Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Betrayal of Evangelicalism - James A. Sanders


With gratitude for his kind permission, I am pleased to publish the following essay by Dr. James A. Sanders, Professor emeritus Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University and President emeritus, Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center.

His insights have proven valuable over the course of his stellar career. This article, written in light of the current political debate in our nation, a debate often framed with the language of Scripture and the claims of the Christian Faith, sheds much needed light on "evangelical" energy, calling it into question, and reminding Evangelicals, and all who claim the name of Christ, of the larger faith awaiting discovery.

Dr. Sanders' personal journey qualifies him to speak candidly about the Evangelical world. His professional career qualifies him to offer comment! Enjoy the following essay and learn from this remarkable scholar!

The Rev. Dr. Tom Eggebeen, Interim Pastor, Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hawthorne, CA
------------------------------------------

The Betrayal of Evangelicalism

James A. Sanders

I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and was “saved” at a young age in a tent revival meeting that eventually became the First Assembly of God Church, before Elvis Presley had his experience in the same church at a different location, and well before its expansion nationwide.  I still cherish the experience I had that night kneeling in the sawdust leaning on the two-by-four make-shift pew in front of me where I lay my head and raised my hand.  It was in the depths of the Great Depression and even as a child I sensed its importance to those who attended largely because many didn’t know when the next payday might be.  My older sister had taken me partly as a shield for a date she had that night though she herself claimed to live at times in a state of grace because of that little church.   

At the same time I enjoyed school and academic endeavor generally and was discovering the wonders of reading the literature of other cultures and of learning the insights of science into God’s amazing creation.  Learning became a passion fired by curiosity about this wondrous world so that there developed a pitched battle inside me between my head and my heart--until a second “saving” experience in college when I learned it didn’t have to be that way but that I could worship God as an integrated, whole person (Sanders).  Later in the 1960s and ‘70s while I was a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, after I had unrolled and published the large Dead Sea Scroll of Psalms, not long before I had been elected president of the international Society of Biblical Literature, I became a “member under watch-care” (associate member) in the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Bedford-Stuyvesant where Gardner Taylor was pastor.  I was distressed by the debates in the white churches at the time about whether they should focus on preaching the Gospel or address social issues.  The black congregation of Concord Church did both; each effort fed the other without reference to politics. 

Despite my warm appreciation for the evangelical experience I have come deeply to regret the politicization of the white evangelical movement that has taken place since the late 1970s.  In the light of the current political chasm that has developed in the country it is time to look at some of the current characteristics of evangelicalism that are deeply disturbing and bode ill for the nation.

The So-Called Moral Majority

In 1979 the Reverend Jerry Falwell launched what he called “The Moral Majority” movement.  His target was ostensibly the apparent excesses in the late 1960s and early ‘70s of change in the moral culture of the country.  His announced target was the apparent loosening of personal morals, especially among young people: the use of drugs, the practice of free sex, and the increasing acceptance of abortion and homosexuality in mainstream America.  These seemed to have increased dramatically during the protests at the time against the Vietnam War and against racism in America.  Falwell struck a chord among some people in the country who viewed themselves as hard-working, upstanding adherents of “old family values.”   The struggle was soon called “culture wars,” struggles to resist what were viewed as efforts to destroy the moral fabric of society, the very sinews of what held society and the tacit social contract intact.   It launched the “new religious right.”

