One big reason why Christianity has gotten a bad rap in post-world WWII Europe is that increasingly it began to be seen as hypocritical and disingenuous. Partly, as a result, the churches saw massive losses in the 60s and 70s. Statistics show that in my own country the Netherlands, for instance, the decline has still not come to a halt. I realize that a reduction to a single cause of any historical phenomenon is asking for trouble. But I’m not a historian and my purpose in this article is not to give an exhaustive overview of the decline of Christianity in Europe. Rather, I want to address a similar problem in evangelicalism where the accusation of hypocrisy points to a weird tension between evangelical theology and justice.
In the 20th century, one particularly pernicious problem regarding religions has come to light and is finally named: the checkered relationship between religion and justice. Christianity has not done well in the justice department. As the relationship between power and religion slowly became untethered in the 20th century, many people increasingly discerned a discrepancy between the teachings of Christianity and the standards of justice that had become generally normative in our culture–even when they are selectively and only imperfectly applied by everyone.
Something similar, I suggest, is going on with American evangelicalism but in an amplified form. As conservative and fundamentalist Christians in the USA saw their nation move from one deeply informed by Christianity in the mid-19th century to a thoroughly secular one at the dawn of the 21st century, they witnessed the slow but steady erosion of their power base. And with the untethering came the devastating critiques, allegations of hypocrisy, and moral indictments. One reason why in the USA people walk away from evangelicalism is that they perceive a huge discrepancy between the teachings of evangelical churches and the praxis that one would typically expect from them.
Evangelical leaders worried about the decline of influence in the public sphere have doubled down on their pet peeves: God will judge America over abortion, gay rights, and other sins of immorality. The accompanying support for Donald J. Trump that is found across evangelical denominations in the USA, even two years into his presidency, is both understandable and baffling. It is understandable in the sense that the support for Trump is a last straw effort to legislate “Christian” morality to save (or retake, if you will) God’s “chosen nation.” It is also understandable in the sense that many evangelicals will behave like they always have: preaching the Gospel on the hand and advocating an agenda that ignores or even damages the cause of justice on the other.
However, it is also baffling given Trump’s racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and his narcissistic inability to let one day go by without speaking blatant falsehoods. Trump embodies all the vices evangelicals abhor with regard to personal ethics in America. So how are they expecting to change things for the better precisely through Trump? To make matters worse, Trump also embodies all the vices liberals and socially concerned people abhor such as the above-mentioned racism, unrestricted capitalism, cronyism, xenophobia, ecological destruction, and misogyny. So, how do evangelicals expect to win back America for Christ if they are seen as hypocritical with regard to their own privatized ethics and considered immorally callous toward the call for justice at the social and systemic levels? This is no way to advocate a cause or make friends. “Evangelicalism” is slowly becoming synonymous with both hypocrisy and injustice. How is this possible?
I think part of the solution is to be found in the way evangelicals, more than any other religious group, exemplify the tension I earlier mentioned between theology and justice. Evangelical theology makes evangelicals blind to systemic ills while the concerns about the moral status of America are so great that their demands with regard to privatized sexual ethics recede to the background. And so you get what happens today: Evangelical Trumpism. Or, as some call it: Trumpianity. This weird discrepancy between personal ethics and social justice–and the betrayal of both–is the result of a particular political theological vision that sees America as a theocracy, the contours of which are defined by the evangelical theological imagination. According to this imagination, America is falling short of its destination as God’s chosen nation. It calls for something like a return to the moral outlook of the 19th century in which Victorian sexual ethics went hand in hand with racism and genocide. You could call this the religious version of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism.
God’s Chosen Nation
As the love affair between Trump and evangelicals unfolded in the media I looked on in horror. These people belonged to the tradition that I had strong historical ties with. Until recently, I was of the opinion that evangelical Trumpism was a mental aberration that would momentarily come to an end once evangelicals would see the truth about Trump as his administration got underway. But it didn’t. When I started reading up on the history of the movement, however, I slowly realized that Trump is the culmination of a deeply-ingrained evangelical strategy in which the movement comes to its own (even when in doing so, it strays from some of its core commitments). I wrote about the apocalyptic tendencies of the movement here and about the traumatizing effects of growing up in a religiously damaging context here. In this article, I want to address the discrepancy in evangelicalism between evangelical theology and justice.
