The Theological Bankruptcy of American Evangelicals (as explained by Tony Perkins)

John Fea, who writes the excellent They Way of Improvement Leads Home blog (are you reading it? You should be reading it), wrote a recent Washington Post Op-Ed titled “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.” The excellent piece ruminates on Trump’s relationship with his “court evangelicals,” as Fea as labeled them, the small group of celebrity-evangelicals who have attached themselves to the president and who hover about the White House waiting for photo ops in the seat of power (people like Jerry Falwell Jr, Robert Jeffress, and Paula White, among others.) The mock title derives itself from the courtiers who were always to be found around the throne of medieval monarchs, always ready for scraps from the royal table and sycophantic approval of all the king’s words and deeds, no matter how immoral they may be. I highly encourage you to read the op-ed.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

Fea draws attention to a response written by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (himself a court evangelical.) Perkins obviously takes great umbrage at Fea’s piece. He references another op-ed by Fea, from 2012, in which Fea explores the deeply Christian language President Obama used. (For more on the Christian nature of the Obama presidency, I strongly encourage this piece by John Pavlovitz.)

Perkins isn’t convinced, and uses this opportunity to both slam Obama again, and also defend the supposed spirituality of Donald J. Trump. In doing so, he shines a clear light on the moral bankruptcy of much of American evangelicalism (something I touched on Wednesday in my MAGA piece.)

Here is Perkins:

For the last 50 years, [Fea] argues, “evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.” Fea insists that Trump has done little for evangelicals, a charge hardly substantiated by the strides the White House has made on our pro-life and religious liberty agendas. But Fea measures Trump’s sincerity on a different scale: how often he attends church. No wonder he once called Barack Obama “the most explicitly Christian president in American history.” In a column from 2012, he made the staggering claim that the most pro-abortion, anti-faith president to ever occupy the Oval Office was also the most pious.

Perkins himself reinforces a point I make often about so much of American Christianity: it can be boiled down to exactly two facets: opposition to abortion, and opposition to LGBT equality. For the court evangelicals, and for the millions of people who follow them, this is the sum total of what being a Christian in America looks like in 2017. As long as you oppose abortion and oppose gay marriage, you can brag about sexually assaulting women, show a profound lack of knowledge about Scripture, and govern in a way that not just neglects the needy, but goes out of its way to actively do harm to them. Actual beliefs about God or Jesus are beside the point; hence the growing evangelical-Catholic alliance.

Public practice of Christianity doesn’t include any theological grounding, nor does it include traditional forms of Christian social action, such as missions, or care for the indigent. The only public form of Christian action that matters is woman shaming in front of Planned Parenthood, and protests at the Supreme Court anytime they hear a case concerning the LGBT community.

The proof is in the numbers: on Election Day 2016, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, despite his clear indifference to faith, his hateful and disgusting comments about just about every group in America outside of straight, white men, and his overwhelming greed and hunger for power. This from the same group of Christians who had a collective aneurysm over the moral shortcomings of Bill Clinton just 20 short years ago.

The court evangelicals are the logical outcome of an evangelical movement that has prostituted itself out to right-wing political power. The evangelical movement has simply become a church-based stamp of approval for whatever regressive piece of public policy or proclamation of hate speech emanates from the conservative movement this week. As long as a politician promises to fight anti-discrimination measures and roll back Roe v. Wade, they will get the evangelical endorsement and can go to Washington to roll back taxes and take away health care and demonize poor people and minorities as much as they like. Empire and power are the means they see to God’s kingdom, rather than the way of love and weakness shown by Jesus. And by God’s kingdom, they just mean a world with no abortion and no gays. Everything else is a sideshow.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Tony Perkins.

 

P.S. I’ve said a lot here, and in the past, about what Christianity isn’t. But if it’s not all these things, you may ask, then what do I think it is? Glad you asked: I’ll be writing a series on that soon!

The Heresy of Make America Great Again

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen coverage or video of First Baptist Dallas’ “Make America Great Again” hymn and all-around freedom fest on Fourth of July Weekend in Washington DC. If you haven’t, and you think you can stomach it, here it is:

I’ll give you a minute to go vomit, if you need to.

The “Make America Great Again” song – and really, the whole MAGA concept – is about as anti-Christian as one can get. The fact that a major church in America can really build an entire brand around MAGA just shows the theological bankruptcy of much of American Christianity. Most Christians, it seems, regard no more than a few verses of the Bible – those having to do with “gnashing of teeth” and Jesus being the only choice and those allegedly about sexual orientation – and discard the rest, especially those places about justice and compassion and mercy and caring for the least, the lost, and the alien.

The Way exemplified by Jesus, as we read it in the Gospels, is anti-empire. Jesus consistently stood against the coercive use of power – economic, political, military – in pursuit of human achievement. Jesus understood that so often power is used by one tribe or group against another, and that as a result, people suffered.

