My friend Jonathan Leeman has written a thoughtful reflection on what he calls the project of evangelical deconstruction. I want to respond, in part because I expect some readers may view my forthcoming book, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism, as a contribution to that project (though I started the book six years ago, long before any such “project” was getting attention). Leeman’s essay gives me a chance to clarify how I view these works, describe where my work fits in, and respond to some of Leeman’s arguments about the broader undertaking by historians and political scientists to describe and explain the cultural pathologies we have seen in the world of white American evangelicalism. Much of this debate ends up being about disciplinary and methodological approaches to knowledge, about how theologians approach things differently than social scientists.
Leeman understands the advocates of deconstruction to be arguing that evangelical doctrine is culturally conditioned and self-interested, listing Kristen Kobs du Mez, David Gushee, Beth Allison Barr, Jemar Tisby, Jacob Allen Cook, and Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry as examples. (Some accept the label “deconstruction” and some do not. I don’t care either way but will use the term as shorthand the way Leeman does). I don’t think Leeman is quite right to say the project is solely about the cultural conditioning of doctrine, specifically. I think it is about the cultural conditioning of a broad social and religious movement in all its cultural, political, and ideological dimensions—and the way that movement is typically blind to its own cultural particularity, making universal claims about itself with damaging consequences. Du Mez highlights how the cultural conditioning of American evangelicalism has led it to be complicit in sexism; Tisby, in racism; Whitehead and Perry (and me), in nationalism, and so forth.
Leeman begins by acknowledging that many of the things the advocates of deconstruction are arguing against are real: The church has been implicated in racism and sexism, needs to acknowledge it, repent, and do better. He also rightly warns that some forms of deconstruction go too far and end up pushing for errors in the opposite direction. I agree with this too. I deeply appreciate Leeman’s wisdom and sensitivity here, counseling care for those who are hurting while also warning against “the lies that hurt people find refuge in.”
I find when I talk about the dangers of Christian nationalism, some Christians who are politically conservative are so focused on the dangers and evils of the left that they feel the need to ignore, downplay, or simply deny the problems and dangers on the right; they imply (or outright say) that criticizing the right is disloyal because it helps the left. But Leeman counsels us to listen to the rebuke of a friend rather than turn a deaf ear out of strategic considerations, even as he counsels those who offer rebuke to be careful of their motives and their own errors. I hope my own work comes across as the rebuke of a friend. I agree some of the deconstruction goes too far and I took so long to write my book because I wanted to find a way to say the hard things with love and faithfulness, without throwing out important doctrine or saying hard things out of anger.
Where I think Leeman misses the mark is where he counsels his readers to distrust social scientists, or at least hold their scholarship at a discount compared to the work of pastors. “I would discourage Christians from giving historians or sociologists the same kind of trust they give to their pastors and their pastors’ teaching of the Bible. This is true for any historian, but perhaps particularly for historians and sociologists who work within the broadly postmodern deconstruction project.” Note Leeman’s explanation:
Theologians and exegetes at least have a fixed (biblical) text which constrains to some measure what they can say. They might do hermeneutical gymnastics. Who would deny it! Yet the closed and fixed biblical canon means anyone can check their work, as the Bereans did with Paul (Acts 17:11). Yet when, for instance, du Mez argues that post-war white evangelicalism was characterized by patriarchy and toxic masculinity, there’s no text or fixed data set to check her work against…You can’t check those larger claims against anything, even if you have a Ph.D. in her particular area of expertise.
That’s a startlingly inaccurate understanding of the historical profession and of social science more generally. Leeman is right that our knowledge is partial, but to say that we therefore “can’t check those larger claims,” is wrong. Of course we can check Du Mez’s claims. Leeman seems to be saying that because historians do not have a comprehensive catalogue of every fact against which to compare Du Mez’s work, we have to treat the work as subjective and untrustworthy. That’s not how any field of knowledge works. We always work in a cloud of partial knowledge, incomplete information, and, yes, interpretation—including in theology. If we follow Leeman’s claim to its logical conclusion, it would undermine all scholarship and all knowledge. We see but through a mirror darkly, yet we still follow the call to get wisdom and get understanding.