It is not simply a matter of words versus works, or the problem of not putting your money where your mouth is. Humanity is all too human. We all fall short of our own ideals and often merely pay lip service to the ideals we strive for while our lifestyle does not correspond to our principles. I know this myself all too well. But that’s not what I’m talking about when I suggest there is a discrepancy between the teachings of evangelicals and the actual behavior that results from it. A behavior that runs in opposition to its own ethics. I believe the skewed theological paradigm is able to provide certain clues for why evangelical trumpism is what it has become today.
Evangelical Theology “Problematized”
Ever since I became a theology student in the United States, I felt increasingly at odds with how “my and “our” evangelical theology had to come up with excuses and explanations to prove a semblance of concern with social justice. I noticed how it had to add clauses to official statements to address criticism from without and build in conditional addenda in order to satisfy orthodox hawks within. At one point there simply was too much of a glaring gap between what I and many others perceived to be just, right, fair, honest on the one hand and official systematic theology that evangelicalism prided itself in.
Studying theology I made it a point not to touch books by evangelical authors. I was largely successful, got my degree and went on to study liberal theology. Recently, however, I’ve come back to evangelicalism to understand where the movement came from, what made it tick, what its historical development is. And so I made this realization–you know, one of those realizations that suddenly make you wonder how on earth you could have ever not seen it–that evangelical theology is at its core often oblivious to and sometimes even opposed to matters of justice. Literally. The doctrinal structure of evangelical theology, following Western theology in general, is either silent about justice or tacitly or openly resists it.
Some Reasons Why Evangelicalism Has Generally Neglected Social Justice
You could say that in evangelical theology the cross is sundered, i.e. the crossbar is sundered from the beam; the horizontal is separated from the vertical. I’ve used the metaphor of a sundered cross before in order to illustrate the gap between vertical and horizontal concerns, between matters pertaining to our relationship with God and matters pertaining to our neighbor. This time, however, I want to enumerate some historical and theological causes as to why evangelical theology resists and opposes justice.
To be sure, there are evangelicals who are passionate about social justice, ecological preservation, as well as care for the poor. There is a distinctive subculture within evangelicalism that has made justice a core commitment. I think of Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne, and Tony Campolo, but there are others. Even some dominant strains of evangelicalism are not without their concern for justice. There are amazing evangelical organizations out there that do great work in the areas of urban development, reaching out to the marginalized, etc. But there remains a gap between the theology and the rationale for justice. That rational comes almost as an afterthought, as a secondary concern that emerges after theological discourse has had its say. I believe that this problem as justice as an afterthought makes evangelicalism vulnerable to the kind of things that are happening today (e.g. Trumpianity) and always cause its theology to sound somewhat disingenuous.
What follows is not an exhaustive overview but gets the conversation going as I continue to research this subject.
1. Cognitive Preoccupation
Ever since theology became a distinctive discipline it has been a brainy affair. A major intellectual effort was needed in the wake of the transition of Christianity from a predominantly Jewish environment to a Hellenistic one. Schools of thought had to be integrated. Platonic thought, stoicism, and Neoplatonism were made part of Christian theology. Centuries later, the medieval schoolmen were tasked with absorbing the newly available texts of Aristotle. The great synthesis that Thomas Aquinas achieved in the 13th century was an unparalleled monument of thought. It was, however, to be rudely disrupted by Luther and the Reformation.
In a way, with Luther, we have, for the first time, a genuinely non-systematic approach in theology. It pointed the way Christian thinking should be headed: thinking through the concept of Christian freedom in all aspects of and applying it in all areas of life. This Christian freedom is characterized by its dual component of freedom from bondage and freedom for service. The radical implications of Christian freedom, however, were even too much for Luther himself and during the Peasant Revolts of 1522/3 which partly happened because of the application of Luther’s own ideas on freedom, he chose the side of the nobility and told them to suppress the insurrection.
