Christianity and Evangelicalism

by Jim Bratt.

As prominent evangelical leaders recently gathered at Wheaton, IL, to discuss how the Trump era “has unleashed [a] ‘grotesque caricature’ of their faith,” historian James Bratt weighs in with some thoughts on Christianity and Evangelicalism, and the death (and resurrection) of a movement. This post originally appeared on The Anxious Bench and is re-published with permission of the author.

I recently attended a conference at Notre Dame honoring the career of Mark Noll. As one of the most accomplished scholars of American religious history, as well as a person of deep faith, consummate integrity, and easy humor—and genuine humility to top it off—Mark is more than worthy of honor, and the participants made sure he received it, with remarks that were by turn analytic, humorous, and touching. Mark being Mark, however, the program was full of robust scholarship and featured rising younger scholars as well as the old lions.

The panelists attended to American religious history in its various eras as well as in the comparative global perspective at which Mark has been a notable pioneer. Things got most interesting for me in the concluding panel, which riffed off of what is probably Mark’s most famous book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). The scandal, Mark famously opined back then, was that there wasn’t much of one—an evangelical mind, that is. The panelists weighed in on the extent to which that situation has since been corrected, but in the process veered off into attempts to define just what is, and what is not, “evangelical.”

To me that inevitable but tiresome digression cost an opportunity to think about what might be the bombshell book equivalent to Mark’s Scandal for our own moment. I’d pick addressing the elephant in the room and asking—in the face of consistent polling that shows white “evangelicals” to be supporting Donald Trump at just about the 80% mark by which they favored him in the 2016 presidential election—what future evangelicalism has in the United States. And, more broadly yet fundamentally, what sort of religion white “evangelicalism” might be.

A number of the younger panelists raised this concern during the conference, and a host of commentators religious and secular have bruited the matter ever since Trump descended his hotel’s golden escalator onto the American political scene three years ago. My historian’s input is to suggest that we not just consult current opinion polls or attend to the evangelical leaders who have either advanced or decried the brand’s association with the man. Instead, let’s return to a foundational text from the evangelical past—indeed, the text which helped define the present-day movement’s Fundamentalist parent in the eyes of its devotees and outside observers alike. I mean J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

In that book Machen argued that the “orthodox” and “liberal” parties then warring for the future of American Protestantism were not, as the second party claimed, carrying on a family feud within the big tent of Christianity. Rather, he insisted, they represented two entirely different religions. The orthodox side held to the historic, apostolic faith; the liberals were parading a combination of philosophical naturalism and sentimental humanitarianism behind the garments of Christian terminology. Their pose was dishonest and dishonorable, Machen continued, and the sooner they dropped it, the better for all concerned. At least then the real issues could be discussed more intelligently and profitably.

So, my modest proposal. Let the next bombshell book on the subject take a hint from Machen and be entitled Christianity and Evangelicalism. Its author could be more charitable than Machen (one could hardly be less) and treat white evangelicalism as not a totally different religion contrary to Christianity but as a deeply corrupted version of the faith whose name it claims. A totally depraved version, my Calvinist theology would put it: that is, tainted in every part and as a whole and unable to cleanse itself by its own power, but requiring a supernatural redemption via a miraculous intervention, registering as a conversion. That depravity, in turn, opens the question of whence it arose, of what might be the original sin in which it is rooted. Is it misogyny, racism, militarism, imperialism, materialism, xenophobia, collective narcissism, arrogant entitlement, abject fear, self-righteousness, sacred nationalism? Or something deeper yet that unites all of the above? Certainly, these traits are manifest, proudly and without apology, in the Trumpian White House and policy initiatives. And just as certainly, the 80% of white evangelicals who hold fast to Donald Trump have signed on to them with little—well, sometimes, just a little—embarrassment. Just as certainly still, the list and the behavior of the figurehead who embodies them, are all far, very far, from the kingdom of heaven. The results are toxic to the evangelical brand in particular and to the prospects of religion in public life in general.

Yet the picture is more mixed than this. To repeat, evangelicalism counts as a profoundly corrupted Christianity but not simply, or not yet, a non- or anti-Christian religion as Machen characterized Protestant liberalism a century ago. White evangelicals can point to Jesus’ criteria (in Matthew 25) for deciding who are the sheep and who are the goats at the final assay and say that they do indeed attend to the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, etc. The contradiction, of course, is that these efforts via voluntary charities rub up against public policies that would abandon the sick, deprive the hungry of food, and throw more and more people—people of color especially—into prison. The current situation thus exposes more clearly than ever the fateful political ideology that white evangelicals have come more and more to follow over the 20th century. They have followed now it to the point of paying allegiance, seemingly unbreakable allegiance, to the most egregious goat ever to occupy the Oval Office.

