RECENTLY I WAS ASKED TO COMMENT on an interesting topic (well, interesting to me) about where white Evangelicals go now that the forty-fifth president has left office. The topic came up because of an interview between Ed Stetzer from Christianity Today and NPR. Given that radio is slow TV, and people want sound bites, it is an interview that probes only the surface of the larger question of “What the hell has happened to Evangelicals?”
Mr Stetzer comes from the position of (I think) that this swooning over the disgraced and twice-impeached man is a recent falling but that the Evangelicals are not themselves in need of thorough housecleaning. We might need to fine-tune some things, but over all the Evangelical version of following Christ seems to be relevant and acceptable. We just screwed up a little, but we’ll get it right.
I’m not so sure that’s a deep enough response. In reading Kristin Kobes Du Mez’ recent book Jesus and John Wayne, I’m seeing that the religious tradition that reared me was even in the 60s and 70s becoming captive to the interests of white conservatives to further the interests of the powerful. Her research highlights that the capture was happening even further back before that, almost from the turn of the last century. As Evangelicals matured as a movement they began to think that what they lacked was respect and power; white conservatives offered them that chance, and over time, with the help of agents such as Billy Graham, white Evangelicals became married to the Republican Party to further the interests of the Republican Party ideologists and power brokers.
Which raised the question of not only what should Evangelicals do to correct this, but what should Evangelicals do to be Evangelical? I thought about it a bit, and given my long history of being established within the American Evangelical church, I can say that for me, simply fixing a few broken implementations isn’t going to fix the issue. We might want to stop letting white power brokers have our churches, for example, but I ask if maybe the methodology of religious behavior worked out by Evangelicals is simply not a workable implementation of following Christ.
Rather than saying “how can Evangelicals fix their churches to be less partisan, my questions are becoming more “how do we be Christians,” less “how do we do church.” Not to say church isn’t part of this (and I do miss congregating during these times of the pandemic), but the more I age, the more I think that much of what I’ve done as “Christ-following” was reduced to “going to church and following the rules to be in church.”
That can work for a lot of people, but I suspect that Jesus’ goals were not to build a kin-dom of people who sat down and just listened (which is what he started with in his first miracle of the feeding of the multitude), but people who go out from the House of God and into the World That God So Loved — to bring healing and hope and restoration and relationships.
Reducing Christ-following to the Evangelical closed circle leads to inbreeding and lack of comprehension of the reason for being taught and fed and discipled: it is to Go Do Jesus’ Works While Sharing Jesus’ Words. Not having contact in the world and hearing/seeing/feeling the pains of the world leads, in my opinion, to the descent into hyper-religiosity and the weird belief that God’s People are under attack because we don’t have control of the world and its systems.
But that was never the goal for Jesus in his work here on earth nor within his followers who are told not so much to stay inside a church building but go out into the world and be Jesus. The story of the Good Samaritan, for example, requires Christ-followers to be on the road themselves, looking for the hurt and wounded, broken and beaten.
Thinking that church is about power and the people who hold power leads to a church that thinks that having their champion be president** (and a very very broken one at that) is the raison d’être for Christian beliefs, and leads to the defense of a very very broken president** above the defense of the people for whom Jesus came to save.
We are an extremely religious nation. We are not a nation that displays much of Jesus in our policies and behaviors, though.