“Left Behind”by the Political Evangelicals

“Left Behind.” That term was used in the Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins books described as The Left Behind Series published in the first decade of the 21st century. The phrase refers to those who remain on earth to face God’s judgment after the “rapture” of the church which many evangelical Christians find in Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica (4:13-18).

While I disagree with the LaHaye/Jenkins interpretation for several reasons, let me suggest that the idea of being “left behind” in a deeper sense resonates with the broader theme of alienation found in the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and other 19th and 20th century intellectuals. To be alienated from society and its institutions, even from our communities, families, and congregations is at the root of the division and angst that plague the United States in 2020.

For the past two weeks, I have felt “left behind” by much of American evangelicalism to the point where I question how much longer I can continue with it in this current form. My work in Christian churches, organizations, and schools for the past forty-five years has offered a unique window on the politicization of evangelicalism in this country. And, while I have done what I could to encourage evangelical unity in speaking and practicing the gospel, events of the past couple of weeks have pretty much convinced me that American evangelical Christianity is fragmenting with much of it in grave danger of slipping into idolatry and heresy.

Why? Because American evangelicalism has bought hook, line, and sinker what Jacques Ellul has termed “the political illusion.” What Ellul means is that whenever individuals, communities of any kind, or nations view our personal, interpersonal, and societal problems as primarily political and solved only through political means, we have bought into the greatest lie of the modern age. We think and believe that civilization depends on the success of our candidates and our party, and the failure of those who may see things differently than we do. When we embrace the political illusion, we embrace idolatry against the living God.

This is not to say that Christian involvement in community, national, and world affairs is intrinsically evil. But once we embrace the political illusion, it’s a very short step toward excusing anything immoral or unethical as long as it helps our people and our party win. Ironically, Holy Scripture teaches us to trust God and not our own understanding (cf. Proverbs 3:5-6). We are to trust God, not the illusion that we can solve all of our problems through political means.

A few days before Christmas, Mark Galli, outgoing managing editor of Christianity Today, gave voice to what many like myself think is necessary in holding accountable the current President of the United States for behavior that in our view has disgraced the presidency and harmed the United States. He reminded us that ends do not justify means, that Presidents are not above the Constitution and the rule-of-law, and that it is not permissible to threaten a foreign leader or country to accomplish personal interests. That is a tough sell among evangelicals because many think that the President is accomplishing exactly what they desire–conservative justices for the United States supreme court, vigorous defense of religious freedom, and restricting undocumented immigrants at the U.S. Mexico border by building a 30-foot wall.

Burn in Hell

So, imagine the consternation among the religious right folks when confronted with a supposed crack in the evangelical armor. I reposted the Galli essay on my Facebook feed and when I noticed several other sites posting it, I responded with my view that Mark Galli got it exactly right, and that I and others wondered why it took so long for a major evangelical magazine to speak about this. I wasn’t quite ready for the vitriol that I received from evangelical supporters of Trump. For example:

* You have “Trump Derangement Syndrome” (something that I have yet to find listed n the DSM-V or any other psychological manual).

* Who are you to criticize the man that God put in office?

* Do you love our country?

* You must be in favor of abortion.

* You are a leftist just like those folks at Christianity Today!

* Who are you to judge Donald Trump?

* And best of all: “Burn in hell you Satan worshiper!” (This one struck me as a bit unhinged so  I reported him to Facebook.)

This represents more than the usual Facebook back-and-forth banter that can at times come off as harsh and crude. I love a good argument and I can dish it out as well as receive it, to the point where I have had to go back and apologize to individuals with whom I have spoken harshly. None of us are immune from interacting this way on social media, especially with people we do not know or probably will never meet.

I understand why many evangelicals are distressed by cultural events of the past half-century. I share some of that distress, though I think their criticisms are far too narrow. For many, that distress has led to anger and anger to a desire for a strongman who will hit back with harsh words and direct action. In a media-saturated world, we celebrate when those we perceive as our opponents are verbally attacked and experience what many of us have coming from their pens and their voices.