         Unspoken but at the base of the objections were the disturbing (to some) advances that had been made during the ‘60s in civil rights and civil liberties in the country giving “others” (blacks, browns, recent immigrants) the same right to vote and to access even-handed justice as though they were “real” citizens.  Just as disturbing to many were the findings of science that went counter to their beliefs (LATimes 29iii12).  Falwell in an oft-quoted speech in 1979 said that evangelicals in the country should change their attitude toward a long-standing limit imposed on themselves and their leaders (since Prohibition) to limit their “Christian” mission to the individual’s salvation and personal morals in American life.  Evangelical Christianity since the farce of the Scopes Trial  and the disaster of Prohibition had largely limited its energies to seeking the salvation of individual souls, who once “saved” would of course, it was thought, make “right decisions.”  Falwell apparently felt that the old view was not working well from his viewpoint and that American Christians needed to be told what “right decisions” were.  Falwell’s speech rang a clarion bell among many “middle-America” Christians who had sat in front of their television sets during the anti-war and anti-racism demonstrations watching what they called “riots” with great unease, even embarrassment that they were occurring in "their country."  Many of them had felt that while America had problems they should be addressed by elected officials who had access to the information others did not and who knew best about such matters. The country was being attacked from within, many felt, as well as their religion, and enough was enough.  

   The reaction was especially pronounced in the so-called Bible Belt, largely in the old South, where it was deeply felt that President Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats had gone too far with their civil rights and civil liberties legislation in the mid-‘60s and that something should be done about it before it ruined the country they knew and loved.  Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 campaigned in part against Johnson’s civil rights laws and Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina defected from the Democratic Party to the Republican—the first crack in the old Democratic “solid South.”  President Johnson at the time told Bill Moyer, a confidant and fellow former Texan, that because of the advances made the Democratic Party had lost the so-called “solid South.” More public was candidate Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in his 1968 campaign against the Democrat Hubert Humphrey.  Nixon, the “right-wing progressive” Republican candidate indicated clearly during the campaign, especially to his former colleagues in the Senate and House, the vast majority of them Southern Democrats, that he fully intended to modify some of the purported “excesses” of the laws Johnson had sponsored, and an increasing number defected at that time including Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and numerous members of the House.  

Humphrey, on the contrary, to counter the bad publicity he had accrued being Johnson’s “happy warrior” in the steady increase of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, touted the legislation he and Johnson had successfully steered through Congress in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and subsequent populist martyrdom.  Nixon’s strategy worked and Humphrey’s did not.  The disgruntled “heartland majority” who had been offended by the demonstrations against the war (that they felt were really against their America), voted in droves for Nixon while those who would normally have supported Humphrey stayed away because of his support of the war.  Nixon’s efforts during his first term to curb some aspects of the civil rights laws and at the same time advance social legislation that was still needed, such as extensions of Johnson’s Medicare legislation, and other efforts that would today be condemned by some as socialist, were a winning combination at the time and Nixon was handily re-elected in 1972 defeating the peace candidate, George McGovern.

Nixon’s personal insecurities, however, ultimately undid him in the so-called Watergate Affair that revealed a Republican break-in of the Democratic headquarters in Washington, authorized by the Nixon Whitehouse, in a flawed attempt to win the election against McGovern.  Nixon since his loss to Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960 and his loss of the gubernatorial race in California to Pat Brown in 1962, had developed an inferiority complex that fed his illegal acts in the Watergate break-in.  By August 1974 Nixon’s own personal complicity in the crime was confirmed by the Supreme Court, and he was forced to resign the presidency soon after.  This web of perfidy is often cited as Nixon’s greatest flaw, but arguably it was not.  The greater ill he committed against the country was not in the Watergate Affair but in his “Southern strategy,” by which he set the country back to a degree that is still being played out at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Nixon, following Goldwater’s earlier lead, in effect converted the Republican Party, that had since Abraham Lincoln been the party of civil rights, into a Southern bastion of reactionary politics.  With or without Nixon, the South that had lost the Civil War conquered the Republican Party and through a regional form of Christianity began to evangelize the rest of the country.  It has been noted that “evangelical Christianity has driven a wedge between Southern and Northern interests.  It intruded into the political process so that there was no middle ground.  There was only good and evil…” (Goldfield).