A few paragraphs later, Leeman makes this very point when defending the possibility of theological knowledge.
Postmodernism’s heavy emphasis on the role of interpretation is, quite simply, too heavy. It tempts Christians to believe that the Bible cannot be objectively understood, or that we cannot articulate objectively true doctrines, or that everything we might say about the Bible warrants suspicions because it only reveals our cultural context and sinful self-interest.
Leeman defends our ability to know true things about the Bible. I agree, and I wish he would extend the same argument to the possibility of historical knowledge as well. It seems odd that he would cast doubt on the historical enterprise on the grounds that our knowledge is partial and incomplete only to affirm the possibility of knowledge later, when it comes to theology. The Bible presumes a world in which knowledge is possible and meaningful, a foundation on which we have built standards of rigor and scholarship. The theologian and the social scientist are both scholars studying God’s revelation: one, the book of Scripture, the other, the book of Nature. Both are working with partial knowledge and fallen minds, but by the grace of God, we come to speak the truth in love, as best we can see the truth.
Leeman’s skepticism would be justified if directed at a hack, an amateur, or a fraud, like David Barton. But Du Mez is an odd target: she and her work have been put through the paces, starting with her PhD at Notre Dame supervised by no less an authority than George Marsden, the dean of evangelical historiography. It also includes the hiring committee at Calvin College, where she teaches, and the editors and reviewers at W. W. Norton, who published her book. Thirty-one pages of footnotes attest to her scholarship. Her work is polemical, but she’s done the work to fulfill the professional requirements of her craft. Of course, she might still make errors or overstate judgments, but that would be despite, not because of, the nature of her profession.
Leeman thinks that the partial nature of historical knowledge compares unfavorably to the knowledge with which pastors and theologians work. Again, his argument:
Christians should read history and learn it. But they must not trust any historian like they trust the Bible. Teach your members that we can learn from the works of history and sociology, but it’s only the Bible which gives us a God’s-eye view of life in the universe. God himself speaking, which is what the Bible is, is our only perfectly objective truth…It’s no surprise, then, that Scripture calls congregations to listen to their pastors who teach them God’s Word. [emphasis added]
Leeman argues, rightly, that the Bible is the one fixed standard of perfect and objective truth . But he uses that truth to commend the superior epistemological trustworthiness of pastors and theologians and their work. This is close to the core of the deconstructionists’ complaint: that Christians often take divine authority for particular claims; they mistake their understanding of the truth for truth itself. The logical extension of that view is to treat one particular, embodied tradition of Christian practice as the final and complete expression of Christianity. The deconstructionist response is that the Bible’s infallibility does not extend to those who study it; infallibility is not a commutative property; you don’t get Biblical authority just because your specialty is Biblical studies.
Leeman understands this, at least in principle, yet he still wants to claim special authority for the pastor’s or theologian’s knowledge. (Pastors do have unique authority in their role as shepherds of the church, but I take Leeman to be making a different claim, that they enjoy more reliable knowledge, which I do not think is true). He argues for their superior knowledge, first, on the grounds that the object they study (the Bible) is our one fixed point of absolute truth, which wrongly conflates the authority of the thing studied with the one studying it. But then he extends that authority to everything the theologian says. Later on, he says, “to be clear, I’m saying ‘Bible’ for shorthand. The real competitor is what we understand the Bible to say or teach, that is, biblical doctrine.” So for Leeman, “Bible” also means “the theologian’s interpretation of the Bible,” which he wants to be authoritative over the historian, the political scientist, the anthropologist. “The trouble begins the moment the traditions of men or science are given authority over Scripture,” which, again, includes “biblical doctrine.”
