“..There is the profound division between the heirs of the American revolution and the heirs of the French revolution.”
(This article first appeared on Virtueonline.org and is reprinted in whole by permission.)
Voltaire’s famous quip that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” might apply to many of the bogeys in America today, and especially to Donald Trump. The truth is that when a deeper and calmer perspective prevails, the former president will be viewed as a symptom of the current crisis and not the cause. That is not to excuse his often indefensible behaviour and speech, or that of the lies and skullduggery of those who oppose him by any and all means, ethical and constitutional or not. The disputed question of Trump’s agency certainly applies to the latest crime he is charged with — the “Trumpification” and ruin of the Evangelicals. Evangelical bashing is the sport du jour, and headlines such as “Trump is tearing apart the evangelical church” are now run of the mill by Evangelicals themselves.
The Evangelical crisis is real, but it long predates Donald Trump. First came the doubters, then the defectors, then the self-professed deconstructionists, and now the so-called “ditchers” — those who ditch the term because it is irremediably tarnished. But the Evangelical crisis in America is part and parcel of the American crisis. The fact is that American Evangelicalism is breaking apart, not because of Trump, but because America is breaking apart. Both crises are a tragedy, and both need analyzing separately before their relationship can be addressed.
The American crisis
America should ponder Max Dupree’s famous maxim that the first duty of a leader is to “define reality,” and aim for what W.B. Yeats called a “hawk’s eye view” of affairs. That is what Abraham Lincoln set out in his speeches before the Civil War, and there is no national leader doing the same at that level today. American politics has degenerated into trench warfare, and become as relentless, costly, miserable, and ineffectual as the muddy battles of the Great War. As in Lincoln’s day, the United States of America are quite simply not united. America is a “House divided” again, but over different lines. This time the turbulence is created by two deep divides and an accompanying cultural crisis.
First, there is the profound division between the heirs of the American revolution and the heirs of the French revolution. (Movements such as postmodernism, identity politics, tribal politics, the sexual revolution, Critical Theory, and “wokeness” owe nothing to 1776 and everything to 1789.) At stake is the survival of the American republic. If the forces of the radical left prevail, the republic of the American founding will be finished. They have seceded from the founding ideals of the American republic as decisively as the South seceded from the Union in the Civil War.
Second, there is a widening chasm between the American elites and a large part of the American people. (This gap lies behind the disparaging comments from the elite side about the “deplorables” and those who “cling to their God and their guns” and the stubborn resistance by ordinary people to vaccination mandates and the ever-shifting, conflicting pronouncements in the name of “experts” and “science.”) The combination of politics, bureaucracy, the national security community, the academy, the press and media, and woke business represent the rise of a modern oligarchy and technocracy that is a far cry from Lincoln’s (and John Wycliffe’s) ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” If this elite-populist chasm continues to widen, American democracy will be reduced to a sham.
Third, the devastation from these two divides is compounded by a further crisis, the damage created by “cultural climate change,” a process that is as damaging to America as the climate change is said to be for the world. This cultural climate change is the harvest of the philosophical cynicism, the moral corruption, and the social collapse that has ripened in America over the last fifty years.
Thus, for example, the elites understandably scorn the deplorables for their fears, their rumours, and their conspiracy theories (such as QAnon), while equally understandably, ordinary people commonly mistrust the elites for their “big lies” and their “fake news” (such as Russiagate). Little does each side realize that each is the mirror image of the other. In the post-truth world of postmodernism, all that remains is power, yet the American intelligentsia are the ones who have knelt on the neck of truth until, like George Floyd, truth has expired in the classrooms of the academy. If this cultural climate change worsens, the outcome will spell the end of American freedom
Revolution, oligarchy, or homecoming? America is approaching the zero hour when the nation must make its decision between these three options. Is it any wonder that with such consequential divisions at stake, Evangelicals are divided along with many other Americans? Other Christians who are immune to the criticism levelled at Evangelicals are often those who are safely on one side of the divide or other. No one, for instance, would mistake the average Episcopalian for a populist. Equally, many of the Evangelical critics of their fellow-Evangelicals are levelling accurate charges, but with remarkably little self-awareness that similar charges could be levelled against those on the side they are closer to. It is actually to the credit of Evangelicals that they span both sides of the divide and not just one or the other.