The words expressed to me above unearth in my view, the real significance of Mark Galli’s essay.  It is not so much that he called for Trump’s removal from office after being impeached by the House of Representatives. In earlier impeachment proceedings, Christianity Today called for the impeachment of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Instead, Galli brought to the surface long-smoldering tension within American evangelicalism over the religious right and its attempts to align evangelicalism with the fortunes of the Republican party. That division was ramped up in 2016 with the claim that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and the words directed at me above reflect its depths.

Destruction and seeds of renewal

Those divisions have revealed a rotten, ugly core that infects all that it touches. And, until American evangelicalism returns to being a Christ-centered Christian movement, the infection will spread and probably destroy the movement in the United States. My hope is that a Christ-centered movement will emerge from the wreckage that is now piling up. There is no quick fix. A renewed American Christianity will take years if not decades, and will never happen apart from the Spirit’s work in our lives and in the church. Here are the signs that I seek:

* A renewed evangelical movement will ground its theology in Holy Scripture as seen through the ancient creeds of historic Christianity–specifically the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Evangelicalism’s historic myopia has caught up with it and has damaged its theological core.

* A renewed evangelical movement will no longer worship celebrities and politicians, and will cease making excuses for them. We have become just like the surrounding culture and are celebrity-driven to the point that we identify with personalities who confirm our biases and interests and will excuse them because they are “on our team.”

* Evangelical renewal will lead to humility in word and deed. I hear a lot of talking but little listening and not much compassion for each other in our interactions. A Christ-centered evangelical movement will practice the fruit of the Holy Spirit of which compassion is an integral aspect.

* Renewed evangelicalism will once again believe that the gospel is for everyone. In this day and time, I wonder if most American evangelicals believe that the gospel is good news for Democrats as well as Republicans, for persons of color as well as whites, for immigrants fleeing suffering in Central America as well as citizens, for women as well as men. I think many in our churches and in society wonder the same things.

* Finally, a renewed evangelical movement will no longer allow theology to be reduced to ideology and will no longer excuse immoral and illegal behavior on the part of its sympathizers.

Politics that is postmodern and post-truth

Let me explore this last point more deeply. We live in a deeply confused age. It is not as bad as the 1850s when the United States was torn apart by slavery and political division, and ultimately by a brutal Civil War. But, something is going on that should give all of us pause. One of the great challenges of 20th century Communism was the Marxist assertion that ideology determined reality. George Orwell said it so well in 1984. “But I tell you Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon only perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.” Moreover, in Orwell’s view, the Party has won when you deny the reality that you see with your own eyes.

Orwell’s critique was directed toward those who would allow ideology to interpret reality. Now, we have gone far beyond that in postmodern America. Politicians in both major parties have a new technique, and now use technology and the media to destroy any semblance of reality. Now, realty is no longer necessarily shaped by ideology. Instead, we are brought to surrender through scores of interpretive possibilities. For example, a passenger airplane is shot down over Ukrainian skies. Intelligence points toward Russian troops in Ukraine. But, Mr. Putin asks us to consider a variety of explanations. Perhaps the Ukrainian army did it. So, we investigate and discover that is not true. Putin  then moves on to another possible explanation. And on it goes until we throw up our hands in frustration and ask along with Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Reality becomes undiscoverable, and we simply deny the reality of what we have seen with our own eyes. Across the world, including the United States, leaders with an authoritarian bent have found postmodern ways to exercise power with postmodern means.

They have a specific strategy that works every time. First, tell lies and attack those with whom they (and you) disagree. Second, get those in parts of the media sympathetic to them or their ideology to repeat the lies and attack.  Third, once sympathetic media pick up the story (FOX on the right, MSNBC on the left), the lie becomes reality for their fellow travelers and supporters. This is crucial because postmodern authoritarians know that we tend to believe what we regularly hear. Fourth, tell their supporters that there are many possible explanations for why the lie is true to the point where our resistance is broken down and we say “whatever,” because none of us has time to pursue all of this. We’ll gladly agree that two plus two equals five if we can be left alone.