The people who carried the heritage of the Reformation forward went far beyond Luther’s mistake in reshaping theology almost entirely as a cognitive endeavor. They created what became known as Lutheran and Reformed scholasticism in which right doctrine and systematization were of prime importance.
In the meantime, the Enlightenment had started which in many respects was a rational response to the questions about revelation and human reason that the Reformation left unanswered. Following the Reformation’s rejection of papal authority in matters of revelation, many Enlightenment thinkers started to cast doubt on the Reformation’s new source of religious authority: the Scriptures. With the rejection of Scripture, another source of spiritual/religious authority was hard to find. Initially, there was a great reliance on reason as a way to discover the will of God but soon reason and revelation were increasingly seen as not really belong to each other. Revelation became seen as unnecessary since the human mind (esp. that of the European bourgeois male) was considered a reliable judge in all matters pertaining to the good life, science, and philosophy. Who needs God for that?
Conservative Christians in the late 18th and 19th centuries resisted the effects of such thinking where it spilled over in Christian thinking and where it became known as liberal theology. Liberal theology had found a nice way to circumvent the attacks on revelation: it was to be found in the religious sensibilities of the believing subject. Who could argue against that? Well, conservative theologians could. In the Anglo-Saxon world, where we find basically all the evangelicals of that time, that resistance was carried out with the tools of the day. And, once again, a lot of the theology of that time became rationalistic and placed, once again, a strong emphasis on the cognitive aspect. This time it was to counter the pernicious effects of liberal theology. Conservative faith needed to be defended intellectually and conceptually. It didn’t help that most adherents of Protestant Christianity belonged to the well-to-do or at least were not in a position of being oppressed. Hence they were easily blinded to the call for freedom and justice that issued from the Biblical text. After all, they were not to be liberated and if there was any threat to their theology, it was an intellectual one.
2. Justification, But Not Justice, by Faith
I already mentioned Luther. His 1517 discovery of the meaning of divine justice blew his mind as well the roof off the papal institutional power. God’s justice is not something to be afraid of; it is a divine gift, given without any conditions. It comes from the free love of God. Well, if justice is given as an unmerited gift, why would it only pertain to the relationship between God and us? Why does it not also entail justice between people? Any divine concept of justice surely would have to include a setting right of the economic and political order.
And to be sure, as I mentioned above, Luther’s resulting concept of the freedom of a Christian led to a restructuring of society. The domination of an entire continent by the medieval Roman Catholic Church broke apart. Luther made clear that whatever freedom people possess, they possess it in order to help the neighbor. Whatever position in life you had, became your vocation. The freedom that came with it was at the same time your duty to serve. Luther’s notion of freedom was too radical, however. Even for Luther. Now that he had unleashed the “demon” of liberation, how was there to remain order in society?
The solution was to take the edge off the gospel by spiritualizing it. God’s justice given to us resulting in the freedom of the Christian was mostly a spiritual justice resulting in spiritual freedom. Justification by faith became a spiritual term meaning God’s wrath no longer hovered over you; it no longer had implications for your place in society or for the way society ought to be restructured according to divine justice. Of course, it kind of makes sense that you cannot simply apply divine justice to society. People would be able to commit all kinds of crimes without having to be afraid of going to prison. But in another sense, it doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t the concept of a Christian who is free from guilt and who is liberated from the consequences of sin not entail liberation and freedom in other areas of life as well? What point is there in receiving liberation by faith while remaining a serf, or while continuing in a situation of exploitation or abuse? Such religion is the opiate of the people as Marx correctly observed.
Thus, the concept had to spiritualized. How else was Europe going to conquer the world, colonize the foreign lands its discoverers encountered, and capture slaves to make them work the cotton field? There is, then, a direct link between the spiritualization of salvation and the justification of injustice perpetrated by Christian Europe and Christian America.
