2008-11-02

What's driving American Evangelicalism?



I must yet again reiterate my adherence to the Christian faith in the manner described commonly by many as "evangelical". Not only do I believe such antiquated documents like the Westminster Confession and not only I believe that Christianity is the only one and true religion (all others being wrong) but I also believe in such things as the Bible being inerrant, sufficient, etc etc etc.

But being an evangelical seems to be getting harder by the day. Not because I somehow think that there's evil ungodly atheists or Darwinists out there who are going to destroy the world - they're hardly going to do much anyway. No. What makes it hard being an evangelical these days is the actions of other evangelicals.

My goodness I sound judgemental... but hey, evangelicals are for truth so let me just say that there seems to be this really worrying group of STUPID, RUDE and DESTRUCTIVE people who have the same faith in Christ that I have and with whom I will share eternity.

The car above illustrates this. It was photographed only in the last few days by someone who had just seen Religioulous at a movie theatre in Florida, so it was oddly appropriate for him to photograph it.

The vehicle is a four-wheeled stereotype. Everything people can identify with modern evangelicalism can be found on the stickers: Pro-Republican, pro-life, anti-homosexual, anti-evolution and willing and ready to propagate political rumours.

For most of my Christian life I have railed against the "Christian Subculture" - the inward looking, controlling, commodification of the Christian faith. At the age of 19 I was going to Christian bookshops and shaking my head at the trinkets, paraphernalia and bad music. I would pick up books outlining various government conspiracies and the spread of witchcraft, as well as books that promised healing and happiness and new breakthroughs in Christian living. 20 years later and things haven't changed - I walked into a Christian bookshop 12 months ago and felt ill at what I saw.

As a movement, Evangelicalism, especially in the US, has morphed into an aggressive, threatening and controlling movement. "The world" is no longer seen as souls that can be won over by good people preaching the gospel, but as enemies that need to be disciplined, controlled or vanquished.

This has come at the expense, I believe, of biblical literacy and careful analysis. The fact that a bunch of Christians could pray at the Wall Street Bull and not realise the irony of their actions is one indication of a lack of biblical understanding. The fact that Christians can and will easily fall for rumours and false stories of people they feel are "enemies" indicates a lack of spiritual maturity. The fact that Christians can argue that free market capitalism and the US Constitution are virtually mandated by God shows a social and economic syncretism.

The car above is an example of what I am speaking of. If you wish, you can download the big version here (1.5mb) and you will be able to see some of the detail.

For me, perhaps the most problematic stickers are located on the far right of the bumper bar. The first sticker shows a Christian "fish" eating a Darwinist "fish" with the title "survival of the forgiven". Ignoring for the moment the issue of evolution, the sticker itself is almost a declaration of war. The Christians are "eating" the fearful Darwinists. It has an aggressive tone to it that is quite different to that found in the New Testament. New Testament Christians are called upon to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to walk two miles those who force you to walk one mile.

The second problematic sticker is the one which shows the sad face with the words "My life before Jesus", then the smiley face "My life after Jesus" and the words "any questions?". This communicates a terribly false idea of what the Christian faith is like - as though the entire purpose of Christianity is to make a person happy. This is a most pernicious teaching that many Christians have imbibed - one which is more aligned with the world of consumerism than the teachings of the New Testament. As a Christian - as an evangelical - I would definitely agree with the idea that Christ gives my life meaning and fulfilment. At the same time, though, I would also point out that suffering is a natural part of the Christian faith. Like many Christians, my life has had its share of sufferings - much of it undeserved and undergone without any real meaning. Yes, Jesus gives me joy, but he also gives me strength in my sufferings.

Lest this article turns into a sermon, let me just point out that I believe evangelicals should be people who are liked and respected by society. I'm not talking here about churches or church leaders gaining community "respect", but rather individual Christians being both likeable and open in their faith. Rather than homosexual people being insulted and protested against by Christians, homosexuals should feel comfortable talking with and being friends with these people who nevertheless disagree with their sexuality. Muslim Americans should feel safe with Christians who befriend them and protect them if need be. Atheists should feel joy at the thought of robust intellectual argument from their smiling, intelligent, respectful Christian opponents.

You see, that to me is the best sort of thing Christians should do. Christianity isn't about political power struggles for the soul of the nation - it is about the transforming power of the Gospel which enables people to live holy lives for God.

These days, while surfing the net, I often come across people criticising Christians and religious belief. Despite my own faith, I often find myself in agreement with their complaints.

Evangelicalism in the US is about to experience major changes. The loss of their political clout along with a deep recession (which will make Christians suffer and feel bad) will cause the movement to reassess itself. Many of the "old guard" will remain, but in a steadily eroding power base. Church attendance will decline - most noticeably in the South as many irregular attenders undergo a crisis of faith and have a greater willingness to reject the church.

I don't really know how to end this except to point out that if anyone can be blamed for the state of the evangelical church in the US, it is evangelicalism itself. America will become a more secular nation this century, not least because of public reaction against over-the-top political evangelicalism.

The Gospel of Christ, though, will endure, as will The Church.

19 comments:

Noni Mausa said...

