When politics BECOMES religion

When politics BECOMES religion

Here’s a bold pronouncement:

The fastest growing “religion” in America isn’t Buddhism, Islam, or that age-defying voodoo powder that Tom Brady’s trainer sprinkles in his Gatorade. Not even close. Over the past decade or so, America’s fastest growing religion has been the all-consuming pull of politics.

A recent article in The American Conservative suggests something like this – and it isn’t limited to just the “Right” or “Left.”

Looking back to 2008, Timothy P. Carney argues that one thing many of the chanting, fainting, I-will-never-wash-this-hand-again supporters of Barack Obama had in common with the reddest of “red hats” is that they had abandoned church and transferred their religious fervor to political messiahs.

Politics replaced religion.

Based on research by the Pew Research Center, Carney states that:

The best way to describe Trump’s support in the Republican primaries […] would be: white evangelicals who do not go to church.

They came to Trump seeking what they had lost because they had lost church.

This claim is muddied by the fact that some of these devotees still claimed the label “evangelical,” though they had long since left church. In fact, the subset of Trump voters dubbed “the Preservationists” was the group most likely to say that religion was “very important” to them even while they were least likely to attend religious gatherings.

What meaneth this?

One way of reading the statistic would be to say that for some of these folks, it was not so much a case of politics expressing their faith as it was political fervor becoming their faith. (Read the whole thing here to see if you agree.)

It would be wrong, however, to say that this is just a MAGA phenomenon. My hunch is that something similar could be said of the far Left.

ET TU BERNIE?

It is widely known that this demographic is less likely to attend church regularly, or to claim a religious affiliation. The “Nones” are on the rise, we hear repeatedly. But is “None” really the most accurate religious descriptor for some of the most vocal members of the secular Left?

How many of these marching, chanting, constantly posting anti-Trumpists might also be said to have transferred their “faith” to America’s new national religion?

After all, a quick gander at the leading “news” sites (whether Right or Left) shows a form of ideological purity and boundary-policing that would normally be reserved for the harshest of fundamentalist sects. Heresy is a live category here, as is excommunication and the social media equivalent of burning at the stake.

WHAT IS RELIGION?

The first point to be made in response to my argument is that it would be unfair to accuse all passionate voices (on the Right or Left) of having adopted a new religion.

Theologians like myself should be careful about turning everything into a “religion,” as if my kids’ passion for fruit snacks and animal crackers should be read through the lens of Dionysius and animal sacrifice.

“Some” is the key word above.

Still, I stand by my claim that we sometimes define “faith” and “religion” too narrowly.

In my usage, religion (or “worship”) is the assigning of ultimate, transcendent value to a particular object, person, or idea. Along these lines, even famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens have long referred to Soviet Marxism as a de-facto religion. (Hitchens knew this from experience; as a young Communist, he had gone to live in Castro’s Cuba.)

My contention is that we sometimes fail to define “worship” and “religion” broadly enough. As Nietzsche rightly saw, there are more idols in this world than one thinks.

WHAT TO DO?

But what should Christians do in the face of America’s fastest growing quasi-religion?

An initial move should be to examine our own hearts and habits.  How much time do I spend perusing political news versus reading Scripture?  Would a quick scan of my Facebook posts indicate that I am most passionate about?  How often do words like “Left” and “Right” pepper daily my daily vocabulary?  Do I spend hours a week listening to acerbic talk radio or other forms of highly biased political content?

Then, three quick applications for the church at large:

1. Don’t baptize rival kingdoms.

An initial step would be a refusal to baptize the political dog in the ecclesial manger, regardless of the color of its collar.

In American politics, both sides have had tendency to care selectively about certain sins, while conveniently ignoring others. Both sides have tended to “bundle” issues strangely at certain points (e.g., justice for all and abortion on demand). And both sides have found church leaders willing to “baptize” their moves in exchange for access to power. I’ll forgo the examples.

In the words of evangelical historian, Thomas S. Kidd:

we should never want our church leaders to become partisan campaigners, regardless of the party in question. [This move] disrupts the unity of the church, and invariably turns the church into a servant of temporal power rather than the kingdom of God.

