Saturday, December 30, 2017

At Year's End: Discussion of What to Do About the Now-Toxic Brand of White Evangelicalism in the U.S. — A Project That Should Go Well Beyond Rebranding

Among the biggest U.S. religion stories as 2017 ends: the attempt of a significant number of U.S. white evangelicals to distance themselves from the toxic brand that white evangelical Christianity has created for itself at this point in history — as the same percentage of white evangelicals (8 in 10) who voted for the man now in the White House after all we had learned about him then voted for Roy Moore. After all we had learned about him . . . .

In a much-discussed recent article, Timothy Keller asks if "evangelicalism" (hint: he's talking about white evangelicals) can survive Trump and Moore. Keller's tactic: he tries to parse evangelicals into good-bad categories; he tries a re-branding project that, in my view, is futile. The brand itself is now toxic. Keller writes,

The fury and incredulity of many in the larger population at this constituency has mounted. People who once called themselves the "Moral Majority" are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions. The disgust has come to include people within the movement itself. Earlier this month, Peter Wehner, an Op-Ed writer for the Times who served in the last three Republican Administrations, wrote a widely circulated piece entitled "Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican." Many younger believers and Christians of color, who had previously identified with evangelicalism, have also declared their abandonment of the label. "Evangelical" used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with "hypocrite." When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.

Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey note that some evangelicals now find their own self-designation too toxic to use, after Trump and Moore:

Even two of the grandchildren of Billy Graham, the famed evangelist who helped popularize the term, are abandoning the word. "The term has come to represent white Republicans and . . . sometimes close-mindedness and superiority," said granddaughter Jerushah Armfield, a writer and pastor’s wife in South Carolina. 
Jen Hatmaker, a Texas-based author with a large evangelical following, sees "a mass exodus" from the label in her community. "The term feels irreversibly tainted, and those of us who don’t align with the currently understood description are distancing ourselves to preserve our consciences," she said. 
At Princeton University, a campus group changed its decades-old name this year from "Princeton Evangelical Fellowship" to simply "Princeton Christian Fellowship."

Here's Tom Gjelten on the refractory conversation now occurring among white U.S. evangelicals about all of this: 

The latest challenge to evangelical unity arises from the extent to which a large majority of self-identified 'evangelical' voters have aligned themselves with such politicians as Donald Trump and Judge Roy Moore, both of whom have a record of stoking cultural resentments rather than building community. To some evangelicals, a pattern of narcissism, lies, misogyny, and vilifying immigrants and refugees disgraces their religious tradition. 
"For those of us who care deeply that our neighbors come to know the love of Jesus Christ, this is a tragic moment," says Collin Hansen, editorial director for The Gospel Coalition, an organization of church leaders dedicated to restoring the "historic beliefs and practices" of traditional evangelicalism. "We talk about the evangel, the good news, that makes us evangelicals, [but] our neighbors hear a certain kind of political agenda or they hear a kind of anger or frustration." 
Some prominent evangelical leaders, including Peter Wehner, who served in the George W. Bush administration, and the writer Amy Julia Becker, have publicly disowned the evangelical label in protest over its recent political associations, while others such as David French have suggested that it is time to find a new label.

Valerie Tarico speaks out as an ex-evangelical who maintains that the problem facing white evangelicals goes well beyond a re-branding or makeover challenge:

When I outlined evangelicalism’s brand problem in early 2016, few of us had any idea how bad it could get. Now the world associates the term Evangelical with the Trump election—over 80 percent of evangelicals gave him their vote—and with the candidacy of theocrat, Roy Moore, who despite credible allegations that he pursued and pawed young teens while an assistant district attorney, received comparable support from white Alabama evangelicals. 
In the aftermath of Moore's campaign and (merciful) defeat, the minority of Evangelical Christians who found him horrifying are doing some public soul searching—well, except not really. Many recognize only the brand problem and are, more than anything, simply scrambling to get away from the term evangelical itself. "After Trump and Moore, some evangelicals are finding their own label too toxic to use," reports the Washington Post. "The term feels irreversibly tainted," agrees evangelical author Jen Hatmaker. . . . 
What even thoughtful evangelical leaders like [Mark] Galli [editor of Christianity Today] fail to recognize is that people shouldn't believe a word they say—not about politics, not about morality, and not even about theology at this point. The problem isn't skin deep. Their brand problem is a function of their product problem, and as Emmett Price at Gordon-Cornwell Theological Seminary put it, "Ditching a term is simply ditching a term." Abandoning the term evangelical is the most superficial fix conceivable. 
Real soul searching would mean asking what it is about the evangelical worldview that has made evangelical leaders and ordinary Bible-believers susceptible to courtship by authoritarian, bigoted, sexist, tribal, anti-intellectual greedmongers who dangle the carrot of theocracy. But few evangelical leaders are asking this question because that would mean revisiting the peculiar status they grant to the Bible itself. And that is off-limits. 
When one treats the Bible as the literally perfect and complete word of God—which most Christian scholars don't but most evangelicals do—it isn’t hard to find support for every item in the ugly list that now darkens the evangelical brand. The Bible contains some really bad ideas. The opposite is also true, mind you. It also contains support for compassion, love, generosity, inclusion, and humility—and many other virtues that humanity values widely across both secular and religious wisdom traditions. The Bible is morally inchoate. It documents and sanctifies humanity’s moral infancy; and idolizing the book binds believers to the worldview of the Iron Age, leaving them susceptible to justifying all manner of misbehaviors in the name of god.

