Our Dysfunctional Family Values: On Believe Me by John Fea

img_9395.jpegThere is nothing quite so painful nor so beautiful as delving into the study of your own family.  Where there are wounds or unresolved questions, such study becomes all the more necessary yet somewhat halting and – even, at times – haunting. As Oscar Wild wrote in his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea, offers fellow white American evangelicals a chance to study the harsher realities of our family legacy by illuminating the detestable parts of our past and laying bare the faults of our present.

For many of us within the church the current era of Trumpism has confirmed our worst fears and challenged our most defensive reflexes about the faith community we call home.  This has been a time of reflection and repentance, but also one of bewilderment.

In describing his first reaction on election night Fea shares his emotions, which to many of us are all too familiar. “I was shocked. I was saddened. I was angry.”  Trump’s victory brought about disillusionment not really because of who lost, but rather because of who and what so many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ appeared willing to endorse, enable or empower.  As Fea notes, realizing that eight out of 10 of his fellow church goers most likely voted for Trump “seemed to reflect deep divisions in how we understand the world, and it was deeply distressing.” (5)

For those who, like me, share these sentiments of shock and uncertainty, Believe me offers a renewed explanation for why this happened and sketches tentative suggestions for the road ahead.  He offers us a historical framework mixed with contemporary analysis through which to understand our present time, particularly by focusing on the religious leaders and prominent Trump supporters Fea terms “Court Evangelicals.” In all, the book reads as a satisfying catharsis for unresolved questions about why and how we got to this point in our family history.

Grounded in an overview of the modern dance between evangelicals and the Supreme Court, Fea describes how and why evangelicals have turned to political solutions as a means for devotional salvation, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Also acting as primer on the darker moments in religious American history, from the faults of Salem and Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the theological justifications of slavery and Jim Crow, to the rise of the “Know Nothing Party”, the Scopes Trial, Operation Wet Back and many more, Fea’s book offers us a colorful family album of evangelical foibles, sins, and woes.  He explains:

“Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.  They have celebrated values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ while simultaneously building exclusive communities that do not tolerate dissent.  They have revealed their fear in the ways they have responded to the plight of the people who do not share their skin color.  White evangelical fear of newcomers – those who might challenge the power and privilege that white evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants – has been present in every era of American history.” (65)

Seen in this light, the voting habits and rhetoric of the 2016 election were a continuity of our worst impulses, an almost inevitable outcome for a people who have yet to reckon with the their own darker past.

Playing up the thesis that the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump is driven most prominently by fear, Fea recounts the events leading up to the election by wryly noting, “The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame.” (33) The rhetoric, developed over almost forty years by the leadership of the Religious Right, mixed with age-old concerns about foreigners, criminals, and encroaching secularism, is not to be seen as an abrogation but rather as a continuation of the more troubling legacies within the American church.  As Fea explains: “In a sin-cursed world, we should expect anxiety-induced emotions to rise in response to social change.  But evangelicals have not always managed their fears in a healthy way.” (65)

Crucially, he identifies how the over glorification, or nostalgia, of our past has led to a confused mentality of how best to confront the concerns of the present.  While addressing the complex historical implications of the controversial campaign slogan Make America Great Again, he asks for us to question more deeply what message that fourth word conveys.  Which America, which season of American evangelicalism, do we wish to reclaim? What is meant by great AGAIN?

“It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history.  There is, of course, a lot to celebrate… At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical demands that Christianity places upon our lives.”  (137-8)

Looking back to this darker past is the key to understanding a path to a brighter, more hopeful, future.  It also helps us put in perspective the widening political gap between white evangelicals and our minority brethren in the faith.  As Fea pointedly queries, “Why would any African-American want to ‘reclaim’ a history steeped in racism?” (134) Yet somehow these voices remain unheard or unheeded and the sins of our forefathers, or perhaps the sins of our own hearts, are the reality we still must confront, repent, and mourn.

What then should we do about these dysfunctional family values?  Fea ultimately concludes with a call to hope over fear, humility over power, and history over nostalgia.  Through further self-reflection and an embrace of values exhibited in the civil rights movement, he thinks we can find creative and faithful ways to respond to the unique (and not so unique) challenges of our times.

