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What's behind American evangelical Christianity's crisis? Idolatry

American Christianity is in crisis. Worse, the path forward would seem to require confession, repentance and the rejection of idolatry -- none of which seems likely at the moment.

Kingdom-power-gloryThe problem isn't simply that Americans are walking away from religion, similar to what's been happening in Europe for a long time. Nor is the problem just that institutional Christianity continues to be badly divided -- first into such broad divisions as Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism and others but then also into what can only be called political and cultural camps. Something like that has been the case for almost ever.

Rather, the problem, as detailed by journalist Tim Alberta and others, has to do with a broad section of American evangelical Christianity that has confused allegiance to God with allegiance to a brand of politics that now seems increasingly dedicated to the destruction of American democracy.

As Alberta writes in his recent book, The Kingdom, The Power and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, ". . .politics is about ends, not the means. Since the ends are about power -- the power to legislate, the power to investigate, the power to accumulate more power -- the means are inherently defensible, even if they are, by any other measure, utterly indefensible." Then Alberta adds this: "One of the Bible's dominant narrative themes. . .is the admonition to resist idolatry at all costs."

But idolatry is exactly what we see now in those members of American evangelical Christianity who have abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ for the gospel of Donald Trump and MAGAism.

It was making an idol of that kind of secular authoritarian power -- political and otherwise -- that finally drove Russell Moore out of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination with roots in slavery. The SBC has sullied itself by behaving in ways that should deserve condemnation. Moore, now the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine and the former president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, describes his journey through the SBC this way:

SBC-logo1"For years I dealt with evangelical backlash, including from some of my closest allies and friends, over my opposition to Donald Trump and my views on issues such as racial justice and Church sexual abuse. I hardly thought of myself as a 'dissident.' Instead, I believed I was just what I’d always been: a loyal Southern Baptist evangelical trying to apply what I’d learned from children’s Sunday school onward about basic Christian morality and justice. Still, I felt like an outcast and a heretic. I felt homeless. And two years ago, I left the Southern Baptist world I loved."

Indeed, American evangelical Christianity once was a leader in introducing people to the generative and life-changing path of being a follower of Christ. But for many reasons -- including making excuses for the racism, hunger for personal power and disgusting moral compromises made by people like the two Jerry Falwells, senior and junior -- that branch of Christianity in the U.S. often now gets called an idolatrous club that needs to rediscover its first love. (Jerry Sr., as Alberta notes, once said this before he later toned down his rhetoric a degree or two: "The nation was intended to be a Christian nation by our founding fathers. This idea of 'religion and politics don't mix' was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country." A theocracy, anyone?)

Alberta's late father was a pastor in a theologically conservative denomination of Presbyterians known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which is different from the Presbyterian Church (USA), to which my congregation belongs. (And Alberta continues to identify as an evangelical Christian.)

Chris Winans, the pastor who took Alberta's father's place as pastor of the church in Michigan in which Alberta grew up, describes what he sees in evangelical Christianity today this way: "At its root, we're talking about idolatry. America has become an idol to some of these people. If you believe that God is in covenant with America, then you believe -- and I've heard lots of people say this explicitly -- that we're a new Israel. . .You have to fight for America as if salvation itself hangs in the balance. . .And that is a terrible misunderstanding of who we're called to be."

None of this happened in a flash. As Alberta writes, ". . .bankruptcy -- spiritual and otherwise -- happens slowly and then all at once. In 2016, Christians condoned their preferred candidate talking on the Access Hollywood tape about grabbing women by their vaginas because the election is a binary choice and the Supreme Court was at stake; by 2022 Christians walked around wearing "F. . . Joe Biden" on their chests because in politics the rules of decency, never mind the maxims of Christianity, do not apply. . .If Jesus warned us that what comes out of our mouths reveals what resides in our hearts, how can we shrug off lies and hate speech as mere political rhetoric?" And it's hate speech that dehumanizes the very people the Bible describes as having been created in the image of God.

Alberta, by the way, is far from the only author sounding this alarm in a book. The Rev. Duke Robinson, a Presbyterian pastor from California, quotes former Gen. (and Republican) Colin Powell this way in Robinson's new book, For Christ's Sake!: Will Churches Stop and Think?: "We have come to live in a society based on insults, on lies and on things that just aren't true. It creates an environment where deranged people feel empowered."

Alberta, Moore and others pointing to the moral compromises that American evangelical Christianity is making are taking leaders of their own faith community to task for the sin of having other gods before the one God who gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments, the first of which is to have no other gods but God. Engaging in idolatry is, in that context, the first listed sin because it's the worst.

But here and there you can find small signs of people listening. For instance, this Christianity Today story describes evangelical Christians who have decided they simply can't support Trump but who  also refuse to vote for Joe Biden. So they're seeking alternatives. It's a start, though many political observers warn that voting for a third-party candidate or not voting at all risks re-electing Trump.

