“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!