Scripture and Authority

The main-stream or main-line denominations require a thorough theological education in a reputable college or university-related seminary for their prospective clergy and have almost since their inceptions viewed Scripture as but one of three or four authorities for developing their on-going understandings of the Christian faith—Scripture, of course, but also tradition and reason.  To those John Wesley added personal experience as a fourth base of authority.  But the evangelicals stress “Scripture only” (sola scriptura) as the single base of authority, or insist that all else be scrutinized by their interpretation of Scripture.  To that many of them adduced the dogmas that Scripture is inerrant and totally harmonious.  Neither of those claims can stand the scrutiny of close, honest readings of Scripture, but many evangelicals insist on them against all odds.  Mainstream Christianity since the eighteenth century because of the Enlightenment had viewed the Holy Spirit as the liberator from the cultural traps and trappings of the ancient eastern Mediterranean cultures in which the Bible was formed and shaped and the guide of the faithful into accepting the advances in the developing disciplines of science.

Reducing the base of authority to Scripture alone has meant that some evangelicals have felt it necessary to attack any serious effort that would challenge their interpretations of Scripture including science.  Since Charles Darwin’s work in mid-nineteenth century the greatest challenge has seemed to come from science.  Since the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century evangelicals have tried to assert the Bible’s authority even in understanding how the world and its denizens were formed, thus in effect denigrating the Bible’s real worth and value.  But it is quite understandable that if you have narrowed your range of authority to one base only then you have to attack whatever seems to challenge it.  Darwin, like Galileo before him, personally believed that his work in science was a pious endeavor exploring the wonders of God’s creation and hence was astounded at the opposition from some Christian.  The evangelicals’ denunciation of Darwin’s work has extended to their renunciation of scientific findings of human causes of global warming, and it often takes the form of ad hominem arguments accusing the scientists of personal bias or conspiracy.  The last decades of such pseudo-arguments have caused countless young people to turn away from science.  If it weren’t for the high number of brilliant immigrants in science the country would lose its ranking in scientific discovery.  This concerned Albert Einstein so much that he pled fervently for a change in attitude, saying that “…we have to remind our kids that a math equation formula is just a brush stroke the good Lord uses to paint one of the wonders of nature, and we should look at it as being as beautiful as art or literature or music” (Isaacson).

This anti-science posture is a part of the traditional anti-intellectual strain in some branches of Protestantism since the Reformation when there were only Catholic-based universities in Europe that some Protestants at the time refused to attend.  It continued to serve well on the expanding frontier of this land for other reasons since at first there were often no schools at all on the frontiers and only much later colleges and schools of higher education.  To this day most independent community-type mega-churches do not require theological education or intellectual rigor.  This serves the anti-environmentalist stance by casting doubt on scientific reports that contradict their beliefs.  Focus on the imminent Rapture of believers and the Second Coming further diminishes any urgency about dangers to the environment.  Jesus will return and make everything all right again so that they don’t have to be concerned.  The fact that every prediction of the arrival of the end of the world based on “Bible prophecy” has proved wrong for the centuries such forecasts have been made in no way deters further efforts to make eschatological calculations (Kirsch).

It also includes what some evangelicals refer to as a “biblical world view,” meaning, one would suppose, that the image of the universe in the Bible of a flat three-storied structure, heaven, earth and hell, is the correct one.  Well, no, we are told, not exactly “flat.”  What they mean, we are told, is that though the earth is a sphere (anyone can see that from an airplane, and astronauts have sent pictures back of how it is) there is still a heaven and hell “somewhere. In God’s good space.”  But “somewhere” is not what the Bible offers, it assumes as all the Ancient Near East assumed, that the earth was flat in a three-tiered world.  Defense of the biblical account of the flood has constantly been modified in a like manner by admitting that after all there were many flood stories like that described in the Bible but the others (against all evidence to the contrary) must have borrowed from the Bible—thus accepting what cannot be avoided from archaeology and philology but hanging on for dear life to what they can of their view of the “authority” of the biblical account.