The Evangelical crisis
That said, there is no question that the “Trumpification” or politicization of Evangelicals is a lethal problem, though it is part of an older and wider problem that has plagued the Evangelical movement for many years. American Evangelicalism has long been weak because it has long grown worldly, but only recently have the chickens come home to roost. Remarkably, most Evangelicals were disengaged and politically inactive through the cultural revolution of the 1960s, woken up later by events such as Roe v. Wade in 1973. Their waking up coincided with Jimmy Carter and the “born again” era, creating the illusion of the “sleeping giant” who would now stir himself to restore “traditional America.” The movement’s “fifteen minutes in the sun” meant that Evangelicals basked in the warmth of their fashionableness and fell for such cultural seductions as “celebrity” leadership, “relevance” through preaching as “seeker sensitive” pandering, and church growth that owed more to technology than the truths of the Bible and to the Harvard Business School rather than to the Holy Spirit.
Crucially for the present crisis, the Achilles heel of Evangelicals in the public square was their lack of a clear understanding of public engagement. They have therefore swayed uneasily between an earlier warm-hearted pietism (“privately engaging, publicly irrelevant”) and their new-found politicization. Other discernible extremes have emerged too. Some stressed love and insisted that all differences would disappear in only they “talked it over” with their opponents.
Others stressed truth and insisted that they needed to “fight it out” to the end. Or again, it was as if some strove to gain the credentials and approval of the elite world and its institutions, inspired by a “desire for respect,” while others cared nothing for the approval of anyone, even for the demands of the way of Jesus himself, and were inspired by a “drive to resentment” against the elites.
At their extremes, both the privatized stance and the politicized stance are unfaithful. Both are also damaging, though the first silently and by omission and the second noisily and by commission. The second extreme is of course the current one and the more publicly damaging — for two reasons. First, politicization is an idolatry of politics and a bastard child of the radical left. Politics should never the be-all and end-all of life in a free society. It is downstream from the important institutions, and its end is authoritarianism and state control. We should always remember the wise maxim: “The first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing.”
Second, and far more importantly for Evangelicals and for all Christians, politicization is a denial of the lordship of Jesus. For Christians to be divided by politics or by attitudes to political figures such as Donald Trump is to place them higher and make them more decisive than Jesus. What we are seeing today is the reverse of the early church. For the early Christians, Jesus and not Caesar was lord, and they were willing to die for their stand. For many American Evangelicals, their political priorities as liberals or conservatives, on the left or on the right, trumps their unity in faith. It incites them to abandon thinking and acting Christianly, and to do “whatever it takes” in order to win. This radical unfaithfulness must be renounced and put right. Evangelicals who allow themselves to be divided by politics are disloyal to their faith and damaging to their country.
People of the Good News
Politicized American Evangelicals not only provoke scorn from their fellow-Americans but cause both sorrow and anger in their fellow-believers around the world. But does all this mean, as a swelling chorus of voices now recommend, that it is time to abandon the term “evangelical”? Emphatically not. The term is now tarnished in America, badly tarnished. We Evangelicals — for I am an Evangelical and unashamed — we ourselves have made the word a term of ridicule and scorn. But for all the corruption and confusions we have caused, the word is too important to ditch. Evangelicals are followers of Jesus, or Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good news of Jesus of Nazareth. (The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word for good news, or gospel.) Thus, contrary to the widespread misunderstanding today, we Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally. Mr Trump has absolutely nothing to do with what makes an Evangelical.
This is not the time and place to expand on the significance of the Evangelical witness for the American crisis. But it is enough to offer one simple point for consideration. As the world’s lead society now examines its conscience and its record over the evils, contradictions, and hypocrisies in its history, the realization will grow ever clearer: In facing the unvarnished truth of slavery and racism, America’s greatest evil encounters the establishment’s greatest blind spot, the radical left’s greatest fraud, and the Gospel’s greatest glory. Evangelicals are scorned deservedly, no doubt, but the people of the Good News are still here to witness to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures’ way of repentance, forgiveness, atonement and the restoration of freedom and justice — not only for America but for humanity. The Good News is the best news ever.
Os Guinness was born in China to English missionary doctors, who were forced out of China in the 1949 revolution. He is an author, social critic, and great-great-great grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer. Os has written or edited more than 30 books that offer valuable insight into the cultural, political, and social contexts in which we all live. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of London and his D.Phil in the social sciences from Oriel College, Oxford. He has lived in the US since 1984. A number of his books have been reviewed on TBE. His books can be found on his website and all major booksellers.