Instead of wielding power and promoting an “us-against-them” ideology, Jesus showed that abundant life comes through love of neighbor, through spreading a big tent over all humanity, and welcoming everyone in, especially those on the margins of society. Jesus stood against empire, showing its moral bankruptcy through his use of the power of love for its own sake.

MAGA and Trump are empire at its worst. Trump’s governing ethos has been the coercion of power in the pursuit of money and influence for a small group of people over and against every one else – against foreigners and immigrants and black people and LGBT people and Muslims and liberals and poor people. Trump cares only about himself, and his most ardent followers care only about themselves. They live in an economy of scarcity, in which the stuff of life is rare and must be hoarded and kept away from the undeserving and the sinners. A Christianity that sides with MAGA is nothing but pure heresy, a disgusting perversion of the words and deeds of Christ.

Jesus’ Way is the Way of Abundance: abundance of love and compassion and mercy and life, for all people. Jesus stood with the least against the powers because he knew abundance was the reality of God’s kingdom, and the only way to show it was to raise of the weak and show that their elevation didn’t mean a reduction of others. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” indeed.

Christianity isn’t about nationalism and America First and conquering others and victory. Christianity doesn’t take sides, and certainly doesn’t identify with America. Christianity is about universal love, and radical hospitality, and weakness conquering all, and about relinquishing power. Christianity is where losers are admired, and winners pitied in their emptiness. Christianity is about always – ALWAYS – critiquing and standing against those wielding power, even when they are “our guy” or are on our team.

The very best of early Christianity understood that Christianity’s equation with and coercion by empire was a tragedy, not a triumph. They realized that critiquing empire meant critiquing even those leaders who were themselves “Christians”, those leaders who had once stood with them. In the modern context, this means radically critiquing even the leaders were help put in place. Because the Way of Jesus never identifies itself with power; it always, stands with those who are powerless.

Making America great again isn’t what is needed. What is needed is “Making the Kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.” And that only comes from each and every one of us operating with an attitude of abundance towards each and every other human being, from putting the needs and well being of others first and above our own, of practicing the radical and overflowing love of God towards others. Only then will things be great.

America First, God Second?

Last Friday, I wrote a post about the book of Jonah, asserting that America plays the role of Nineveh in that story, not the role of Jonah (as we like to tell ourselves.) Today, I want to follow that up with a little theological grounding for that idea.

I’m doing this because I can hear folks asking, how can I equate us with Assyria and people from places like Iran or Syria with Jonah, when those people aren’t Christians, or even Jewish? Why would God side with Muslims over us, even if, as a nation, we haven’t always acted very Christian in our foreign relations?

The answer is found in thinking about the relation of humanity to God, and specifically, the fundamental orientation of that relationship. In the telling where America plays the good guy role here, the assumption is made of a Divine-Human relationship where we get to set the terms. From us emanates truth, and all else swirls around us and is described in relation to us. America is good, not on God’s terms, but on our own terms. In this telling, the great fundamentalist fear comes to fruition: truth is made relative, in this case, to the needs of American imperialistic aims. The way of God is made unimportant; instead, the way of America is the guiding lodestar. America First becomes not just a quasi-racist catchphrase, but a theological assertion of primacy.

But this gets the human-Divine relationship backwards. When speaking of God – the Divine, the Ground of All Being, Ultimate Truth – one exists in relation to God, is defined by one’s relationship to the Divine. Paul Tillich writes of the “subject-object distinction,” asserting that God can never be an object in an object-subject relation, but is always the subject.

This argument can be problematic at times, especially when the subjective God is conceived of by human beings as a capricious, angry and self-obsessed God. This subject God, around whom all else orbits, becomes “Anti-humanistic,” a God with little if any concern for humanity, but instead completely caught up in God’s own whims and desires. Humanity’s actions and existence become by-products of God, rather than objects. The subject-object relation breaks down in this case.

God as subject works, though, when we understand God as concerned with humanity, and especially, as Jesus posited, with the “least of these.” This is one of the primary and most important contributions of liberation theology to the conception of God: a God concerned primarily with the oppressed, who stands on the side of those not in positions of power.

That’s what powers my assertion that America is playing the role of Nineveh, and persons in places like Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan are playing the role of Jonah. Because God takes the side of the oppressed. And in the case of American imperialism in the Middle East, the oppressed are the people in those places who are being bombed and terrorized and killed. God sides with them, no matter their religion, no matter their creed, and no matter their nationality. In cases where unjust power in being brought to bear, God could really care less about any temporal identifiers. God cares about the flourishing of human life, in its many varied forms. God takes the side of the indigent peasant farmer before he takes the side of well-fed suburbanites in conflict between the two.

Too often, America plays  the role of oppressor to peoples in the global south and east, especially poor people of color. We do it for well-reasoned “good” ideas, like democracy or liberty. But always, these are justifications that benefit not in solidarity with others, but at the expense of them. This is where I get my grounding the say: in Jonah, we are Nineveh. I have very little doubt about that.