Do you see how destructive this is? Our souls are hallowed out and we give in to the political correctness and ideologies that best adhere to our self-interests. Our love for Christ and his presence are replaced with fearful addiction to the political and ideological merchants of our day. That is exactly what I think is underneath the desperate hate that my interlocutors on Facebook thought they had to resort to. If their leaders are bankrupt, then their very identities are deeply threatened.

American evangelicalism has become plagued by post-truth post-modernism, the same kind  that we claim to find on the ideological left. There is no difference between left-wing students threatening Ben Shapiro at Cal-Berkeley and Donald Trump calling another Republican a “loser” because he had the audacity to get shot down and spend five years being tortured by the North Vietnamese in the so-called Hanoi Hilton. The only difference is degree, not kind. It is ugly. It is corrosive. It has infected evangelical Christianity in a big way. Out of love for Christ and a love for the truth, I am unable to continue with this charade. Division is upon us, and for the first time in my life, I think that is a good thing. I look forward to leaving far behind the “Franklin-Jerry-Paula” albatross that hangs around all of our necks these days. If that is what it means to be “left behind,” then count me in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Light and Life Has Come

Thirty years ago, Hurricane Hugo unexpectedly roared into Charlotte, and with it a number of things we assumed were true were turned on their ears. We thought that a hurricane could never strike a major American city 200 miles inland. Even if it did, it would not be strong enough to damage our power, water, and transportation. Those of us who lived in and around Charlotte thought we were essentially safe from the tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes that ravaged other parts of the country, and outside of the occasional nuisance from a line of thunderstorms, we would be fine.

When Charlotteans woke up that following morning, our lives had been seriously disrupted. Personally, what was supposed to be a normal work day in a normal week turned into several days with no power and no gas in the tank. Combined with fifteen trees down in the backyard, it became rather grim. But, I was much better off that many of my neighbors who had homes and cars smashed by falling trees.  This was no mere thunderstorm. Recovery would take weeks and months.

We woke up to the reality that what we had assumed would never happen, happened! A hurricane had just hit a city 200 miles inland, and it was us. We had no power. Many of us had no water. The streets were blocked with falling tree limbs.  We had to figure out how to do essential things like eat, clean our clothes and ourselves, and care for our children.

Even more unsettling, we woke up and discovered that we were not as safe as we originally thought. There is a provisional nature to our lives, and we live amidst a world with far less ability to control our circumstances than we would like to admit. Our illusions of security and safety are just that–illusions! We’re reminded of that every once in awhile–events like 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008-9, the Japanese earthquake and subsequent meltdown of nuclear reactors, and the myriad of school and workplace shootings of the past several years.

Disruption and uncertainty become personal

Times of disruption and uncertainty often lead us toward deeper questions about our lives–questions that we normally do not ponder but that are always there. We can hold those at bay when the tragedy happens to someone else or happens in another part of the country or world. But, when it affects us (and none of us goes through life immune to personal and societal tragedy), the questions about who we are and why do we find ourselves here in this place and at this time can easily come front and center in our thinking and our feelings.

Those of you who have lived in and around Charlotte for many years may remember the life of Sandy Ford. Sandy, the son of evangelist Leighton Ford, died at age 21 after heart surgery at Duke Medical Center in 1981 (the year before my wife, Renee, and I moved to Charlotte). He graduated from Myers Park High School, was a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a leader among the many Christian students on that campus.

In his just released memoir A Life of Listening: Discerning God’s Voice and Discovering Our Own (InterVarsity, 2019), Leighton remembers the long night drive home with his wife Jean to Charlotte from Duke. And he remembers what went through his mind the following morning: “When we woke up the next morning to the realization that our lives had changed forever, we were at first numb, unbelieving. And then grief’s nuclear reactor set in. He is gone. He will not be back. Why had the doctors failed to get Sandy’s heart started again?” (114, italics mine).

