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Lamenting Evangelicalism – Part One

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The cover piece of the most recent issue of The Atlantic is by Michael Gerson.  It is essentially an extended lament of what Evangelicalism has become in the era of Trump.  A few days after it first appeared on line, David French posted at National Review about it, agreeing with its essence, but criticizing some of its details.  In both pieces, the authors lament the fact that in supporting Trump Evangelicals compromise their moral and social witness.  This is hard to refute.  It is pretty hard to tell someone about chastity and fidelity in marriage when the listener can say, “But you voted for Trump, where is his chastity and fidelity?”

However, the key question is does Trump move the ball in the right direction politically?  To date the answer is, “Yes!”  So, one must ask if that is worth the price in moral and social witness.  While both men have serious doubts that it is, it is in that question that the differences between them appear.  Gerson seems to think that is supporting Trump, Evangelicals sacrificed essentially who they are:

It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment. This is bad for America, because religion, properly viewed and applied, is essential to the country’s public life.

French, on the other hand, sees good reason for the political paranoia that currently drives Evangelical political involvement but that their problems lie in not separating their politics from social and moral witness – joining Trump’s “tribe” as it were:

The true tragedy of Evangelical support for Trump is that a group of Americans who have a higher call on their lives — and faith in a far greater power than any president — now behave (with notable exceptions) exactly like simply another American interest group.

I think both men have good points.  These are both important reads.  You should take the time to read both Gerson and French in depth and detail.  But both pieces are political analysis and more analysis in different areas is needed if one really wants to come to grips with the situation.  Two other areas bear careful discussion.  The first is structural and the second is spiritual.  (French does hint at the latter but does not actually go there.)  I will discuss the structural analysis in the rest of this post and leave the spiritual analysis for part two.

While Evangelicalism has been the predominant Christian expression in this nation for quite a while, it has never been structured as a church.  It is, or was, a movement.  With the rise of the Evangelical political voice with Reagan, it has come to be viewed as a church, but it still is not.

Historically the christian political voice was rooted in a denomination like Episcopal or Presbyterian (these two have produced more presidents than any other).  Both, as denominations, have hierarchical structures and believe themselves to be united as the church.  However, in my lifetime they have turned heavily liberal, rejecting the conservative Evangelical movement in their midst.  That movement is now embodied primarily in either independent congregations, which may come together in organizations like the National Association of Evangelical.  But the NAE functions more like an industry association and has no pretensions to being a church.  Alternately Evangelical congregations may be a part of a formal denomination, but one that unites by means of convention, not hierarchical structure, for example the Southern Baptists.  At best they are associated churches, not the church.

Structurally, when Evangelicals speak into politics they do so in a manner that looks more like a constituency group than the church.  Thus they do not speak with the same air of authority that the old mainline denominations could, and still do on the other side of the aisle. Although it must be noted that the divisions that have riven the old mainlines have greatly weakened their voices as well.  At this juncture really only the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints have both the critical mass and organizational structure to speak into the public square as the church.

Truly, Evangelicalism, even under this sort of structure, was a far more effective political voice a few decades ago than it is now.  But that does not change the fact that this means of organizing ourselves is inherently weaker politically and I would argue accounts for the decline in the effectiveness of our voice.

The lack of hierarchical structure also means there is little gate-keeping going on within the associated churches, nor is their quality control on the training that leadership does receive.  This serves to dilute political voice.  Further, the lack of accountability from the top-down makes it much harder to “rally the troops” for political activism.

Evangelicalism is structured in a fashion that directly reflects the emphasis on personal salvation that defines it.  But such structure weakens both political activity and cultural influence.

At the conclusion of part two of this I will return to the question of whether or not the sacrifices in social and moral witness are worth the political gains we are getting so far during the Trump administration.  But before I do we need to do some spiritual/theological analysis.


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