Moreover, Fea suggests that we should respond in such a way that is inclusive and welcoming of the entire multi-racial, multi-ethnic body of Christ, seeking after an understanding of the great promise offered by this land of the free that is relatable to all.  “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” he says, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.” (154)  Adopting a posture of humility, we should therefore see both the future of our faith and the future of our polis as one in the making, a work in progress ripe for healing and new growth.

While Believe Me is a helpful and insightful addition to the burgeoning literature seeking to explain how a thrice married, notoriously bankrupt (in more ways than one) former reality tv star ended up as President of the United States of America, I do have three critiques to offer.

First, for a book that proclaims to specifically offer an understanding of the evangelical embrace of Trump or Trumpism, Fea fails to adequately define the distinct roots and branches of our family tree.  Since the 2016 election there has been an ongoing discussion, particularly among scholars of theology and church history, regarding the meaning of the label “evangelical” and the authenticity of the poll numbers which Fea readily cites as the basis of his book.  Not only did Fea choose to overlook this discussion about the contemporary use of the term, but his historic examples of “evangelicals” are quite generous in definition, including faith groups as diverse as puritans, members of mainline protestant denominations, prosperity gospel preachers, and pentecostal churches, among others.

The closest Fea comes to defining what he means by American evangelicalism is found in his categorization of the so-called “court evangelicals” who “come from three primary streams of American evangelicalism: the Christian Right, the followers of what has come to be known as the ‘prosperity gospel,’ and the Independent Network Charismatics.” (106)  While I found this to be a helpful way to group the personalities he features, I am certain some of his peers will question if these are all fair representatives of evangelicalism as a historically defined religious movement.

Even if these are all fair representatives of white evangelicalism, Fea still fails to define with greater clarity what he means by the term. (Personally, I am inclined to give him some latitude for accepting this type of self-identified “evangelicalism” as representing an important sociological grouping, if not a precise theological label.)  A significant part of reflecting on our family roots is looking into our DNA, the unique genetic ties that connect us together throughout time.  In Believe Me, Fea fails to even attempt to make these ties apparent.  He uses the term “evangelical” so broadly at times it ceases to mean much more than just a generic, interchangeable, title for the American Christian.

Second, I am afraid this book is not written in a way that makes it fully approachable to the 81% who voted for Donald Trump.  While the dedication “to the 19%” who voted for someone (or no one) else in 2016 seems quite fitting, this book offers an opportunity to bridge the political divide and invite us all onto a mutual path of familial reflection.  Unfortunately, where Fea diverges from the necessary detachment of historical inquiry, there is a touch of off-putting bias.  More than once I caught myself noting how he describes the fears of those who have embraced Trumpism as merely reacting to perceived threats, while at the same time he qualifies the prejudices of both the present and the past as definite and real.  This pattern is particularly evident in his discussion of the Obama presidency where, for example, he fairly critiques the racism behind birtherism but understates both the political and judicial threats to religious liberty posed by the Obama administration both at home and abroad.

While I concur that the Christian Right, among others, ginned up excessive hyperbole and fear in our recent history, I also think that Believe Me as a whole misses the mark in examining the trends in European and American culture that elicited genuine fear and anxiety among orthodox Christian believers.  As many astute observers of our age such as Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option have noted, some evangelicals (presumably including those within the 81%) are responding to shifts in belief and behavior which could lead to actual persecution over time – more than mere social change or inflexibility as Fea implies.  We certainly need to debate the best, most Christ-like way to respond to such threats, but it is folly to gloss over the actual ways these changing public policies and mores may inhibit our freedom of religion in the days to come.

Fea’s overarching thesis, that our fears should be met with hope and humility, remains timely and significant.  Yet by discrediting most of these fears as over exaggerated, or simply as part of a legacy of religious bigotry, he limits his most likely audience to those already inclined to agree with the prescient warning that fear and nostalgia can all too easily lead to ungodly racism, bigotry and exclusion.