This is one of the main reasons why social justice was never or hardly part of the systematic theologies and dogmatics that Western theologians wrote. The goal was to enshrine God in systems of thought but in such a way that all calls for justice that would disrupt stratified society and capitalist machinations would be muted. The perfect god is the one who condones the status quo and blesses those who bless themselves.
3. The Perfection of Myopia
Continuing to play with the notion of perfection, the perfect theology is one that inoculates its proponents from seeing their own myopia. There is often a willful element in processes that enshrine sins into systems of thought but sometimes it happens in an honest attempt to do the right thing. One such example of the latter sort is found in Scottish Common Sense Realism. Thomas Reid was one of David Hume’s fiercest critics. He believed that we can actually know things as they are simply by observing them well. Using your common sense was a guaranteed way to know the world; even commoners could know things this way.
The Protestants in the New World picked up on this Common Sense Realism. In the main disputes with liberal theology and science, Common Sense Realism provided conservative Protestants with the ammunition to combat the enemy. Theologian Charles Hodge developed his so-called “scientific” theology, which was based on the propositional facts of Scripture. Simply by using your common sense and taking the Scriptural data as facts, you could arrive at perfect and objective theology. Science too was carried out in such a way so why not theology as well? Conservatives felt disdain for the evolution theory since it was not based on observable facts that common sense could use to create objective scientific statements. The evolution theology was “ideological” while Hodge’s conservative theology was free from such ideological contamination since it was based on common sense. Could there be a more unbiased approach?
Little did these theologians realize that all theory is perspectival and that every position taken has ideological inflections or at the least a priori philosophical assumptions. Since these conservative theologians genuinely thought that their way of thinking led to objectivity, they tended to be blind to their own myopic tendencies. One, of course, nothing having to do with the main debates between conservatives and liberals or theology and science, was the conservative blindness to injustice carried out with the help and support of their own theology. The progress of the theologians’ own Christianized culture of the new America, necessitated and consequently justified the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native American tribes. To be sure, many 19th-century evangelicals–unlike most of their 20th-century fundamentalist progeny–fought against social ills and were abolitionists. But as the fundamentalist movement got underway (and also throughout the 19th century) conservative-fundamentalist theology did not have the internal resources to critique its own system of thought. This inability to engage in self-criticism is characteristic of many evangelical theologians today as they simply assume that an inerrant Bible results in bias-free theology. It doesn’t and so white privilege, racist attitudes, support for exploitative capitalism continue without criticism.
4. Sanctification understood as Privatized Otherworldliness
The Holiness movement of the 19th century was, contrary to popular understanding, passionately engaged in advocating social causes. Many of those involved in this movement advocated, among other things, abolition and temperance. Charles Finney was an abolitionist (which, by the way, did not prevent him from being a segregationist). Jonathan Blanchard, prior to founding Wheaton College, was known as one of the staunchest abolitionists. Something changed though in the Holiness movement during the last years of The Great War and beyond. All language of social involvement and advocacy disappeared from the literature.
If we look at evangelical ideas from 1920 onward concerning sanctification or, what Pentecostals call, the baptism in the Holy Spirit (which I loosely associated with the same idea), we see that the idea of holiness has taken on a very specific understanding. Being holy in the evangelical and charismatic movements today is primarily understood in terms of private faith. Sanctification is the result of an individual’s battle against personal vices. It is primarily concerned with individual character development. Fighting against social injustice, the devastating outgrowths of capitalism, or oppression and marginalization of minorities and underprivileged communities, has absolutely nothing to do with holiness or sanctification as evangelicals today understand it (save a few). Insofar the Spirit is given as empowerment for service in the world outside the church it is for conversion purposes only.
A brief look at the incarnation shows how serious of a misunderstanding this is. Christ is, according to the Scriptures, the Holy One of God set apart (i.e. sanctified) to save the world and reconcile humanity with God. Indeed, Christ was only holy to the extent that he became flesh and partook of human suffering. His exaltation is ironically exemplified (as per the gospel of John) by his crucifixion.
