FIVE REASONS AMERICA’S EVANGELICALS ARE UNPOPULAR INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE CHURCHES
I am not about to endorse Pope Francis’s radical suggestion that fundamentalism in any religion is a disease (some of the bible should be taken literally and some symbolically, it depends) and I am neither Catholic nor American. I am an Australian who hopefully has some outsider objectivity on something that’s more important for religion than might be supposed. Because unfortunately and despite its current (moderate) decline, to many around the world American Evangelicalism is still what American religion is, and even what Christianity itself is. Here are five aspects of Evangelicalism which are either false or unattractive to the young, to thinking persons of faith, or to those who may be left hurting from the effects of evangelical religion on their upbringing.
To start with what’s most obvious, to almost anyone but the most convinced evangelical, it must seem unreasonable and oppressive, even granting the Bible to be inspired, to preach and justify every social policy on the notion scripture is completely infallible and inerrant as though all of it dictated from heaven. The impossibility of the inerrant position is certified by statements like Ps 147:9 which declares “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against a rock”. Are we to believe this spontaneous, vengeful outburst was written under divine inspiration? Obviously not; the psalms are full of very human feelings as are St Paul’s epistles with their personal asides from the more doctrinal statements. While exclamations like that of Ps 147 are the exception rather than the rule, such are enough to remind us there is a culture-bound, historically influenced, human dimension to scripture. This is true even of the New Testament where St Paul on divorce can say he thinks he has the spirit of God on the matter (1 Cor 7:40) which in a way is perhaps inspiration of another sort, an agnostic one, that might allow for the use of discrimination and having opinions in special cases. (Is no one divorced ever to be remarried?). As soon as extremes of infallibility are admitted and the Bible becomes one’s paper Pope, selective reading and casuistry follow as surely as night follows day. And one finds casuistry often enough among evangelicals or none of them would be divorced and their women would be silent and with covered heads in church. It is wiser and makes for more all-round integrity to claim a little less for the bible to let its true inspiration shine through. Also to let the Spirit speak as in “Hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:7) rather than to hear only what the Bible says to the churches.
Exaggerated, knee jerk, easily offended patriotism that imagines America is “God’s country”, specially chosen and covenanted with “the American Dream” specially privileged. This is a position which often entails a lot of questionable mythologizing about the founding fathers of the republic who, unlike the Pilgrim Fathers, were more Deists and Free Masons than Christians. There is no need to deny that some Americans may have been specially chosen to spearhead various meaningful political and missionary movements that have touched the world; but if America is specially chosen, God would have to have made a strange choice. The America of history rather than myth is stained by a past in which native Americans have been exploited, abused and sometimes decimated while slavery, segregation and race hatred have thrived. Both trends have been too often supported by a selective, literalistic, conservative reading of the bible which falsely identified taking America with settling the Holy Land more than three thousand years ago under very different historical conditions and values. Amid concern to save souls or build churches, such issues have rarely been “prophetically” addressed by evangelicals, similarly to the money greedy legal system and the sometimes cruel related penal system – just recently prisoner Chelsea Manning was punished by solitary for having been depressed and attempted suicide.
America is, and has been long riddled with, not only unusually high levels of political corruption – wealth is almost essential to being in politics at all – but unacceptable, even exceptional levels of crime and violence never helped by conservative Christian attachment to the second amendment which sanctions the possession of fire arms. Those countries like Australia that ban guns prove the point that bans control crime. Why are followers of the mostly pacifist Jesus wanting to arm citizens? It is all part of an evangelical myopia and the kind of wrong thinking that gives Christianity a bad name in the world.
The latter point leads to the next which is that implicit in Evangelicalism is a kind of supremacist, boss church politics that in modern times has manifested in certain attitudes and politics of the so-called Christian Right. Although belief in the gospel is preached as a choice, the reality is the believers frequently aim to impose their beliefs and/or the values derived from those beliefs, on everyone. Separation of church and state is paid lip service to but is scarcely believed in. No one has the right not to accept Christian values which should be established by everything from local laws to Supreme Court judges. In special cases where basic truth and justice is concerned, a matter I will touch on later, this may be appropriate. However, as a general rule it only dilutes and confuses the gospel to preach – in effect:- “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved…. or be subject to our rule and legislation in the here and now”. Such is virtually the position of the high profile, noisy Franklin Graham, and it can leave Christianity uncomfortably like a kind of Islam with its would-be imposition of Sharia, or the system of an oppressive, church-supported Russian state whose Putin Graham has egregiously approved.
