at Calvin College on January 5th.)

Both of these books address issues we never heard about during the presidential campaign. If we are to repair our political discourse in the face of segmented news sources and fake news conspiracies, we need to be more attentive to these institutional forces. If we want our candidates to speak to the real issues that would make government work for people (and thereby refute the claim that “government can’t do anything”), we need to listen more.

So I was pleased to be able to dive into Arlie Hochschild’s excellent book on Tea Party folks in Louisiana. A Berkeley sociologist, Hochschild took her qualitative lenses to the part of the country that confronts remarkable paradoxes. Inequality has grown substantially in spite of the new job economy that has gone along with expansion in the oil industry and fracking startups. Government oversight of those industries is usually seen as unwanted intrusion at best and harm causing at worst (the Obama administration’s moratorium on oil exploration after the explosion of Deep Water Horizon is an example of the latter.) But there is an awareness that the rules are written in favor of those oil concerns so government wasn’t going to do anything anyway (but somehow regulations could still apply to individual citizens who violated environmental guidelines).

Hochschild rejects the simplistic approach that asks why these Louisiana voters were acting against their economic self-interest. She begins her book refuting the argument made 12 years ago by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas. Frank had argued that Republicans offered social issues (Roe v. Wade, prayer in schools) to voters that they never moved on while supporting economic policies that worked for big business. Rather than beginning with her thesis and then finding supportive anecdotes, Hochschild is committed to finding the Deep Story that is motivating decision making (including voting).

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is that Arlie tells her story of discovery along the way. The reader gets to follow along as she makes discoveries and starts connecting dots. When she arrives at a tentative Deep Story, she then tries it out on the people she has gotten to know during her visits. She shares her own struggles in trying to reconcile life in former plantation Louisiana with her life back in Berkeley.

The Deep Story she arrives at has an image of people standing in line for the American Dream. They have been standing for a long time, waiting to get their shot (Hamilton reference!). But society has been shifting demographically and attitudinally. People keep being invited into line in front of them and their promise of a good life is continually deferred. Moreover, the people put in line in front of them (immigrants, refugees, independent women, blacks, gays) are being helped by the social forces controlled by government. Nobody is looking out for their interests at all and the powers that be seem to be working directly counter to those interests.

This image of line cutting is quire consistent with the argument Robert Jones made in The End of White Christian America. Not only is it true that American society is changing with regard to religion and demography (albeit slower in Louisiana than in the country as a whole), it also aligns with Jones’ argument that 2016 saw a rise in “nostalgia voters”: people who longed for an earlier time when the Big Story worked (simply calling them racists and homophobes is as limiting as Frank focusing on economic issues).

The paradox is that this story fails to deal with the significant issues at their front door. Arlie uses environmental concerns as the keyhole issue through which one can read the relationship between the people, the free market, and the government. There is the story of Bayou d’Indie and how illegal dumping by the major employer destroyed the entire ecosystem making land unproductive and fishing absolutely hazardous. In 2012, careless drilling by Texas Brine punctured the Napoleonvillle Dome, a salt dome nearly 4000 feet below Bayou Corne. (Apparently, storing various materials in underwater salt domes is a common practice.) The result was a sinkhole that eventually subsumed 37 acres and inundated the water supply with flammable gas. The I-10 freeway bridge running across Lake Charles needs to be replaced because the clay on which the supports rest is contaminated with EDC (ethylene dichloride) which renders the supports unstable.

But media sources don’t cover these stories (how did we miss news of a 37 acre sinkhole?). And the people tend to think that interfering with the free market would be ineffective. The companies have too many lawyers, give too many campaign contributions, and infiltrate the oversight bodies. It wouldn’t do any good and the jobs on which the people are dependent might simply go away. There is little tie between corporate culture and community culture (perhaps due to tax abatements offered to get the plants to explore the oil and gas deposits that go with the terrain).

There is an added layer to her argument that I found fascinating. Early in the book, she writes this:

At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel — happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right wing belief. And it is to this core that a free-wheeling candidate such as the billionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump, Republican candidate for president in 2016, can appeal, saying, as he gazes upon throngs of supporters, “See all the passion.” (15-16, emphasis hers)

This passage helped me understand the concern about “political correctness” for the first time. The issue isn’t that they want to be free to use racial epithets or  homophobic slurs or echoing Rush Limbaugh’s concerns about “femi-nazis”. It’s that they don’t want people to tell them how they are suppposed to feel.

A commitment to being free to feel as you want rings true to me. I see it in the 81% of white evangelicals who supported Trump. I see it in Michael Wear’s conversation with Emma Green today on how democrats lost evangelicals.

Curiously, I also see it in millennials and others who are abandoning evangelicalism. The seem to be resenting the way that evangelical gatekeepers say “these are the issues you should be concerned about (see anything on Franklin Graham’s Facebook feed)” or “these are issues you can’t discuss (see Pete Enns’ response to the Tim Keller/Nicholas Kristoff interview).”

The challenge for us going forward is that there is a huge disconnect between the feeling concerns and the institutional forces that are really impinging on those feelings. If we stay at the emotional level, we feed a rugged individualism that insists on protecting one’s one interests. There is little there to build an understanding of the common good much less to build good policy.

But a necessary first step is to actually linked to hearing the experience of others. That’s something that policy makers of both parties need to work on.