A Sundered Cross: Evangelicalism and the Public Sphere
A Devotional on the Cross
Imagine a cross. The cross has a vertical pole and a crossbar. It is not hard to imagine the vertical pole representing the dynamic between below and above. Christ was nailed to that cross. He hung suspended between heaven and earth, deserted by the dwellers of both. In Christ reconciled with God, Christians the world over are participants in that vertical dimension. The connection with God has been established. The vertical pole represents the relationship with God. They also have a responsibility in the horizontal.
The crossbar is positioned horizontally and represents the world and all its relationships, communities, gatherings, interactions, and encounters as God’s work in Christ bears upon them. There is hope for the horizontal dimensions of life because the vertical relationship has been restored. Vertical and horizontal belong to each other. The horizontal depends on the vertical, while the vertical dimension is only meaningful to the extent that it becomes real in the horizontal.
Of course, thinking about the cross this way is not necessarily employing biblical metaphors, but it is still very helpful in showing us that the reconciling work of Christ on the cross and its salvific effect upon the world and upon humanity are deeply integrated. Anything that harms this unity is to be considered taking the Gospel apart, damaging it and robbing it of its beauty and power.
Horizontal and Vertical Sundered
In my third post on evangelicalism, I continue my criticism of this movement that I once belonged to. In my previous article, I analyzed the problematic structure of evangelical theology. There is a bit more theology to come here, though the focus will be on evangelical social ethics and evangelical engagement with the public sphere.
That I started this article with a devotional on the cross is appropriate, since there is no better way for me to explain what is wrong with evangelicalism’s social ethics than by means of the cross, the central symbol for all Christians, including evangelicals.
In evangelical thought, the crossbeam has been sundered from the vertical trunk. That is to say, evangelical thought and practice are structured in such a way as to have created a rift between what constitutes and supports the relationship with God on the one hand and what flows out of that relationship into the world in terms of community, relationality, and life. Notice how I describe the horizontal as a consequence of the vertical. In an ideal theological framework the vertical and horizontal coincide, that is, occur simultaneously such that you can’t really tell which comes first.
In evangelical theology, the two have been set in a temporal sequence. The horizontal follows from the vertical but with such a radical delay that one could justifiably ask whether there still is a temporal progression. Perhaps “chasm” is a more appropriate characterization. This rather radical separation is visible in different areas of evangelical thought and ethics.
Theology is Separated from Ethics
Evangelical theologians will heavily disagree with me when I say this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that their theology is separated from ethics. Of course, at first glance, evangelical theology bears heavily upon ethics in a certain form of casuistry employed by many evangelical theologians. Casuistry is the attempt to arrive at universally valid moral rules on the basis of case studies. In evangelicalism, the casebook par excellence is the Bible. Because the Bible is inerrant, it provides the ideal material for the casuistical effort, since it is divinely orchestrated and therefore able to provide divine clues to ethical conundrums. Especially grammatical analysis can be important to figure out the puzzle of divine moral injunction.
In that sense, you could say that evangelical theology and ethics are interwoven. But at a deeper level, they are quite far apart. Let me explain this by turning to history for a moment or two. In the medieval period, the scholastic theologians had developed an elaborate system in which spirituality (or sanctification) and virtue ethics (a form of social ethics) were deeply integrated. The virtues, as Greek philosopher Aristotle had described them in his ethics for the purpose of developing a healthy society, had become integrated with the path toward God, the so-called beatific vision. You became a virtuous person not primarily because that was what society needed, but because you wanted to ascend up the ladder of holiness toward God.
Luther was not happy with such a tight integration and destroyed that entire system with a couple blows of a hammer on the door of the university chapel at Wittenberg in 1517. He developed his two kingdom doctrine consisting of God’s kingdom that is awaited where the Church belongs and the kingdom of the world here and now where kings and princes rule. These kingdoms represent two different areas of responsibility, not separate realms. As such they are intertwined. In the worldly kingdom, God’s law is useful to maintain order, while in the kingdom of God, the law is powerless in making good people out of bad people, or rather, powerful is showing people how helpless they are in overcoming their vices. For justification, people are solely dependent on God’s grace in Jesus Christ. For Luther, the one divine law functioned differently in different areas, while God was still Lord of both kingdoms. In this way, ethics (society) and spirituality (sanctification) were both related to God’s law, but in different ways appropriate to each.
