Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Everything Old Is New Again

My first thought is:  have you been to a church lately?

On the one hand, several major evangelical leaders and institutions have been vocal advocates for the dignity of refugees, and for a more compassionate public policy toward immigration overall.

In June, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual conferences passed a near-unanimous resolution affirming the dignity of migrants and refugees. More recently, six major evangelical leaders, including Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, and Galen Caley, a vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, released joint statements urging President Donald Trump to allow members of the Honduran migrant caravan currently making its way to the US-Mexico border to seek asylum in the United States.

“People fleeing for their lives are not to be used as political props,” Moore has said. “Those escaping violence and persecution in Honduras and elsewhere bear the image of God and should be treated with dignity and compassion. As Christians, we should share the heart of Jesus for refugees and others imperiled.”

On the other hand, white evangelicals report being more hostile to refugees, and to migrants more generally, than any other religious group in America. A full 68 percent of them say they believe America has no responsibility to house refugees, according to a poll by Pew conducted this spring. Another poll, conducted by Washington Post/ABC in January, found that 75 percent of white evangelicals said they thought that the Trump-era federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants was a good thing, compared to just 46 percent of Americans overall.


The reasons for this discrepancy are complicated. They include a white evangelical population that gets its moral sense as much from conservative media as it does from scripture. There’s also a more general conflation of white evangelicalism with the GOP party agenda, which has been intensifying since the days of the Moral Majority in the 1980s.

Yeah, they aren't as simple as that, either.

Pastors in general tend to be more liberal than their congregation.  Not necessarily in a political sense, but in the sense of compassion for strangers, for immigrants, etc.  Sure, there are plenty of pastors (Burton cites the ones who openly and publicly support Trump and his immigration policies) who are somewhere to the right of Atilla the Hun (Ed Young, come on down!).  But it's not at all unusual for pastors to be far more open to the needs of the stranger than the congregation is; especially if the stranger is not staying conveniently on the other side of the border, or town, or the railroad tracks.

Here, this is what I mean by "liberal":

Stetzer acknowledged that “what you have is a distance between the grassroots and what’s often called the evangelical leadership” on immigration, with evangelicals in the pews generally far more negative on immigrants than those in the pulpit. “The leaders of evangelical institutions have increasing distance from one another at this issue.” Only, he said, once evangelical leaders and pastors were successful in promoting a Biblical theology of immigration, rather than one gleaned from cable news, could everyday evangelicals adopt a less reactionary stance towards migration.

You don't have to be a disciple of Walter Brueggemann or a fan of Marilynne Robinson to study the Bible and come to the conclusion God favors the stranger and the dispossessed.  That's what the reference to "Biblical theology" is; basically a theology not derived from studying Plato and Aristotle (i.e., Catholic theology) but one drawn strictly from Scripture (the problems of doing that are manifest and not immediately obvious, but let it go for now).  The appeal of such a theology to literalists and hard core sola scriptura types should be clear.  The problem is, the Bible is fine so long as it doesn't get in the way of what they already believe.  Sort of like this, in fact:

At the same time, Wussow noted, “One of the propositions that Romans 13 stands for that government is ... an institution that’s been created by God, for the good of humanity.” Ultimately, he said, the idea of national borders — and that a government’s response is primarily to care for its own people — is also scriptural.

“I think if you just sort of step back and look at scripture, God seems to see the world in terms of nations,” he said, adding: “We think that every government has an obligation and responsibility to care first for those who are within its sovereignty and then answer the question, What can we do to extend compassion to those who are fleeing persecution.”

Uh, no; Paul was writing at a time when any disagreement with Rome, especially in writing, could get you crucified.  Paul was no fool, and no rabble rouser seeking the end of Roman tyranny.  The modern-day parallel would be the death of Jamal Khashoggi, murdered for the mildest of disagreements with the Saudi Royal Family.  Had he kept quiet, would he have been saying their rule is an unalloyed good?  Neither did Paul necessarily think Rome was O.K.  Besides, we have Jesus' word on that already (written down after Paul's letter to the church in Rome, but no matter):  "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's."  Not a lot of room there for saying God sees the world in terms of nations.  Especially since, as another evangelical Burton quotes, puts it:

But, Yang pointed out, the idea of civil disobedience — even when it comes specifically to immigration — is also deeply rooted in scripture. He cited the biblical story in the book of Genesis of Abraham smuggling his wife Sarah into Egypt, having her pose as his sister, to protect her. “People need to also understand that the laws are broken in scripture,” she said.

In fact, she argued: “The whole scripture is based on migration. Every single major biblical character was an immigrant. Jesus himself was a refugee. Abraham, who’s considered the father of our faith ... was an immigrant. Joseph was a victim of human trafficking.”