The first task of Christianity and Evangelicalism would thus be to explain how and why the latter has come to be a noxious version of the former. A lot of the empirical work toward that end has been done. I suggest adding some historical comparison by way of another classic text, Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955). Besides appearing about halfway between Machen’s book and Noll’s, its analytic frame and treasury of polling data show a socio-cultural corruption of Christianity in the 1950s’ supposedly halcyon days of a great and pious America, only this time among Catholics and the Protestant “mainline” too. How else could a near majority of self-identified “Christians” not be able to name one of the four gospels? How else—this is my particular favorite—could American Christians, when asked to rate the most important event in world history, put Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in a tie for fourteenth place alongside the invention of the x-ray and the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk? Herberg, Jewish himself, was profoundly worried about this gap between professed and operative religion. We are no less, and can find in his portrait of the idols of the tribe that stood between the two some clear culprits explaining the great gap of our day.

The second, and harder, task of Christianity and Evangelicalism, would be to suggest some steps by which the latter could become Christian again. Here, ironically, the attempt by some evangelicals to sanctify Donald Trump might work well if given a quarter turn: he is no Cyrus, a pagan ordained of God to restore Jews to Israel, but Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan invader of Israel ordained of God to punish them for their unfaithfulness, and banishing the best of them from the promised land in the bargain. As intriguing might be the possibility of seeing that pagan’s later fate play out again—that is, to see the proud trumpet of egotistical greatness reduced to crawling around like a beast in the field, eating grass and growing literal instead of just figurative claws (Daniel 4)—one’s relish at the prospect bespeaks an unsanctified longing of its own.

The better role might be to follow after a truly scandalous prophet, Ezekiel; to describe and survey the scattered dry bones of a once favored people; and to ask by what means they might possibly live again. No mistake: this option entails death, exile, and damnation. Perhaps we’re left just there, right with the founder of Christianity. Perhaps this, and only this, is the path to resurrection and redemption.

Jim Bratt is professor emeritus of history at Calvin College, where he taught courses in world and American history. The focus of his current research is American religion before the Civil War. He recently published a biography of the Dutch theologian and political leader, Abraham Kuyper, who has had an enormous influence on the history of Calvin College. 

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April 4, 50 Years Out

by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

Fifty years.

Fifty years since the shot rang out. Since Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Over the years there has been a lot of reflection on the legacy of King, our “inconvenient hero.” But 50 years out, how do we confront the legacy not just of his leadership in the movement, but also of his assassination?

What has his death meant for the civil rights movement, for the church, and for subsequent American history?

As we try to grapple with his death, perhaps King himself offers a place to start. It was 1956, and King was only 27 years old, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptists Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had just started leading the Montgomery bus boycotts, and he was receiving death threats daily—sometimes dozens.

It was on the night of January 27 that he received a call that shook him to the core. With his wife and 10-week-old daughter sleeping nearby, he heard an anonymous caller threaten to blow up his house if he didn’t leave within the week. He felt his courage slip away. He began to search for a way out of the work before him. But then he bowed over the kitchen table, and prayed. He later recalled experiencing in that moment “the presence of the Divine” as he “had never experienced Him before.” He heard an inner voice telling him: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” His fear left him, his uncertainty was gone.

Three days later his house was bombed, but his family escaped injury, and his inner calm and conviction persisted.

He lived in the shadow of death from that point on. He knew it, and his family knew it. And he was not alone. Yet he persisted with a boldness, even a recklessness, that astounds.

There is power in this story, the “power of unearned suffering,” as Mika Edmondsen describes it. But when outsiders—white Christians, for example—find inspiration in King’s courage, his commitment to nonviolence, his martyrdom, is there a danger of overlooking the terror, the evil, that caused this suffering? Is there a temptation to resist the necessary work of interrogating how some of us might be implicated in the cause of this suffering, historically or in the present day?

Finish reading this post at The Anxious Bench 


Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism was recently published with Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kkdumez.

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“Betrayed by History?” Book Review of Judas by Amos Oz

by Bert de Vries.
book cover of Judas by Amos Oz

Amos Oz, Judas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016)

It is 70 years since the state of Israel was born out of the first Arab-Israeli War under the leadership of the much-revered founding father, David Ben Gurion. Thinking Israelis must wonder how political life degenerated from that heroic beginning to the corrupt and racist prime ministry of Mr. Netanyahu. Amos Oz’s Judas takes us back to that beginning and tells a gentle and thoughtful story to help us see that the country’s present troubles are rooted in that apparently idyllic past.