It may not be the death of a child, but every person, every human being, you and I included will face things that stop us cold in our tracks. You’ve been there. I’ve been there. More than once, I’m sure. And when those times come, we struggle with emotions, feelings, and questions beyond our ability to name, let alone struggle with.  The questions look something like these:

Who am I, especially in light of this deep tragedy or loss?

Why has this happened?

Where have I come from and where am I going in light of this?

To whom do I belong?

Where can I go to be safe?

Light out of darkness

Advent and Christmas are seasons where Christians focus on what we call the “Incarnation”–that specific moment in human history when God became a human being in Jesus Christ. At the beginning of the fourth gospel in the New Testament, the gospel of John, we read that Jesus, the very Word of God, has come to earth to live among us. I think that our responses to those questions just posed begin to find their shape in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see in Jesus someone who can care for us in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and pain. We see how in the midst of uncertainty, death, fear, and hopelessness, he offers light and life.

The opening section of John’s gospel describes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in several vital ways. First, John tells us that Jesus was with God at the very beginning of creation and that with his Father, he participated in the very creation of the heavens and the earth. Compare the first five verses of John’s Gospel with the first five verses of Genesis in the Old Testament and you will see how John uses the Incarnation of Jesus Christ to explain God’s creative activity in all of the heavens and on earth.

We then read in verses six through nine that God is light, and that he sends his Son Jesus Christ to be the light of the world. In an uncertain, at times brutal and cold existence characterized by darkness–God is light and that light is most clearly seen in His Son.

This past Friday, we had our annual Gordon-Conwell Christmas gathering and worship. It is a joyous time when staff and faculty, along with a number of students and alums gather to celebrate Advent and Christmas. The campus is decorated with festive trees and wreaths, and this year we added a beautiful Advent wreath to our chapel display. When I walked in, I immediately knew that we are at this special time in the Christian calendar.

One of our alums, Melanie Spinks, is an artist by profession who also teaches art at Wingate University. Melanie showed us a copy of a beautiful painting by the renown Dutch painter Rembrandt. His Christian faith was integral to his work, and Melanie showed us a key to understanding this particular Rembrandt painting. “Look for the light, and notice the contrast between light and darkness.” Sure enough, there it was for all to see if you knew what to look for.

In the same way, Jesus Christ shines light on our darkness, wherever we find ourselves in our journey on earth. What does that mean? We live in a tragic world–a world fraught with struggle, difficulty, and complexity; where our responses to the questions posed above are not necessarily apparent. But, over time if we follow Jesus Christ our responses begin to be shaped by him and by the reality that the Triune God is unchanging in the midst of lives and a world that never stops changing. All of life is temporal. The Triune God alone is permanent.

Note verse nine of the first chapter of John’s gospel–“The true light that gives light and life to everyone in the world was coming into the world.”

Our oneness with the Triune God

In taking on human form, John tells us that Jesus makes his dwelling among us. I like how Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the New Testament titled The Message translates this. The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. That says it so well. Through Jesus, we see what God is like as he lives among us. Jesus is the fullness of God lived out in the world through his life, death, and resurrection–visible for all of us to see.

One more important thing that John tells us about the incarnation is this: Even though none of us has actually seen God the Father, Jesus has, because he “is himself God and in the closest relationship with the Father” (1:18). One of the primary themes found here and throughout John gospel is the oneness of Jesus with his Father. This is an essential building block for Christian teaching concerning the Trinity. And, I want to suggest one idea that I think grows out of this theme, an idea important for following Jesus today.

Paul teaches in the sixth chapter of Romans that the goal of the Christian life is that we learn to live “in Christ.” When we follow Jesus, we become united with Christ. Union with Christ then works it way out in our everyday lives. Then, John takes us a further step on this pilgrimage of faith. As we are united with Christ, and as Jesus is one with this Father, so we as his adopted sons and daughters learn to actually participate in the very Triune life of God. Living “in Christ” means that as we travel the journey of faith, we learn to to live in fellowship with and dependence upon the Triune God.