Some older evangelical groups have vested so much authority in their interpretation of Scripture alone that they have founded their own free-standing seminaries to shield future pastors and leaders from serious challenges to it.  The same seminaries almost invariably require professors to sign binding statements of faith centering in their view of the authority of Scripture.  One of the ironies of the current situation is that they also require their professors to have solid PhD degrees from reputable institutions.   The principal irony is that the faculty, well educated in critical understandings of Scripture and tradition, is caught in a vise between the conservative trustees of such institutions, who raise the funds to run the school, and the conservative students s/he teaches, many of whom come from the homes of trustees and like-minded supporters.  I have personally experienced and seen the vise they are in because I have been invited to lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls in several of those institutions and have talked privately with the faculties in them and heard their stories first-hand.  Alone, in camera, we had vigorous critical-historical discussions about the Bible, but I was invariably requested that in class and public lectures on campus I lecture only about the Scrolls and not get into the kinds of critical issues we had just openly discussed behind closed doors.

The South’s Victory

The sum of Goldwater and Nixon’s actions, despite the ignominious defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, was in effect to aid and abet the South’s “rise again” by placing reactionary Southerners in responsible party and government positions and to aid the effort on the part of the Southern Baptist Convention and Southern-types of Evangelical Christianity to “evangelize” former slave-free states as well as the South to their way of thinking.  The Southern Baptist Convention during its annual convention of 1975 was taken over by a group from Texas led by laymen (with little or no theological education) who caused the Convention and a number of its agencies to turn away from its earlier progressive views, to “the fundamentals,” as they viewed them, of the Christian faith.  Each Baptist congregation is autonomous, but the Convention holds considerable power over its agencies, and committees.  With religious fervor the fundamentalist-leaning evangelicals have in the name of their view of Christianity converted large swaths of the “heartland” of the country to Southern ways of religious and political thinking.  The Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s officially instigated a mission movement to “evangelize” the rest of the country.  It has been successful to the point of effecting what has been called the “southernization of American politics” (Bromwich).  The newly figured Convention quickly moved to control the denomination’s seminaries.  As a result I was personally no longer invited to lecture at Southern Baptist seminaries.   Since the takeover I have had invitations from progressive Southern Baptist pastors to address their small groups seeking encouragement to continue their ministries even while they are denounced and shunned by fellow pastors in the local conventions.  The personal stories I have heard from such well-educated pastors about the treatment to which they are subjected is very disheartening.
The election in 1982 of Ronald Reagan, a movie actor from California who had converted from being a labor-oriented leader of the Screen Actors Guild to become its Republican governor, brought the country to another low point with lies about the Iran-Contra affair.  Reagan, knowing little or nothing of religion, was far more to the liking of the reactionaries, and he was personally affable and very likable.    It was easy to forgive and forget, that had not been the case with Nixon.  He turned to Falwell and other evangelicals as consultants on some of the country’s most important political matters.  For seasoned theologians in the country and the world, Reagan’s consulting Falwell and calling him  “a theologian” was a travesty and became for some a symbol of his presidency.  Reagan drew on the old Republican desire to limit the power of the federal government and went so far as to call government “the problem and not the solution” to the country’s ills.  Reagan was the “savior” that had been sought to oppose Johnson’s enactment of the civil rights, voting rights, and health-care legislation in the 1960s.  Reagan’s anti-government stance has recently been taken to mean opposition to much of Johnson’s legislation that advanced those rights, including Medicare and any other effort by the government for the common good of the country.