Evangelicalism and the Anabaptists
In evangelicalism, in spite of being a movement that is heavily indebted to Luther’s Reformation, the law of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ have taken center stage as theological-spiritual categories with little room left for a healthy social ethics apart from the Gospel.
This trend already started in Luther’s days with the Anabaptists who sought to remove themselves from society in order to form holy communities where all members practiced sanctification. In these spiritual mini-societies, there was no room left for a world apart from the Church. The Anabaptists had little to say about the world, except that it was evil an that they didn’t want to have a part in it. This is a bit of an oversimplification but highlighting this aspect of Anabaptist thought is important for understanding the particular presence of evangelicalism in today’s society.
The evangelicalism that emerged in the 50s and 60s of the last century in America became a bit of a countercultural group because it did not follow new trends like the sexual revolution or women’s liberation. They knew themselves called out of the world, set apart to be different from an increasingly godless world. They awaited the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and with it, the great conflagration that would destroy the earth with all its iniquity.
In some ways, evangelicals were similar to the Anabaptists. Their theology focused on being born again and the need to become holy (and especially “ready”). If asked what they had to say to the world, you would typically hear: “Repent for the time is near.” Billy Graham’s message to his stadium audiences was that they needed to make a decision for Christ. There was no political program or an idea about how societies can flourish beyond the insistence that one first needs to get right with God through Jesus. The underlying (and sometimes heard) assumption was that it is pointless to try to change anything about racism, gun violence, abortion, homicide, or poverty if people don’t first turn to Christ in order to be born again.
The Great Decoupling
What happened is that the biblical teaching about salvation—that piece of theology which theologians call soteriology—came to replace social ethics. Where the medieval theologians retained and integrated Aristotle’s worldly ethics and where Luther had his two kingdoms theory which implied two responsibilities, evangelicals could only talk about Jesus, sin, salvation, and being born again. Everything else was pointless.
And when evangelicals finally woke up to their political responsibility, it was through Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority movement which sought to turn evangelicalism into a powerful voting block intended to enforce conservative viewpoints on the entire nation. There was a complete lack of a deep organic integration of ethics and theological reflection. Thus, it is no wonder that evangelicalism was hijacked by the Republican Party as an easy prey vulnerable to the single issue argument of abortion.
A great decoupling of theology and social ethics took place. With it, the message of the cross, which this decoupling sought to bolster, was heavily damaged. How? If your ethics only contains the message that it doesn’t make sense to make the world a better place until people have accepted Jesus, you basically preach a Gospel that is not for this world but for the afterlife. Salvation becomes something religious.
If your gospel does not theologically address the issue of racism, if it is not made relevant for how Christians and non-Christians have to live together in a world that is not perfect, it is basically worthless. Such a gospel addresses individuals in their “personal relationship” with God but does not deal with humanity’s actual predicaments and broken relationships. It turns sin into an irrelevant theological category but doesn’t stop human depravity dead in its tracks. It talks about salvation as a pie in the sky but doesn’t show what salvation actually means for humanity. It allows people to have beautiful discourses on Sunday as they preach, sing, and pray, but does nothing to imagine a changed world outside of the church walls. It allows people to be very religious and spiritual without requiring them having anything to show for it beyond being religious.
It is a form of positivity of revelation in which theologians write volumes on doctrinal theology, where worship directors each Sunday morning prepare beautiful religious entertainment, and where mission tours are organized to build homes for the poor, while at the same time the church has retreated in the safe confines of suburbia.
Sadly, such a gospel must be called what it is: cheap grace. A grace that satisfies the religious yearnings of the affluent soul, while allowing her or him to remain oblivious to the social and ethical implications in the real world. It is a grace for the privileged who do not have to wonder if there will be bread on the table tonight or whether they will be next to be shot by the cops for being a suspicious-looking African American (or for not ordering a drink in Starbucks).
