Evangelicalism, or American Folk Religion?

I hate Evangelicalism. Or, at least, I think I do. Except that I’m pretty sure that I’m an Evangelical.

It’s complicated.

For anyone coming to BTS lunch this coming semester, we’ll probably be talking about what Evangelicalism is. Like most self-identifying Evangelicals, I’m unable to accurately define it. Is it a theological tradition? Well, yes and no: it’s not a denomination, and seems to draw from a wide variety of denominations and traditions, but its lineage can still be traced back to certain theological thinkers and groups. Is it a culture? Certainly, but it’s not a distinctly national culture, with there being Evangelicals around the world; and it’s not simply a subculture in each of the cultures it can be found, as those who claim it would often prioritize it over any other distinctives of their culture. Plus all of that theology stuff takes it beyond being merely cultural. Is it a political group? Sadly, yes; but not so sadly, it’s actually a major part of many different political groups on both sides of the spectrum. In short, it doesn’t fit any particular category very well.

So how can we define it? Theologically? As I said, its theological lineage can be traced to specific people and groups…but how many Evangelicals are even aware of this theological heritage? So do we define it by where it comes from (historically) if a very significant portion of those who claim the title are ignorant of its history and may even largely disagree with its founders? Perhaps. There are a lot of people (on all sides of the political spectrum) who claim to be American patriots and love to quote their constitution in ways that would make its writers shudder and weep, but that certainly doesn’t make them less American at heart, whether or not they actually live there.

So do we define it by those who claim it? Such a wide variety of people claim the title Evangelical, and they vary not just in culture (coming from around the world), politics (from across the political spectrum), or theology (Calvinists and Arminians and Open Theists; High church and Low church; just war theorists and pacifists; etc.), but also in their own definition of what Evangelical means. I’d wager that most Evangelicals have a very vague notion of what it means, and that most of us have always assumed the title uncritically. So the conventional wisdom of simply asking an Evangelical what Evangelicalism is might not get us very far.

These are some of the questions that we’ll be exploring this semester, but as I’ve been preparing for the discussion I must admit that I’ve gotten bogged down in frustration. I hate Evangelicalism (which is not to say I hate Evangelicals), not least because I don’t know what it is and because I am one. This is a bit of an identity crisis for me in that sense. It’s good to be self-critical, or critical of our own traditions, but I can never tell if I’m being self-critical or simply pissed off about bad theology, rotten politics, and regressive culture. All of those things are part of the label “Evangelical”, and the people I’m irritated with often do those irritating things in the name of Evangelicalism (sometimes not even in the name of God, though that’s bad enough!).

It’s kind of posh to be a disaffected Evangelical these days. It’s sort of a Christian hipster thing. Christian bloggers talk about their experience coming out of conservative Evangelicalism and its culture, politics, and theology, and how they rediscovered Jesus and connected with progressive churches and all sorts of genuinely awesome things. I’m not talking trash about them – I love them, read them, and sometimes try to emulate them – but I’m starting to get the impression that every Evangelical in my age category and younger is just like me and Rachel Held Evans. In fact, I assume this to be true, and I’m quite skeptical when I’m told that Evangelicalism is actually a theological tradition that is still alive today. I catch myself assuming that people who claim the title of Evangelical are either ignorantly snared into American fundamentalism (which exists here in Canada, too), or else they’re courageously trying to redeem the word by bringing some theological nuance and weight to it. And then I hate myself for hating Evangelicalism, because I recognize how badly I’m reacting to something. Something I can’t even define.

Do I really hate Evangelicalism? Not really. I don’t hate it as a theological tradition (though I’m not sure how much I agree with the distinctive views of its historical leaders). I hate it when bad theology is legitimized by having the term Evangelical slapped onto it though, and I hate the fact that the term itself legitimizes anything, and I hate the fact that so many people buy into bad theology because of it. Do I hate the culture? Well, it’s hardly a uniform culture, but there are certain aspects of the culture that I’m not a big fan of. I don’t like the so-called Evangelical approaches to sin (we tend to focus on it rather than on grace), sexuality (we tend to focus on shame and spiritual existence rather than on living in the fullness of the bodily existence for which we were created), art (we tend to have bare walls in our churches, and our cultural expression is usually limited to inane Christianized facsimiles of more original “secular” art), and so forth. But how much of those emphases are distinctly Evangelical, and how many of them are more narrowly Conservative or Fundamentalist or American?