It is easy to think of Christian faith is completely transactional. Many times, our evangelical language communicates exactly that. But, if Christian faith is primarily relational (which I think it is), then conversion is a declaration of allegiance–a time when we declare our loyalty to Jesus Christ, when we trust him not only for salvation but our very lives. Conversion is not a mere transaction, but entry into ongoing relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

My Gordon-Conwell colleague, Don Fairbairn, has helped me see that not only is this idea of our participation in the Triune life of God a deeply biblical theme but that it also is found in the writings of patristic Christian writers–folks like St. Athanasius and St. Augustine. Moreover, if conversion is a declaration of allegiance, then the Christian life means a journey of faith where we are drawn into deeper relationship with our creator. As I suggested above, our responses to the questions about our own existence and human existence become shaped by Jesus Christ.

I don’t have to tell you that American evangelicalism has become impotent. We’re bound by so many temporal loyalties that our allegiance to Christ has become questionable. We’re in danger of becoming like the Deutschechristen, the so-called “German Christians” who surrendered their identity as the people of God for Hitler’s satanic dream of a world driven by his dictatorial madness. A half-century ago, the 20th century prophets Francis Schaeffer and Jacques Ellul warned us of what would happen if we abandoned our Lord and Savior for a technological society of personal peace and affluence.

So, where is your allegiance? Where is my allegiance? To declare allegiance to the Triune God, the one God who alone is eternal, is to reject unfettered allegiance to  temporal loyalties. Lord, may we be truly converted. May we walk the journey of faith in allegiance to God participating in his very Triune life as we travel to the celestial city.

This post is based on a talk that I shared with folks in the Faith-builders adult life group at Calvary Church on Saturday, December 7, 2019 as we gathered for our annual Christmas party at the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I’m grateful to the class for the opportunity to share these words with them.

 

Ethics and Eschatology

Two weeks ago, my colleague Dr. Rodney Cooper and I were leading a group of doctoral students and during his first presentation to the group, Rodney said something that struck me: “Our eschatology determines our ethics.” I’ve been mentally kicking that thought around since I heard it, pondering its meaning and its implications for American and Canadian Christians who live in what has become a divided, fragmented culture driven more by images from social media than any disciplined  and thoughtful approach toward individual and corporate life.

As one fascinated by the assumptions that historians bring to the subjects, I’m mindful of several ways that historians can approach their work. Some work from a “progressive” stance and assume that humanity is constantly improving and that historical events demonstrate a movement from the primitive to a world where human agency will solve all of our problems. Others are “Marxist” historians in that they see everything through an economic lens with history representing the struggle of the working classes to overcome the power of the upper classes and create a world of genuine equality. (Please note that the Leninist revision of Marxism practiced in the Soviet Union represented only one, albeit deeply failed, way of looking at this. Marxists come in several varieties.) Still others view history in cyclical terms, with events repeating themselves in different ways as the world cycles through time. Cyclical historians give wide berth to the idea of “fate,” an unknown indecipherable force that controls the how historical events unfold. The term “accident of history” gets at this idea.

Christianty and history

Christianity offers a very different understanding of history. In the Christian understanding of history, all activity is seen as the outworking of God’s purposes for creation and the creatures that inhabit it. God’s providential care is at work, although as human beings we are mostly unable to discern how specific events and movement fit into those overall purposes. Still Christians trust in the God revealed in Holy Scripture, and trust that in the midst of our fragmented, chaotic existence, God is providentially working out his purposes.

Moreover, like the historical progressives, Christian historians are ultimately optimistic about the course of history. The big difference between the two schools of thought is that while progressives place great value in human agency, Christians are deeply skeptical of human nature and therefore look to God to bring its ultimate outcome. In other words, history points toward eschatology and the events described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and John in Revelation 21-22, when all of creation will be redeemed and the people of God will dwell with God eternally in a “new heaven and new earth.”

If history points us to the future that God has for creation and for the people of God, and if that future determines how we live and work, then a biblical eschatology is vitally important for Christians like you and me (and if you are not a Christian, I invite to read, study, and reflect not on all of the “noise” coming out of American evangelicalism these days, but on the overarching purposes of God for creation and for us). Scripture is clear that the Christian understanding of history centers on the coming of Kingdom of God from heaven to earth where God’s rule over all of creation will be demonstrated first in more hidden ways, and finally in a visible Kingdom at the return of Christ at a future time.