Finally, any great examination of family history eventually needs to look fully and fairly at the entire family tree.  When newly exposed to the foibles and abuses of our elders or peers it is only natural to want to keep digging, to find all the hidden or forgotten skeletons, and to reflect upon them through grief.  This process of emotive truth-telling is an important part of healing, but it is not the entirety of the healing process.  What Believe Me starkly overlooks, a bit oddly given the intended audience, is the historical context for evangelicals who currently dissent.  Be they the 19% who didn’t vote for Trump, or part of an unknown percentage who cast their votes for him but still vocally object to policies and behavior which run counter to the Christian Faith, these white evangelicals are standing in an important tradition that also reaches back before our founding.

Family histories are complex, and any readings that are all positive or all negative tend to miss the mark and fail to give complete justice to the truth of our heritage.  Where Fea fairly derides the positive revisionism of David Barton and his ilk for an all-too-simple storytelling of a mythic Christian America, reading Believe Me in insolation risks leaving us with the impression that the legacy of white evangelicalism is mostly negative: a long, sad, solitary tale of bigotry and hypocrisy.

Such a uniquely sordid picture could not be further from the truth.  Look to every moment of ugliness and shame in our nation’s history and there you will find evangelical dissenters, missionaries, and advocates.  While the darker parts of our past must be reckoned with, a feat Fea does quite well, we should not lose sight of the many ways throughout our own history that evangelical Christians have stood with the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.  That story of compassion and sacrifice is just as if not more significant to tell, not so as to lead us into a nostalgic triumphalism but rather to inspire those who are currently distressed with the knowledge that we are not alone.  Others have stood here before us and stayed faithful to God, upheld human dignity for the downtrodden, and fearlessly spoke truth in the face of persecution, isolation, and apparent powerlessness.

I find Fea’s ultimate answer, for us to look to the civil rights movement as a model to follow in these times, quite compelling.  But I also hope we do not forget the legacy of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and the urban social movements of the 19th century, among so many others.  The examples of fear and hatred in our past run deep and wide and current events suggest this legacy still lives with us, possibly within each of us, to this day.  But there are also so many examples in our history of rugged perseverance, crusaders for justice, and generous biblical hospitality.  Those saints, many of whom were white American evangelicals, offer us ready examples of what it means to live our lives with a bold, unapologetic, public witness in often dark or confusing times.

These concerns aside, Believe Me is a helpful and ultimately hopeful read worthy of further reflection.  Going into this week of national celebration, I hope we can come to see the role of our familial engagement within the public square not as an opportunity to worship the perfection of what we think our country once was, or what it might already be, but rather, using Fea’s description of the outlook found within the civil rights movement, as “a gesture to what” we hope “the United States might become.” (164)

 

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018).

I received a free advanced copy of this book to review.  Special thanks to Eerdmans for this opportunity and apologies for not publishing sooner! Reading and writing with four under five is quite the adventure. 🙂 

 

Reversing Roles: The Clinton Presidency that Wasn’t

636325546921131441-ap-comeyNearly one month into the young presidency of Hillary Clinton, The Wall Street Journal publishes reports that Huma Abedin, now working as a Senior Advisor in the White House, is currently under investigation by the FBI for unreported ties to Iran and Iranian lobbyists. It is also reported that the Iranians knew certain payments and meetings were left off of Abedin’s security clearance application, thus compromising Abedin and opening her to a threat of blackmail.

Allegedly, Abedin made several contacts with key Iranian diplomats to suggest offers during the transition to renegotiate the Iran deal with the promise of lessing even more sanctions and helping to rebuild their economy. There are also reports of her contacts or ongoing relationships with Iranian surrogates during the 2016 campaign. Finally, The Journal notes that the White House was informed of this information two weeks prior, but that there appears to be no change in Abedin’s position within the White House.

After the report is published, Vice President Tim Kaine is embarrassed and enraged, for he had spoken on Sunday morning talk shows regarding concerns about Abedin last month when he publicly denied any efforts by the Clinton Transition Team to discuss sanctions with Iran. Abedin had lied to him. The Vice President is so upset by these reports and his damaged credibility that President Clinton decides she has no choice, regrettably, but to fire Abedin. She releases comments a few days later blaming the press for reporting about these leaks and suggests she already misses having Abedin – who in her view has done nothing wrong – as part of her team.