For me personally, when I opened my eyes to white privilege in America (including my own!), the persistent unwillingness and abject inability of white evangelicals to acknowledge their complicity in the tragedy of American racism was a deal-breaker. I’ve seen white evangelical Christians getting upset with me on this issue. Incomprehensible! I realized something was wrong with this faith at a very deep level. Evangelicalism is not only unable to address racism, it resents racism being mentioned at the dinner table as something that impinges on their lifestyle. Trunk and beam of the cross are sundered!
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Underdetermination and Overdetermination
There is more to be said on this subject, though. We’ve had the decoupling of theology and social ethics. You could call this an underdetermination of ethics since ethics is not determined, i.e. there is a lack of social ethics. There is, however, at the same time an overdetermination that is the inversion of the underdetermination. That is to say: to the extent that evangelicalism doesn’t really have anything to say about social ethics, it at the same time claims to know exhaustively what is expected of citizens of a given society. Underdetermination (no robust ethics) and overdetermination (knowing exhaustively what God wants) go together.
Let me explain. If you say that Christ is the only answer to society’s woes and that society will be only okay when everybody turns to Christ, you basically imply that you have nothing to offer to that society, except the option that everybody turns to Christ. I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that Jesus Christ is the answer, but if this is all you have to say you are doing a great disservice to the world. You’re basically collapsing religion and the public sphere. However, Christians and non-Christians alike know such a collapse will never become real in this world. People will not, I repeat: WILL NOT, en masse turn to Christ. In fact, Christianity is shrinking in the USA and in Europe it has basically disappeared.
And with this take-it-or-leave-it-approach, this attitude that says that there is only hope in Christ and that nothing else matters, you are not helping the real world with its real people and its real societies to function. So you either don’t participate in political affairs (evangelicals before the Moral Majority movement) or you try to enforce whatever it is you think Jesus wants (evangelicals with and after the Moral Majority movement).
This is what I mean with underdetermination and overdetermination. Because there is a lack of social ethics, based on some idea of virtue ethics, duty ethics, or utilitarianism (these are the three main ways people develop ethical systems), there is underdetermination. However, since you still want to be involved in politics, you try to enforce everybody your version of Christianity, which is overdetermination.
“The Bible Says”
Everybody has to be a Christian or else! We now know what this else turned out to be. Because evangelicals don’t have a developed ethics that integrates with a robust theological framework, Trump became the 45th president of the United States. That’s basically how one can put it. Evangelicals went for Trump because Trump was going uphold Christian values (that is, those that evangelicals think are important). And then it is apparently ok that Trump is a pussy grabbing misogynist, someone known for his racist slurs with a certain sympathy for white supremacists, who doesn’t know a lie from the truth.
In so far evangelicals engage in social ethics, it’s an all-or-nothing approach, but only on those issues that they can see and as they see them. God is against abortion and so come what may, we shall stop abortion. No price is too high (well, actually it is since there is a deep distaste toward paying for social programs that might actually reduce the abortion rate). God is against homosexuality and so everything must be done to stop LGBT people from acting out their queerness.
In their obsession with sexual behavior the real social issues that matter, which are also the issues the Bible talks about most, are neglected. Things like racism, economic exploitation, gun violence, social justice, etc. etc. are completely ignored.
The Bible prohibits certain things and demands certain things, and evangelicals think that what the Bible “thinks” ought to be applied to a non-Christian society. As they search their inerrant Scriptures to casuistically apply an infallible and universal ethics on all aspects of life, they don’t realize that both their method and their interpretation are simply a reflection of themselves and what they think. Their ideal society would be a staunchly capitalist Jesus-praising version of Old Testament Israel.
The “Rule of Faith” Rules
Evangelicals don’t realize that they are reading their own neurotic frustrated sexual identity into their so-called biblical demands on society. In their attempts to enforce their biblical “ethics” they don’t realize that the very Gospel they seek to uphold is betrayed and that theology and ethics have actually been torn apart.