But the theologian’s interpretation, the “biblical doctrine,” is a “tradition of man,” not an alternative to it. It is a historical and cultural artifact, not Biblical truth itself, and thus fair game for historical, political, and cultural inquiry and judgment. Doctrine depends on exegesis, which depends on knowledge of Biblical language, archeology, the history of the ancient near east, all of which are fields of knowledge subject to the same limitations as Du Mez’s history. And that is to say nothing of personal biases, presuppositions, cultural environment, and so on.
Doctrine, though its ultimate source is the Bible, is still a human creation, which is why it varies over time and place despite a common Biblical foundation. That is why we have a Baptist tradition and a Presbyterian tradition, a Reformed tradition and an Anglican tradition. Some of the differences among traditions are conflicts over what the Bible means that can be resolved by consulting the Biblical text (hint: the Baptists are right). Even then, we should hold our doctrine more loosely than we hold to the Bible itself, understanding that God may give us greater insight into His word in ensuing generations. We revere the early church fathers, but we also recognize it took them three or four centuries to work out the creedal statements on Christology and the Trinity. Other differences among traditions are simply differences in culture, preference, and emphasis. That is why even within Baptist circles, we find differences between predominantly White churches and predominantly Black churches. Theology is not math; it is one of the humanities.
None of that is to deny that doctrine can be true; that it is necessary; and that theological knowledge is real knowledge. As with the historical enterprise, our knowledge is partial, finite, and fallen. Yet we are also capable of knowing and communicating true things. The crux of my disagreement with Leeman, I believe, is epistemological. He acknowledges the partiality of human knowledge in all areas except theology and uses that belief to counsel distrust in the social sciences. I affirm the partiality of human knowledge in all fields, including theology, and I don’t think that is reason for distrust. If we distrust partial knowledge, we become nihilists, because there is no other kind of knowledge.
Perhaps our knowledge exists along a spectrum of reliability, such that the closer we stick to the Biblical text, the more reliable it is. I might agree to that, in principle (I don’t know if Leeman would) but it does not really solve our disagreement. How closely Christians have been sticking to the Biblical text is precisely what is at issue; theologians cannot resolve it by fiat by simply announcing that their thinking is closer to the Bible than others’. Theologians and pastors in the conservative White American Protestant traditions claim they stick very closely; social scientists and historians argue otherwise from the evidence of Christians’ behavior–because “you will recognize them by their fruits.” The theologians act as if they can be judges in their own cause, assessing with objectivity how truly Biblical their own thinking is. Social scientists and historians would argue that we are not the best observers of our own motivations or the purity of our thoughts, that theologians need to take stronger heed of the reality of motivated reasoning, cognitive blinders, group think, and other biases. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. Who can understand it?”
In their arguments, the deconstructionists tend to emphasize—and Leeman acknowledges—that past theologians have (mis)interpreted the Bible to support slavery, segregation, sexism, abuse, and more, which sort of proves the point that history and social science should be allowed to say something about how and why theological work is done. Theologians don’t get a pass just because they spend their days studying the Bible; if anything, the opposite is true: they merit extra scrutiny because of the high stakes of their work and strong claims of authority they make. And if once theology deserved deference as the “queen of the sciences,” as Leeman wants, the deconstructionists’ claim is that the sciences need a regency because the queen is trying to be a god.
Leeman thinks the two sides are talking past one another. “One side wants to have a conversation about the Bible, while the other side effectively disallows it.” That mistakes the nature of the conversation. We do not disallow conversations about the Bible, but we do disallow claims that one side’s interpretation of the Bible is culturally neutral while another side’s interpretation is culturally enmeshed and therefore suspect. Cultural enmeshment is inevitable. And enmeshment is not, in itself, reason for skepticism, but it is why conversations about culture—informed by scholars of culture, politics, and society—are not an alternative to exegesis, but a vital part of it.
