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Sunday, November 20, 2016

The old guard may be replaced by the new, but for American evangelicals, the enemies never change.



It’s a measure of the ease with which we can all fall into intellectual silos that I am just now reading about an important speech given by Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in October.

His is a name to reckon with: if President Trump succeeds in repeal of the ban on overt political action by churches, Moore will become a very important man. It makes sense that he is staking his ground early, and that attention must be paid.

Writing in The American Conservative in late October, Rod Dreher (a right-wing columnist obsessed by creeping homosexualism most days, and the rest by retired Pope Benedict’s call for the Church, however one defines it, to turn inward, purify itself by expelling the heterodox, and reject the world), was so impressed by the Moore’s Erasmus Lecture that he pursed his lips, Church Lady-tight, and declared:

Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore delivered one hell heck of a speech Monday night in New York. When First Things magazine tapped Moore to deliver its prestigious annual Erasmus Lecture, I wonder if the editors imagined how consequential the speech was going to be. It amounts to a eulogy for the Religious Right, delivered by a conservative Southern Baptist who has had enough. I believe it will be seen as a generation-defining speech, a line in the sand between the Old Guard and the Next Generation, as well as a line in the sand marking the end of an era and the opening of a new one.

Dreher continued,

Moore began by talking about his Southern Baptist childhood in south Mississippi, and how exhausting it was to live within an Evangelicalism that was so obsessed with Bible prophecy, and that lionized loudmouthed hucksters. And this:

“And then there were the voter guides. A Religious Right activist group from Washington placed guides in our church’s vestibule, outlining the Christian position on issues. Even as a teenager, I could recognize that the issues chosen just happened to be the same as the talking points of the Republican National Committee. On many of these issues, there did seem to be a clear Christian position—on the abortion of unborn children, for instance, and on the need to stabilize families. But why was there a “Christian” position on congressional term limits and a balanced budget amendment and the line item veto? Why was there no word for people in the historical shadow of Jim Crow on racial justice and unity? I was left with the increasingly cynical feeling— actually an existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world — that Christianity was just a means to an end—a way to shore up southern honor culture, to mobilize voters for political allies, and a way to market products to a gullible audience. I was ready to escape — and I did.”

“He left not for secularism,” wrote Dreher, “but for a different kind of Christianity. His Virgil was C.S. Lewis, who showed young Moore a different kind of Christian faith than the one he had been raised with. It was the same in many ways, but it had a dimension to it that was missing from the highly politicized faith of his youth.

The crisis before us now is that of a national Religious Right political establishment that has waved away some of the most repugnant aspects of immorality — from calls for torture and war crimes to the embrace of an “alt-Right” movement of white identity ethno-nationalists and anti-Semites to the kind of sexual degradation of women we could previously avoid by not choosing to listen to Howard Stern on the radio or the subscribe to Hustler magazine. Some of these—mostly evangelical—political leaders have waved away misogyny and sexually predatory language as “locker room talk” or “macho” behavior. Some have suggested that their candidate has never claimed to be “a choirboy”—thereby defining deviancy down to such a degree that respect for women and respect for the vulnerable and respect for sexual morality is infantile and unrealistic. One said that his support for this candidate was never about shared values anyway. Others suggested that we need a strongman, and implied a strongman unencumbered by too many moral convictions, in order to fight the system and save Christians from a hostile culture. Some Christian political activist leaders said that those who could not in good conscience stand with either of the major party candidates this year were guilty of “moral preening” and of putting our consciences before the country, sometimes even putting the words “conscience” and “witness” in scare quotes worthy of an Obama Administration solicitor general.”

Dreher continued, “Moore went all-out condemning religious conservative figures who, in his view, traded their moral principles for first-class seats on the Trump Train. The same movement that condemned Bill Clinton for his immorality and denounced feminists for their hypocrisy in sticking by Clinton for the sake of holding on to power has produced leaders who have done exactly the same thing. For Moore, they are morally bankrupt, and the world knows it, even if they don’t. And it’s their own fault:

Mr. Trump did not give us this. This is a preexisting condition. The Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about.”

And so they are. It is an important argument to make, and I hope it will gain traction in the wake of an election in which most of the leaders of the evangelical movement, and upwards of 85% of their rank and file, put their morals up for auction on eBay, and settled for payment in cratesful of orange spray-tan.

Even Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s “On Being”, and therefore about as far removed from a First Things audience as one can be and remain earthbound, was impressed:

I, for one, feel respect for a vitality at the heart of the largest Protestant denomination in America as I read Russell Moore’s bracing analysis of the world to which he belongs. It is vastly more perceptive and substantive than any secular liberal denunciation I have read about Christians supporting Trump; those also often devolve into tactics of name-calling and insult which the same writers loathe in the candidate himself.

But as I read of such discussions, I am, as always, made keenly aware of the limitations of language, especially among those well-practiced in its uses. And, as I do when I read insurance policies, and statements by Pope Francis that conservatives denounces as “marxist” or at least, “liberal”, I look for what is not covered. As Jonathan Merritt wrote of Moore in Religion News Service,

Since assuming the reins of his organization in 2013, Moore has taken positions on immigration, refugees, animal welfare, and the Confederate flag that aren’t exactly GOP-approved. He has even denounced ex-gay reparative therapy while many of his evangelical colleagues support it. At the same time, he has held the line on cornerstone conservative positions when it comes to opposition of abortion and gay marriage.

Moore’s is a 35,000-foot overview. My neighbors are more like to be taking their cues from those Moore faults. The other night, for example, I came across Frances & Friends, the daily television show the 79-year-old wife of the pentecostal mountebank Jimmy Swaggart apparently extracted as the payback for enduring decades of his semi-public cavorting with whores.

She and her panel of elderly male employees of her husband’s were discussing, “Are Christians too nice?” The discussion was inartfully steered by Donnie Swaggart, the 60 year-old-heir (whose son, Gabriel, languishes as the family business’ Youth Pastor, hawking autographed Bibles on TV and struggling to grow a straggling hipster beard) to how Christians have a right to be angry and act on it, and thus to the righteous election of Big Donnie: first by God, then by the voters of America, and- vaguely but menacingly- getting about doing what needs to be done to them it needs doing to.

In a nice twist, he upended Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book title, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” into a discussion of “When God Uses Bad People to Accomplish Good Purposes.”

Then Mrs Swaggart’s sewing circle descended into a long, high-school bitchfest about how Christians have never been popular but now power is within grasp, and they’re gonna show everybody who’s really who.

Of course, that never works. Ask anyone who thought that and went to a class reunion.

But getting one of your own elected president, with a Congress devoid of any principle save tenure in office, well, that opens whole new vistas the kids in Napoleon Dynamite never thought possible. And social media makes one aware of all manner of freelance passive aggression options, like the anonymous note a store patron in my hometown- Shelby, North Carolina- found on the family car’s windshield:

Time for Faggots to go back where they belong.

Trump is President now.

No more marriage.
No more rights.
No more faggots.

For those outside these intramural debates, many of us watch with interest. Moore is attempting to grapple with what Richard Noll, in a 1994 book, called “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” Noll’s premise was that the scandal of the evangelical mind was that there really wasn’t one, and he is still pretty much on the money.

As Randall Balmer noted in a 1998 profile of Jimmy Swaggart in Christianity Today, the rise of televised church flattens out the ritual and social aspects of communal, in-person worship, and the twin lures of ratings and easy money-raising shift the stress of Sunday sermons away from what the Bible says, to who says it: Dr Dobson, Pastor Hagee, Brother Swaggart- even Franklin Graham, whose shift from The Good News to Fox News (“I report. God decides,” is his formulation) is ever more pronounced.

This approach also sells way books and related media.

So individual authority, self-defined, is the order of the day. When your supporters build you your own Orthanc, its glaring eye replaced by a satellite dish, you needn’t work from a common theological foundation, as, say, the Catholics do.

Among other entertainments, this allows alliances of convenience between evangelicals and Catholics, common cause against those they jointly despise while otherwise considering each other mouth-breathers and cultists. Thus Franklin Graham can write on Facebook, “I don’t believe in saints, but the Pope was right to say…”

And Dreher notes, in his American Conservative article, notes that Ryan T. Anderson, the unmarried, 35-year-old philosopher of “a girl for every boy, a boy for every girl” marriage at the once-respected Heritage Foundation, preferred the more strident, pre-Moore Erasmus lectures by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Archbishop Charles Chaput to Moore’s squishy-sounding embrace of the poor and laying off the subordination of women stuff.

You can pretty much score the bona fides of evangelical thought leaders by the levels of orthodoxy driving their denunciations of others. Like Latin in the last Middle Ages, it is the only lingua franca of the new, emerging dark times. Freed of the strictures of intellectual coherence, peer to peer, evangelical leaders’ standing and worth is measured by how hard they are on their loathing of outsiders.

That’s the attraction of Douthat, who rose from pentecostal jabber to buying 50-gallon drums of incense at Costco for his home Catholic chapel and a well-paid gig in Hell, aka The New York Times. And if anyone crowds your action, you can always one-up the competition. Even Ivory Soap is only 99.44% pure.

That’s what limits Moore’s post-election theses to intramural debate, for in the evangelical world, ecumenism is pretty much limited to joining forces and funds with the Catholics and the LDS Church to suppress gay rights in state referenda.

The effect of Donald Trump’s campaign and election has been to throw open doors wide to the judgment of everybody. The arms race of ever-more-stringent, individually-defined orthodoxy- think of it as a neutron bomb that kills people but leaves ideology intact- has now been opened to all, and Twitter is where the new Gospel is revealed.

The evangelical establishment is as flummoxed as the news and political establishments by how the people no longer need them as Explainers. Who’da thought, when the pitchforks and torches crowd finally spilled into the streets, their rallying cry would be “Disintermediation Now!”?

That’s why so many entrained with Trump so fast. The situation was, and remains, fluid: get on, or get left. With the instincts of German princelings suddenly confronted by a kaiser, they flipped from presenting, to kissing, the ring of power with remarkable facility.

Thus they clamber the greasy pole. Points of theology can be debated later. Without access to power, and a hand in federal pelf distributed in a more godly manner, they will be reduced to ten-a-penny Bible-bangers and noisy God-botherers.

A similar post-election confusion animates the millions who suddenly found no difference in Trump’s views and that from their pews. They are addled by success.

Prepped and ready for defeat, self-pity, a new wave of gun purchases, and [fill in the group of your choice] bashing: they are asea, as Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian yesterday:

Trump voters sure are sensitive lately. They’re upset that the cast of the hit play Hamilton made a statement to Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, and that the audience booed him. They’re displeased that their vote is costing them relationships with family and friends. And for some reason not entirely clear to me, they’re unhappy with Starbucks and decided to demonstrate as much by … buying lots of coffee at Starbucks.

The same people who wear shirts that read “fuck your feelings” and rail against “political correctness” seem to believe that there should be no social consequences for their vote. I keep hearing calls for empathy and healing, civility and polite discourse. As if supporting a man who would fill his administration with white nationalists and misogynists is something to simply agree to disagree on.

Therein lies the problem at the heart the movement’s- and Russell Moore’s- discontent. When you have spent decades defining your worldview in negative terms- paybacks to be doled out; evil people to be brought low; entitlements redirected to the truly entitled- and a year flooding social media with friendship-ending slurs, the shaming of strangers, and every manner of incitement, they now complain that those they disdained and denounced decline the honor of Giving The Donald A Chance.

Political correctness, they scream, is dead. Give us, in its place, the federal First Amendment Defense Act, a steroid-pumped version of the Indiana law Vice-President-elect Pence championed in Indiana. There, it has  already been cited as a defense by a man who says God tells him he doesn’t have to pay taxes, and got a mother out a jail term for beating her child half-senseless with a stout wire coathanger, because Bible.

It’s hard to reach out to those who only week ago mocked reaching out, but now find previously unseen merits in it, especially when their followup is, “Fuck you, we won!”

Too many remember the Republican Steakhouse Dinner Pact of January 20, 2009.

Too many have read the profane diatribes of commenters on Franklin Graham’s Facebook page, the ravings of good Christian women and men calling for America’s return to godliness in their “HILLARY IS A CUNT” shirts.

Krista Tippett underlined this fundamental conflict in fundamentalist thinking:

It is true in religious life, as in politics and every other human discipline, that change does not coalesce around external fault-finding, but around internal searching and correction.

But blaming others is such a well-worn, familiar, and gratifying path, many are loathe to set out cutting a new trail in the wilderness (as the butterfly says to the pupae in The New Yorker’s cartoon, “You have to really want to change.”).