The politicization of the religious right in the country abetted by Reagan, and G.W. Bush (not G.H.W. Bush, his New England Republican father) brought about a consolidation of opposition to any further enactment in the Congress of legislation to bring the country into closer adherence to the principles of its Constitution.  One of the ironies of the present situation is the claim of the religious right to being strict constructionists of the principles of the Constitution.  This is far from the truth of the matter (Holmes). The Constitution mandates the separation of church and state whereas evangelicals, professing belief in both the Bible and the Constitution, have attempted a sort of amalgam of the two doing great harm to the public’s understanding of both.  In contradistinction to the constitution the Bible tells the story of a theocracy whose God was King no matter who his representatives on earth charged with divulging and executing his will, whether patriarchs, “judges,” prophets, kings or priests  (Buber).  Any effort to impose biblical legal principles upon those of the new republic was prohibited as inherently opposed to the principles clearly laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution  (Meacham).   The same religious leaders fervently support only secular-type governments in Arab lands failing to see the analogy to their own efforts.

Deists and Theists

The Declaration and the Constitution were drawn up and “framed” by eighteenth-century Enlightenment deists, not by Christian theists as is often claimed by the religious right.  The deists were profoundly influenced by the writings of David Hume and John Locke.  In fact, it has been noted that some of the most majestic phrases employed in the Declaration were borrowed whole cloth out of the work of John Locke.  Evangelical leaders have claimed that the framers believed in God, and that is right except that the principal leaders of those who wrote the Constitution were deists, not Christian theists. (One candidate for president has also claimed that the founders did not have slaves, but that has been easily dismissed as sheer ignorance.)  Their view of God was a deistic God, not the Christian theistic God, and that is a vital distinction that most Americans do not appreciate.  The theist’s view of God may indeed be called a personal deity, but not a deist’s view of God who was and is viewed as distant and ineffable, a God of nature.  The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was viewed by many deists as countering the theistic views of most forms of Christianity, especially the Trinitarian view of God.  In fact, later in the nineteenth century the deist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, stated his belief that Christians in this country would eventually all profess a Unitarian view of God, not a Christian theistic view.  

Thomas Jefferson, responsible for much of the writing of the founding documents, was a deist who produced an edition of the New Testament that totally eliminated the miracles and most passages exhibiting theistic views.  In fact, one would think that if justices who believe that the Constitution is a “dead document,” supposedly meaning that it should be interpreted with its original meanings, they would decide a number of cases differently from the way it has recently been interpreted.  The Constitution is thus inherently in opposition to much of the Bible’s assumptions of Israel and the Christian Church as theocratic.  To wrap oneself in the flag, as some politicians try to do, should mean that they are opposed to any particularly religious view of the Constitution, indeed of the Republic it established on these shores.   Those who insist on erecting crosses and crèches on public land, and the addition of “In God We Trust” to coinage actually cheapen such phrases, as well as cross and crèche, into general cultural icons of religious fervor and weaken the Christian meaning of such symbols.  

The question arises as to how the generation that framed the Declaration and the Constitution was followed by generations of evangelical Christians (Strauss/Howe).  Or, put another way, how did the colonies from Virginia all the way south to Georgia, turn as states that were mostly Anglican to being largely evangelical. The answer lies in the immigrant expansion west of the Alleghenies and into the Appalachians south, and also beyond the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  The brave new immigrants who ventured south and west after the east coast British colonies became the United States were not Anglican but largely Scotch-Irish, neo-Puritan, evangelical Christians.  McGuffey’s Reader became the stock textbook of most public schools in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and is still in use, largely in home-school efforts (McGuffey).  It represents the Puritans of Plymouth Rock and Anglo-Saxons as the original Americans, instead of the wide variety of immigrants that originally made up the American ethnos, not only British rejected subjects but Dutch, French and Spanish explorers, not to mention native Americans whom we dispossessed and afro-Americans whom we forced to migrate here, and many others since who continued and continue to enrich the country.  The latest wave is usually viewed with great suspicion, whether legal or illegal, particularly those of other than North European origin.  As Karl Shapiro has aptly said,  “The European Jew was always a visitor…. But in America everybody is a visitor” (Shapiro).


