Tag Archives: evangelical

My Spiritual Crisis … and Yours

People undergo crises of faith all the time. Personal suffering and loss; exposure to science and competing philosophies; misconduct by religious authorities – these and more will mark the faith of virtually every serious believer. Perhaps we come through them with a wiser, deeper, and stronger love for our Maker and our neighbor. Or perhaps we find ourselves on some spiritual off-ramp, headed toward some place called “the Nones.”

I find it fascinating how few people are willing to talk about faith crises until long after the fact, when they are safely receding in the rear view. But in America today, I wonder how any serious Christian can avoid the tectonic forces assaulting our faith. Either we are busily redacting from our religious lexicons all those “good news to the poor” and “least of these my brothers” narratives of Jesus; or we are wondering what the heck has happened to our religious tribe. Or perhaps a third response: putting our heads down, closing our eyes, and soldiering on with as little thought as possible.

Why all the gloom, you ask? Well, it’s that “81 percent” thing.

Remember? That’s how much of the white evangelical church in America voted for Donald Trump. The debate goes on whether the polls properly identified people of “real” Christian faith. But the data is pretty unambiguous: a huge majority of white people who identify with my Christian faith voted for this president.

Now, my faith affirms that something really special occurs within each person who is “in Christ,” like I claim to be. They have become new creations. “The old has gone, and the new has come!” So declares St. Paul in his famous discourse on rebirth and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Sure, we’re still sinners. But something dramatic and redemptive has happened to us. By God’s grace, we’re going to hold tightly to the ethic of Jesus. We’re going to love God and our fellow man; we’re going to lay down our lives for others; we’re going to see our neighbor in the face every stranger; she is going to look to us like the image of God.

That’s the theory, at least.

And yet, somehow, we voted for Donald J. Trump. In droves.

How Were We Okay With It?

Do I need to remind us of what we saw? For five solid years, Trump stoked racist and sectarian passions by swearing that the first black president wasn’t even a citizen. Instead, he was African. Worse, he might even be a Muslim. Trump’s “people,” he swore, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” When the sitting president succumbed to the humiliation and produced his official birth records, Trump spent four years calling it a fraud. And then he finally called off the dogs: nothing found; never mind.

We white Christians were okay with that. Somehow. But how, I wonder?

Then, the candidate came down the escalator, launching his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “morally corrupt” losers. Then he promised to deport the desperate refugees from the four-year Syrian war. Then he promised to deport eleven million undocumented fathers, mothers and children, tearing apart innumerable families. But we were okay with that too. Somehow.

Then he promised to ban all Muslims from entering the country. And then he proposed a Muslim registry, evoking chilled shudders from those who remember the ethnic genocides of the last century. Then he ridiculed a disabled journalist and insulted war heroes. We might have wished for better manners. But we were still basically okay with that. Somehow.

And then, women. They were fat pigs. Their value was measured by a number. If they challenged him, he called them menstrual. And he boasted of the power to grab them by their genitals. But, after some fleeting second thoughts, we found a way to hang in there. You know, us “new creations” in Christ. But how?

Then, he stoked violence among his crowds of angry white men. They chanted “Lock her up!”, while he promised to pay the legal costs of anyone assaulting protesters. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he told his mob, lamenting the passing of the old days when protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.” He boasted that he could shoot somebody in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose one of our votes. And amazingly, he was right. We were okay with all of this. Somehow.

When the world’s most eminent Christian, Pope Francis, called such conduct “not Christian,” we paid no heed. When the world’s most dangerous dictator endorsed him, we admired the strongman’s respect.  When he was forced to pay $25 million to defrauded students, we called it “business.” When he cast racial and ethnic aspersions on the Hispanic judge overseeing that case, we shut our eyes tight. When he undermined faith in our electoral system by calling it “rigged” with massive voter fraud, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. And when he became the first candidate since Richard Nixon to refuse to disclose his tax filings? Meh.

And then…. And then, we voted for him. In huge numbers.

How Do We Remain Silent?

You might think that that would be the heart of the story: We – we white Christians – put into office a man most closely representing the antithesis of our supposed Master, Jesus of Nazareth. But it didn’t end there. Because now, he is president. He is president, and we are silent.

We have been silent as he has muzzled government scientists, and censored their websites. Silent when he ordered a Muslim and refugee ban. Silent when he attacked the judicial independence of courts that have stood in his way. As he has fired top law enforcement officers, and kept in place a National Security Advisor known to have lied about ties to Russia.  As he has cancelled environmental reviews, and ordered that highly controversial pipelines be built. Silent when we learned that he asked the FBI Director to drop an investigation into appointees and demanded his personal loyalty. And when that failed, we were silent when he fired him.

In Ohio, preachers prayed against “Satanic attacks.”

We’ve remained silent through it all. Somehow.

He rescinded some of the most important environmental safeguards in place for our country and world: the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, the Methane rule, and the CAFE auto-efficiency standards. Then he made us the only nation in the world (other than Assad’s Syria) to renege on the global Paris Accord, vital to preserving a livable climate for every country. Then he abandoned the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Then he proposed putting our national parks up for sale. But we kept silent.

And we kept our silence through the sleaze. When fact checkers told us that seven out of ten presidential statements were lies (eight if you include half-truths), we held our tongues. When he treated the Boy Scouts like a modern incarnation of the Hitlerjugend, and told them raunchy stories of sexual debauchery, not a peep from us. He appointed his family members to high office, and they used those offices to enrich the family businesses. Maybe we said a little prayer, or something.

Then he championed plans to deprive 23 million poor and older Americans of health care while cutting taxes on the rich by $800 billion. When that effort stumbled, he advocated throwing 32 million Americans off of health care by “repeal without replacement.” Then he appointed a panel to search for evidence of voter fraud, since he lost the popular vote. Then he prioritized friendship with the Russian dictatorship, and refused to reassure our democratic allies of our commitment to mutual defense. And he labeled inquiries into Russian electoral interference a “witch hunt.” And we were still silent.

Through it all, we are still silent.

What are the Consequences?

It’s tempting to imagine that our white American Christianity was in great shape prior to this train wreck; that we have suffered moral collapse in the span of only a year or two. But in fact, Donald Trump has not created the monster we now witness. Rather, his unapologetic crudeness and blatant disregard for the most minimal ethical standards have merely unleashed what was already there, waiting for someone to normalize our worst impulses. But it is now on display for all the world to see, awakening from remission with a vengeance.

Others have attempted to explain how this has happened to us. I will settle for something much less ambitious: I see three inevitable results of what we have become.

First, recall that Jesus told his followers to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Note the connection: Good deeds, shining as light in darkness, result in faith on the part of many, and glory to God. But it follows that the opposite is also true. Allegiance with or acquiescence in evil – whether racism, xenophobia, scorn for the weak, lying, or violence – destroys faith, and mars God’s glory. We are now destroying faith. Many who would call themselves Christians are now on a path toward doubt, confusion, and ultimately rejection of a faith that appears to be in league with forces of hatred. The “Nones” are growing fast. We are at least part of the reason.

Second, in America, the name “Evangelical” has now lost any and all practical meaning. To argue otherwise is laughable to anyone not already part of my tribe. The very term means that we bear “good news.” Jesus launched his ministry on earth by adopting the term for himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach GOOD NEWS to the poor … the prisoners … the blind … the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18). He was the bearer of good news to the least of all people, the outcasts of the earth. And we had the honor of adopting the title. Evangelicals. Bearers of good news to the poor. Like Jesus.

Today, however, only the most credulous Americans can imagine the poor and oppressed greeting white “evangelicals” as bearers of anything other than Trump-like disdain and disregard. Without a message of good news, and with faith-destroying conduct, we have virtually assured the decline and eventual end of Christianity as a dominant influence upon our culture, other than as a fading memory.

Finally, the crisis of faith we have unleashed will certainly lead to an explosion of theological experimentation. I note that a number of thoughtful conservative religious commentators have bemoaned the apostasy of white Christianity in the age of Trump, as I have; but often their lament merely assumes that we have strayed off the narrow way in practice. The path of individualist, personal, other-worldly salvationism was just fine. Our creeds and confessions are spot on. But we ourselves made some mistakes along the way.

But this, of course, is absurd. How could it possibly be that people who read those texts daily and listen to those sermons weekly would have become more likely than their secular counterparts  – not even equally so – to worship at the altar of Babylon? No, this crisis of faith will lead to a new wave of fresh-minted seekers.

I don’t presume to offer theological alternatives. Only this: dismayed Christians will look in many directions to find a new spiritual reality – a faith that moves toward justice and reconciliation in a broken and unjust world. Many will wander in their search. This is inevitable.

During the campaign, Candidate Trump promised evangelical leaders – Falwell, Jeffress, Dobson and their fellow religious courtiers – “you’ll have great power to do good things. And religion will start going, instead of this way — I mean, Christianity, when you think of what’s happening, you look at the numbers … the power you have is so enormous.”

Well, it may have been clearer in person, hand gestures and all.

But you get the message: I’ll give you POWER! It was the second temptation of Jesus all over again: I will give you all authority, if you worship me! (You may recall that the Lord thought that was a lousy deal.) But we, my fellow evangelicals, we got the power, or as much of it as can be bestowed by the kingdom of Babylon. And what did it get us? If I’m right, it brought us near to the end of whatever faith we may have ever had. It cost us much of the remaining good news we had to offer. And it is now leading to a diaspora of seekers from our own pews.

So on a personal basis, how are you managing your crisis of faith? Are you reinventing Jesus so that he has nothing to say about hatred of other religions, refugees, the poor and marginalized? Or are you looking around at your brethren in confused anguish, wondering where you and they have gone wrong? Or, perhaps, are you keeping your head down – as the German resistance preacher Helmut Gollwitzer said – “in the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves?”

Friends, our faith is in crisis. Which kind of crisis is yours?

How We Judge Dennis Hastert

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.”

The visiting pastor at our church last Sunday preached on this text from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. EVERYONE, he stressed. The gospel is for everyone. It’s for criminals, for drug abusers, for people you and I probably don’t think are worthy of it. And fresh off of reading the morning news, I made a mental addition to the list: The gospel is for accused sexual predators, like the disgraced former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert.

Once second in line to the American Presidency, Hastert is now an outcast. The longest-serving Republican Speaker ever to hold that position is now set to become little more than a punchline on late-night TV comedies. The indictment against him outlines a lurid tale of millions of dollars allegedly promised – and partially delivered – to the alleged victim of Hastert’s molestation, from long ago when he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Illinois – hush money to keep his misdeeds from ever seeing the light of day.

And to sweeten the irony for millions of voyeurs, Hastert (called Denny by all his powerful friends), was a poster child for evangelical Christian politics. His name was emblazoned on a building at Wheaton College, arguably America’s premier Evangelical school of higher learning. He enjoyed the prestige of a seat on one of Wheaton’s boards. He sported a 100% political rating from the Christian Coalition, with all the expected stances on gays, abortion and sex education.

And Wheaton College’s Hastert Center (officially the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government & Public Policy) listed as its core mission the advancement of “the redeeming effects of the Christian worldview on the practice of business, government and politics.”

The former J. Dennis Hastert Center at Wheaton College

The former J. Dennis Hastert Center at Wheaton College

So you can imagine the conundrum faced by Wheaton’s administrators when the dreadful news exploded into the headlines last week. How could a name symbolizing homosexual abuse adorn a college building dedicated to the “Christian worldview” of government?

Not surprisingly, Wheaton announced that it was “saddened and shocked.” The language in their press release was pious and measured, including promises “to pray for all involved” who may have been “harmed by any inappropriate behavior.” But if their words were polite, their actions were much more decisive: Hastert was summarily removed from the Hastert Center’s Board of Advisors, and his name was scrubbed from the center as well. It’s now called the Wheaton College Center for Economics, Government, & Public Policy.

So, goodbye Denny. It’s like we never knew you. One day, you’re an Evangelical titan. The next, you’re invisible, forgotten – anathema.

Now, Wheaton and the white American Evangelical world didn’t have much of a choice, did they? But I find it more interesting that nothing else about Hastert’s legacy bothered us, up until now. We were perfectly happy forging alliances with this powerful rainmaker until something salacious hit the newsstands. So, why weren’t we at all troubled at the litany of well-known practices that served as hallmarks of the ex-Speaker’s career? Consider:

The Speaker of Earmarks: As House Speaker, Hastert presided over the era of uncontrolled “earmarks” during the George W. Bush administration, the process by which lawmakers inserted unrelated subsidies and appropriations into important bills, mainly to deliver pork-barrel perks back home, or to reward political donors. The military appropriations bill for the 2000 fiscal year contained 997 earmarks. Under Hastert’s speakership, by 2005, that number had grown to 2,506 earmarks. In 2000, the largest domestic spending bill, which funded labor, health and education programs, had 491 pet projects. By 2005, it had 3,014.

Publicly, everyone hated earmarks. But under Denny, they ran rampant until the $450 million “Bridge to Nowhere” scandal brought down Alaska’s senior senator and (together with a related bribery conviction) shocked the nation into taking action against them.

Corrupt Self-Dealing: One of Hastert’s own earmarks was for $207 million in Federal money to build a new highway in Kendall Country, Illinois. It happened that the new road ran right past about 90 acres of farmland owned by the Speaker himself. Overnight, the land became suitable for a 1,600-home residential development project, netting Hastert an estimated profit of about $4 million within a few months of the earmark’s passage.

Merchants of Death: It’s common for powerful lawmakers to cash in on their influence when out of office by moving a few blocks from the Capitol to join the legion of lobbyists on Washington’s K Street. Hastert became a top player at the firm of Dickstein Schapiro, which showered him with compensation dwarfing his congressional salary for the sake of his connections to those in power. His largest client was Lorillard Tobacco, which was convicted of fraud and racketeering for denying and concealing the links between smoking and cancer, for funding front groups designed to raise doubts about the consensus of medical science, and for handing out free cigarettes to black children to breed a lifetime of addiction.

For Lorillard, Hastert’s job was to get his friends in Congress to expedite approval of candy-flavored tobacco products. Candy-flavored? Oh my goodness.

Merchants of Doubt: At Dickstein Schapiro, Hastert’s other big client was Peabody Coal. The largest privately-owned coal company in the world, Peabody relied on Hastert to persuade Congress that climate change is nothing to worry about. He was dramatically successful. In the Senate, as recently as January 2015, 49 GOP Senators (all but five of them) voted against a nonbinding bill affirming the scientific consensus that human emissions are significant contributors to climate change.

Still, in all this, America’s flagship Evangelical college apparently had no qualms. Presiding over a grab-what-you-can culture of earmarks, including those that fatten your own bank account? Not our business. Rake in consulting fees on behalf of companies that prey on children and the poor? Who are we to judge? Help to block the entire world from acting on a massive environmental problem of global scope? Let’s not touch that controversial topic.

But, fall prey to accusations that you’ve done something sexually immoral? Well that’s easy. Sayonara Denny! We can’t deal with a sinner like you.

Now, it’s not that Christians must never call out immorality, injustice, and every other type of sin. The New Testament prophet John the Baptist screamed at his hearers: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Terrified and convicted, they begged him: “What then shall we do?”

We might think he would say something about sexual promiscuity, or profanity, or religious observance, but that would be a mistake. Whoever has two shirts, he said, share one with the person who has none. The same goes for food. And you in power, don’t take money from those under your control, even if you have the power.

Is that it? Actually, yes. That’s it.

If John the Baptist (or Jeremiah or Isaiah or Micah) is watching the Hastert saga play out, he might well be upset about lots of things. Of course, if the life of a high-school student in Illinois has been traumatized, the prophet will likely have some choice words for the ex-Speaker. But he’s almost certainly not ignoring all those dollars & cents either. Hastert’s kids may inherit the millions he’s made trading influence for wealth. Your kids will inherit the national debts piled up through all those unsavory appropriations bills. Your kids will subsidize the health costs from his tobacco clients. And your kids will inherit a broken climate system from our persistent inaction on global climate change, the key goal of Hastert’s coal client.

Fellow Christians, I’m not asking that we appoint ourselves to be the judges of men and women. But when we do make judgments, as Wheaton College has been forced to do, maybe we could look hard to assure that those judgments are the same ones we find in sacred scripture.

What shall we do? Maybe the Bible has answers long ignored.

Why Good Dads Need to Hear About Climate from Their Kids

I was always puzzled at the historical acclaim given among Jews and Christians to Hezekiah, King of Judah in the time of the prophet Isaiah. The Bible tells us that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” and that “he was highly regarded by all nations.” I doubt my dad could have claimed as much. How about yours?

But even such a good man was willing, as hard as this may be to believe, to subject his children to misery, so long as it happened after his lifetime. When Isaiah foretold the coming ruin of his nation, and the slavery of his children in Babylon, Hezekiah accepted it without a whimper. “Why not,” he said, “if there will be peace and security in my days?”

Genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery and exile are nasty things. But if they happen after I’m gone, maybe I can somehow make my peace with that.

Now, if you ask me whether such a thought could possibly lurk in some corner of my heart, I would take great offense. So would every parent I know. But, in fact, we older people seem to have some difficulty mustering up concern about future generations. Note for example, how older people view climate change: 49% of all Americans below the age of 50 agree that humans are changing the global climate, according to the Pew Research Center. But if you ask the 50-plus crowd, that percentage takes a 9-point drop to only 40%.

Now age alone can’t explain such a huge shift in views of science. Could it be that we older folks just have less of a future to worry about? Good King Hezekiah wasn’t immune to this temptation. Are we?

One person who’s willing to ask the question is Evangelical climate activist Anna Jane Joyner. Her father is a leading Christian pastor, and highly respected in many countries. But Ms. Joyner took the risk of taking their inter-generational conversation into the public sphere, in an open letter published last week in the Huffington Post. Maybe this will trigger some useful discussions with your parents, or anyone who is older than you. I pray that it will.

An Open Letter to My Daddy Who Doesn’t Accept Climate Change

This poignant letter is to my father, who is among the most powerful evangelical ministers in the world. Pastor Rick Joyner heads MorningStar Ministries, a global group with over 100 churches and partners in dozens of countries. My father won’t accept that climate change is human-caused. In this Sunday night’s episode of Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime at 10 p.m., I take him to meet scientists and see the situation on the ground. I wrote this open appeal to him. Anna Jane Joyner

Dear Daddy,

As you know, combating climate change is my life’s work. I believe it is the greatest challenge of our time. I feel a deep duty, to both my faith and my generation, to spread this message. We are the first generation that knows how serious the stakes are, as well as the last to be able to do something about it in time.

Anna Jane Joyner and father at recent film opening

Anna Jane Joyner and father, Rev. Rick Joyner, at recent film opening

I learned from you that we are called on to protect God’s creation and to love our neighbors. I write you today because we need your leadership to achieve a bright future for all of us – and our children.

Fossil fuels have brought the world many wonderful things, but now we know they come with a high price – an unimaginably high price if we don’t act soon to start transitioning off of them. We need to create a world where our energy needs are met without depending on fossil fuels that make us sick and heat up our planet. We can only do this together.

Daddy, I know you are someone who takes stewardship of creation as a moral mandate. I believe ignoring climate change is inconsistent with our faith. The risks are massive, and the science is clear. If we do nothing, our planet will face severe impacts, and billions of people will be hurt, most of whom contributed little or nothing to the problem. How is that just? How is that loving our neighbors?

Many people are already being negatively impacted, such as our friends, the oystermen, in Apalachicola, along with people from Texas to Bangladesh, from Syria to Staten Island — whose powerful stories are told in the Showtime series you and I appear in, “Years of Living Dangerously.”

It’s not just livelihoods at stake; it is our lives, God’s greatest gift to us. Daddy, will you use your voice to be a part of the solution? Christians are believers in resurrection, renewal, and salvation – even against all odds. We can help bring much needed light and healing to this situation, or we can allow misinformation and myopia to continue to be a hurdle to hope.

You are right, we do need truth. And now, more than ever, we also need action. I hope you’ll join me in working to overcome this great challenge, maybe the greatest our planet has ever faced. You and I both know our faith has risen to the occasion before and overcome great injustice and incredible obstacles. I hope we can come together, and do it now. For our planet and for each other.

Love you,

Anna Jane

Reprinted by permission of the author.