Also, the scraps of fundamentalist ignorance and self-satisfaction that migrate from the more strident to the less ignorant Christian communities, act to hinder the entry of doubtful seekers dipping a toe into a Christian community.

The casual assumption that of course the Christian way is the only way and sooner or later everyone will have to walk that way -- that smugness, coupled with the idea that "that way" must include how the seeker verbalizes his faith, and must include a verbal repudiation of faith elements perceived by the smugistas as being in opposition to Christian belief -- this sort of judgmental superficiality not only kept me out of the church for decades, but still creates for me an ongoing irritation and distraction.

I've attended an Anglican church for a bit over a decade now, nearly every week. You'd think I would be used to it by now, but no.

Livingsword said...

Very thought provoking article….

I am a follower of Jesus and that is how I identify myself in the blogging world and outside in the non-cyber world…

Christian is just packed with so many incorrect assumptions by most people that it is actually often disinforming them as to who I am…Christian now carries much bad baggage that is not true of it…its bad enough we have to carry the bad baggage we deserve…

In the first century when pagans heard the gospel they new it was something completely new whereas today most people think they already know “the story” so you have to inform them that no they don’t know the message and then tell them the real thing.

One of the big factors is the Church is so occupied trying to be salt alone that we forget to be light.

I find terms like Church, Christian, Evangelical, and even Protestant are currently very unhelpful…In the US conservative has now been so identified with Christian that it is also a real issue in that conservatives for example are often seen as not caring about people, being judgmental and being poor stewards of the environment. This makes it difficult for the Church in other countries such as my own Canada…

Eclipse Now said...

Hi OSO,
you might be interested to watch popular Pastor Mark Driscoll chat with John Dickson about Christianity and politics. It kind of echoes recent comments John Piper made about the campaign...

...while we might care about this world and its politics and issues, and while we might work to prosper "Babylon", it is not our home and this world is passing away.

As an activist, I need to remember that... but I think that's another conversation.

Also, I think at some stage an article on "Separation of Church and State" might be in order. Paul was very clear in Romans that legislating godliness just does not work. But that's for another day... great post Neil!

Ron Lankshear said...

Very Sad

I wondered about the spelling of the numberplate, I suppose it is an abbreviation of "Jesucristo"?

Some comments on other sites pointed out the car is probably illegal with the rear window so obscured.

Strange that to honour Jesus people see a need to publish falsehoods etc

and I would say it becomes counter productive to hitch your "christian" wagon to politicians that others find offensive and whose behaviour is a poor witness.

I looked at Snopes re the stuff about Obama not being born eligible to be president and his birth certificate being kept secret and they have links to his birth cert and his middle name is indeed Hussein but then mine is Gerald.....
Anyhow his first name is probably more Islamic that the second - meaning Blessed whereas Hussein is from Ali and of course in muddled thinking seems to mean he must a supporter of Saddam.
My first name is from Norse Gods ..........



I am still praying for protection on Obama from all the hatred being generated

BLBeamer said...

Neil - Shouldn't your headline be: "What's American Evangelicalism Driving?"

Ron, the whole Obama birth certificate deal was a red herring to throw the looneys off the trail from the real shocker: Barack is Malcolm X's illegitimate son!

It must be true because I read it on Al Gore's interweb thingy.

BLBeamer said...

livingsword - Based on your post, I believe you would find this lecture by Tim Keller to be very interesting.

It's called "The Supremacy of Christ and the Gospel in a Postmodern World"

luke said...

Sometimes I think "Jesus, save me from your followers" is quite a legitimate prayer!

Eclipse Now said...

Amen to that! Yet we are to love them as well. Tough job hey? ;-)

Ron Lankshear said...

BL I see what you mean about Malcolm X. (BTW a suspicious website it keeps loading and loading)

So when he was born his mother was 2000+ miles away. Well in the same month so they say - Did they have aircraft back then. What a strange collection of facts and deductions. Oh dear

Now to the real serious business tomorrow - the first Tuesday in November every year not just leap years is the Melbourne Cup - a horse race the whole of Australia stops work to watch. After 3pm we can all get back to what is happening in USA. I suppose we will have an idea of result when we wake up on our Wednesday.

Tonight the ABC (Aust TV) had a special with a reporter in Ohio. The result depends on whether folk turn out and vote. So make sure you do.

BLBeamer said...

Ron (and all my Aussie friends): Happy Melbourne Cup Day.

Humorous and true story: My company has a subsidiary in Australia. We have a corporate policy against gambling on all Company premises, world-wide. However, the head of our Australian subsidiary wrote a letter to the president of the corporation asking for an exception in the case of Australia for the Melbourne Cup.

In his letter he said, "Unlike the US which was settled by a bunch of Puritans, Australia was settled by expat criminals and other undesirables - we are descended from the dregs of European society. We have no qualms about drinking and gambling. In fact, we have to do it, it is part of our culture." The exception was granted.

Lastly, I have already voted. Well over 50% of the voters in my county use absentee ballots.

The Scylding said...