Ultimately, I hate the way my religion is abused. I hate when the pretenders, the ignorant, and the misguided use my religion and my people as a shield for their own actions, views, and goals. I hate when something as important as an idea gets corrupted, and I hate it even more when that corrupted idea spreads faster than the truth it’s based upon. That’s folk religion: when what people believe and do differs from the actual religion they claim, and they don’t even know it. Evangelicalism, because of its varied and difficult-to-define nature, is the catch-all for all American folk religion. It’s the label for every non-denominational church that lacks affiliation as a way of lacking accountability; every church of the cult of nationalism; every health-and-wealth swindler (though they claim “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal” too, but those also fall under the umbrella of Evangelicalism all too often); every cultural Christian who knows very little about what they believe but will enforce that belief on others with impunity (and often with disastrous consequences); every political group that wants to gain support from Christians of nearly every stripe (because nearly every type of Christian in North America can claim the title Evangelical for some reason or other); and so on. These types of Christianity often have very little to do with Christ, and they bear his name in vain. I hate that, very deeply. What I hate more is that most of the people involved in folk religion are completely ignorant of the fact, but that some of them know all too well, or should know better.

So, for a lot of reasons, I think we should get rid of the term Evangelical altogether. It’s nearly impossible to define, and the lack of a clear definition leaves it wide open for abuse. Let’s stop trying to renew it or reform it, because we’re only prolonging the life of numerous folk religions that do violence to more legitimate uses of the term, as well as to the people who follow them. If we absolutely must have a broad-reaching term for followers of Jesus, I propose we stick with the old classic: Christian. Let’s be Christians, and make it very clear who we’re named after. Once we have that down, we can identify particular theological traditions and cultural expressions and political affiliations. I have a feeling that not all of us will get that far, and that we’ll be much happier trying to look like Jesus rather than spending our time defining our niche.

If there are no Evangelicals, then we’re simply left with Christians. Those people aren’t hard to figure out, and pretty easy to identify with and love.

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Authority, Politics, and Power

Last night as I was falling asleep I couldn’t stop thinking about authority in its different senses. Of course, when falling asleep my thoughts tend to be basic, half-formed, and repetitive, but I still had a sense that it was an important thought to work through, even though I’m sure I’ve worked through it before. Sorry for any repetition.

There are two main views on authority, that I know of. One is dominant in discussions of theology, and it has to do with correspondence to truth: a view or a witness is authoritative because they correspond with reality, or they are true. The Bible is authoritative because it gives true representation of God, but also because it is believed to be given by God, who himself is trustworthy and true.

The second view of authority is a sociological view, in which authority is something that the people who are under authority bestow upon those in authority. We obey our leaders because they are our leaders, but they are our leaders because we have collectively agreed to obey them. Children grant authority to just about anyone who’s older than them, agreeing that these older and wiser people can tell them what to do; teenagers refuse to grant authority even to those who may have a legitimate claim to it, such as their parents.

Authority in both senses tends to create positions in which that authority is held. Nobles became nobles because they led people through times of trial, and the people granted authority to them; being entrusted with this authority, they took on a role as leader and protector of the people, and passed that role on to their children. Many of those children had no such leadership skills, and flouted their responsibility, but the role or position of lord maintained authority, and people continued to invest authority into that position even if they disagreed with how one particular lord fulfilled the duties of that position (or failed to do so). In the same way, the Office of the Prime Minister began in Canada as the PM’s secretary, and the PM was just the first among peers in the House of Commons; but during wartime, we granted the Prime Minister the ability to give special powers to other MPs and form a Cabinet to help with wartime decision making, as well as expand the staff in his Office. Now the PMO has over 100 people in it, and there are 39 members of the Cabinet, all of whom have more power than a regular Member of Parliament; every successive government has grown the size of these institutions, investing more authority in them in spite of the fact that Canada hasn’t been in active combat for most of its history, and is not currently so. The position remains, and the authority of that position remains, so long as we continue to agree to grant authority to those positions (the sociological definition of authority). We will continue to do so until it has been proven to us that these positions are arbitrary and incorrect – until the positions themselves have lost any sense of correspondence to truth or reality (the correspondence sense of authority).

So here we see how the two positions are connected: so long as we believe that the person in the position of authority has authority in the first sense (that they are truthful and trustworthy), we continue to grant them authority in the second sense by granting them the respect and obedience due their position. The trouble is, when we’re talking about authority we tend to confuse it with power. The sociological definition of authority is “the legitimate or socially approved use of power.” Power itself is the ability the person in authority has to carry out the duties of their position: they can tell us what to do, because we’ve given them the authority to do so in recognition of their trustworthy and reliable nature or character. Perhaps, then, I should call this a third view of authority: that we grant authority to someone in recognition of the power that they hold over us. Because at a certain point, we only obey those in authority (and thereby continue to give social sanction to their use of power) out of fear of their power over us.

As someone who’s keenly interested in both theology and politics, this makes me ask: what kind of authority does God have, what kind of authority does government have, and how do the two exercise the power that comes with that authority?