Boss church Evangelicalism is suitably accompanied by another this-worldly assumption inherited from and enlarged upon from an early Calvinist legacy – that the good Christian should make their way in the world and be outright exemplars of “The American Dream”. They should be successful, not least and even especially in purely financial terms as this is supposed to certify divine grace and favour. For Calvin success certified predestined election itself. Money is never far away from the evangelical mindset, yet nothing is further from the biblical standard represented by the mission of the Twelve (Mk 6:7-13). This company is to go out almost wholly unequipped: “take nothing except a staff…no bread, no bag, no money”; and though they are to give serious warning to those who refuse their message, there is no expectation of gain from the message whether accepted or refused, nothing apart from the welcome that travellers of the period might expect”. By contrast, there are elements within Evangelicalism today, especially its Prosperity Gospel wing, which reckons to arrive in private jets, roll up in limousines and have congregations paying for luxurious megachurches with cash that would better serve charities and overseas missions.
Logically and inevitably evangelicals have been identified and over-identified in politics with the Republican party. As it’s traditionally the party of the rich it’s a strange choice seeing the gospels do state “woe to you who are rich…” (Luk 6:24). Wealth, though not biblically despised, is more an incidental than an automatic, necessary blessing. But given their money friendly position, evangelicals have regarded anything less than adherence to full blown capitalism as “Communism” itself. One recent contributor to Charisma magazine invited to contribute advice to voters on the presidential race, opined that while Trump could be wrong on some things, Hillary was 100% wrong including because she represents Socialism. And Socialism is nothing but “Communism without a gun”. Really? There’s Socialism and socialism. While one may object to much that Hillary Clinton stands for, it is not Socialism on her part but common justice of a sort recognized throughout most of the free West that, for example, higher education should be free. And it’s time Christians realized that its being free helps avoid known alternatives like students paying their fees through work in prostitution or the porn industry while the offspring of the rich indulge themselves at frat parties. Let us anyway be clear there are elements of socialism in the gospels (the parable of the vineyard workers Matt 20:1-16)). Quite simply, much by way of American evangelical politics is just eccentrically prejudiced and poorly informed.
The same might be said about two difficult subjects which almost obscure the gospel itself whose declarations in some circles can finish little removed from “Repent and believe and be against abortion and gay rights” because those who would presume to do otherwise are effectively murderers or abominations before God. These topics are almost beyond present scope and I don’t suggest that Christians can uncritically accept either “a woman’s right to choose” or the full blown secularist queer agenda, but there are some points to consider all the same. And if evangelicals had ever been more generous, democratic and realistic in the first place, they might not be on the horns of the dilemma where they now find themselves opposed by the extremer secularist legislations.
Re the Right-to-life obsession that evangelicals have largely borrowed from Catholics under ecumenism, biblically they will support it by especially God’s declaration he knew Jeremiah before he was born (Jer 1:5). We may well ask at what stage of womb life was that, though really the statement seems more like a declaration of knowing Jeremiah as more as an idea or spirit even before conception. The fact is that even the church fathers were never agreed when the spirit entered the foetus – it is a modern and Catholic notion influenced by late declared Immaculate Conception doctrine, that life must be sacred and spiritual from the instant of conception. The awkward fact remains that before modern medicine changed the picture, infant mortality could be up to one in four with death occurring at birth or in early years. If every foetus was so known and precious to God as Jeremiah, why did God allow so much death according to an uncorrected “fallen” nature, and will anyone then call God anti-life for allowing the situation? At any rate the OT is anything but manifestly pro life. Theoretically or actually (it’s hard to tell) death should be meted out as penalty for many misdeeds while a state of impurity should be avoided for many things. Is it not to impurify the womb for it to carry the fruit of rape, the sort of action for which the Torah would prescribe death? And if adulterers were to be executed, would that not entail the death of foetuses? The churches have rarely talked sense or charity on this issue – some church fathers extremely taught that a woman’s soul itself was lost with the infant’s life.