2. Don’t retreat to private faith.

On the other hand, it would be equally disastrous to respond to our hyper-politicized moment with a retreat from social engagement altogether.

“Religion as a private matter.”

~Said no one in the Bible, ever.

A “private” faith is an irrelevant invention of the modern world. Thus Christians ought to care about the issues God cares about.

For me, that includes pressing matters of justice like abortion, racial reconciliation, and many others topics.

At the same time, we must be sure to take our cues from Scripture more than from the talking heads of Cable News, or the self-interested bosses of party politics.

3. Don’t lose interest in the “seed” growing slowly.

My sense is that some Christians have simply grown tired or bored with the difficult and unheralded work of soul-care and The Great Commission.

And strange as it sounds, I get it.

On every news site and every social media platform, we are told repeatedly that political realities are the most important, most interesting, and most cringe-worthy aspect of life. Who isn’t tempted to believe it?

Politics is the laser pointer, and we are the frantic cats that jump to and fro at the whims of “owners” after ad revenue. Politics is the fast-moving, shiny object from which you can hardly look away.

By comparison, the “seed” growing slowly beneath the soil doesn’t seem as exciting. If the Kingdom of God is like leaven mixed with dough (doing its work in secret, without headlines, and without a 12-hour news cycle), then politics is like gunpowder. It turns more heads, makes more noise, and sucks up all the oxygen. But that doesn’t mean it’s where the actions is.

The challenge of Christ’s strange kingdom is to trust that the “seed” growing slowly is what really matters.

The gospel is the treasure buried in the field; it is worth selling everything to have; and it is more fulfilling than our new national religion of political fixation.


 

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Firing into a Continent

Firing into a Continent

John Chau, Jim Elliot, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

As it happened, when news broke that John Allen Chau had been killed while trying to evangelize an isolated tribe far off the coast of India, I had been re-reading one of my favorite works of fiction: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The story, written around 1899, is among the most famous critiques of colonialism in its ignorant and damaging forays into tribal cultures.  Conrad wrote it from experience.  He had gone to the Congo in 1890 to serve as a river pilot.  Long before that, at the young age of nine, he had placed his finger on the blank space of a map that represented Africa, and proclaimed: “When I grow up I shall go there.

The reality did not live up to his hopes.

Near the beginning of Heart of Darkness, the narrator (Marlow) recalls a scene that functions as a kind of allegory:

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.

Blindly firing into a continent.

For Conrad, this was a metaphor for western meddling in tribal cultures.  It was a wasteful farce; a mix of ignorance and arrogance.  And it resulted in unnecessary death.

But what does this have to do with John Allen Chau?

MUST MISSIONS BE COLONIAL?

For many, Chau’s decision to evangelize an unreached tribe on North Sentinel Island bears a resemblance to Conrad’s vessel. In Chau’s defense, his aim was not to pillage, colonize, or do violence.  His goal was to minister or die trying.

captionpic

Yet he did so with a frightful ignorance of the harm that he could bring—and not merely to himself.  Even the slightest exposure to the germs Chau carried on his person or his gifts could wipe out the people that he sought to save.  Yet “there [he] was, incomprehensible,” firing himself into an island.

JUST FATAL, FUTILE THEATER?

While many have been critical of Chau (and rightly so at points), it is the incomprehensibility of his act that interests me.  That same word appeared in Conrad’s quote (above).

And in some ways, Chau’s thinking is as incomprehensible to the secular mind as is that of the islanders that killed him.

But it wasn’t always.

As Thomas S. Kidd notes, there is a striking difference in how journalists covered the death of Jim Elliot, the Christian missionary who was speared to death when he and others attempted to evangelize an unreached tribe of Ecuador in 1956.  At that time, Life Magazine offered almost fawning coverage of Elliot’s noble attempt to “civilize” the “Stone Age savages.”  (Yes, they used those words.)

Jim Elliot
Jim Elliot, missionary.

What changed?

Are Chau and Elliot so different?

In some ways they were.  It seems that Chau was more of a rogue actor.  He was more naïve; more careless with the health of those he sought to help.  And undoubtedly, there are differences between the Ecuadorian Huaorani and the tribe that Chau sought out.