In the following weeks, the concern about Iran and potential ties to the Clinton administration grows. Congress opens multiple investigations into the possible connections and conflicts of interest between the campaign and Iran. It is leaked to the press that the NSA believes that an Iranian hacker was behind the release of sensitive financial information about Donald Trump a week before the election, widely speculated to have contributed “Bigly” to his loss. Multiple members of congress, both Republicans and Democrats, confirm this report to the press.

Tensions between President Clinton and the FBI Director remain high. The White House continues to insist that there has been no wrong doing on the part of either the Clinton Campaign or the Clinton Transition Team.

After failing to get key legislation through Congress, and one week after Director Comey testified that there was an open investigation into ties between the Clinton Campaign/Transition and Iran, Hillary Clinton fires James Comey. In an abrupt letter released to the public, she thanks him for informing her three times that she is not under investigation by the FBI for any ties to Iran.

An accompanying statement says she made this decision on advisement of a memo authored by the newly confirmed Deputy Attorney General. Director Comey finds out about this decision from a cable news ticker while addressing FBI agents in LA.

The White House appears caught off guard by the actions of President Clinton, briefing reporters among the WH bushes in the early evening hours and suggests they have no immediate plans to announce a replacement. White House aides, the Vice President, and the Assistant Press Secretary claim the next day that the rationale behind this decision was related to how Director Comey handled public statements during the 2016 campaign season and that she took acted under advisement of the memo from the Justice Department.

The next day, Presdient Clinton hosts the Iranian ambassador and foreign minister at the White House where they hold a private meeting in the Oval Office closed to American journalists. Within 24 hours, pictures emerge from the meeting on Iranian State television. President Clinton appears down right giddy.

Several days later, under a public backlash to the decision of firing Director Comey, Presdient Clinton has a sit down interview with Lester Holt where she insists that she has no ties to Iran, that she was very frustrated by the investigations, and that she decided to fire Comey on her own, before receiving the memo from the Justice Department. She notes her frustrations over how the FBI Director handled her email investigation, but implies her decision was linked to frustrations about the growing Iran investigation. She goes on to insult and question Director Comey’s character in her defense.

Over the next several weeks, information is leaked to the press nearly every day. More Clinton associates are reportedly linked to Iran or Iranian associates, including daughter Chelsea who is now working in the White House and receiving intelligence briefings. Evidence mounts that Iran did seek to meddle in our election. A special prosecutor is eventually appointed to investigate the entire Iran controversy, including efforts to influence the election and any possible collusion with the Clinton campaign.

After many weeks of speculation and shocking leaks, Fmr. Director Comey confirmed via congressional testimony that shortly after the inauguration Hillary Clinton asked – in a closed door, one on one meeting – for the FBI Director’s loyalty, saying “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”

On a separate occasion, also alone with him, she brought up the Abedin investigation, saying that Abedin hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Iranians, noted that she was such a nice and loyal friend, and told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Abedin go.”

In subsequent phone calls, she requests that he “lifts the cloud” on this whole Iran investigation and strongly and repeatedly presses him to make public statements clearing her name of any wrongdoing in the situation. He chose not to do this during the public hearing before Congress and instead confirmed the existence of ongoing investigations. One week later he was abruptly fired.

—-

No big deal, right? What a witch hunt.

 

First published here.

Learning from the Women of Buckhannon: A Conservative’s Reflection on the Legacy of the Women’s March

huddlegroupPBS NewsHour feature published this week focuses on the small but growing movement of women protesting the policies of the Trump administration in the heart of self-proclaimed Trump country: Buckhannon, West Virginia. I find this article inspiring for two reasons.

First, it is a heartening example for anyone who finds themselves holding a minority position within their community, or to those who fear they are the only one.

Second, it is illustrative of some of the most powerful aspects (in a good sense) of what we saw and heard at the Women’s March. You don’t have to agree with all their policy preferences to value or be touched by their courage, tenacity, and desire – in the case of some – to finally have a voice.

What I feel like so many of my conservative friends missed at that time, while busy feeling insulted by cat ears – yes, cat ears – for hats and widely sharing memes and posts declaring that pro-life women are more beautiful (and often apparently whiter and blonder) than pro-choice women, was this widespread sense, a groaning of sorts, of helplessness in the face of a genuine moral wrong.