The individualization of sanctification as a personalized inward-looking process of virtuousness stands diametrically opposed to what Christ, the one Christians are to follow, embodies. Rather than holiness, it produces pride, arguably the worst sin. And, analogous to the separation of justification and justice, it removes holiness from embodiment in the world. Once again, theology, rather than empowering us for service in the world, inoculates us against the claim Christ should have on our lives. Sanctification now means not to be defiled by the very same world that Christ was sent to die in.
5. The Social Gospel
And then there is the Social Gospel. As soon as it was proposed by Walter Rauschenbusch in the early 20th century, conservatives, evangelicals, and all the people who would soon become the fundamentalists of the 1920s got into a fit. It is not that they were not interested in being socially engaged. On the contrary, in the 19th century, they often were. The problem was that Rauschenbusch proposed that the truth of the Gospel is solely found in its expression of concern for the disadvantaged. There was a good deal of sophisticated epistemology borrowed from German liberal theology in his proposal. Truth, he insisted, is not primarily cognitive but ethical and “proves” itself to be true in the results of ethical engagement.
Conservative theologians in America, for their part, worked out of a theological framework that considered revelation to be contained in the propositions found in Scripture (remember the Scottish Common Sense Realism I mention above). They were alarmed at the suggestion that truth is no longer propositional since it subverted the whole edifice of their systematic theology. Here was an approach to revelation that perhaps sounded noble but detracted from the important tenets of the Christian faith as they understood it. The Gospel message needs to be embedded in such timeless truths as the divinity of Jesus and his virgin birth, not to mention the inerrancy of Scripture, etc. Their knee-jerk response was so strong that social involvement became less and less important. Social reform became suspect. Those who engaged in it were probably harboring liberal theological convictions. The Social Gospel became synonymous with heresy. For real!
6. Premillennialism and the World To Come
Premillennialism, a movement that began in the 19th century, entails the belief that Christ will soon return in order to establish a literal thousand-year Kingdom of peace. Most other Protestants in America at the time held to a position called Postmillennialism. They believed that Christ’s return (whatever exactly that was and what it might look like) would happen after a millennium of peace as foretold in the Bible. They thought that their Western civilization was pretty much the realization of that millennium. Ideas like Manifest Destination were no doubt connected to it. As Western civilization marched forward and was in the process of covering the entire globe, the conditions for Christ’s return were gradually met. Postmillennialists, being children of their time, were largely oblivious to the destructive consequences for non-Western civilizations of such an outlook. On the upside, Postmillennialists thought there was still lots of work to be done before they could really call the Western world a kingdom of peace. So they were involved in a good number of social causes.
As long as their 19th-century America had an aura of being a Protestant nation, premillennialists championed social causes as well. As soon as the First World War took place and the Social Gospel made its entry in public discourse, however, its activist nature took on a completely different character. America became paradoxically both a Babylon that was about to be punished by a wrathful God and God’s chosen nation to show forth the light of the Gospel. As a result, involvement in the world moved from social causes to the spiritual domain. D.L. Moody was already known for not being inclined to aid the poor. He reasoned that a poor man is no longer interested in the Gospel as soon as his stomach is satisfied. But after the Great War proclamation of the Gospel became pretty much the only form of public engagement.
This antithesis between conservative and social Gospel, spiritual and material nourishment, salvation and aid, preaching and praxis became deeply ingrained in the thought of the Premillennialists who later became the Fundamentalists of the 1920 and later again the evangelicals of the post-WWII era. Any effort to push for legislation for social justice was often seen as a waste since people needed to have Jesus in their hearts; only then would society be perfect (never mind that precisely those people who supposedly “had” Jesus in their heart, proved to be some of the staunchest racists and segregationists). No wonder, because in the pre-independence era, clergy eager to evangelize black slaves, tried to appease their owners by suggesting that spiritual freedom does not imply “temporal freedom.”
7. God’s Chosen Nation
As I mentioned in the introductory part, one big part of evangelical trumpism is rooted in the idea of American Exceptionalism or, theologically, in the myth that America was founded as a Christian nation. America is to lead the way for the other nations and be a light in the world. If the reader has read my previous point about premillennialism this will no doubt strike them as odd. How can America be God’s nation when the world is coming to an end? But in a weird concoction of end-time thinking and appropriation of Old Testament theology, America has taken Israel’s place in the world, or, at least, functions analogously to how Israel functioned in Biblical times.