Still, note how a recent column in The Wall Street Journal spoke of Chau’s death, and then contrast that with Life Magazine, 1956:

there will be those who ascribe nobility to Chau, and courage. . . But go easy on the romance of Chau and his messy, martyred end.

He broke Indian law by entering the country on a tourist visa while pursuing an evangelical mission. Chau’s application would have been refused if it so much as mentioned the words “North Sentinel Island.” . . . What we had in the end, was one man’s futile—and fatal—theater.

An adventure tourist.  A theatrical fame-seeker who broke the law.  Don’t cry for him.

But is that fair?

THREE TAKEAWAYS

Enough context. Now for my own imperfect takeaways from this odd mashup of

  • Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)
  • Life Magazine (1956)
  • The Wall Street Journal (2018)

First, it seems quite clear to me that not all missionary efforts are praiseworthy.  Despite good intentions, Chau was terribly naïve about the dangers that he brought to North Sentinel.  When a couple of the islanders were kidnapped by a 19th c. British naval officer (Not Conrad), they died almost immediately for lack of an immune resistance.  This matters; and especially given that far more indigenous people (in North America) were killed by germs from white conquerors, settlers, and missionaries than by anything else.

Would you go evangelize your neighbors and their children if you knew you carried the equivalent of Ebola?

If the apostle Paul was right that “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Rom 13:10), then Chau was either terribly ignorant or terribly cavalier about the result of “firing” himself like a human bomb into a very vulnerable culture.

Second, thank God that many westerners are now more sensitive in the way they think of what Life Magazine called uncivilized “savages.”  Not even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is immune from these stereotypes (see Achebe’s famous, if overdone critique).

But neither Elliot nor Chau would have thought of indigenous communities in this way.  Whatever other flaws they might have had, Chau and Elliot would have thought of such tribespersons as fellow image-bearers who deserve the gospel as much as anyone else.  That’s not colonialism; it’s Christianity — even if Chau was wrong to go about it as he did.

Third, a final lesson from this whole sad tale is just how inscrutable it is for modern folks (e.g., the fairly conservative Wall Street Journal) to understand the historic Christian idea that neither “law” nor threat of “death” should stop one from sharing Jesus.  Yes, this can be done badly (as it likely was in Chau’s case).  But it can also be done with great care and bravery.

MY NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR

Allow a final example: Right next-door to my office sits a PhD in Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology: “Dr. Mike.”  He is a legend around campus for his open door, open ears, and oft-imitated-but-never-duplicated laugh. Students love him.

He also lived in the jungles of New Guinea for ten years as a missionary with a VERY isolated tribal culture.  He learned their language, customs, and their names.  He was sensitive to many things that white missionaries often take for granted, and he teaches this to students.

It was quite possible, of course, that Mike too could have been killed as were Chau and Elliot in a tribal region prone to violence.

Why then did he go? And why especially with a wife and two small children born during his decade in the jungles?

Was it all “futile, [nearly] fatal theater”?

I don’t think so.

But I don’t doubt that it seems incomprehensible – to all except the tribal people that he came to know and love.

 


UPDATE: The always-thoughtful Ed Stetzer has a piece out now at The Washington Post that debunks some of the early news reports on Chau (see here for that). While Chau may well have posed grave dangers to the tribe he sought to reach, it also appears that initial news reports were not working (or caring) with all the facts.


 

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Flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism

Flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism

But take the real “evangel” with you.

When I typed up a quick blog post yesterday, I did so assuming that Roy Moore was about to win the Alabama Senate seat.

I was wrong.

Thank God.

To some, that may sound rather strange.  After all, I am precisely the sort of person that was supposed to carry Judge Roy to victory: I am Pro-Life, white, and evangelical in my theology.

According to the media, I am supposed to belong to that very “base” that was going to make the difference–despite no fewer than nine allegations of sexually predatory behavior toward children.

And despite Moore’s claim that “many problems would be solved” if we scrapped all constitutional amendments after the 10th one (Just so we’re clear: the 13th ended slavery; the 15th gave all races the vote; and the 19th gave votes to women).