So, what does a “Kingdom eschatology” look like. The late New Testament theologian George Eldon Ladd described it well with the title of one of his books, The Presence of the Future. In other words, followers of Jesus become citizens of a new reality that is not yet fully realized on earth.  We can describe this new reality with the phrase “already but not yet.” In other words, the Kingdom of God has come to earth through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in a hidden sense not visible to most. Jesus describes it this way in Matthew 13 in a series of parables. When you read that passage, note that most of the parables begin with “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

But, the biblical writers teach, a time will come when the Kingdom will be fully visible, when Jesus returns to make all things right in all of creation. I’ve already referenced the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. That chapter is perhaps my favorite in all of the Bible. As you read that passage, note that our Lord’s return will bring the fullness of the Kingdom of God and with that includes the entire created order. That renewal of creation includes you and me, but is much more than us. All of creation will be renewed according to God’s purposes. The Kingdom of God which is now present but hidden, will become visible. (My favorite description is found in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the seventh and last of his delightful series of books titled The Chronicles of Narnia.)

Misunderstanding the Kingdom of God

Nineteenth-century American Christians made two great theological mistakes regarding the Kingdom of God. The party that came to be associated with theological liberalism associated the Kingdom of God with our contemporary world and argued that human enlightenment and effort could and would usher in a near perfect society. Proponents of a so-called “Kingdom Now” eschatology argued that the return of Christ was a mere symbol of the Kingdom that human agency and effort would build on earth. Their influential adherents included Harry Emerson Fosdick, a well known Baptist pastor in New York City, and Shailer Mathews, the noted theological historian at the University of Chicago.

The other party (which came to be associated with Fundamentalism) argued that the kingdom of God was “postponed” until after Christ returned to earth at a future date. This postponement led to a “lifeboat eschatology” embraced by the noted evangelist Dwight Moody, and C.I. Scofield, the composer of the popular Scofield Study Bible. Christians should mostly ignore the problems of the world and focus on getting people into the “lifeboat” of Christ before it was too late.

What is problematic about both of these views is that each one ignores a significant aspect of what Holy Scripture teaches about one of the central Christian doctrines–the “already but not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God. Both divorce individual salvation from ethical concern for our fellow human beings and the welfare of society. This bifurcated teaching even impacts our personal eschatology. We talk about “going to heaven when we die.” But what does that mean for most people. I think it often gets reduced to a kind of gnosticism described in the gospel song “I’ll fly away.” That was exactly the teaching of the second-century gnostic heretics who argued that any physical reality was evil and created by some secondary god and not the God described in the New Testament.

Instead, let me suggest that God’s purpose is the very redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23) along with the redemption of all of creation. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of our Lord’s resurrection as the “first-fruits,” as the paradigm for our individual resurrections when we are raised from death as fully embodied persons! Our Christian confidence is grounded in our expectation that when Jesus returns and all of creation is redeemed we will be raised from death as embodied persons in the same way that God raised Jesus from death.

While I think that God does care for his people between the time of our physical death and his return and that the only thing we are aware of during that time is his care for us, that is not the end of the story. Our Christian hope is resurrection and redemption. And, that is what a Christian understanding of history points us toward. Christian historians write history with God’s providence in mind. While much of God’s providence is hidden from us, we write knowing the ultimate outcome–that the Kingdom of God that is now hidden from view will be made fully visible for all at the return of Jesus Christ.

Eschatology and ethics

So, what does this mean for how we live? How does this connection between eschatology and ethics work its way out in our lives, in our Christian communities, even in our society? Let me suggest three important ways.

First, God values human persons, all of them! He values them no matter who they are and he desires that they flourish, both now and in eternity. He even values folks in the political party that you don’t like.

Second, God values justice, both in this age and in the age to come. The prophet Amos makes clear that justice concerns God in our present age, and that justice is integral to human flourishing. And, he wants us to value them here and now.

