The Idols of American Evangelicalism - Part 2
It really does feel to me and many others I have spoken with, that observing the vast majority of American evangelical's rallying to the side of then candidate and now President Donald Trump has been like getting the chance to go back in time and observe Satan's three attempts to tempt Jesus. Except this time Jesus' 'Body', the Church, basically replied to Satan, "Hell yes, we'll put self-preservation ahead of trusting God, receive earthly power in exchange for worshiping a human political huckster, and commit suicide as a two-hundred and seventy year old movement just to prove our ego!" But I have also observed a number of evangelical voices, desperate to hold forth a different picture of evangelicalism, downplaying the last couple of years as just an aberration that doesn't reflect true evangelical Christianity. Or maybe it just goes back a few decades and we can blame it on the rise of the Religious Right in the late 70's and 80's. Oh wait, but then that doesn't explain evangelical's no-show during the Civil Rights movement in the 50's and 60's. One has to wonder at some point if the foundation upon which sits the idol's that American Evangelical Christians worship today was laid all the way back during it's founding. But that is a subject for another time.
a natural progression
In Part One of this two part series, we introduced the first idol of American Evangelicalism, that of superiority. This is seen particularly in intellectual hubris and American nativism or nationalism. The last three idols are really a natural outflow or progression from the first, what C.S Lewis might have called "The Great Sin" in his classic work, Mere Christianity.
the idol of power (or control)
Once a group of people have convinced themselves of their own superiority, it's only logical that they should be the ones 'in charge'. So when Franklin Graham and others talk about the need for Christians to 'serve' as elected officials in order to be a "witness" and to represent a "Christian wordlview", that's code for, "If you are not a Christian you ultimately don't know what they hell you are doing where Christians, by nature of their own superiority, do. So move over so we can institute what we know is best for everyone." This is theologically based in a so-called "soft" version of the doctrine of "reconstructionism" or "dominionism". The assumed nativism and ethnocentrism of the first idol then applies this theology into a mandate to 'take America back for God' and a moral mandate to stop the demise of our great nation by conservative Christians assuming their rightful place at the top of the "seven mountains of culture".
Here's an axiom with regard to power: When you are obsessed with it you will do whatever it takes to get more of it. The worship of this idol has been on full display over the last two years as evangelical leaders and theologians have provided religious cover for politicians who promised to give them what they wanted: position and power to implement their 'Kingdom' vision for America. The end result in terms of the election just confirmed that power is clearly worshiped among the evangelical masses and not just among their populace leaders. Meanwhile they all continue to say that they worship a Savior who expressly rejected his disciples hopes of instituting a political empire.
the idols of convenience and comfort
I have grouped these two idols together because, while distinct, they are very complementary to each other. It's kind of like entrenched dictators. Once they have assumed the throne and begin their reign, selective ethics and amassing excessive wealth and physical comfort at the expense of others seem to go hand in hand.
When you assume superiority and therefore the right to exert power or control over others, a curious thing often happens: you become selective in terms of the moral standards you live by and those you demand on others. American evangelicals have strutted about their moral high horse on the issues of 'life' and 'the family', but only narrowly applied it to the issues of abortion and homosexuality. The hypocrisy has been glaring to almost everyone else but themselves. Some have attempted to paint a different picture of evangelicals as a group that in reality holds much more sympathetic views toward those affected by systemic injustice, such as their supposed support for immigration reform. But everyone knows that "actions speak louder than words" including polls, and their political silence or indifference on things such as the global refugee crisis and US resettlement policy has shown that their moral priorities lie where it will cost them the least. In doing so, American evangelicals are carrying on in the great tradition of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:2-3).
Consumerism, by its very nature, is driven by pleasure, not sacrifice. And so American Evangelicalism has become a perfect example of the industry of religion. With few, often tightly controlled exceptions, the vast majority of church life is designed around the wishes of the consumer. I know this because I participated in it. I often tell people that a part of my journey was realizing that, "I had become the provider of religious goods and services to consumer Christians." Sometimes expressions of true Christian ministry can even be viewed as inconvenient. Years ago, I recall hearing a board member in a church bemoan that while they applauded the work of my parents in bringing people with developmental disabilities into the church, these people did not make "significant giving units" in comparison to, for example, working upper-middle class families. Additionally, their occasional moans or verbal expressions during the service were distracting to the 'worship'. This is just one example of what I have observed as a widespread pattern. Within 'the trade' we even use certain language like 'church shopping', perfectly satirized in this short video by comedian John Crist.
Over the course of my own 17 year career in the pastoral profession I heard several colleagues refer to the principle of "bucks and butts" as a key indicator of church health. Ironic, again, given that the founder of the faith lived a life as a homeless man (Luke 9:58).
the fate of idols and faith
We will return to the themes of these four idols in future posts along with trying to chart a course forward for a lifestyle that I believe would be far more honoring to the life and teachings of Jesus. One thing that I am sure of is that idols and the people and their institutions that worship them ultimately fail. Faith, on the other hand, perseveres, and this not because of creeds and councils but due to the relentless curiosity of humanity as it intersects with Divine mystery and love.