The problem, fundamentally, is getting people to read the scriptures, or just to listen to them.  The stories are very clear; but not if you don't know them, and most church goers just don't.  The problem is, also, you can't get two evangelicals to agree on what scripture says; why are you surprised whole congregations ignore most of what their pastors try to teach them?  Isn't there a story about this in Exodus?  Involving a golden calf?

Everything old is new again.

I would like to praise how this article ends, because it ends this way:

White evangelicals, in other words, are only part of the story of evangelicalism in America. And as their numbers shrink, an “evangelical” approach to politics may come to look very different.

But the context of that remark is that "evangelicals" are changing as people from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, come to America and establish non-white evangelical churches.  "Evangelical," in other words, is still the default setting of "Christian" in America.  So, the rest of you who are Christian but not "evangelical"?  You don't count.  Go home, you're wasting your time.   The evangelicals are, as they've always insisted, the "true Christians."  The rest are to be ignored.  The media has spoken, and who can argue with them?

P.S.  I wrote this, finished it, published it, then found a link to this post in my statistics.  Yeah, I've talked about this before, from another direction.  That doesn't surprise me.  What does is that two people found it, which was enough to bring it to my attention.  You call it what you want; I call it a sign the Holy Spirit has a wicked sense of humor.  We could argue the point, but how would we know which of us was right without agreeing not to change our opinions before we started?


  1. A great post, as always. I do have to kind of come to the defense of Catholic theology, though I certainly agree that too much of it is too influenced by Aristotle and Plato, though more in the past than today. Finding Karl Rahner is hard going, one of the things I have gotten from it is his criticism and rejection of Platonic dualism, I haven't encountered what he might have said about Aristotle yet, with more than 3000 publications there could be lots of those that I just haven't come across yet.

    The other major Catholic theologian I've read, Hans Küng said, "I'm not a heretic, but a critical reform theologian who, unlike many of his critics, uses the gospel instead of medieval theology, liturgy and church law as his benchmark." Vatican II changed a lot about Catholic theology, though Pius XII started that in the 1940s. There are still devotees of every word Aquinas said but I don't think they're the mainstream of theology right now. I don't think Aquinas would be such a big fat fan of his own work if that story about him having a mystical experience that led him to discount the worth of his work is true.

    I've not understood why people look at a Pew or other poll and see that even when there are a majority of "white evangelicals" who might have voted for Trump, there were a significant number who voted against Trump and who don't support him. Sociology seems to have increased the habits of sterotyping instead of leading people to see things are more complicated than heads or tails.

  2. It sounds like I'm criticizing Catholic theology, when I was trying to draw a bright line between Biblical theology as fundies would understand it, and other Christian theologies, whose roots do lie in Hellenistic thought (that is being fought over now, especially after Heidegger). As for the rest, I'm always disappointed by the "one step forward, two steps back" tendency of the "new" treatment of religion on the better websites. Daily Beast at least publishes contemporary (if not quite up to the minute) scholarship results, and Vox tries to approach religion intelligently rather than merely as politics or via New Atheism. Still, too often the approach is still "All Christians (that matter) are evangelicals."

    I could write books on how blinkered and wrong-headed that is. But it's the political narrative and it cannot be challenged (sort of like the "blue wave" that didn't happen, or maybe it did, but too late now, so who cares? My favorite part of election reporting is the "AP has not called the race" (or has), as if AP were the voice of the god of Elections. It isn't the people who think vote counting = chaos, it's political reporters. Did anybody comment on how long it took California to count all of their votes? Some House races weren't decided until a week ago, yet the foundations of the Republic did not tremble. Oh, no, that only happened in Florida!

    Two different subject with the same problem: if facts don't fit the narrative, then it must mean there's a crisis! And if evangelicals are facing the (cyclical) decline of their influence after the hey-day of Falwell and Robertson (oh, so long ago now, and so long the decline!), then Xianity must be a null factor in American life.

    It reminds me of the critique I read, decades ago, about White House reporters, who should step out on the sidewalk before the White House and question people on the street, people coming from across the country. A perfect opportunity for reporters to find out what's going on in 50 states without traveling to them. Of course, that would obviate sitting in the press room waiting for Momma Bird to drop predigested bits in their mouths.....

    It's all of a piece; and that's the problem.

  3. I can't stand those condescending pieces about what the real America thinks. About the only thing we learn from them is that journalists tend to be conceited snobs who figure that real American's are stupid bigoted white people who are Republicans.

    1. Except Republicans deserve to win and Democrats deserve to lose because Reagan. Or something.