Finally, our efforts to bring justice and reconciliation to our fellow human beings will be proximate and subject to the realities of our fallen, sinful. But, that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to encourage justice.

We don’t need utopian schemes. Instead we need to work for justice in the concrete realities of life. When we see ethnic cleansing, racism, slaughter of innocents, people living without hope, mental illness, God challenges us to act. We act with words–the words of the grace-filled gospel of Jesus Christ. And we encourage actions that bring justice in our congregations and in our communities.

Wow. Our eschatology really does determines our ethics.

Tiki-torches and American Exceptionalism

Who qualified as an American? To whom did the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights refer?

Four-hundred years ago, the Mayflower Puritans made landfall near modern-day Plymouth, MA. Fleeing religious persecution from both church and state authorities, this small group wanted to establish their version of a Christian society where the church would be reformed and government would take its cues from Holy Scripture. Their colony would shine as a “city on a hill,” to use terminology from Matthew’s gospel (5:14) and demonstrate to others how such a society should function.

Obviously, reality came nowhere close to that, but the idea of an “exceptional” society was birthed in documents like the Mayflower Compact. Like the Old Testament nation of Israel, the Puritan settlers saw themselves as fulfilling a unique destiny and special purpose that God had given them.

A century later, this idea of a special destiny and purpose became secularized by the revolutionaries who replaced the British monarchy with a republican form of government and emphasis on individual liberty (at least for men of European descent). In other words, the United States was an “exceptional” nation with a unique destiny that set it apart from the monarchies of Europe, and its early history was a rejection of European notions of birthright, social class, and patronage. Integral to American exceptionalism was expansion from east to west, from Atlantic to Pacific, described by the mid-19th century phrase “manifest destiny.” Events like the Louisiana Purchase in 1811, the forced removal of most Cherokees from their homelands in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1830s, and Texas annexation in 1845 were viewed as fulfillment of divine national purpose.

A Two-edged Sword

“American exceptionalism” was born in the 18th century, survived the bloody Civil War of the 19th, and reached full flower at the turn of the 20th. It was embraced by white American Christians of all stripes (with notable exceptions) and reached fruition after the second world war. It had deeply religious overtones, and by mid-20th century most Caucasian American Christians had given the country significant theological meaning that identified national purposes with God’s mission and purpose. Many Americans became advocates of “civil religion,” a linking of God’s purposes with the fate of the United States. Moreover, nobody wanted to be excluded from the party. Despite their divorce from each other in the early 20th century, liberal and fundamentalist Protestants did not want to be seen as opposing American purposes and supported American patriotism. Roman Catholics went to great lengths to portray themselves as loyal Americans especially when John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president.

American exceptionalism was the air we breathed at mid-20th century. Our nation-state had a divine purpose, and there was nothing we could not accomplish if we put our minds to it. That conservative Christians embraced this exceptionalism is seen in the sermons, speeches, and writings of evangelical stalwarts like Harold Ockenga, J. Howard Pew, Carl F.H. Henry, and Billy Graham. In my own doctoral research I discovered an apt example in a letter to the editor where the writer desired that “Christ and the liberty that made us free would reign supreme” at an upcoming denominational meeting. In other words, for most American Christians at mid-century (with some exceptions), Christianity was a two-edged sword that embraced both faith in God and loyalty to the United States, both of which guaranteed our individual freedom and prosperity.

Still, underneath all of the rhetoric were fundamental questions: Who qualified as an American? To whom did the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights refer? Did they refer in the 1830s to native Americans like the Cherokees who were forcibly displaced from their homeland? Did they apply in 1860 to the four million African Americans whose ancestors were brought to American shores forcibly to work in bondage to their so-called “masters?” Did they include those who resided here when the United States conquered and annexed 40% of Mexico in 1845? Did they mean that 22 million people could be denied education, housing, and economic freedom until 1954 when the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” policies actually discriminated against people based on the color of their skin?