There is then a call to return to a previous “pristine” state. American evangelicals are engaged in a massive effort to restore, as it were, a Christian America. Such an imagination requires that America’s history is cleaned up and that it racist and genocidal past is glossed over. Besides, God may deal with individual Christians once they are saved but he also deals with nations at large and within the framework of the big picture of God’s plan with the world such national concerns outweigh matters of injustice. That this whole idea of America as God’s special instrument stands in stark contrast to the strong premillennialist overtones of the movement is a testimony to the wonders of religious creativity. Believers are often happily oblivious to their own paradoxes.
7. Big Money
On the political front, the fundamentalist premillennialists continued their action but in a rather skewed way. Not only was the world soon coming to an end, as their leaders predicted over and over again, but the Antichrist was also coming. And as the premillennialists understood it, the Antichrist would emerge from a conglomerate of nations who had total control over their citizens through big government. This meant that they were in favor of small government and got very nervous whenever a president attempted to enlarge the apparatus of his administration. For the premillennialists, Roosevelt’s New Deal came straight out of Satan’s playbook.
But that was not the only reason why these fundamentalists favored small government. At heart, they were also in favor of big business. After all, they were often funded by wealthy businessmen (BIOLA, The Fundamentals, Christianity Today) and as such had an interest in the government not putting limitations inspired by socialist concern on their wealthy donors. Besides, wasn’t America a country of rugged individualism? Isn’t the American spirit all about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps?
Evangelicals and conservatives in the 19th century refined and strengthened their cognitive approach to theology (see my first point) with the aid of Scottish Common Sense Realism. They did this primarily by developing the doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrancy is the doctrine that asserts that the Bible speaks the absolute truth in every word it uses and every proposition it puts forward regardless of the topic it addresses. Inerrancy caused a great tension between theology and science especially on the subject of the evolution theory. Indeed, if the Word of the Lord says that God created heaven and earth in six days, those days must be literal six days.
But there is another matter of an ethical nature that is linked to this and it doesn’t normally get a lot of attention. Inerrancy implied that any skewed or even morally dubious perspective of the biblical writers was ruled out. Regardless of what the writers thought or intended, the almost mechanical idea of interpretation ensured that whatever was in the Bible was also God’s opinion. Any injustice carried out in the Name of God in the Bible had to be interpreted as originating from God. Of course, since God is just the apparent injustices like the command to commit genocide in Canaan, the command to stone a young boy for profanity, and the existence of slavery needed to in need of justification from a divine perspective. Injustice in the biblical narratives were expressions of God’s divine will and became paradigmatic for Christian existence today.
The cognitive approach in Protestant theology and the doctrine of inerrancy of 19th-century evangelicals caused evangelical theology to lack to the ability of self-criticism. The cognitive aspect turned the theological enterprise in a search for the one right theology that was objectively true and inerrancy gave the proponents of this theology the tool in hand to “prove” they were right. Self-criticism was effectively eliminated and thus any hope for change from within. Not social reform but the protection of divine truth became the highest ideal.
There are no doubt other historical explanations and even deeper insights into the theological imagination that informed fundamentalism and evangelicalism but these go a long way of showing the problematic relationship between evangelical theology and justice. The theological imagination is so strong and dominant that it does not easily occur to evangelicals that there is a huge discrepancy between thought and moral demand. It doesn’t get solved by adding better words to official declarations or by initiating this or that program. There is something wrong at the core. And as long that problem is not addressed, i.e. as long as justice is not written into the very heart of theology, the evangelical movement will continue to be deficient and run into trouble as can be seen in the recent emergence of evangelical trumpism.
All this is part of a deeper problem that is inscribed on so much theological discourse. There is always an effort to domesticate God in order to obtain a position of power. Any theology that lacks a proper form of self-criticism and auto-deconstruction is likely to fall prey to the temptation of the deification of its own truth.