Very different from the First Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, which was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, the so-called Second Awakening beginning in the early nineteenth century and continuing through to the modernist/fundamentalist controversy ending in the first quarter of the twentieth century, was evangelical, pentecostal, revivalist and Bible-oriented (Gary Wills).  The eighteenth century is aptly called the classical period of Reason, the century of the Enlightenment, while the nineteenth is instead called the romantic period when reason and intellect gave way to a surge of quite different thinking in which stamina for life on the frontier and valor and honor in battle became dominant themes.  


The extreme of this was in the recent evangelical support of G. W.  Bush’s Iraq War with the specious argument that the Iraqis would get to hear “the message of Jesus Christ.”  The opposite has occurred and Christians with deep roots throughout the Near East are now in grave danger.  The invasions have provoked extreme Islamisists in those lands to attack and persecute the Christians already there, but this probably won’t deter such an argument in future.  There has been a tendency as well for some Christians to speak of “our God” over against “their God” unaware apparently that to say such things is classic henotheism, that is, belief in one God per tribe, people or religion and not monotheism that holds that there is but One God of All.  Jesus was the ultimate monotheizer when he argued that God was the God of Romans as well as of Jews and that his followers should love their enemies and forgive those who hate them (Matthew 5:44).  

In the nineteenth century the change suited the country well in its American-Zionist quest for manifest destiny of God’s “true Israel on these shores”--and establishing of “empire.”   Orientation toward Britain and Europe waned considerably in the wake of the War of 1812, and attention turned to conquering the vast territory west to the Pacific Ocean.   American Zionism, or belief in American exceptionalism as God’s True Zion, developed during the nineteenth century beyond its beginnings with the Calvinist ideology of the Puritans and became a dominant theme in most of the evangelical sects of the period: America was God’s true Israel and divinely blessed “o’er amber waves of grain…from sea to shining sea.”  Roman Catholics were deeply opposed to the Zionist ideology and refused to join in the “public education” movement that they saw as dominated by it and as expressed in McGuffey’s Reader; they thus established Catholic parochial schools wherever they settled in the country.  Their spiritual allegiance was as much to Rome as to America.

The neo-Puritan, evangelical strain in the American character reached something of a climax in the enactment of Prohibition, its most successful penetration into the Constitution with the eighteenth amendment to it in 1920.  The neo-Puritan experiment exposed America’s hypocritical trait in the closing of saloons but the overwhelming success in their place of “blind-pigs” and “speak-easy’s.”  The government, many of whose leaders were either against Prohibition or hypocrites publicly supporting it but privately violating it with regularity, simply refused to allot the money needed to enforce the law and it failed until it was repealed in 1933, happily endorsed by the new president, Franklin Roosevelt, an Episcopalian.  Episcopalians, like Jews, Catholics and most Lutherans never supported Prohibition, even opposed it.  

The Southern Mind and Culture

Evangelical Christianity succeeded also in outlawing the teaching of evolution in many areas, mostly in the South.  During the middle of Prohibition, in 1925, a high-school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was indicted for teaching it.  Most well educated teachers even in the South taught evolution, but John Scopes became the scapegoat and was tried in one of the most famous public trials in the history of the country.  William Jennings Bryan, an evangelical lawyer, argued for the State of Tennessee and Clarence Darrow for the defense.  Scopes was convicted and fined $100.  But Bryan and Darrow both felt that the real debate had yet to take place and the judge allowed them to hold it after the trial was over in the shade on the lawn of the court-house where the summer heat had become oppressive.  The debate attracted crowds not only in the area but drew a vast national audience by being one of the first nation-wide broadcasts of a newly formed national radio network.  When the debate was over polls were taken in the North and in the South with opposite results.  The North voted decisively in favor of Darrow’s arguments while most of the South felt that Bryant had won the debate.  Here was a clear-cut sampling of the difference in mentality, even culture, at the time between the old Confederacy and the Northern States.  The South, in which I was born and raised, is marked by emotionalism and militarism.  Mark Twain noted that after the Civil War Northerners sometimes referred to the war in passing, but Southerners invariably referred to it in very personal terms with continued hatred of the dreaded Yankees who had forced them to their knees and to change their lives so drastically (Twain).   A common expression in my youth was, “I was a grown man before I learned that ‘damned-yankee’ was two words.”