Clearly any blanket, absolute ban on abortion cannot be supported logically, humanely or biblically – the abuses and misery caused to women in a country of absolute ban like Catholic Chile where doctors dismiss the most ghastly health situations with “just pray”, is terrible to hear and unacceptable. At the same time we have to affirm so too is any mere disregard for life – to abort for convenience, such as to further a career, is obviously something where a woman’s right to choose should not be allowed to apply. But since it is well known that the legal bans on abortion so often support backstreet illegal abortions anyway, the churches’ engagement with secular laws in this area is always going to be a difficult balancing act to be wise and just. Life must be protected but not infinitely so in an imperfect world, and one feels that those who so passionately appeal for life should be forced to adopt and devote their whole lives to what can be the soul-destroying labour of raising the extremely deformed and incapacitated. As it is, a lot of Right-to-life protest with its sloganism is too often just a feel good, substitute gospel activity. Typical of its dubious nature, as I write this, tele-evangelist, Kenneth Copeland, himself guilty as hell for promoting a Prosperity Gospel that has perverted the life of the churches in Asia and South America, declares that those who refuse to vote in the presidential election: “…are going to be guilty of murder,” …. You’re going to be guilty of an abomination of God. You’re going to be guilty for every baby that’s aborted from this election forward.” What can one say to such arrant nonsense which is almost but not quite funny? Even if abortion-liberal Hillary becomes president, there is nothing to prevent independent protests against her values and rulings while in power. But Evangelicalism loves the sensational and this kind of inflammatory rhetoric will always grab headlines.
Similarly complex and also liable to hurt persons, especially the young to the point of suicide, is homosexuality. This is something evangelicals routinely and stubbornly dismiss as just a ”lifestyle”. The claim is misleading and far more is involved psychologically and spiritually than how straights see in the human interactions of the gay bar or the exhibitions of some gay parades (both of these partly productions of the ghettos that until quite recently traditional religious prejudice in especially America favoured). Much could be said but here but as with “socialism” there is homosexuality and homosexuality. I shall limit myself to noting that the evangelical approach is much a matter of words and perspectives whose error is signalled by the way in which Evangelicals will state that God, or “God’s word”, condemns “homosexuality”, a term that doesn’t exist in the Bible. To some extent gay liberation, which originated in America, marked a reaction to a whole range of social discriminations and bullying that anyone a bit different, let alone gay, suffered in Christian America. In Texas police could enter your bedroom to insure you weren’t doing gay things. Until quite recently persons of all stripes could be abusively treated for not fitting within an American tribalism where the prevailing view of gender was little better than “Me Tarzan, you Jane”.
This was a society in which the Bible (and the Bible according to KJV translation alone!) determined what whole multitudes would think about “homosexuality”. A tendency to parochial, small town culture in America meant that few knew or absorbed just how much towering figures of western culture like Plato in philosophy, Michelangelo in art, Turing in science, had in fact been gay. Homosexuality whatever someone knew or just thought it meant, could never amount to more than “abomination” whatever in turn that signified; and that word was actually not what we mean in modern English (to Jews it meant something more like “idolatry”, heathen religious practices, by no means all sexual and not all regarded by Christians as wrong like eating shell fish or rabbit). The fanatical adherence to this kind of broadly generalizing but ungenerously narrow view of reality lingers on and is betrayed in the kind of statements from Franklin Graham in support – of all people – of Putin of Russia because of that president’s hard line (much exploited on the ground) against “homosexuality”. Some radical evangelicals have been active in opposing freedom for gays – which in practical terms has meant they contribute to the actual harassment of gays – in some African nations. I don’t write here in favour of secular legislative overwrites of all religious liberties; I even question laws which would impel Christians to contribute to gay ceremonies they don’t believe in – or else what happens to democracy? – but in the final analysis it is hard not to feel current evangelical problems with the laws are much self-inflicted, the end product of a long history of wrong thinking and injustice insufficiently examined or repented. Leading evangelicals and charismatics like Perry Stone can still get away with saying you are biblically illiterate if you don’t know and understand that Paul has said it all as regards “homosexuality” in Romans 1. Well, St Paul hasn’t and the real ignorance is to assume so. You might as well say the apostle’s vivid experiences on the high seas can tell us all we ever need to know about maritime transport.
With that I can conclude these observations coloured by years of experience trying to deal with or even just contact and speak with American Evangelicals. If I were merely vengeful I could tell tales and name some familiar names, but I won’t. I will only say my impression is that some are little better than bullies and bar room brawlers, arrogant and dismissive in their behaviour as some cultists. In Gal 5:15, St Paul refers to Christians who bite and devour one another. Read material from an evangelical quarter – for example The Christian Post which is a good enough source for some general news – you might have the impression that too many Christians are doing just what the apostle referred to. There is a sort of free for all, a rush to tear down or criticize whatever has just been said in a kind of religious theatre of chaos. I am left unimpressed, and because the spiritual life of many is affected by this, rather troubled too. It’s not the business and not usually the fate of therighteous to be merely popular, but one doesn’t want to be unpopular because of behaviour within religion fit for the fools that St Paul said he didn’t gladly suffer.