In the first and third senses, God is the ultimate authority. He is completely and ultimately trustworthy and the only one in existence with access to all of the facts – therefore, he is an authority on everything. And he is also omnipotent, having the power to exercise ultimate control over everything in existence should he so choose. Usually theologians think of God’s omnipotence and omniscience when they think of his authority. The trouble with the theological emphasis on this third form of authority (that is, giving power someone in recognition of their existing power over us) is that it is the weakest or lowest form of authority, and tends to be recognized as illegitimate authority. It is the authority of a tyrant, or a mobster. If we only obey someone because they have the power to destroy us if we disobey, are we actually obeying? Do we owe allegiance to such an authority, or do we simply comply out of a sense of self-preservation?

When it comes to politics, things change a little bit. Politicians claim to have the first form of authority, as they claim to be experts who can guide our nation. We don’t often believe them, and a majority of Canadians didn’t vote for the current government, but they maintain the authority of their position nevertheless because of a combination of senses two and three¬† of authority: enough of us voted for them that they can claim that the people have granted them authority, and for those who dissent they exercise the power that comes with that authority, arresting and beating peaceful protesters (as in Toronto at the G20 protests a few years back). That exercise of power is widely recognized as being illegitimate use of authority, but so long as enough people continue to vote for them, they can claim legitimacy. We continue to renew their authority, even as they continually undermine any sense of being authoritative (in sense one, of being trustworthy and expert) by their misuse of authority (in sense three, of the ability to exercise power over others).

So, God has a perfect claim to sense 1 (trustworthy, expert), while any politician who claims that has a weak claim at best. God has very little authority in sense 2, in that a minority of human beings acknowledge, trust, or obey him; we tend to ignore him, or at least, ignore his commands. But for politicians in a democratic system, authority in the second sense is the only thing that grants them access to any authority or power at all. And while politicians often rely on authority in the third sense (the exercise of power to maintain authority in the sense of social sanction), their use of it actually undermines any authority they may have in the first sense (of being true or trustworthy) even when they’re successful at using it to shore up public support and authority in the second sense.

It appears, then, that senses 1 and 3 are mutually exclusive. If someone relies upon the use of power in order to maintain their authority, their credentials as a suitable expert whose commands are trustworthy is undermined.

Perhaps this is why, in spite of having all power in the universe, God chooses not to exercise it over the wills of human beings. He’d rather be respected and followed because of his character and correspondence to truth. This is why Jesus, having access to a legion of angels, submitted himself to the illegitimate use of power by the Romans rather than exercise his own, more legitimate¬† power (more legitimate because of the legitimacy of its source, in God).

Not long later, Jesus told his disciples “All authority [often translated as “power”] has been given to me in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18). What does that mean, when governments and tyrants still hold power over people? What Jesus is saying is that he is the primary authority, and that because he alone is completely legitimate and trustworthy. We still grant authority to governments, but their authority is only legitimate insofar as they conform to reality or are trustworthy, and the benchmark for their legitimacy and worthiness is now Christ. That is, a government is legitimate when it is Christ-like. A ruler is legitimate when they are Christ-like.

Does this mean that all governments should be Christian? It’s not necessary to be Christian by creed or culture in order to act like Christ (though that is difficult for us all). There is no mandate in this statement for Christian culture or worship to be required of all governments or authorities. Christ himself never mandated that people follow him, he only invited – again, because he refused to exercise authority in sense 3, using his power to make people obey. In fact, I don’t think that it’s coincidence that it was after his execution at the hands of unjust authorities, in which he refused to exercise his unlimited power, that he proclaimed that all authority had been given to him. It is because of his refusal to exert power over human beings that he proved his worthiness to hold all authority and power. It is the most powerful person who never needs to use their power, and there is nobody else who can be trusted with that power.

So what does that mean for me, a Christian citizen? I continue to invest authority (sense 2) in my government only insofar as they are proved responsible and trustworthy (sense 1), which can be measured largely by how carefully they use their power (sense 3). When they abuse their power, I speak up and, whenever possible, step up. When a government proves itself illegitimate and must be reformed or removed, it is absolutely crucial that it is done so in a non-violent manner. In a violent revolution, those who recognize that their authorities are illegitimate due to a lack of sense 1 and 2 are just as illegitimate as the existing authorities they attempt to overthrow, as both sides are simply competing for power (sense 3), which undermines sense 1 and therefore sense 2. A true revolution is one in which those who have only power are overthrown by those who have only true authority: those who are right, trustworthy, and true. True authority is given freely, because it is objectively and truly deserved.

What would this mean for a political party or government? Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and you’ll have authority even if you don’t have power. (I think that the Green Party has authority in sense 1, even where it’s not recognized with the granting of the power to rule as in senses 2 and 3). If you have to sacrifice those things in order to gain senses 2 and 3, then you don’t deserve them and won’t be able to maintain them with any sense of legitimacy. Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and recognize that this might mean that you won’t get re-elected; do it anyway, and see how people respond. Be a one-term government, and if you do it well, you might get another term. You might not, but it will still have been worthwhile.