Evangelicals Struggle with Self-Identity

The National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement yesterday aimed at clarifying widespread misunderstanding of evangelical beliefs and practices.

Their longing for clarity arose out of the fact that a growing number of people consider “evangelicals” to be a political grouping rather than a religious one.

The NEA  statement is clear about how they see themselves, “We identify ourselves by our spiritual convictions in the authority of the Bible, salvation through Jesus Christ alone and living out our faith in everyday life, especially sharing the good news of Jesus with others.”

Unfortunately, the NEA is deluding itself if it thinks such statements are meaningful.

No matter whether it is fair or unfair, the vast majority of Americans do not know evangelicals by their spiritual convictions or actions. They do not see evangelicals doing the work of Jesus. They do not see evangelicals worshipping at church, leading foreign missions, feeding the hungry, etc.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. welcomes President Trump to Liberty University.

Instead, they know evangelicals primarily through their well-publicized association with President Trump and the Republican party.

They hear that white evangelicals are the most stable part of the Republican base. They read headlines about 80% white evangelical support of Trump. They see photographs of evangelical leaders clustered around Trump in the Oval Office. They hear about leading evangelical figures giving full-throated support to Trump.

Not surprisingly, they believe what they see and hear—that Trump trumps Jesus and politics trumps faith in the hearts and minds of most white evangelicals.

Evangelical claims of faith are not enough to overcome the overwhelming media coverage—much of it coming from evangelical sources—to the contrary.

God knows, even if evangelicals don’t, that this confusion about evangelical identity was foreseeable and predictable.

Jesus certainly lived his life differently. He did not seek standing with the prevailing powers of the day, he confronted them. He did not seek his own base of power, he gave his life for others. He did not subordinate the gospel to other purposes, he lived it. His priorities were clear and his identity remains clear thousands of years later.

However, white evangelicals chose not to follow Jesus’ path. Instead, they intentionally embarked on a path to gain political power and use it. They have followed that path for decades and show no changes of changing.

They formed the Moral Majority in the 1970’s with the avowed purpose of profoundly impacting public policy. They have given their time, work and money to this effort.

At first, their work resulted in most white evangelicals supporting Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Over the years, however, their movement slowly became more identified with Republican policies and the Republican party. By the 2016 presidential election, white evangelicalism was seen by most, even themselves, as being fused with rock-ribbed Republicanism.

And, they got what they wanted. They got political power. They got their Supreme Court nominee. They have the president’s ear and consider him to be their savior, at least in a political sense.

In the process, they have become who many people consider them to be—Republicans seeking and using political power and wanting even more.

White evangelicals should recognize that they have reaped what they have sowed. Any group or organization that lashes itself so completely to the policies, positions and practices of another group or organization loses its original identity. It literally becomes something else.

The NEA and their members may want to insist on their high-minded faith and devotion to Jesus, but no one will pay attention.

Instead of touting things that will be ignored, they might undergo a long needed self-assessment. Perhaps then, they return to the starting point of many Christian journeys  and become like the tax collector Jesus describes in a parable. In Luke 18, Jesus explains that the tax collector went to the Temple, beat his breast and prayed, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

After telling the parable, Jesus said that this man “went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One thing we Christians always can use is a bit more humility before God and humankind and a bit less lust for power, however alluring it may be.

 

Donald Trump– Man of Prayer?

Today’s media attention is again riveted on the bright, shiny object of the past few days—the James Comey interview and the tornadic reaction to it from Trump and friends.

However, it was another interview this weekend which caught my attention, the few minutes that Fox and Friends spent with the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and evangelical extraordinaire.

Of course, the Fox hosts did not seem interested in anything particularly religious, except for Graham’s views on the president.

Graham rose to the occasion in an almost Hannity-like fashion with the observation, “this president understands the power of prayer.”

He also stated, “I appreciate that we have a president who understands prayer and solicits prayer.”  

His words had barely left his mouth when Twitter reactions began popping up.

Hollywood Director Judd Apatow tweeted, “I don’t care what your politics are — @FranklinGraham is either a fool or works for the devil. There is no way he believes Trump believes in God and the power of prayer. Nobody on Earth truly believes that.”

Christian voices also weighed in.

Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie, Jr., a United Church of Christ pastor wrote, “Seems to me that @FranklinGraham sold his soul to @realDonaldTrump.

Thomas S. Kidd, who teaches history at Baylor University, added, “Because on Fox ‘evangelical’ Christianity means nominal Christianity employed for political ends.”**

Meanwhile, about the time Graham was opining on Trump’s religiosity, the Big Man Himself was undercutting that argument by throwing a Tweetstorm about Comey with the usual type of character assassination which we hope would stop.

However, at least two other comments Graham made gives never-Trump Christians food for thought.

First, he observed that we need to pray for Trump.

Second, he said, “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, the fact is that Donald Trump is the president of the United States. And if he does well, makes good decisions, it benefits all of us as a nation, regardless of our background … We need him to succeed at home, and we need him to succeed abroad. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about succeeding for all Americans.”

I served at a conservative United Methodist church in rural Texas during Obama’s presidency.

While my prayers for Obama did not stir great controversy in the church, at least two people expressed their displeasure.

Likely, at some progressive Christians would say the same about prayers for Trump.

Christians who place party and politics over God to be at work in a person’s private or professional life need to reassess that position.

The thought of “Donald Trump—Man of Prayer” strikes me as ludicrous given his apparently unrepentant lifestyle.

However, we all can pray for him to become one.

** My favorite comment was from former “New York Times” opinion columnist Clyde Haberman who tweeted, “Donald Trump is to piety what Stormy Daniels is to chastity.”

 

 

 

On Agape, MLK and a Neighbor Wearing a Confederate Flag

It is MLK Day but, shockingly, I’ve just seen a neighbor who lives one street over from us strutting around the neighborhood wearing a Confederate flag sweatshirt.

No fig leaf of “honor our Confederate history” can cover such a naked, defiant and intentional display of racism.

Sadly, she is not alone in our small town. Others fly Confederate flags 365/24/7 in their front yards or paste decals to their cars or homes. In addition, several businesses display Rebel flags on their storefronts, again 365/24/7.

Of course, my neighbor would not be alone in any area or region of the United States. However, perhaps no region is more infected with racist toxin than the South. If you live within the boundaries of Old Dixie, latent or blatant racism is all around you. If it is not in your home, then it is just over the fence, infecting all irrespective of whether they acknowledge it.

I speak these things as a 65-year-old white male who was raised by a hardcore racist and who has lived all his years in the south. My father was one who regularly spewed racial venom. For example, he openly cheered King’s assassination. When I moved out of the house to cast out on my own, it soon became clear that his kind was well-represented in southern culture.

One thing, though, sets our neighbor apart from others—she and her husband display Christian decals, bumper stickers and symbols on their home and cars.

I know, I know. We all sin and fall short. True enough. And, embarrassingly, I still periodically see latent racism in me—and wonder how much I don’t see.

But I still cannot understand how someone claiming to follow Jesus of Nazareth can wrap their body in a flag that has steeped like tea for hundreds of years in a toxic brew of human domination, discrimination, segregation, intimidation, beating, torture, and murder.

The Bible clearly points to a path that calls us to overcome our racial, ethnic and gender prejudices—and does so in part using the homely example of the clothes we wear.

For example, in Galatians 3:26-27, St. Paul writes of the essential equality of all people who have clothed themselves, not in a symbol of hatred, but in Christ, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek. . . slave or free. . . male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” [emphasis added]

In Colossians 3:10-14, he pairs this concept of being clothed in Christ with the inner attitudes that should accompany it:

“[you] have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another. . .  forgive each other. Above all, clothe yourselves with love. . .”

A final irony of this woman’s public display of divisiveness (and, I must admit of my anger and desire to strike back) is that were Martin Luther King, Jr. to see her wrapped in that flag, he would strive to love her.

Perhaps nothing is more underappreciated about King than his ethic not only of non-violence but of agape love, the kind of love which Jesus calls for his disciples to have.

In the heat of his Civil Rights campaign, he once wrote:

“Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend. . . [that] the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. . . [S]omeone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love. . .”

King not only spoke those words but also lived them in the face not only of flags, but also of bombs, dogs, nightsticks, and jail.

As my neighbor and too many other show, his fight goes on.