Amen to your post. I feel much the same. In a recent debate on an unnamed website on the "Republican Captivity of the Church", I was amazed at how hateful, spiteful and vitriolic all these 'Christians' can become. No matter how often you try and interact with them peacably, they will smear and forth at the mouth etc etc.

I share an office with 2 non-Christians. The damage done by these evangelicals to the name of Christ is incalculable - they are now giving the worst of medieval popes a good run for their money.

I have no problems with Christians having politically conservative opinions. But it is when they make those opinions into lithimus tests for orthodoxy that I struggle to keep my cool.

Here in Canada some "evangelical" claptrap makes it onto the TV - most pentecostal stuff of the healing/prophecy/prosperity variety. No wonder people look down at those poore delusional Christians. Especially when, added to the above, those same Chrustians get all excited by the likes of Palin, who... and I don't need to complete the sentence.

Furthermore, these same Christians get hoodwinked again and again and again into voting for politicians claiming they are pro-life. Without doing anything about it. As well as getting involved into wars they have no business starting. The hypocracy is so obvious. Especially here in Canada, making it difficult to speak about your faith, and politcs, in one conversation.

As you can tell, it is IMMENSELY frustrating.

BLBeamer said...

the scylding - I can somewhat sympathize with your feelings. Politically, I tend towards libertarianism but I vote all over the map. In this week's election, my absentee ballot was marked for 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats. One of the Republicans is my neighbor so I'm not even sure he counts since I would have voted for him regardless of his party affiliation. I only mention this to provide some context. I used to post daily on an evangelical left wing blog. I suffered the same kind of vitriol and hateful comments you described. In fact, I was ultimately asked to leave because I was not sufficiently toeing the line of Democratic politics. This made me a "troll." For one mild example: Milton Friedman died during my time on the blog. I posted some complimentary things about him in tribute. Several others took offense and called him a "hack". Because I said I admired Friedman, I was called a Bush lackey. No, I don't understand the connection, either.

I can only imagine what non-Christians who happened to read felt about the rude and even foul-mouthed comments directed at me at other times by my so-called brethren in the faith. I'm a big boy, I've been called worse by professionals, so they did me no harm, but I was very saddened to think about how their (lack of) loving witness was perceived by non-believers.

So, while I appreciate your comments, I think lefties ought to spend less time complaining about the speck in conservatives' eyes and spend more on the beam in their own. The vitriol is by no means exclusively generated on the right.

Righties should also work on their own beam because vitriol does obviously also come from their side.

Ron Lankshear said...

Just heard the news about Barack's grandmother - how sad she did not live to see history happen.

The Australian ABC show last night finished with a very young African American passionately and beautifully singing "The Star Spangled Banner". It was a lovely close to a thoughtful survey on people and their opinions and feelings .... Especially touching was the mother whose marine son had been killed in Iraq asking for the boys to be returned home.


Dear BL I loved the letter from your Australian subsidary. The whole country stops for the one event and any company that tried to censor it would probably be in court.

Dear the scylding I have taken a feed from your blog. Things like what Austen and Napoleon have in common just took me out. I'll try and pronounce aloud the Beowulf heading.

It is indeed weird the extreme right focus on prolife as though just being that could fix the problem. Something has to be done I think what I heard Barack saying about educating young people is the way to go.

I also have a RSS feed to Wordpress for "truth". Some of Christian blogs are good but some are terrible - I pray that they read some of the good ones

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,
He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.

Coffee Bean said...

Awesome post! I'm gonna have to put up a link to this on my blog!

Roland Hulme said...

I came here from Coffee Bean's blog. What a BRILLIANT post, OSO. Very thought provoking and utterly fascinating.

Ron Lankshear said...

Hi Roland
I was amazed at your blog on the folk who gave money to the Campaign against homosexual marriages. Especially the couple who gave $50,000. I did not know that such local initiatives needed such "large" funding. Another "revelation" for me of aspect of USA politics.

Sorry kids......none of you can go to Community College. We blew our savings stopping gay people getting married.


Sorry

Just Me said...

Also visiting from Coffee Bean, and I echo her comment that this is an excellent post.

A message board to which I belong is bearing some heavy-duty battle scars of a polictical/religious thread that turned uglier than ugly.

I am SO tempted to post a link to this entry, but I'm afraid that reopening the thread will result in banishment.

Just Me said...

Ron:

I agree. There are bigger issues than gay marriage. Really, now, who cares if gays marry? My opposition is merely to calling it "marriage," since my old-fashioned self feels that marriage = man & woman in a church. Call it something else infront of a judge and that's fine.

And, yes, I know my position here isn't all that sensible, but it is what it is.

Ron Lankshear said...

Hi Just You
I sort of agree if the world wants to sin then it will. I suppose people have a Sodom and Gomorrah issue - will our city etc be punished. Sydney is well exposed to that as we have a homosexual mardi gras parade.

However civil union before a judge is one thing but enforcing that churches HAVE to perform the ceremony is another


----
Message Boards are often a problem
I was looking at sci.archaeology

to keep track of findings but BAD language etc was impossible so I now access sci.archaeology.moderated and it has news.

Like OSO said folk get the politics messed up and the religion flies out the window.