At one level Amos Oz’s book can be read as a historical novel set in the 1950s, when Israeli society was still absorbing the nationalist ideological outcome of the Jewish victory in the Arab-Israeli War of 1947-8. To understand this core topic, I find it helpful to lay out the historic ‘branches’ of Zionism which developed from Theodor Herzl’s incipient, innocent Zionism (“a national home for the Jewish People”). See the APPENDIX below for explanation of the 4 types.

Amos Oz’s Judas is about the victory of Type-2 over Type-3 Zionism and its consequences. Those who supported the notion of a state in which Arabs would have equality with Jews lost sway during the Second World War, when news of the Holocaust reached Palestine. As a result, the new state of Israel won the 1948 War under Ben Gurion’s nationalist leadership, which enabled him to establish the exclusivist ideology of Israeli statehood as the mainstream, while those who favored rapprochement with the majority Arab population fell out of favor. Amos Oz fictionalizes this event as the recalling of a debate between two former players in this drama, one a “Ben-Gurionist” and the other a “Buberist” (my invented shorthand) brought together in one household by the marriage of the son of the first to the daughter of the second.

That’s the core topic. The core issue of the book is that the verdict of history has now labeled the “Buberist” a traitor, though his position was once respected as righteous. The discoverer of this conundrum is a young neutral observer, a grad school dropout anti-nationalist, who comes into the house to provide elder care. However, it so happens, this student’s thesis research was an inquiry into the place of Judas Iscariot in the Judaic intellectual tradition. His research, in a nutshell, led him to discover that Judaic scholars labored to show the Christian labeling of Judas as “traitor” is a maligning of the ‘true’ story: The tragic disintegration of Judas’ faith in the divine power of Jesus as he watches him bleed to death on the cross, just like any other human being (including his two crucified companions).

The most powerful passage in the book is the reconstruction of the story of the crucifixion as seen through the eyes of Judas, who in a parallel process suffers the descent of his own psyche into the empty despair that climaxes in infamous suicide.

Interestingly, for those of you who need romance in a novel, that legacy of despair flowing from inability to overcome the deep sense of messianic failure is embodied in the “Buberist”’s daughter. A beautiful war widow, she is rendered permanently incapable of loving anyone as she dwells bitterly but impassively on the branding of her father as a traitor to Israeli national destiny. How that plays in the growing love of the young student for this older woman is another thread in this tapestry of interwoven stories.

Amos Oz’s architectural design of these intertwining tragedies is masterly. While I learned to understand the conundrum of the beginning of Israeli nationhood better, I also felt Oz gave me a more nuanced sense of tragic sympathy for the role of Judas in incipient Christianity, in its parting of the ways with Judaism – and in the further darkening of the Judas character in Christian anti-Semitic lore.

Oz has used his career as an Israeli novelist to level soft, but introspective, critiques at the Israeli state and society. His is not the hardened salvo of condemnation for the destruction of villages one reads in Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which covers the same period. Yet, in his subtle and thoughtful book Oz makes clear that the principle of the universal equality of all humans, including Arabs, was deemed as traitorous disloyalty to the state from its very beginning.

I recommend this book for both its introspective tone and its refusal to find an easy solution to the still unreeling tragic dilemma of Israel’s existence. This is also a good story. Read it and weep – for those betrayed by history.

APPENDIX: Tiers of Zionism (from right to left)

1. Jabotinsky Zionism – hard-right Jewish nationalism, centered on the goal of a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine and the exclusion or removal of Palestinians Arabs. Jabotinsky, a successor of Theodor Herzl in the early Zionist movement, saw Arabs as inferior and unsuited to peaceable coexistence with Jews, and advocated military force to coerce Palestinian Arabs into accepting the state of Israel. Today reflected in the right-wing Netanyahu coalition government.

2. Ben Gurion Zionism – more moderate Jewish nationalism that purported to stand for co-existence (though not equality) with Palestinian Arabs. Nurtured in the myth of the first Arab-Israeli War (1948) as a heroic, defensive war of independence against militant Arabs. Dominant through the Labor Movement until the early 90s.

3. Martin Buber Zionism – nationalist “soft” Zionism stressing co-existence with Palestinians based on the shared and equal humanity of Jews and Arabs. Lost momentum during the Holocaust, but still prevalent among the Israeli academic left and the Peace Now movement.

4. Jewish Anti-Zionism –secular (more American: Noam Chomsky, Alfred Lilienthal) and religious (more Israeli: Naturei Karta). Never politically effective, but possibly gaining among those members of global Judaism who are disgusted with Ariel Sharon’s and Benyamin Netanyahu’s overtly racist anti-peace regimes.

Bert de Vries (Director, Umm el-Jimal Project) is professor emeritus of the History Department, but he continues to administer and teach the Archaeology Minor Program at Calvin. Ironically, as his teaching duties faded the Umm el-Jimal Project, which he directs, has flourished. 

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