It was never really about Hillary Clinton losing (although some turned it into that for sure), rather it was about Donald Trump winning. It was a collective grieving for all that had transpired in the 18 months leading up to that moment and how so much was sick and twisted and reprehensible and yet somehow that didn’t matter in the end.

I realize it got all muddled – I realize it is a message that will likely continue to get muddled – by a buffet of DNC pet policies, some of which I would certainly label as moral wrongs in their own right.

But what I think really drove so many people out that day, what I think compels people like these women to speak up even now, is a sense that something was condoned and empowered in this country which is not right. That somehow this past election said to the world that the bullies and abusers and mockers and hurters and liars of the world were just fine.

In fact, it said they were more than fine, it said that they were admirable. It said that so long as you keep on winning, so long as you are successful, so long as you promise the right people the right things, you too can say and do whatever you want to whomever you want and you will not have to pay any consequences for even the worst behavior.

And so what I saw in January, what I see in these people in WV, is a collection of the bullied, and abused, and mocked, and hurt, and lied to, all coming together to just say “this is wrong, and we won’t stay silent anymore.”

I don’t think you have to join the Resistance, or even approve of it, to hear that message and have some compassion. To know that even amidst the politicization of their response there is something deeply human here, something we could all take some time to listen to and learn from. To understand that some of their points need to be heard, and to cry for the brokenness of this world and the yearning inside us to be whole once more.

Maybe we look for this wholeness and healing in all the wrong places. Maybe no matter who won this last election there would have been an outpouring of collective grief (I certainly think so). But to understand each other we need to try to look past the political talking points and look at the people, look at their stories. We have things to teach each other. We have people to find and get to know. And we have work to do together.

“At first we all felt like we were little creatures crawling out from under rocks, just reaching out to each other,” said Hollen. “Then we found a few, and a few more.”…

…An older woman speaks up next, her voice trembling a little. “I was sitting here earlier thinking, I never really had a voice before.” She begins to cry, and another woman comes over and takes her hand. “I was raised to be seen and not heard. Then I got married right out of high school and it was the same thing. And I was abused for 14 years. [You all] gave me a voice again.” The woman touches her chest. She is still crying. “So sorry.”

“Don’t say sorry,” Hollen says.

“It’s like we were all sleeping,” says Howard-Jack. “Now I think we’re awake.”

This post originally appeared here on my Facebook account 

Proceed With Caution: National Division, President Trump, and Bull Run

bullrun3It is not lost on me this week that I live but a few miles from the site of the first battle of our civil war. No doubt the creek I stare at each day from my kitchen windows was once trod by both the blue and the gray; men who shared the kinship of country and yet also the enmity of war.

We like to think our current world is too refined, too developed, and too safe to see such sights again in this land. The violence that once tore this country apart and cost the lives of at least 1 million Americans is a mere memory and tale of the past.

But I can’t shake the image of those men and women of Washington society who packed up their picknicks one morning and headed out for a country carriage ride to watch what they assumed was just a mostly harmless chapter in the political debates of their age. What were they thinking that morning? What were they seeking?

An entertaining diversion? A laugh? An easy answer to the country’s problems? A sense of satisfying superiority against the other side?

One thing I know they weren’t expecting was the extent of the destruction, division, death, and chaos that followed.

There, on the very dawn of the bloodiest conflict that this nation has ever known, was just a group of refined men and women who thought they could have a little fun witnessing a skirmish of partisans and then go on with their lives unchanged. To them, on that morning, the reality of what that conflict so infamously became was foreign and unthinkable.

I believe we must be very careful in these times. Perhaps open war is still a distant or unlikely reality, but the nature of our divisions is stark and alarming. We must be on guard for the ways that we are increasingly coarsened to the callings of our common life, our common good, and our common virtue.

I see little point in trying to convince each other about our differences right now. What language can we even use with one another when we have our own sets of facts, our own headlines and news outlets, our own moralities, and our own truths?

There is no clear right in these confusing political times. At least not in the choices before us within this temporal kingdom. And if someone tells you they know for sure which side is best beware them most of all.

But what we can do in the midst of our conflict is choose empathy. What we can do is choose to see the inante dignity of all men and women, most especially within each person with whom we disagree. What we can do is choose first to listen and then, when the time is right and the message vital, we can choose to speak truth with love.

