On January 17, Ron Sider, an evangelical theologian famous for his insistence that rich Christians make work of addressing poverty, posted on a piece on his blog titled “STILL EVANGELICAL IN SPITE OF PRESIDENT TRUMP’S EVANGELICAL SUPPORTERS?” In this blogpost Sider outlines why he still calls himself an evangelical in spite of the Evangelical sell-out to Trump.
While I greatly respect Sider for his work, I think the times and context in which we live require us to abandon the term evangelical. I acknowledge Sider’s emphasis of rootedness in historical Christianity but I’m afraid that late 19th en 20th century evangelicalism has undergone developments and made certain fatal decisions that set it apart from earlier forms of evangelicalism. The movement basically set itself up for the apostasy that is currently happening in American Evangelicalism.
Three Major Developments
Three major developments took place that changed the evangelicalism of the socially engaged abolitionist movements of the 19th centuries into something unrecognizably different. American evangelicalism may be carrying the same name as the evangelicalism that went before but it is something else. And that else has now born fruit into its current support for president Trump.
The first of these three developments is that the evangelical movement became obsessed with the end times. An extreme focus on the book of Revelation and an interpretation of world affairs from the perspective of Revelation caused believers to have a sense of immediacy and urgency. The Lord was returning soon and people needed to be saved. Images of fire and brimstone, cataclysmic disasters and widespread catastrophes filled the imagination of evangelical believers.
The focus away from ameliorating things on earth in the light of impending doom was exacerbated by the second development early in the 20th century, namely the fundamentalist turn. The traditional emphasis on the Bible as the word of God turned, as part of a desire to stem the tide of theological liberalism, into a literal reading of the Bible as plenary inerrant. Assent to inerrancy became the litmus test for faith. Right doctrine rather than love for the neighbor became the rallying cry for the movement.
This fundamentalist turn was instigated by more than just theological liberalism. Liberal Christians had begun to preach a Social Gospel in which the emphasis was on equality and economic justice. Fundamentalist evangelicals would have none of it. With the financial help of rich business owners they started a number of evangelical educational institutions and in the process wedded fundamentalist evangelicalism to corporate capitalism.
These three things inoculated Evangelicalism against almost any meaningful involvement in movements for racial equality, emancipation of women, liberation of the economically oppressed, and involvement in effort to save the environment. It’s Gospel of a privately held faith in Jesus Christ as a one-way ticket to heaven was as detached from earth as Apollo 13 was from the moon.
Abandoning the Term Evangelical
For me there are a number reasons why, against my own will, I saw myself forced to abandon the term evangelical well before the ascendancy of Trump. Here I offer three:
- The first one had to do with my own experience. I grew up within a narrative of a providential Father in heaven who worked everything for the good for those who believed. God provides, leads, and blesses. My personal life, however, has been marked by suffering, struggle, difficulty, and defeat. When I was 1.5 years old my 2.5 year old brother suddenly died. Trauma ensued, of course, but I did not have the words to express the loss of being I underwent. No explanation came from above; no message from the Holy Spirit to guide me through these murky waters. I grew up and never understood why my life was marked by silent suffering. To make things worse, my providential Father in heaven saw fit to let my youngest sister die when I was 13. Never did I see the arrival of the promised land in which God’s perfect plan for my life was realized in spite of all the promises of revival preachers and successful victorious life coaches. Toward the end of my 40s I finally realized that if I wanted to remain a Christian I had to abandon my evangelical faith and call out that imaginary god who did not do anything real ever. God had to be different than my evangelical pastors told me. I didn’t want to become an atheist and thus opted for the God behind or beyond the evangelicalism that explains all suffering away.
- My second reason had to do with theology. In seminary I initially attempted to become a Christian apologist until I realized that the entire project leads to the domestication of God for human ends. Proving God never amounts to more than proving what the human mind is capable of and what has first been defined in human terms. This turned out to be even more true in evangelical theology based as it is on the doctrine of inerrancy. This 19th century invention guaranteed believers absolute access to the absolute will and mind of God (as opposed to the so-called wishy-washy nonsense of liberal theology). With disregard for (and ignorance about) their own hermeneutical filtering, evangelicals claimed all sorts of things about God not realizing they read their own victorian social ethics into Scripture, fit Scripture into their own doctrinal convictions, and domesticated the biblical God into a lap dog who barked at strangers and gave paw at command. I will only mention the rigid stalemate between science and religion that resulted from this mindset.
- And then there’s the all important issue of justice. What really did it for me was the discovery that the evangelical theological system, dependent as it is on the doctrine of inerrancy, not only leads to an inadvertent reading of one’s own bias into Scripture. It seems almost designed to reinforce one’s own opinion and to protect the interests of the in-group of the faith one belongs to. I discovered a direct link between evangelical theology as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries and the white privilege, racism, xenophobia so widespread today among American evangelicals. Likewise, it’s gospel is designed to not upset the economic status quo and only deals with the privatized realm of an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Its gospel demands a few words of assent and requires hardly any changes in behavior. God forbid that the blue-eyed and blond-haired Jesus would have something to say about neoliberalism.
Evangelicalism has betrayed its roots
I cannot be an evangelical anymore because evangelical theology represents the subversion of the sola fide of the Reformation. Reformation theology is often called evangelical, in the sense that it represents a rediscovery of the Gospel. But since the inerrancy of evangelicalism today leads to absolute knowledge of God and God’s will, grace is annulled and no longer necessary. Inerrancy therefore represents a move away from the evangelicalism of the Reformation.
Evangelicalism today preaches grace but doesn’t need much of it and shows it even less. All one needs to be is a good reader of Scripture and one knows what God thinks and wants. So who needs grace? You only need to look around you to see how gracelessness informs much of evangelical speech and praxis: children are separated from their parents at US borders, while efforts are made to turn the United States into the theocracy that reflects the myopic social ethics of fundamentalism while its adherents remain deaf to the vices of its corporate capitalism and the way it is an environmental threat to the planet. Evangelicalism has turned into a graceless and loveless state religion under Trump. All to win the world for Christ: their world; their version of Christ.
To be sure, liberal theology is not the answer either. Both it and evangelical theology are products of modernity and are in need of an alternative that reaches back to the Reformation in a way that it answers the questions of today and reaches toward the future in an effort to address the situation today.
We need a Christianity that seeks to answer the question of who Jesus Christ is for us today. And for that I need to abandon evangelical as my label and look for the grace that is beyond the God who is made in the image of my own privileged subculture by means of a literalist interpretation and who wages my culture wars to safeguard my wealth and my version of reality. And I call on thinking and concerned evangelicals who love their neighbor and want to follow Christ to do the same.