Having had more than my share spittle-flecked good Christian outreach in the Year of Our Lord 2016, I agree with Ms Valenti:

You don’t get to vote for a person who brags about sexual assault and expect that the women in your life will just shrug their shoulders. You don’t get to play the victim when people unfriend you on Facebook, as if being disliked for supporting a bigot is somehow worse than the suffering that marginalized people will endure under Trump. And you certainly do not get to enjoy a performance by people of color and those in the LGBT community without remark or protest when you enact policies and stoke hatred that put those very people’s lives in danger.

Being socially ostracized for supporting Trump is not an infringement of your rights, it’s a reasonable response by those of us who are disgusted, anxious, and afraid. I was recently accused by a writer of “vote shaming” – but there’s nothing wrong with being made to feel ashamed for doing something shameful.

I suppose I should not be surprised by this reaction; people are taking cues from Trump himself, a man who feels so entitled to universal adoration that he whines about protests being “unfair”. Indeed, after Pence’s uncomfortable evening at Hamilton, Trump tweeted that the quite respectful statement from the cast was “harassment”. This from a man who has mocked a disabled reporter, encouraged violence at his rallies, and spent a lifetime denigrating women.

The president-elect even wrote that the theater should be a “safe” place. Apparently “safe space” is politically correct nonsense when women don’t want to get raped at college, but vitally important when a powerful man who advocates conversion therapy wants to enjoy a Broadway musical.

...We have a president-elect who just settled a class-action fraud case for $25m. But yes, by all means, let’s talk more about your hurt feelings and “civility”.

At the end of it all, then, Russell Moore’s cry in the wilderness is just a call for a recalibration of ends and means. The Eternal Krazy Glue remains, for American evangelicals, what, and whom, they despise: women who get abortions, and gays.

You will never find a prominent evangelical who has ever called out the Westboro Baptist Church cult. They are all deep in prayer- usually on their private planes, as Jesse DuPlantis and Kenneth Copeland explained last year, closer to God and not interrupted all the damned time by the plebs they keep at TV’s length otherwise.

When Pastor Kevin Swanson called out Girl Scouts as lesbian recruiters, and held a conference in Iowa calling for the execution of gays, not only were Aaron and Melissa Klein, the profiteering Christian bakers of Oregon there with bells on, so were three Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States, who wanted the support of that audience. In the end, they all went for Mr Trump.

Even the fringiest of the fringe on the surrey with the fringe on top have their uses.

This is how Rod Dreher can write, “There are more than a few younger Christians (and maybe a few older ones like me) who are ready for something new that is also something old and faithful. Nothing is fresher in the modern world than real orthodoxy.”

It’s not like he and Russell Moore feel the need for a top-to-bottom rethink, like the GOP’s 2103 autopsy report. They simply want to freshen the message, co-opt a little here and there from liberals, and whip the party line on the old essentials. As Igor mused in Young Frankenstein, "“I don’t know…a little paint, a few flowers, a couple of throw pillows…”

I admire Russell Moore. He is a well-educated, thoughtful man who doesn’t seem to believe his calling comes by way of a TV studio or a megachurch pulpit, or even a dynastic ministry inheritance. But I know that, for all the disagreements between him and his fellow evangelicals over the finer points of doctrine and social outreach, all will slam their congregations’ doors in my face with equal fervor. At a conference on social justice last June Moore dropped the mic at a stunned audience when he declared,

[Some Christians are] afraid to speak up on a biblical view of issues of human sexuality because they’re afraid that somehow that means they will be associated with people in polyester somewhere that they don’t want to be like. How cowardly!

Moore is no different than one of his old-school predecessors, Albert Mohler, who wrote, a decade ago, that nothing would please him more than proof that homosexuality is genetic:

Conservatives opposed to both abortion and homosexuality will have to ask themselves whether the public shame of having a gay child outweighs the private sin of terminating a pregnancy (assuming the stigma on homosexuality survives the scientific refutation of the Right’s treasured belief that it is a “lifestyle choice.”) Pro-choice activists won’t be spared either. Will liberal moms who love their hairdressers be as tolerant when faced with the prospect of raising a little stylist of their own? And exactly how pro-choice will liberal abortion-rights activists be when thousands of potential parents are choosing to filter homosexuality right out of the gene pool?

If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.

Thus endeth the lesson (BTW, Dr Mohler, you're busted. Your article is just a cribbing of the plot of a 1997 movie, Twilight of the Golds).

Did anyone see the president-elect attend church today?


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