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Friday, October 18, 2019

My Miracle

I find that I am more than a little shy in writing this piece; it is, at once, apparently unlikely, and open to skepticisms of all sorts. For all that it is a true story and one which I want to have out in the world—I think it matters. I have held off on writing it out properly so far mostly because I have had intentions to include it in a much more comprehensive account of how I went from being a politically and theologically conservative evangelical Bible college student to where I am today ("LGBTQ+ affirming Anabaptist post-evangelical anarcho-pacifist" only scratches the surface). I still hope to write that story out properly at some point and, since this story plays a pivotal role in that one, I will have to recount this one. But since I have not gotten around to properly writing it up yet, I want to get this one out in the meantime. Anyway, this is a story of my miracle*.

In the fall of 2011 I had just managed to work my way back into teaching and was, at the same time, beginning to really question my theology around sexuality (for reasons that I will get into some other time, I was already fully affirming of transgender identities). The coincidence of these two developments in my life came together in the form of two brilliant students. One a young lady who was, at the time, dating another young woman at the school, and the other a brilliant young trans man, James, who was at that time still identifying as a lesbian. These two were both the sort of students that you just like having in class and getting to know. Both are brilliant, engaging, and friendly—the one hardworking, passionate; an inspired poet with an ever-present gleam of laughter in her eye; the other energetic, mischievous, and compassionate with a sense of justice which drives him to speak out at all the right times. Without knowing a thing about it it the time, these two students made it impossible for me to think of "questions around the theology of LGBTQ+ identies" in the abstract. I had to deal with the question in the concrete: were the the things my conservative Christian upbringing told me to believe about these two young people true or were they not? As anyone who has followed this blog at all surely knows by now, I came to the conclusion that God fully celebrates the identities, relationships, and marriages of LGBTQ+ folks.

Any analysis of one's own deliberation and discernment processes are prone to error, but so far as I can tell my theological shift began with accepting the plausibility, even the compelling logic, of LGB affirming interpretations of certain key passages from the Bible (I have written about those arguments in this series) but in the early fall of 2011 I was still afraid to accept those conclusions. I was still fighting against the weight of a homophobic Christian culture, of a church and a peer group which I knew held contrary beliefs, and of the fear of being wrong. It was those two students who gave me the perspective and--frankly--the courage to break through those barriers in my own soul. By November I had begun to publicly (I think online and certainly to my friends and family) acknowledge that my "views had changed".

But this is supposed to be a story about a miracle so I need to jump forward a bit. Several months later (late winter or early spring) found me having a conversation with James. He was telling me about instances of bullying that he and his friends endured at our high school. I didn't know much at the time but I knew enough to ask him whether the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at the
school wasn't helping enough with the problem. He ruefully told me that we didn't really have a functional GSA. I was a little surprised to hear it and told him that he ought to start one. That is as much of the conversation as I remember but he has since assured me that I followed up with a promise to be the faculty adviser if he couldn't find someone better. The first day of school for the 2012/13 school year, he popped up in my classroom grinning from ear to ear and waving the forms that I needed to sign in order to make the GSA and official club. Clearly running the Gay Straight Alliance at a public high school is not what I would have seen myself doing as recently as one year earlier, but I was not about to say "no" at this point so I signed the form, and declared him president of the club. Seven years later he has graduated from both high school and college and the GSA is still going strong.

It didn't take long for our weekly club meetings to become a highlight of my week. If you haven't ever had the chance to create and hang out in a safe space for marginalized and bullied high school students then you haven't fully lived. LGBTQ+ and ally high school students are some of the most resilient, quirky, fun teenagers in the world. I really have had the time of my life being their faculty adviser.

And that is how I find myself sitting in my car in the parking lot of a local grocery store praying that I wasn't sending kids to hell. This might not make a lot of sense to anyone who wasn't raised in the toxic soup of white American Evangelicalism. By the fall of 2012 I barely believed in an eternal hell anyway and I definitely didn't believe that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender would send you there. But fear is only rarely about what we give our conscious mental assent to. Very few of the children who are afraid of monsters in the dark still actually believe on a conscious rational level that those monsters exist. You really don't have to believe in something to be afraid of it. So despite my own convinced beliefs, I was afraid that by organizing a safe and supportive space for LGBTQ+ teens I was facilitating their damnation to a fate I didn't believe in.***