We can choose a path of caution. Caution with our protests and caution with our accolades. Caution with the battles we seek to wage and the swords we choose to draw. Caution with our words and our memes and our thoughts and our actions.

Lest one morning we wake up to laugh at twitter or duel on facebook or demonstrate in our streets only to find that our war of words has turned into something all the more darker, something all the more painful, something we can’t just take back, something we will all regret.

Originally published here on Facebook, January 19th, 2017.

Wilderness Voices: Repent

repentance_1000A crucial message of the Biblical prophets was for the people to repent.  But is this a message we still need to hear today?

I know I’ve been to plenty of services, prayer meetings, and small groups where the subject was repentance.  Only I’m pretty sure at these events I mostly heard about and prayed for other people’s sins.  Often labeled as the sins of the entire culture or nation, and utilizing the inclusive appeal of “we”, most of the topics covered were about what non-Christians, or liberal Christians, do.  I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but such has been my experience.

Yes, we need to repent as a nation for abortion, for the acceptance of specific sexual sins and predilections, for the disregard of the glory, worship, and fear of the Lord in public places.  But first and foremost we need to repent for ourselves.  For our personal selves, and then for our own churches and ministry.

I know that I must repent for my self centered wants and desires.  I must repent for greed and an unhealthy desire for worldly praise and acceptance.  I must repent anger.  I must repent pride.  I must repent for the ways I have not represented Christ when I had a chance and I must repent for the risks I never took to share His word when prompted.  I must repent for the ways I have hardened my heart to others.  I must repent for the daily transgressions and temptations that separate me from my holy calling as a child of the King.

Collective repentance is important, but we need to start with a heart of truthful, introspective, contrition for our own personal sinfulness.

The American Church must repent for the ways that we have failed as a body to be good stewards of the gospel.  We must repent for the ways we have divided and broken and looked inward when we should have been reaching out.

We must repent of our own lusts, sexual deviances, and sins: of our own divorces and adultery,  for our own abortions, for our own sexual and spiritual abuse, for our own addictions, and for our own vain glory and pride. We must repent for the ways we have not supported families, for the ways we have not challenged or changed generational sins.

We must repent our racial segregation.  We must repent for each time we have diminished, and not built up, another eternal soul.

We must repent our prejudices, our coarseness of heart, and our weakness of mind.  We must repent our wrath against others, against ourselves. We must repent for sloth in our daily lives and for the gluttony we partake in with our mouths and with our money.

We must repent for the ways that we overlook those in need, and for the ways that we don’t reach out to the lost. We must repent for the times we have turned people away, for the ones we have lost through our own weaknesses and failures.  We must repent for the children who have left the church and for the aged who we never found.

We must repent for the ways we have muddled political aims with gospel witness. We must repent for the ways that we let the desires of our flesh, our greed, trample upon the oppressed around the world.  We must repent our love of power, wealth, and influence.  We must repent our envy of the world and our envy of one another.  We must repent our false idols and for our hypocrisy in how we criticize those who are far from God.

We must repent for the ways we have turned a blind eye to certain transgressions and transgressors when it suits us while harshly condemning others who stand in our way.

We must repent our false teachings and for the ways we lead each other astray.  We must repent our fears, our lack of faith, and for the ways we seek security in anything other than the Lord God Almighty.  We must repent all of our cultural accommodations, which have taken us away from the heart of the gospel.

For all these and more, the American church must repent.

Our nation has many problems.  So yes, let us pray for our nation and for national repentance and national revival.  But first we must pray for a restoration of the American church and for the strengthening of holiness in each person in this country who calls upon the name of Christ.

If we want to see an America that truly honors and glorifies Christ, let us first join together in the spirit and mission of St. Francis of Assisi.  It is time we look to rebuild God’s church, starting first on our knees.

Wilderness Voices: The American Church In the Age of Trump

bedouin_in_wadi_rumWe are a generation that yearns to feel significant and successful.  A people who see themselves as destined for greatness. A nation that believes our unique qualities represent some special place in the gospel narrative.

Perhaps not all these notions are wrong in certain forms, but in recent years we often made an idol out of our own greatness on multiple levels: personally, institutionally, and nationally.  Such idolatry has contributed to the dire straights we find ourselves in today.