Evangelicals wield a cross that has been taken apart. They don’t have a genuine social ethics that proceeds from a deep reflection on God’s way with the world in Christ. The inside-outside mentality that characterizes world-eschewing communities like evangelicalism has been turned inside out in evangelical “ethics” such that the rule of conduct that strictly rules behavior inside the community of faith is now applied to the community of non-faith, i.e. the whole society.
The underdetermination of lack of ethics has turned into the “Rule of Faith” to be applied to everyone in society. Maybe you don’t believe in God and maybe you don’t go to church but your love relationship with a gay person will never be called marriage. And if you’re a pregnant teenager you will have to give birth because you shouldn’t have had premarital sex and God hates murder (but we will not really help you, but punish you). If you are poor, it is because you haven’t worked hard enough, because God rewards hard working folk. Etc., etc., ad nauseam.
And this is my beef with evangelicalism as I’ve encountered it in the USA. It is harsh toward the weak, the marginalized, and the nonconformist while being utterly hypocritical in that somehow the standards they hold everybody to do not apply to the president they need in order to get their hands on power. Claims to power are justified in spite of the fact that they are done in the name of the One who came as a meek and humble servant.
What right do evangelicals have to condemn the gay lifestyle when they are not even able to see their own complicity in America’ horrible racist problem? Much of evangelicalism is in bed with the unethical corpo-fascist destroyers of life that rule America. It displays an abject inability to provide a viable workable political program that is life-giving for and generous to the marginalized.
This is all the proof you need to see that evangelical theology has not been able to produce a genuine social ethics or a genuine political theology for that matter. But let there be no mistake, it is not an innocent skewed theology that produced an unintended hypocrisy. Evangelicalism’s fundamentalist bent has always been against social justice as you can learn from the history of the Social Gospel in the early 20th century, which in fact occasioned the birth of the fundamentalist movement. (Of course, I’m not talking about the 18th-century evangelicals who initiated the abolition movement in the United Kingdom.)
When I discovered these things, I tried to expose them and speak out on the issues involved. The slightest mention of white privilege, however, gets people disturbed and angry. There is a complete unwillingness to see the fallacy and heresy of an inerrant Scripture and its attendant overdetermination of ethics and blindness to hypocrisy. The cross has been taken apart. The vertical no longer truly impinges on the horizontal; salvation in Christ is merely a religious category that has nothing to do with the real world. The cross is a religious symbol only, instead of a revolutionary one. And hypocrisy enables the dichotomy that results.
There is no better way to illustrate this than with the words of a well known evangelical song from the early 70s. The writer belonged to the Jesus People movement and was willing to address issues that are completely absent from evangelical ethical discourse today: racism, capitalism, militarism, corrupt politics, and religious hypocrisy.
The Great American Novel
I was born and raised an orphan in a land that once was free
In a land that poured its love out on the moon;
And I grew up in the shadows of your silos filled with grain,
But you never helped to fill my empty spoon.
And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics,
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks,
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.
You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.
And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.
You are far across the ocean but the war is not your own,
And while you’re winning theirs, you’re gonna lose the one at home;
Do you really think the only way to bring about the peace
Is to sacrifice your children and kill all your enemies?
The politicians all make speeches while the news men all take note,
And they exaggerate the issues as they shove them down our throats;
Is it really up to them whether this country sinks or floats?
Well I wonder who would lead us if none of us would vote.
Well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped from whispering through the fence,
You know every move I make, or is that just coincidence?
Well you try to make my way of life a little less like jail,
If I promise to make tapes and slides and send them through the mail.
And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.
You say all men are equal, all men are brothers,
Then why are the rich more equal than others?
Don’t ask me for the answer, I’ve only got one:
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son
Songwriter: Larry Norman
The Great American Novel lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
This article is part of a 4 part series:
My Experience in Evangelicalism: Four Things that Pushed Me Out
My Struggle With Evangelicalism: From Inerrant Word to Subjugated World
A Sundered Cross: Evangelicalism and the Public Sphere
On Being Post-Evangelical: Moving Beyond the Anger of “Post-ness”