Southern evangelicals have recently launched a serious mission to convert the rest of the country to their political views, and the Republican Party has become a vehicle for doing so.  More recently it has been manifest in the evangelical resistance to granting equal Constitutional rights to gays and lesbians and to once again limiting the rights of women, in essence putting their view and interpretation of the Bible above the mandates of the Constitution.  

Main-stream Christian denominations in the country, and some  evangelicals like Jim Wallis and his Sojourners, oppose the politicized evangelical understanding of the Bible and continue to offer the country a sane, rational form of evangelicalism based on historical-critical readings of it.  They firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s way of leading Christians in modern times forward beyond the ancient cultural mores in which the Bible was written to celebrate the advances of science in all its fields as the work of God every bit as much as the Bible was in the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures through which it was expressed and written.

Thus when Southern-style evangelical Christianity became politicized at the beginning of the last quarter of the twentieth century the kind of mentality that ushered in Prohibition and forbade the teaching of the science of evolution at the beginning of the century gained a resurgence of influence that eventually became a major element again of the Republican Party at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  It reached a sort of zenith in the presidency of G. W. Bush, an avowed evangelical who publicly professed to read the Bible every day for inspiration in governing the country.  One wonders how often he read and pondered the Constitution.  And, of course, he read the Bible in the highly personal, non-historical, un-critical mode of the evangelical.   Since William Jennings Bryan had failed in his three bids for the presidency Bush became the first sitting president in such a mold to govern the country, a clear gain by evangelicalism to missionize the whole country.   The mission of evangelicals to seek the conversion of individuals, that marked their solid contribution to American culture between the Scopes Trial and the “Moral Majority” movement, got lost in their desire to influence the country instead through political action on a grand scale by strengthening their hold on the Republican Party—to the detriment of both and also to the country as a whole.
-----------------------------------------------

The following are traits of current evangelicalism:


--Rank individualism with a limited sense of responsibility for the common good, yet attempts to influence legislation with views of individual morality.  It is the result of the far Western climax of the Hellenizing process (following the Renaissance) that yielded the positive results of democracy and of human and civil rights yet opposes support of government for the common good and opposes efforts to curb inhumanity and injustice.
--Seeking through the political process to limit the rights of individual gays, women and others to suit their views of individual morality.
--Lack of concept of “church.”  Salvation, according to Evangelicalism Is in the individual’s “acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ as personal savior” with little sense of church as the people of God or as the locus of salvation, but rather as local congregations of “saved” individuals. 
-- Claims that personhood begins at conception, an attempt to abolish abortions and limit the rights of women.
--Arrogates the term “Christian” to their views alone as though Orthodox, Catholic and main-line Protestants are not.
--Limited concept of Holy Spirit.  Whereas liberals view the work of the Holy Spirit as leading Christianity on out beyond the ancient cultural trappings of the Bible, evangelical/fundamentalists limit the work of the Holy Spirit to inspiration of the individual preacher and believer.  
--Rejection of historical/critical readings of the Bible in order to read the Bible through modern individualist culture and thought. 
--Use of the Bible to sanction bias in the same manner it was used to support slavery.
--Claim that “social ethics is the work of the Devil,” ignoring vast portions of the Prophets, the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles.
--Refusal when elected to legislatures and the Congress to compromise in deciding issues.  
--Resistance of “Compromise as the art of politics,” the principle of effective legislation since ancient Greece, embodied in the wisdom of modern sages like Walter Rauschenbush and Reinhold Niebuhr, carrying over from Sunday School admonitions as youth not to compromise into community and government issues (Gabler).
--Confusion of principle with bias making many evangelical churches a refuge to retain cultural prejudices unchallenged.
--Pentecostals, like the Assembly of God churches, that originally focused on the Holy Spirit and opposed the fundamentalist idolatry of Scripture, have largely become absorbed into evangelical bibliolatry.
--Ignoring large portions of the Bible to focus on compatible passages that support “prophecy” of the end-time. 
--Greed viewed as sanctioned by the Gospel ignoring major portions of the Bible.  (Fortunately there are only a few who go this far.)
--Focus on homosexuality as the “sin of the age,” thus providing a smokescreen that masks bigotry, selfishness and greed.
--Blaming homosexuality on the individual’s choice while science has shown it is not an individual’s choice.
--Condemning homosexuality as individual choice causing suicides among youth because they know inside themselves that if truthful they will be rejected and forfeit the love and acceptance of parents, family and peers. 
--Focus on homosexuality as sin forcing gays to live in the closet, thus living lies.
--Blaming homosexuals’ wish to marry as the cause of the demise of marriage whereas the high rate of divorce in the country is the real cause of the decline of respect for marriage vows, and a shield of the fact that over 52% of marriages in the Bible Belt end in divorce. Jesus’ condemnation of divorce (Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:32) and silence about homosexuality is conveniently ignored, like many of the Bible’s explicit commandments.
--Focus on eschatology to the detriment of the challenge of the Prophetic and Gospel messages against idolatry, bigotry and greed.  
--Focus on the Rapture sanctions abandonment of responsibility for the earth and for fellow humans, and for the damage humans are doing to the earth and its 30 trillion dollar annual endowment—steadily destroying the value that nature provides for renewal of air, soil and water supplies.
--Denigration of “science” when its work and results seem to challenge their reading of the Bible—despite hypocritically enjoying its many benefits and advantages.
--Denigration of government out of fear of the sort China has, even to the point of vilifying the social advantages of government-run health care and similar advantages the rest of first-world industrial nations enjoy.
--Denigration of learning from other cultures and nations because of a belief in American exceptionalism. 
As the nation enters the second decade of the twenty-first century the influence of politicized evangelicalism in the country is at its highest point since the passage of Prohibition.  The outcome of the 2012 national elections will reveal how great the divide is and will probably indicate how influential politicized evangelicalism has become over the last thirty years.  I personally continue to be deeply appreciative of the experiences I had as a youth in the evangelical movement at mid-twentieth century but am greatly disturbed at how politicized it has become--to its own detriment, the detriment of the country generally, and especially the detriment of the American political process. 

Authors Cited


David Bromwich, “The Rebel Germ,”  New York Review of Books, (LVII/18, 25 November 2010).
Martin Buber,  Kingship of God (New York, Harper & Row, 1967)
Neal Gabler, “Politics as Religion in America. Religion has been converted into a religious belief and now compromise doesn’t have a prayer.”  Los Angeles Times--Opinion.  2 October 2009.
David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011).
David L. Holmes, The Faith of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007).
Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World (Harper SanFrancisco, 2006).
William Holmes McGuffey, The Eclectic First Reader for Young Children with Pictures (Cincinnati: Truman and Smith, 1841—the first edition).  Many subsequent editions were published, graded to suit the child’s age and advancement.
Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, The Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation (Random House Press, 2006).
James A. Sanders, God Has A Story Too (Fortress Press, 1979) pp. ix-xi.
Karl Shapiro, In Defense of Ignorance (New York: Vintage Books, 1965).
William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (New York: Quill, William Morrow, 1991) pp. 97-110, et passim.
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) pp. 275-82.
Garry Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007) pp. 121-350.

1 comment:

Robert Harvey said...

Dr. Sanders stitches it all together in this wonderful article that lays open the distortions and biases that have allowed race and regionalization to trump thought and inquiry. A biblical scholar and intellectual giant exposes political opportunists who manipulate and are manipulated by the Southern Strategy.