Beyond the lingering fears rooted in my white American evangelical upbringing, I was struggling with something else in the fall of 2012: homophobia. Miriam Webster defines homophobia as "irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals***". The term overlaps with, but is distinct from, heterosexism, "discrimination or prejudice by heterosexuals against homosexuals***" Given those definitions, over the course of 2011 I had moved away from conscious and intentional heterosexism but was still very much struggling with unconscious and visceral homophobia. The way I would have probably put it at the time is that I was find when interacting with LGBTQ+ folks in general and I supported their social and legal liberation but when I thought about what "being gay" entailed, it skeeved me out and I would experience what psychologists and sociologists refer to as a disgust reaction.
Let me take a moment here to emphasize something: if this disgust reaction is something you experience as well please know that this is something which was done to you by an overtly heterosexist and homophobic society, and that, if you were raised in white American evangelicalism**** then this malformation of your emotional self was perpetrated against you by evil, sinful forces which have long operated within the church and are only slowly being exorcised.
Some beliefs can sicken the soul
Disgust reactions are really hard to revise but they are not impossible to get rid of. They are also extremely destructive. When disgust is activated against people or groups it results in marginalization, persecution, scapegoating and, in extreme cases, genocide. It is by activating a disgust reaction against minority communities that evil men have been most effective in attacking and damaging those communities. Based on what I have read***** (here is a decent place to start) I tend to think about changing a learned and ingrained disgust reaction about the same way I think about overcoming a phobia: possible but difficult and ordinarily requiring a lot of work. In that context, changing my beliefs was the way to start, and ongoing positive interactions with people who were likely to elicit that reaction was a solid way to move forward. But despite being on (probably) the right track psychologically, this remained a problem for me. I had enough of a handle on it that, so far as I can tell, my students were entirely unaware; it almost never occurred to me when I was around actual LGBTQ+ people in any case but I knew that it was having some effect on my overall relationship with my duties as facilitator of the GSA. If you have never experienced this imagine having in involuntary queasy reaction 10% or so of the time you think about your best friend. It wouldn't end your friendship but it would definitely be something you would want to overcome if at all possible.

So there I am, sitting in my car, suddenly flooded by irrational fears and doubts and struggling to overcome an ingrained reaction which I hated an which was getting in the way of relating to and helping the very students I most wanted to help. I started praying.

This wasn't the first time I had prayed about this topic or asked God for some sort of guidance. As I said, I had been working through bible study and theology on the topic for more than a year at that point and that process had involved a whole lot of prayer. To put it in distinctly white American evangelical language, my exegetical and discernment process had been bathed in prayer from the start.

Not much of a stretch
In 2007 my wife and I joined the Vineyard Community Church of Central Maryland, a charismatic and (at the time) relatively progressive—context matters folks—evangelical church. I found a whole lot of healing and growth in that church and was profoundly mentored and encouraged by the pastor at that time, John Odean. His support and teaching are substantially responsible for my even being willing to begin questioning the perverse doctrines I had been taught about LGBTQ+ people. But by 2012 John O had moved on and the new pastor, whom I got along with fairly well at the time, brought a different focus to the church. This new pastor was passionately motivated to see miraculous events (healings, speaking in tongues, prophecy etc...) at the church and in that vein he like to bring in various teachers and pastors who were known to practice and elicit that sort of experience. One of those pastors he brought in, offered to pray and prophesy over each member of our leadership team—including me. So I had walked up to the front of the church with my long hair, beard, beat up jeans and over-sized sweatshirt to get a prophecy. The teacher (a pastor at another church in our denomination) put his hands on my head and prayed quietly for a while and then told me "I think God is calling you work with marginalized and outcast people in this community". I had thanked him and gone back to my seat more than a little skeptical. The idea that a statement like that might apply well to someone who looked like I did in that mostly white middle class suburban church was hardly any sort of stretch. I had mentally filed the prayer away as sort of interesting but unlikely to mean much and gone on with life.

A year or so later and I am sitting in a car, pleading with God for direction, trying to figure out whether all of these negative feelings were damage I needed to heal from and overcome, or that last warnings of the Holy Spirit to a confused soul about to cause horrible damage to the spirits of teenagers by encouraging them in identities and behaviors which God objected to. "Jesus," I prayed, "am I doing the right thing?"

I talk to God a lot and God does talk back sometimes, but it is pretty rare for me for God's response to shake my soul. Usually, the stuff I hear from God I perceive as gentle encouragement, suggestion, or reminder: a stray thought or spontaneous emotion which has the smell of the Divine about it, the sort of whisper that doesn't seem to have come from my own thoughts, but hey, maybe they did. Very occasionally though, God speaks in a way that causes the bones of my soul to vibrate, communicating directly to me so clearly and overwhelmingly that I can't account for it as anything but connection with One who is greater, fuller, deeper, and higher than I am or could ever imagine. God's response this time was like that.

Those of you who have experienced the sort of thing I am describing will know that putting the response into words always diminishes it; the best I can get at is a "mostly this but that isn't quite right and it was also so much more" like if you were trying to describe sailing on the ocean and could only come up with "It's like stepping in a puddle but floating instead of touching the bottom". So God didn't respond to my prayer by saying "This is exactly what I have for you. That is what I was talking about when I told the preacher that you were being called to work with the marginalized and outcast in your community" but that is the closest I can come to describing what God actually did communicate to me.

But that isn't my miracle.

The miracle accompanied the response and was in addition to it. As soon as the prayer had ended I was enormously comforted. I felt like I had my answer and I felt something more. My disgust reaction had vanished entirely. I haven't felt it since. A process of pyschological healing from sinful malformation at the hands of a broken and homophobic heterosexist church and homophobic heterosexist society which ought to have required months if not years, happened in a moment. From that day until now the disgust reaction has been entirely absent from my mental landscape regarding LGBTQ+ people. God gave me both the confidence and the capacity to lean joyfully into holy work: advocacy for LGBTQ+ people and particularly teenagers.

That isn't to say that I am all the way where I need to be. I doubt that any of us are, and I know that I still have thought patterns and reactions (but not disgust reactions) which were formed by heterosexism, patriarchy, cissexism, homophobia, and transphobia (to name just a few) I have much to learn and many LGBTQ+ people and allies to learn it from. My claim is only that this one barrier, a socially formed disgust reaction rooted in homophobia was overcome for me by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what I now understand when I hear people talking about being liberated from sin and death. This is what I now understand when I read about Christ overcoming the body of sin. It was for freedom that Christ set us free. Freedom to free others from the clutches of sin: homophobia, transphobia, heterosexim, cissexim, racism, patriarchy, greed, consumerism, nationalism... the list goes on and the journey is long. But it is joy and it is freedom.

In the aftermath of that experience I was kicked off of the leadership team of my church (which we subsequently left) but the new pastor because of my online advocacy for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks in the life of the church. But that is another story (one I hope to write up properly at some point). I bring it up here only to say that it was the message of encouragement from God and the evidence of my miracle (as well as the support of a beautiful community) which gave me the strength to get through that with my faith intact.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 
James 1:2-4 NIV

Please support the work of GLSEN and of the Trevor Project, two remarkable organizations working to support and protect LGBTQ+ teenagers and high school students.


* When I say "miracle" I am speaking of a supernatural event which is outside of ordinary experience and which seems to subvert the usual course of material causation. That is I mean by "miracle" exactly what folks generally take it to mean and not some sort of liberal theology appropriation of the term to describe the mere good and or psychologically profound.
**If you are interested in my views on hell, I found David Bentley Hart's recent That All Shall Be Saved rather convincing.
***I 100% recommend against calling anyone "a homosexual" outside of an academic or specialist context.
**** I am very much aware of the fact that this spiritual dynamic is at play in other Christian and religious traditions; white Evangelical Christianity merely happens to be the tradition with which I have personal experience.
***** I you are looking for spiritual (Christian) analyses of Disgust Reactions I would recommend Unclean by Richard Beck

Thursday, October 3, 2019

David Bentley Hart is Threatening Christian Imperialism (and that is a very good thing)

David Bentley Hart recently released his much anticipated That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation and, to put it frankly, the theology internet is freaking out. The book, Hart's argument for universal reconciliation—the idea that, in the end, everyone will be saved—has already been ably reviewed (I recommend Brad Jersak's review, this review by Dr, Akemi, and this interview with DBH over at Jonathan Martin's Zeitcast) such that I was not planning to post a review of my own. In fact, by way of review proper I will say only that I think Hart has successfully shifted me from the "hopeful inclusivist" camp into the "universal reconciliation" position and has almost certainly put forward an argument which any future conversations about hell will have to interact with. He makes four distinct and overlapping arguments, and the one I found most compelling is his third in which he points out that, because all persons are ultimately entangled in a web of relationship with all other persons*, it is impossible that any one person could ever fully experience heaven while any single person is still experiencing hell—the very nature of agape makes it impossible. Having said that much, what I really want is to move on to one particular dynamic which I think is present and active behind the scenes of this discussion.
Image result for manifest destiny painting

It will come as not shock to any of my regular readers that I think white American Evangelicalism is deeply entangled with white supremacy to the point that its only hope for redemption lies in near-total deconstruction and careful reconstruction under the guidance and tutelage of extra-hegemonic Christians (if you aren't convinced then I would urge you to watch David Gushee's address to the American Academy of Religion In the Ruins of American Evangelicalism).  As is ever the case, conservative and Evangelical Christianity is freaking out over this latest broadside against the doctrine of an eternal hell. You will remember that the last time this happened was the infamous John Piper "Farewell Rob Bell" tweet in response to Rob Bell's Love Winsa book which is far humbler and tentative in its challenge to infernalism (the belief in an eternal hell). While no less passionate this time around, the Gospel Coalition corner of Christian internet is somewhat more tentative as DBH is blistering compared to the irenic Bell, and is also an academic heavyweight who seems to delight in lambasting the perverse doctrines of Calvinism and whose scholarly credentials the Gospel Coalition folks are far more likely to find threatening. So the freak-out is a little quieter but no less real for that.

The question, though, is "why"? Hart (like Bell before him) is hardly threatening any doctrine of Christian orthodoxy. At no point do the creeds insist on an infernalist position, and Hart cheerfully and heartily affirms the incarnation, the deity, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hart's universalism (much less Bell's tentative speculation in the universalist direction) is hardly a threat to orthodoxy in any meaningful way. I suspect that the freak-out is happening because on some level, white Christian conservative and Evangelical leaders realize that they need the doctrine of eternal hell not only (as even Hart, following Origen speculates) to scare lay Christians into being good, but more fundamentally, to justify centuries of white Christian genocide and imperialism.

I do not mean to suggest that this is the conscious motive for all, or even for very many, of the infernalists; insofar as it plays a role in their motivations I expect that it is subconscious—that is how white supremacy operates at present. At the very least I am convinced that the theory fits the data. Eternal hell is a perfect justification for all sorts of atrocities and has been used precisely in that way for centuries; the tortures of the inquisition and of many medieval executions were justified as extreme measures which were necessary to save the soul of the victim from the eternal torment of hell. But so too were the epochs of white colonialism justified in this way. The beautiful (terrible) thing about the infernalist doctrine is that since it represents an eternity of torment--the worst possible fate any person could ever possibly suffer--any actions taken in the interest of preventing it are automatically justified, if not perfectly, then at least as an understandable overreaction. You see the argument? "Yes," the infernalist says, "it is a real tragedy that our ancestors/forefathers in the faith destroyed that indiginous culture, stole those lands, oppressed, enslaved, or even murdered those people. But at the end of the day they were trying to save souls." The whole crime, the great sin of white Christian Imperialism is thereby demoted from "ghastly sin" to a mere "tragic overszealous mistake". The atrocities of manifest destiny and the whole Doctrine of Discovery—that infernal carte-blanche from the Church to Europe to enact its bloody megalomaniac will upon non-white peoples and lands—may be reduced by infernalism to a culturally misinformed attempt to spread the gospel. "Gold," as the saying about white imperialism goes "provided the motive; God the pretext". Absent infernalism and the chance to save souls from eternal conscious torment, the shabby pretext becomes infinitely less effective. In sum, Hart's attack on infernalism constitutes nothing less than an attack on one great foundation of colonial white supremacy and its unholy entaglement with white religion.

Dave Gushee In the Ruins of American Evangelicalism

Mark Charles on The Doctrine of Discovery

Monday, September 2, 2019

Straw Man Jesus, Narnian Dwarfs, and Exvangelicalism

  "Well," said the Black Dwarf (whose name was Griffle), "I don't know how all you chaps feel, but I feel I've heard as much about Aslan as I want to for the rest of my life."
  "That's rights, that's right," growled the other Dwarfs. "It's all a plant, all a blooming plant."
  "What do you mean?" said Tirian. He had not been pale when he was fighting but he was pale now. He had thought this was going to be a beautiful moment, but it was turning out more like a bad dream.
  "You must think we're blooming soft in the head, that you must," said Griffle. "We've been taken in once and now you expect us to be taken in again the next minute. We've no more use for stories about Aslan, see! Look at him! AN old moke with long ears!"
  "By heaven you make me mad," said Tririan. "Which of us said that was Aslan? That is the Ape's imitation of the real Aslan. Can't you understand?"
  "And you've got a better imitation, I suppose!" said Griffle. "No thanks. We've been fooled once and we're not going to be fooled again."