Well, I do not belong to that “evangelical base”–because, in some cases, there’s nothing evangelical about it.

 

REQUIUM FOR “EVANGELICAL”

As some news outlets have been quick to trumpet, Moore’s strongest support came from the self-styled “evangelical” voter.

The most vexing evidence for such logic, came in a poll showing that a plurality of Alabama “evangelicals” reported being “more likely” to support him after numerous allegations of child sexual misconduct than before.

This left many of us scratching our heads.

Who could possibly be “more likely” to support someone “after” reports that he repeatedly stalked underage girls at the local mall while dressed like the cartoon sheriff from the movie Toy Story?

NOT SO FAST…

As many have pointed out, however, such polls should be viewed with suspicion (see here).

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 9.09.07 AM

According the Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs: In parts of the country, “evangelical” has become synonymous with “whites who watch Fox News and consider themselves [vaguely] religious”–regardless of church attendance, Bible reading, or basic theological beliefs.

And while I love those people, that is not what the word means.

Evang. venn diagram

In short, the label has been corrupted.

In Roy Moore’s case, it was equated with the worst elements of partisan politics—hence it hangs like an albatross around the neck of many faithful and devoted Christ-followers.

(For what it’s worth, it also hurts the Pro-Life movement in the long run–like making Bull Connor the face of your anti-human trafficking campaign.)

Yet while many of us grieve the (earned) destruction of the “evangelical” label, we also worry that to look back longingly at the smoking ruins is to risk being turned into a pillar of insipid salt.

What, then, should one do with this beautiful but now corrupted label?

THE YEAR IS 1955

It bears noting that in 1955, Billy Graham faced a similar decision.

He had once been a self-identifying “fundamentalist,” back when that word was not synonymous with backwardness and bigotry. In its origin, the term had stood for the fundamentals of the faith. As did Graham.

Yet in 1955, he decided to drop the albatross for reasons that sound eerily familiar: it had been irrevocably tainted by un-Christlike beliefs and behaviors.

Even good words can be turned it seems—like raw oysters in the Alabama sun.

So Graham followed Jesus – out of “fundamentalism” in order to stay true to Scripture and the gospel (the “evangel”).

Or as cowboy Roy might say: “When your horse dies, get off.”

HOPPING OFF THE PENDULUM

What one does next, however, is important.

The temptation for many is simply to flee one rival kingdom for another.

If Roy Moore’s “evangelicalism” has turned a blind eye to egregious sexual and racial sins, one simply runs hard in the opposite direction.  After all, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg once remarked:

            The true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum.

But what if…?

What if it is partly our love of pendulums that caused this very mess?

NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS 

My suggestion, then, is rather different: flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism, but take the real “evangel” (i.e., gospel) with you

Because the real “evangel” is alive and well.

Just don’t look for it primarily in the halls of power.

That’s the same mistake we’ve been making for two thousand years: we long for thrones and forget to check the manger.

“I sent you prophets,” says Christ, “but you wanted lobbyists.”

“I sent you shepherds, but you wanted merchants of outrage.”

If you want the real evangel, here is some advice:

Look to the local homeless shelter, where Christ’s hands and feet are serving dinner to the other (equally valuable) members of his body.

Look to the recovery ministry meeting nightly in the church basement, sans cufflinks and news coverage.

Look to the crisis pregnancy center, where women who’ve been there reach out to women who are there.

Look to the high school football star (John) who takes my college Bible class even though it won’t count for credit at his eventual State school–he takes it because he loves Jesus.

Look to the college women (that I know) who spend their Spring Break fighting human trafficking in a Southeast Asia, rather than partying on some sandy beach in Destin.

Look to the group of older Christian women (the godly grandmas) who gather to encourage my young wife with wisdom gained from generations of parenting.

Look to the African-American couple serving faithfully in a predominantly white church, because they believe that the journey toward multi-ethnic community is worth it, even if it’s difficult.

And look to the Catholic nun, kneeling peacefully in the cold rain outside an abortion clinic, praying for the souls inside (doctors, mothers, and babies).

This is the REAL “evangel.”

It’s alive and well.

And in that sense, I don’t give a flying flip what happens to the Roy Moore version.