Here's Kai Wright on some of the underlying reasons white U.S. evangelicalism finds itself in this toxic-brand place: 

We've gone so far as to organize our gods around misogyny. The evangelical South's support for Roy Moore has drawn shocked, breathless comment. But the white South's Christian faith has always been malleable, bending to accommodate the power of white men.

Here's Jessica Johnson echoing the critique of many who are speaking out to tell Timothy Keller that the white evangelical branding problem goes well beyond branding — beyond image — to matters of white evangelical substance

Why should white men define the scope of what constitutes E/evangelicalism? Why do black Christians have to fight for equality and justice without the support of, and often in struggles against, so many white E/evangelicals? And why doesn’t Keller just come out and say that white E/evangelicals may want to rethink the relationships between their theology and politics in lieu of casting ballots in such large numbers for the likes of Trump and Moore? Instead of performing linguistic gymnastics in order to save face, and relying on others to do the work of renewal, Keller should openly address the discrimination and violence perpetrated by white E/evangelical leaders that’s led to this particular crisis of identity.

And here's Emily McFarlan Miller on the crisis of authority being produced among evangelicals as women and racial minorities claim a public voice in a conversation that has been confined — by rule and regulation — to white men: 

For many Christian women, including racial minorities, and others whose voices traditionally have not been heard by or represented in institutional churches, the internet has created new platforms to teach, preach and connect.

This tweet exchange between ex-evangelical Rachel Held Evans and John Piper's Desiring God outfit illustrates some of what's at stake in the current conversation:

As Tara Isabella Burton reminds us, the problem American democracy faces with these dynamics goes beyond the confines of the white evangelical community: it's a problem of the coalescence of the views of that community with a white Christian nationalism that is much broader than the white evangelical community, and is deeply rooted in American history and culture:

What to expect in 2018: The rhetoric of Christian nationalism will only get stronger — especially if the Trump administration faces direct challenges to his presidency, like fallout from the Russia investigation. In that case, Trump will need to hold on to his core supporters, or convince them to take action on his behalf. By casting his political troubles as a cosmic battle between good and evil, Trump may be able to galvanize his base to do just that. 
Trump hasn't tacitly authorized widespread, wholesale violence against perceived "scapegoats" — yet (well, mostly not). But his muted response to violent instances like the bloody alt-right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer suggest that he’s not averse to bloodshed — as long as his supporters are the ones winning the fight. While Christian nationalism was only one of many forms of nationalism on display in Charlottesville, Christian nationalism is, as ever, a fundamentally white phenomenon, rooted in a mythic privileging of the idealized past of "white," great America.

It seems to me that too many well-meaning faith leaders do not see, or cannot see, that Trumpism amounts to an epiphenomenon. The underlying phenomenon here is patriarchal white supremacy joined to economic violence from above: a toxic combination that has tainted American soil, drenching it in the blood of innocents, from the time the European colonial project was first launched. What some call the Trumpocalypse simply reveals more fully the cancer that was already there, that was always there, and that is always and ever metastasizing.

America has a white Christianity problem, not exclusively a white evangelical problem. White evangelicals are a convenient whipping boy. But the sober reality is that a majority of white U.S. Christians — period, across the board — voted for Donald Trump.

And that points to a serious problem in white U.S. Christianity, that goes well beyond rebranding issues to the very marrow and substance of Christianity among white Americans. 

No comments: