One of the comments I got in response to Monday’s post was a fairly simple question: “What exactly do you have in mind when you talk about ‘white evangelical crap?'” It’s a fair question. So here’s an attempt at an answer. Three things come to mind right away.
Folk Civil Religion
There is a sort of American folk religion that blends American patriotism with Christian piety that is quite common in significant segments of the evangelical movement, especially in the south and especially in Baptist circles from what I’m able to tell. (It also shades into a lot of Pentecostalism, at which point it may well no longer be ‘evangelical’ depending on how one defines the term.)
This would be a good example of it:
There are other examples we could cite as well, of course. Mike Pence’s twisting of Hebrews 12, adapting the language of the text and replacing a reference to Jesus with a reference to the American flag would be another instance:
There are other dumber examples one might cite that exemplify the thing I’m talking about in which Christian practice is reduced to a kind of mascot to legitimize our chasing after commercial or political success:
— The Hill (@thehill) September 17, 2019
Lifeway research suggests that as many as 2/3 of American churches incorporate patriotic music into their liturgy for public worship during the time around the 4th of July holiday.
So this is one piece of the problem: For many of our nation’s white evangelicals, their patriotic commitments as Americans are so intertwined with their Christian faith that it is very hard for them to imagine a scenario where Christian fidelity actually requires them to reject standard American ideas about identity, wealth, success, and so on.
Brief Bracket: The Challenging Relationship Between Nations and Jesus
Now, there is a trick here that is subtle and worth bearing in mind: The alternative to God-and-country folk religion of this sort should not be a kind of other worldly faith that is almost entirely disengaged from practical questions of political life and government. There are other options we can consider.
The difficulty here is that precisely because the relationship between church and civil life in America is so under-defined, it is very hard to identify the boundary markers that exist between Christian piety and American patriotism.
There’s an arresting passage in Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations where he suggests that Christendom actually ended with the ratification of the First Amendment to the American Constitution for precisely for this reason: The establishment clause makes the relationship between church life and civil life inherently blurry and unworkable:
Excluding government from evangelical obedience has had repercussions for the way society itself is conceived. Since the political formation of society lies in its conscious self-ordering under God’s government, a society conceived in abstraction is unformed by moral self-awareness, driven by internal dynamics rather than led by moral purposes. To deny political authority obedience to Christ is implicitly to deny that obedience to society too.
If you deny to government the chance to explicitly acknowledge the kingship of Christ in the very particular and specific way that government ought to, then it becomes very difficult to define the exact relationship between God and government. So government will constantly be veering toward an over-definition of its submission to Jesus or an under-definition of it. How can it not? It has been denied access to any sort of direct guidance as to what the claims of the Christian gospel mean for its own identity and work.
The outcome is likely always going to be the kind of pendulum swinging motion we have in American history between those who essentially collapse patriotism and piety in on each other and those who see piety as having no bearing on civil life whatsoever.
So my point in saying all of this is not to propose any sort of Hauerwasian solution to the problem in which a radical opposition is created between membership in civil society and membership in the church. That won’t work. Rather, my point here is simply to observe that in the absence of any kind of theological framework for thinking about civil life beneath the lordship of Christ, a segment of American religion has been drawn to an approach to these matters that is at best idolatrous if not straightforwardly blasphemous, as in the case of the Vice President’s address last summer.
The Adoption of Consumeristic Mentalities About Wealth
Consider this old clip from a sermon John Piper gave twenty years ago at Southern Seminary:
Or, if you like, consider this more recent clip from Piper:
This attitude looks like Jesus. It should be the normal attitude found within the evangelical church. Obviously, it is not.
Some of the critiques to be made are pretty easy and anyone can make them. Steven Furtick lives in a $1.7m home—or did eight years ago at least. For the sake of my own sanctification, I am not going to spend any more time searching for that information. According to one report, Joel Osteen and his wife own multiple multi-million dollar homes. But these critiques are actually too easy as there is an almost cartoon villain quality to the men in question.
So let’s talk about John MacArthur. Several years ago, the Baylys (no progressives, they) did a deep dive on MacArthur’s finances via publicly available tax records. What they found is that he was almost certainly making around a million dollars annually. I can’t do better than this excoriation of MacArthur based on these figures written by Tim Bayly:
It seems beyond argument that John MacArthur’s annual income from peddling God’s Word is something around $1,000,000 per year. His organizations and his personal contracts with publishing companies pay him this money. It’s my conviction this is good evidence of the love of money and MacArthur’s boards and elders should admonish him and appoint a blue-ribbon committee to take over control of his organizations and royalties, scale his income back to around $200,000, do open bidding on his organization’s video work, and stop paying for his first class tickets.
The Baylys also shared tax forms from Ligonier, showing that in 2010 R.C. Sproul made around $260,000 from his work with Ligonier, which is inappropriately high, in my view, though not nearly so gross and egregious as MacArthur.
Certainly, money is a difficult topic and it is wise when discussing it to leave much to prudence and to, as much as one reasonably can, trust in the sincere faith and Christian character of our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Yet at this point it seems to me that greed and hoarding wealth has been so normalized within evangelicalism that it is very difficult for us to actually judge when people have left the path of faithfulness in their use of money.
What I want to suggest, and these are admittedly extreme claims, is that the salaries paid to many megachurch pastors as well as the amount of money poured into megachurch campuses is often unchristian. It is not wrong to have aesthetically pleasing spaces, of course.
But it is very hard for me to imagine Jesus sanctioning a church’s desire to deck out their campus in the way that, to take an obvious example, Willow Creek has. Indeed, it is actually much easier for me to imagine the minor prophets having some very colorful things to say about these campuses and these salaries!
I further want to suggest that in broadly embracing white flight in the 1980s America’s white evangelicals committed themselves to an economic way of living that is inherently antithetical to Christian teachings about wealth and stewardship.
Here too John Piper’s example is refreshingly different from the evangelical norm and a model of fidelity. These claims sound strong, but when you read older Christian theologians on wealth I find it hard to avoid such strong conclusions.
Indifference to Racial Injustice
Finally, traditionally there has been a general indifference to racial injustice amongst white evangelicals that is shameful. This is a long-standing problem as readers of Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail well know.
There are several layers to this indifference, I think. Anecdotally, I have had many experiences of white evangelicals lazily assuming that racial injustice is basically a thing of the past because Jim Crow is gone. Many others have described similar experiences to me—there is a hostility to the idea that racial injustice would still be with us in some way.
Running parallel to this lack of concern with injustice is a lack of curiosity about how things like redlining and mass incarceration affect non-white people in the US (especially black folks), as well as general refusal to simply take black folks at their word when they talk about incidents of racial injustice they have experienced. To cite only two examples of the reality that many black Americans face daily, consider this story from Boston-area art professor Steve Locke:
On my way to get a burrito before work, I was detained by the police.
I noticed the police car in the public lot behind Centre Street. As I was walking away from my car, the cruiser followed me. I walked down Centre Street and was about to cross over to the burrito place and the officer got out of the car.
“Hey my man,” he said.
He unsnapped the holster of his gun.
I took my hands out of my pockets.
“Yes?” I said.
“Where you coming from?”
How’d you get here?”
He was next to me now. Two other police cars pulled up. I was standing in from of the bank across the street from the burrito place. I was going to get lunch before I taught my 1:30 class. There were cops all around me.
I said nothing. I looked at the officer who addressed me. He was white, stocky, bearded.
“You weren’t over there, were you?” He pointed down Centre Street toward Hyde Square.
“No. I came from Dedham.”
“What’s your address?”
I told him.
“We had someone matching your description just try to break into a woman’s house.”
A second police officer stood next to me; white, tall, bearded. Two police cruisers passed and would continue to circle the block for the 35 minutes I was standing across the street from the burrito place.
“You fit the description,” the officer said. “Black male, knit hat, puffy coat. Do you have identification.”
“It’s in my wallet. May I reach into my pocket and get my wallet?”
This part is what especially hit me when I first read the post many years ago:
I noticed a black woman further down the block. She was small and concerned. She was watching what was going on. I focused on her red coat. I slowed my breathing. I looked at her from time to time.
I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.
The first cop said, “Where do you teach?”
“Massachusetts College of Art and Design.” I tugged at the lanyard that had my ID.
“How long you been teaching there?”
We stood in silence for about 10 more minutes.
An unmarked police car pulled up. The first cop went over to talk to the driver. The driver kept looking at me as the cop spoke to him. I looked directly at the driver. He got out of the car.
“I’m Detective Cardoza. I appreciate your cooperation.”
I said nothing.
“I’m sure these officers told you what is going on?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“From my home in Dedham.”
“How did you get here?”
“Where is your car?”
“It’s in the lot behind Bukhara.” I pointed up Centre Street.
“Okay,” the detective said. “We’re going to let you go. Do you have a car key you can show me?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going to reach into my pocket and pull out my car key.”
I showed him the key to my car.
The cops thanked me for my cooperation. I nodded and turned to go.
“Sorry for screwing up your lunch break,” the second cop said.
I walked back toward my car, away from the burrito place. I saw the woman in red.
“Thank you,” I said to her. “Thank you for staying.”
“Are you ok?” She said. Her small beautiful face was lined with concern.
“Not really. I’m really shook up. And I have to get to work.”
“I knew something was wrong. I was watching the whole thing. The way they are treating us now, you have to watch them. “
“I’m so grateful you were there. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Don’t leave, sister.’ May I give you a hug?”
“Yes,” she said. She held me as I shook. “Are you sure you are ok?”
“No I’m not. I’m going to have a good cry in my car. I have to go teach.”
Might I suggest that if a sizable portion of people live in this kind of reality that something is deeply wrong with our nation? And might I further suggest that whatever this something is it should be an object of concern for people who profess to follow Jesus?
This feature from the Dallas Morning News is similarly alarming. It tells the story of a black middle class family in Dallas and describes the fears that the mother in particular lives with every day:
A black gunman hunts police officers at a peaceful rally in downtown Dallas. He takes out three cops at one intersection, sneaks up on another from behind. Bullets slice the air.
By the time the night is done, five officers will be dead.
When the shooting starts, James Waters is less than a mile away, working late at his law office overlooking Victory Park. An American flag hangs above his desk. From where he sits, he cannot hear the gunshots or see the crowd scatter in fear.
His phone rings about 10 p.m. It’s his wife, and she has seen the news.
“I need you to promise you’ll stay there,” she tells him.
It’s July 7, 2016, and the country is already on edge with racial strife fueled by police killings of black men. Alton Sterling, on the ground in Louisiana. Philando Castile, in his car in Minnesota, his T-shirt soaked in blood.
Frances Cudjoe Waters can envision what might happen if her husband leaves the office. There, he’s safe, well-known and well-regarded. Out on the streets, she believes, he’ll be just another black man, a potential target on this night of fear and fury and revenge.
James scrolls through the news on his computer. It has been a long day and he’s ready to go home. The drive takes only 10 minutes. He would probably be fine.
Probably. That small uncertainty captures what it’s like to be African-American today. Making this decision, weighing the risks, when all you want to do is go home to your family, something you could do without a thought if you were white.
James doesn’t want to worry his wife. As helicopters hover over Dallas, he spends the night dozing at his desk, rumpled in his suit, waiting for the sun to rise.
Yet when met with these kind of stories, many white evangelicals I have known do not take these encounters or fears seriously. Rather, they gloss over them before redirecting their focus to other concerns closer to their own experience of day to day life in America. They try to minimize the fear of black Americans. They dismiss the stories. My friend Latrice Ingram’s article about this from several years ago in the Washington Post is reflective of this same general concern.
The public data on these trends fits what I have observed anecdotally. While 82% of black Americans reported to PRRI that they believe that recent police killings of black men and women are part of a broader problem, 71% of white evangelicals believed those events were isolated one-off incidents. While 75% of black Protestants believe President Trump’s behavior in the first two years of his presidency (the study is from 2018) encouraged white supremacists. In contrast, only 26% of white evangelical Protestants thought his behavior had that effect. So I think there is a persistent pattern amongst the demographic group “white evangelicals” to ignore or downplay the problems of racial injustice that still exist within our nation.
The White Evangelical Package
If you gather all three of those things up into a single package, I think you have what you might call the white evangelical package. This is a sort of ideology that imposes itself between people and the teachings of Scripture. What’s really striking is that if you follow the lead of someone like Willie James Jennings, he’d argue that all of this can be summarized under the category of “whiteness.”
According to Jennings, “whiteness” is actually not about skin tone at all; it’s about a certain framework for understanding the human self, human maturity, and the relationship between people and places. He lays this out in a lecture he gave a few years ago at Fuller that you can watch here—the lecture basically goes from the eight minute mark to the 30 minute mark so it’s not terribly long.
The core of the idea is that “whiteness” began when the early colonists in America had to figure out who they were in this strange new land they had stumbled upon and, rather than answering that question in conversation with the local people and the place, they “self-designated,” to use Jennings’ term. In other words, they simply created their own identities, independent of geography and independent of any concern with neighbor. And it is this act of self-designation that Jennings sees as being the heart of “whiteness.”
If you follow Jennings, then all three of those things I’m observing all kinda snap into place together, perhaps. The civil religion exists because America is what protects our ability to self-designate, even when that jeopardizes the health of the land and requires abusing black people, native people, and so on. The economic views exist because an extremely thick doctrine of private property is central to that autonomy—self-designating is expensive, basically. The indifference to race issues exists because one of the clearest testimonies to the problems with American ways of viewing the world, the self, place, and so on is the damage we have done to native peoples and black people especially throughout our history as well as the natural landscapes of the North American continent. The only way to maintain the idea that America is the greatest nation the world has yet seen, that one’s self-designation is an honorable thing to do within a healthy, god-honoring nation, and so on is to refuse to look at what our nation has done to racial minorities.
What’s left after we ditch the white evangelical crap?
I think one of the anxieties that some evangelicals have about this line of critique is a sense of uncertainty about what all of this looks like concretely. Particularly, there is a fear of evangelical churches going the way of the Protestant mainline or becoming the Democratic Party at prayer. But none of what I have said above obliges us to anything like such a vision.
What I imagine churches looking like is precisely what historic Protestantism imagines them looking like: Local Christian congregations defined by the preaching of the Gospel, administration of the Sacraments, and assisting one another in the practices of Christian discipline. More specifically, I’d love to see churches practice regular expository preaching of the Bible, verse by verse, weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper, and the presence of smaller groups within the church that structure their lives in such a way that community happens organically so that they can aid one another in Christian piety as they go about their days rather than as a kind of programmed-in event that fits into a contrived small group format.
As to individual Christian practice, I envision something like what Peter does in 1 Peter. For the vast majority of Christians, Christian fidelity looks quite boring. It’s families and single people together working to provide for their living and to serve neighbor. It’s consistent practices of Sabbath. It’s bearing and raising children. It’s maintaining households and enjoying the small pleasures that such a life affords us. It’s being especially concerned with the needs of the poor, immigrants, widows, orphans, and other forgotten or disadvantaged neighbors in your city or town.
If you want me to be even more specific, I think one example of the sort of evangelical practice, liturgy, and community I’m after would be Bethlehem Baptist. They’re serious about the Bible. They’re serious about neighborly love. They’re busy, energetic, and confident, and they are attentive to the needs of the poor and the immigrant in their neighborhood—or at least that has always been my impression of them from afar. I lived in the Twin Cities for a year after college, have been at Bethlehem for Sunday worship a handful of times, and also have been in their downtown campus building occasionally during the week. What I have seen there is reflective of what I think American evangelicalism could look like.
But it is not the only picture. There can and should be other models in other denominations, other cities, and other neighborhoods that share these same baseline qualities but express them differently because of theological differences within their tradition, differences in place, differences in neighbors. I’m simply trying to present concrete pictures of what it is I’m after so as to be as clear as possible about what I am and am not calling for.
We might put it this way: What is left after we remove the white evangelical crap?
My answer: What is left is the great tradition of catholic Christianity stretching back to the church fathers and up to the present—the Cappadocian Fathers and Athanasius and Augustine and Thomas and Luther and Calvin and Edwards and Owen and Bavinck (and countless more contemporary examples). What is left behind are the liturgical riches of historical Protestantism—the Book of Common Prayer, the Heidelberg Catchism, the Westminster Confession, and so on—to say nothing of the similar riches available in some Lutheran and Catholic liturgies.
What is left are countless models of Christian fidelity that exemplify Christian attitudes toward country, wealth, and neighbor.
Most importantly, what is left seems to look a lot more like Jesus than what has become normal in the past decades in many evangelical churches in America.