No, I am not referencing the impending coronation of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America.  Although carrying with it weighty concerns for the future of believers, the church, and the county, this political development is not what mourns my heart most.  Instead, as I reflect on our present times, I grieve the extreme weakness of the public testimony currently offered up by the Christian church in America.

There is much deliberation in political circles about what comes next for the conservative political movement in this country and the future of the Republican Party.  These discussions are important, but not as significant as another question we should all be asking: What is the future of the American Church in post-2016 America?

I have a few ideas to add to the early stages of this discussion, and I hope you will join with me in engaging these thoughts and suggestions.  This series is meant to be the starting place for a conversation, not a presumption of offering final answers.  If we are serious as a church of maintaining a credible witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this country, we need to ask these questions and be open to the idea that some of our long held assumptions regarding our public expression of faith must change.

First, we must acknowledge that our immediate future as a church is drifting toward the role of Jeremiahs, Isaiahs, and Ezekiels; not Davids, Daniels, and Esthers.  This shift in thought will not be easy, and I am sure not all will choose to agree.  Yet if we hope to get anywhere in shining the light of Christ in the darkness of our age we must first deal with the reality of the culture we live in and the role we are called to play in it, not a fantasy of the one we wish existed.

Second, I propose three steps we can take as a community to address the problems that have led us to this very dark place as a society.  We must repent, we must restore Biblical teaching and accountability, and – finally – we must dare to reimagine our political Christian witness.

Jeremiahs, Not Daniels

A common teaching I heard growing up in the church, repeated in a wide spectrum of denominations, is the notion that we are a Daniel Generation.  While the interpretations for practical application vary, most contexts where I encountered this notion charged that we have a fundamental responsibility to influence the powerful sectors of society for the cause of Christ.

While this can be wise advice in a general sense, it seems we have abused the notion, especially in how we form our Christian youth.  Many young Christians are advised and even trained to specifically seek out roles of influence so that they may in turn use the power of the world for the good of the gospel.

Perhaps it is still an ok goal for some, although we have clearly downplayed the temptations to abuse or covet this power once it is within our grasp.  However, I’d point out that in the cases of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther, while they were differing models of empowered members from a captive nation in a hostile land, they also were chosen by God and put in their positions of influence through circumstances mostly beyond their control.

Instead of fantasizing about how we can scheme and manipulate our ways to the halls of power, the church of the future must be prepared to stand on the metaphorical street corners of our communities and do crazy counter-cultural things while faithfully declaring the Word of the Lord to an often ambivalent or even hostile world.

I get why this vocation isn’t all that appealing.  I mean, if I had a choice I’d rather be Daniel (lion den and all) sitting in the halls of the king as a radical vegetarian than a seemly crazed robeless and barefoot messenger wandering about the countryside unable to get the attention of my own people.  But I worry that we have so glorified the goal of being a Daniel that we have lost sight of what might actually be required of us in order to preserve the integrity of the message and testimony of the gospel.

For fellow Christians, particularly us Millennial Christians, the type of public sacrifices to this integrity exhibited by many of our leaders in the past year went far beyond what we will wish to imitate or support in the future.  Some might argue that “dirtying our hands” by defending or supporting undesirable candidates or policies is just the cost of working within a sinful culture, but I think that we have a responsibility to respond with integrity, love, and truth at all times no matter the apparent consequences.

The real sacrifices we are called to make are ones that will set us apart, not lead us to become further intwined with the powers and principalities of this world.  Remember that the ends never justify the means, and far too often unseemly means invariably also lead to unseemly ends – irrespective of initial intentions.

There will still be some modern examples following in the pattern of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther in the years ahead, hopefully even some Davids.  But the true cases will come about by the divine appointment of God, not by the willful scheming of man.  So instead of forcing our way to the king’s table, perhaps we need to take a step back and acknowledge that  – for most of us, at least – our calling is to humbly walk out a radically gospel centered life in the midst of a dominant and often hostile pagan culture.

To do so means embracing the pluralistic reality of our society, not in a way that lessens or damages our theological purity, but rather by amending our expectation that most everyone around us will live and think as we do.  It means risking being the genuine weirdo at the lunch table, in the work place, or with the other moms at the playground, who testifies of a wholistic way of life that runs counter to the driving force of culture.

