In Part One, working from pieces written by Michael Gerson and David French, I discussed that if one really wants to understand the current political weakness that Evangelicalism suffers from one must look farther than simply affiliation with Donald Trump. In that post I looked at structural/organizational weaknesses that are a big part of the problem. Historically they were less significant than they currently are; however, as history has proceeded they have become more and more pronounce and are now quite significant.
In this Part Two I want to consider a spiritual/theological weakness that infects and greatly weakens Evangelicalism. I mentioned the specific weakness I want to address briefly in a post I did a few weeks ago:
Note that while the four distinctives [that “define” Evangelicalism] include “conversion” they do not emphasize from what one is converted. And thus people, many of them claiming to be Evangelicals, have little or no sense of what it means to be a sinner, or even just wrong.
That point has been driven home to me by an extended discussion in a book I am reading, because of an interview the host did with the author. When he read the book, the host said it “captured him.” I am referring to the book, “Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization” by William J. Slattery.
The book is deeply Roman Catholic and as such, along with the historical period it addresses, illustrates a great weakness that Evangelicalism suffers from – a lack of historical sense. Most Evangelicals act as if the period between the Apostolic Age and the Reformation are insignificant to church history. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mainlines denominations had a sense that they were forcibly rejected from the church and therefore sought to be the church themselves. However, Evangelicalism, often presenting as a reform of the reformers, seems to forget and ignore that which the original reformers were/are reforming. Protestantism is not something new, rather they sought to fix the something of which there was every only intended to be one and in that effort the one thing kicked them out. Given no alternative they attempted to be that one thing. But Evangelicals assume pluralism to be the norm for Christianity.
And so, Evangelicalism feels free to invent and reinvent a thing, thus loosing sight of the fact that the thing already existed, all we are trying to do is fix it. So, Evangelicals generally have no clue as to why the Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments whilst Protestants have far fewer. Many Evangelical congregations do not even discuss sacraments. I doubt the average evangelical leader could provide a decent definition of a sacrament, or if they did they would do so in purely symbolic terms rather than in thinking that something actually holy happened in the practice of the sacrament.
Having no clue as to what we, as Evangelicals, sprang from we wander in directions we were never meant to go.
In Chapter 4 of the book Slattery discusses the movement of Celtic/Irish monks out from that westernmost Ireland to Britain and the continent of Europe in the four and five hundreds. These monks bring with them a unique form of one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Slattery devotes a section of that chapter to that form of the sacrament and that section is entitled, “The Engine of Renewal: The Irish Method of Confession.” He had me right there for if you follow my writings here you know that a) I think the church in America, Evangelical and otherwise, is in desperate need of renewal, and b) that confession, though not necessarily sacramental confession, is a key part of that renewal.
In that section of the book, Slattery says this about how that “Engine of Renewal” changed history:
The effects of these secret meetings rippled and surged throughout society, invigorating the men and women who would build the new civilization. They strengthened marriage, bonded fathers and sons and mothers and daughters, reconciled bloodthirsty rivals, and prevented or mitigated wars. A new and powerful instrument of civilizational change had been born. For the roots and resolutions of the small and great social conflicts do not occur first and foremost in parliaments or palaces but in the secret recesses of men’s souls, whence all injustice arises. It is on this secret battlefield where the struggle with temptation to sin, the enemy par excellence of a truly human civilization, rages. It is here, and nowhere else, that the keystones of a just social order are laid or destroyed.
That is so powerful. If confession is the “engine” for that kind of societal impact. then should not Evangelicals lack of societal impact point to the fact that they are somehow missing the mark in their practice of confession?
Association with and support of Donald Trump is not a cause for lack of cultural and political effectiveness on the part of Evangelicals. Evangelicals relationship to Trump is consequence of things much deeper.
In Part One, I quoted David French saying Evangelicals, “now behave (with notable exceptions) exactly like simply another American interest group.” Phrased another way, what French is saying there is that we no longer speak with sufficient moral and religious authority. In Part One, I contended that this was due to organizational weakness that sapped the strength of the Christian voice. The sheer plurality of “churches” robs us of religious authority.
In this post I am pointing out that our practice of spiritual formation is weak, very weak indeed. As such it robs us of moral authority.
I do not sweat Evangelicals and Trump, I sweat the stuff that got us here. I think if we pay attention to that stuff, other things will work themselves out.