There’s no better way I can put it than to quote from a key passage in my book (which isn’t out yet, so this exact quote may change slightly):
The claim that Anglo-Protestantism, or White Christianity, is a particular ethnoreligious historical community is itself one of the major arguments of this book and one of the major interpretive lenses I have used throughout…The claim is likely to be uncontroversial, even obvious, to historians or political scientists, to whom the cultural and historical particularity of White Protestant Anglo-American culture is a given. But I have found some resistance to this claim among evangelical pastors and theologians—and their flock in the pews—who prefer to think that their theology and their approach to the world is founded on the Bible alone and thus represents unmediated universal truth rather than cultural particularity—especially when I suggest the way in which our cultural particularity influences our thought is to make us insensitive to, or passive in the face of, racial inequality…
It is impossible, epistemologically, to achieve a universal vantage point. The Bible is universal truth, but our interpretations of it are always historically and culturally conditioned…I do not mean that White Christianity is uniquely evil, or that the fact of its particularity is evidence of its wickedness. Every culture, tradition, and community is particular and none have a universal standpoint…[But] I want to highlight the ways in which many White American Christians are acting from their cultural particularity rather than their avowed universal principles in politics, how they prioritize their cultural or tribal interests above the ideals they profess. Cultural particularity is inevitable, but making its defense a central political conviction is not, nor is the effort to pass off one’s culture as a universal template or the embodiment of justice…
The problem is not the story of Christian republicanism, which is good; nor is it the fact of cultural particularity, which is inescapable. The problem is believing the story wholly sanctifies the culture, that the culture is the full and final culmination of the story, that there is no tension between story and culture that needs examination or resolution.
It is precisely “the effort to pass off one’s culture as a universal template or the embodiment of justice” that is the problem in a large swath of White American evangelicalism. We look to the Bible, as we should; what we take from the Bible has demonstrably included as much of our own cultural presuppositions as Biblical foundations. We then confuse the one for the other and go about sharing the gospel of our culture and calling it the Bible. We present our theology as complete truth, when it is actually part Bible and part culture. And that’s how we unconsciously end up expecting others to accept some of our cultural particularities as Biblical truth. And, historically, we just happened to do so in ways that were extremely unfortunate for everyone who didn’t look or act like us.
I would hope that theologians would welcome and celebrate the effort to describe, explain, and assess this pattern because the aim is to purify our theology from cultural accretions and pollutants. Again, Leeman acknowledges that the sins about which the deconstructionists write are real—but he seems to minimize the importance of their work by suggesting that they aren’t discovering anything especially unique or novel and that the work is mostly the product of a prior methodological commitment. He says:
I’m talking about the methodological commitment in (Christian) social science departments and among the readers of those books to placing a top priority on exposing the will-to-power in others, particularly among certain types of people. That commitment necessarily discovers what it’s looking for. If you put on red-colored lenses, you’ll see the world in red…Pick any group or individual you want, even the holiest of saints. Offer the hypothesis that that group or individual is motivated by self-interest. And ten times out of ten, with enough patience and study, you’ll be able to prove the hypothesis.
But what if some groups do it more than others? What if some groups have not yet admitted, confessed, or repented from doing it? What if some groups insist, loudly, that they are not doing any such thing, while they continue doing it, hurting people in the process? Wouldn’t scholarship exposing such facts be worthwhile? Also: if pretty much everyone is guilty of the will-to-power, maybe the scholarly commitment to looking for it is at least partly justified? Would we be having conversations about how to better handle sex abuse in the church, how to better approach racial justice in the church, without the work of scholars who have painstakingly shown these patterns in past generations? Again, Leeman seems dismissive of the work of historians and social scientists, treating their work as so much inevitable outworking of underlying commitments rather than the accumulation of fact, analysis, and insight in service of the effort to speak the truth in love.
Disentangling culture from Bible is the originating impulse of the “deconstruction” project—and, to that extent, it is good and needful. Leeman is right to warn against going too far—though, in my view, we are at greater danger of not going far enough in disentangling Christianity from American nationalism. It is irrefutably true that a lot of American Christianity has been guilty of this entanglement in various ways for many years. This is an important story—and as Leeman says, it is social scientists and historians, not theologians, who are leading this conversation. He thinks that is a reason to approach the conversation with skepticism and doubt the claims of social scientists. I come to a different conclusion.