It might mean choosing to surrender certain things we’ve allowed into our daily lives in order to strengthen our witness: our favorite t.v. shows, our favorite music, our favorite pastime, our love for material goods, our acceptance of worldly philosophy, or the platitudes and policy of our favorite political party.  It also might mean making choices that cost us: financially, professionally, and – on occasion – relationally.  We, as orthodox Bible believing Christians, aren’t a majority in America and it is time to stand out and stand apart because of it.

I know a lot of you have already seen, accepted, and done these things.  But I wonder how many churches preach to this reality of separateness rather than accommodation or prepotence.  I look at most church leaders and public figures today and I see a lot of hip and trendy messages with packaging and even fashion designed to sell or to dominate.

We have our Jesus smiles, our Christian music and our Christian bookstores, our Christian decor and our special Christian conferences, but how radically do the bulk of these messages, products, and events diverge from their secular cousins of community building, generic spirituality, and self-fulfillment?

Surveying the most successful within our ranks I often see the hard things overlooked, while the light and feel good messages of self-help, worldly success, and generic life purpose apart from eternity are raised up and promulgated.  While certain sins are addressed head-on, others are ignored or outright condoned.

Reaching out to where people are is all well and good, but denuding the hardness, mystery, and depth of the message of Christ in the process defeats the point.  Sometimes (perhaps most times) the gospel will be rejected, spat on, mocked, and despised but we still ought to lovingly preach that depth of truth anyway.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is this: if called to modern day versions of camel hair vests and brutally shaved heads like the prophets, or prisons and persecution like the early church, will you still follow Him?

God most certainly uses people and movements who broker power in and of this world for His good.  But lest we not forget, particularly in this advent season, He Himself came down to dwell and minister among us, to live as one of us.  Not as a king or a conquerer, but as the humble son of a carpenter who rejected calls for temporal revolution and political dominion to instead sacrifice his own earthly life for the eternal gain of all.

The Savior born in the line of David never once sat at a king’s table, lived in a palace, dressed in the finest clothes, amassed a great fortune, or wore a golden crown on his human head.  As we walk forward to herald his birth, let us remember and rejoice in both the humility of the stable and the humility of the cross.

Our callings on earth are often not very grand or marked with the power, wealth, and success of this world.  But as our Savior triumphed over the grave and now sits upon His true throne for all eternity, so shall we triumph when we look past the vestiges of this age and this place and instead work – with true humility and love – to reveal His glory in the lowly places, in surprising ways.

Stay tuned for further posts on repentance, restoration of Biblical teaching, and reimagining our Christian political witness in the next several weeks.  

We welcomed our third child last month, so finding time for writing is even more of challenge but I plan to keep it up.  Many thanks to all who have offered words of encouragement and support as I continue to grow in this writing venture.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in His sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

 

O Come Emmanuel: After November 8th, 2016

We look around at our world right now and there is so much that breaks hearts, plays on fears, and isolates those who are different than ourselves.

Many this week legitimately question if they are really welcome in this country or their communities. Others rightly fear if they are safe in a world where violent protests follow the outcome of a lawful and legitimate election.

On the right and the left, you are weary of being labeled all kinds of evil just because of the political party you vote for. Many of us are confused, for our understandings of the world and our competing narratives of facts can’t fully account for the polarizing and angry actions or thoughts of our peers, our neighbors, our family members, or our fellow countrymen. 

Some are wondering if anyone is left who will stand up for us and our hurts and wounds. Loss, of all kinds, rises to the surface only to pour out into the streets and onto our screens exposing our inner pain. Others finally feel vindicated, only to discover that power does not shield you from the sting of criticism. Victory, it turns out, may not be so sweet when it is bought at a price.

Most ponder if we could have done something, anything, long before November 8th, to have helped make this country less divisive, less reactionary, less hateful; more understanding, more empathetic, and more kind.

We are a bruised and bruising people, searching for some guidance in the midst of our collective pain.

It’s been a difficult week in this country. Sadly, there may be many more yet to come.

But the real truth is that there is a Healer seeking to bind our wounds; there is a true Savior who can and will redeem us in the midst of all this mess.

Come, let us adore Him. Hallelujah!