None of this is to say that other branches of religion aren't also guilty of similar idolatrous sins. What else do you call it when Catholic bishops put the reputation of the church above protecting children from being sexually abused by priests? Idolatry. What else do you call it when Islamist terrorists put political goals ahead of honoring Allah? Idolatry. What else do you call it when Christians who identify as theologically liberal devote all their energies to electing political leaders who agree with them on all things instead of caring equally for the widows, disabled and orphans in their own congregations and who put none of their energies into introducing people to Christ and to the almost impossibly difficult life of sacrifice, love and grace to which he calls followers? Idolatry.

(There are, of course, Christian groups that stand against Christian Nationalism and work for policies promoting justice and equality that they believe their faith calls them to support. One such group is called Faithful America.)

Something like perverted religion happens in other countries, too, as my friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, writes about here, describing what he calls "a celebrated self-acclaimed yoga guru" who sells "fake medicines" and has made billions of dollars fooling vulnerable people. That knave's idol clearly is money. Even worse and with far greater global consequences, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has virtually turned over the moral conscience of the church to Russia's murderous dictator, Vladimir Putin, as this new Atlantic article makes clear. That case is at least equal in shock value to the case of the Republican Party selling its soul to Trump for a quick high.

Institutional religion generally, not just evangelical Christianity in the U.S., has a lot for which to answer. But the spotlight is shining now on American evangelicals, and so far it's hard to find much good news there. In fact, Donald Trump just made it worse by peddling a King James Bible, in effect wrapped in the flag and bundled with America's founding documents. And as that bit of tawdriness assaults our ears and eyes in various ways, it's becoming more evident that concerns about Christian Nationalism are spreading, as this Religion News Service story reports. But maybe Trump was just trying catch up with his son, Donald Jr., who once hawked copies of the We the People Bible.

The politically conservative Christian columnist Cal Thomas is quoted this way in Alberta's book about all of this: "The great fault in the evangelical movement today is that we're disobedient to the commands of the one we claim to follow. What were those commands? Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Care for widows and orphans. Visit those in prison. Seek first the kingdom of God."

Again, his last point can be summarized this way: Avoid idolatry.

Brian-ZahndI'm not going to go into it all here (this piece already is too long), but part of Alberta's book that people in western Missouri might especially want to read has to do with the Rev. Brian Zahnd (pictured here) of the Word of Life Church in St. Joseph. Some years ago Zahnd quickly created a megachurch full of evangelicals on fire for conservative political positions. Eventually, he recognized his error, which was that "we had achieved it all. People. Money. Power." Holders of all that are not the ones the Jesus called "blessed" in the Sermon on the Mount. Then Zahnd changed courses because "I just came to the conclusion that Jesus deserves a better Christianity than this."

Zahnd was not alone in that thought. As Alberta reports, "The public's perception of evangelical Christianity is worse than at any point in recorded history."

There is much more in Alberta's book and in other sources that describe in more detail what has happened to evangelicalism in the U.S. and to religion more generally. But as for evangelicals, I'm going to stop here with two quotes, via Alberta, from journalist Julie Roys, who helped uncover the story that famed evangelist Ravi Zacharias, now dead, was a prolific sexual predator: "This evangelical-industrial complex -- making millions, getting famous, building some 'brand,' restoring wolves to prey on more sheep -- it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. And we've got to stop pretending that it does."


"If Jesus were here, I think He'd be overturning tables everywhere. Everywhere."

And who could blame him?

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In the news this week comes one more example of trouble within American evangelical Christianity. As this Religion News Service story reports, Wiebe Boer, the relatively new president of Calvin College, an evangelical institution in Michigan, has resigned after being accused of sending “unwelcome and (sexually) inappropriate” messages to women. That was in February. As RNS now reports, "When confronted by the board, Boer agreed to step down — leaving the campus in turmoil, with anger and confusion over how things went so wrong so fast. That anger has led to Boer being locked out of the school’s presidential residence, a lawsuit — and this past weekend — alleged threats of violence against one of the school’s senior leaders." This is, of course, exactly the kind of trouble no evangelical (or any) college needs right now.

And: Speaking of sexually related scandals that damage houses of worship in particular and religion in general, this Kansas City Star article describes new plans to close the International House of Prayer, located in suburban Grandview. IHOP has been in recent turmoil over what The Star calls "sexual abuse allegations against its founder Mike Bickle." If you're in the KC area, watch for follow-up stories to this not-very-surprising-to-me decision. These new plans first were reported in the Roys Report, founded by the same Julie Roys whom I quoted at the end of the lead piece above here today.

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P.S.: Did you know that tomorrow is National Columnists Day? Absolutely true. And here is a brief video from me explaining how and why that happens to be true.


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