These questions, and others like them, lie just below the surface of American political, social, and religious life–and they have been there ever since the American Revolution. They make us uncomfortable, because they challenge the very notion that the United States is different from all other places, even today. Is it possible that we are just like many other places and nation-states? Adolf Hitler once observed that he used how the United States treated African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation as a framework for what became the Holocaust, the wanton slaughter of six-million Jewish people. Like so many white Americans who viewed native Americans, African Americans, and other ethnic peoples as “inferior” and undeserving of true American citizenship, Hitler simply argued that Jews were somehow sub-human and needed to be eliminated so that Germans could realize their Aryan destiny.

Good and Bad Exceptionalism

Despite the sordid underbelly of American history, I’m actually hopeful. Why? Because unlike most other nation-states in the world, the United States has a reformist spirit in our DNA. We have been on a 250-year journey to apply the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality to all who live here. We are not there yet, not by a long shot, and as the United States becomes more ethnically diverse over the next 30 years, we will have to face more uncomfortable matters. But confronting and addressing the sins of our past and present is American exceptionalism at its best.

But exceptionalism at its worst is once again on display. And, it is impacting American evangelicalism. Bad exceptionalism is now front-and-center through identification of Christian faith with a nationalistic agenda that views others with fear and suspicion. Bad exceptionalism was on full display two years ago when white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, VA with tiki-torches in a display that brought to mind Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Bad exceptionalism is found at the southern border when children are separated from their parents and people seeking political asylum in fear of their lives are treated as if their claims do not matter. Bad exceptionalism occurs when evangelicals replace the Christian gospel with trying to impose a religious establishment on our fellow citizens.

Of all Americans, evangelicals should be the ones we can look to when we want to see examples of good exceptionalism. After all, the essence of the Christian faith involves bringing the Kingdom of God to bear on our present existence. Men and women, boys and girls need to hear the good news of the Gospel. Christians need to be engaged not so much in the agendas of political parties, but in addressing the needs of our communities, things like poverty, affordable housing, racism, family life, and educating the next generation. We do those things because God’s goal for all humans is that we will flourish in relationship with him. We know that God’s kingdom will be fulfilled at the return of Christ. Yet, we follow Jesus Christ by being what the late George Eldon Ladd once described as “the presence of the future.”

In my view, it is time for American evangelicals to reject bad exceptionalism and recapture the reformist spirit that was part of evangelical DNA especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. How can we do that? Here is what I think. Not an exhaustive list, but some food for thought.

First, American evangelicals of all kinds should withdraw from the two major political parties and become political independents. We have become too closely identified with a particular political party and it is harming our gospel witness. Moreover, our relationship with both American political parties should be to call them to account for the massive corruption that they have fostered in our society during the past half-century.

Then, our focus must become more local. Lots of evangelical energy has been wasted on party politics at the expense of human need in our communities, cities, and states. In my city–Charlotte, North Carolina–we face significant local problems–poverty, upward mobility, affordable housing, transportation and evangelicals in my city are needed to address those matters so that our fellow citizens can flourish.

In addition, let’s turn off most television and cable news. Television is an entertainment medium and your favorite Cable TV news channel has one goal–to get you to watch so they can charge higher advertising rates. And to do that, they will do anything to get you upset. Watch a news summary (I usually watch the NBC Nightly News a couple of nights a week), and then turn the news off. Better yet, get your news by reading.

Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the great British statesman, William Wilberforce was deeply influenced by the work of John and Charles Wesley. The Wesley’s passionately believed that the Christian faith was meant for the working-class and the poor of Great Britain. Sadly, the Anglican state church had become elitist and aristocratic. Wesley brought the gospel to coal mines and to places where common people could come.  Christian faith deeply impacted Wilberforce’s work in Parliament and he advocated two great concerns: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners.” Both were eventually accomplished after decades of work, and their impact on British society was deep.

We need a contemporary reformation of manners especially given the coarseness and vulgarity of contemporary American society. That reformation must start with us, our congregations, and how we interact with others. So how will American evangelicals respond. Will we repent and turn from worldly ways. Or will we degrade American culture even more?