straw man argument is a logical fallacy in which someone substitutes their opponents actual argument with a much weaker version, then disproves the weaker version (the straw man) and claims to have disproved the overall position. The straw man fallacy is especially irritating because it tends to occur more as propaganda than in actual arguments between two people. Because people usually know what their own arguments are, it is very hard to successfully deploy a straw man argument in a private one-on-one discussion; it inevitably runs into "well, sure you have disproved that argument but that wasn't what I was saying". The really pernicious use of a straw man argument is when it is deployed while arguing to an audience--which is probably why it has become so common online. If you tear apart an argument your interlocutor was never making and then proceed to announce your victory over their position, you clearly will not have swayed them but you may succeed in convincing those who are following the debate that you have won. This is true whether you deployed the straw man argument intentionally--arguing in bad faith and hoping more to convince than to work towards truth--or unintentionally--sincerely (but mistakenly) believing that the argument you took down was the best your interlocutor has to offer. So that is a straw man: an easily undermined argument in favor of a conclusion for which far more robust arguments exist.

Given the obvious fact that Christianity is a far lager and more diverse phenomenon than is white American Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism, it always comes as something of a surprise to me when #Exvangelicals (the online community which has been built by and for Ex-Evangelicals 1) insist that their rejection of Fundamentalist (or sometimes conservative Evangelicalism) somehow disproves all of Christianity. As David Bentley Hart and others have pointed out, the vision of Christianity over which the New Atheists are forever trumpeting their victory, is very much a straw man version of Christianity. Even more, the god whom they claim to have disproved is very much a god of straw, in the context of Christianity, the Jesus they reject is a straw man Jesus.

All of this does not (and I want this to be clearly understood) mean that those who accept these arguments are operating in bad faith. On the contrary I lay the blame here not at the feet of the New Atheists but at the feet of the self-identified Christians who have built a religion around the worship of straw-God and straw-man-Jesus. I have found that post-evangelicals are frequently bemused but the fact that the virulent atheists and the virulent fundamentalists we end up at odds with online seem to agree with one another. I have had atheists yell at me for believing in the wrong version of Christianity and insisting on the sort of bizarrely literalist interpretations of religious texts which they would never apply to any other historical document. I cannot, in good faith, accuse the New Atheists of arguing in bad faith because the straw man God they delight in disproving is very much worshiped by a great number of fundamentalist and conservative white American Evangelical Christians 2.

I also need to stipulate that the straw-man-ness of the Christianity promulgated by these fundamentalists and conservative white American Evangelicals does not mean that their beliefs are insincere. To the contrary, I am convinced that the vast majority of them hold to their religion in good faith. But a sincerely held wrong belief is no less dangerous (and in some ways I hope to address, significantly more dangerous) than one maintained in bad faith. The really insidious effect of this fundamentalist religion of the straw-man-Jesus which I want to focus on for the remainder of this piece derives from the fact that this idolatry really believes itself to be Christian.

In The Last Battle one of the most tragic accounts (recounted above) is that of a band of Narnian Dwarfs. In the book the Dwarfs, together with quite a few fellow Narnians are taken in by an ape named Shift who convinces his simple yet generally good-hearted donkey friend Puzzle to wear a lion's skin and impersonate the Christ-figure Aslan 3. In their deceived condition the Dwarfs are horribly mistreated and eventually reduced to slave workers before they are eventually freed by the heroes in the name of the real Aslan. The tragedy of the dwarfs turns on their ultimate unwillingness to accept the real Aslan in the wake of their deception by the false. "The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs," they announce "we won't be taken in again."

You see the parallel. It would have been relatively straightforward for a 1st century woman to renounce a belief in Zeus only to accept, some time later, allegiance to Freya or Thor or. The latter shared no real identity with the former and thus acceptance of the latter would have been little impeded by rejection of the former. A man who has given up belief in unicorns is not thereby much defended against belief in elephants. But to have rejected a straw man version of Jesus, a half-Jesus who bears the name of the real Christ and some of his characteristics, is both a real move forward and a half step back specifically because it erects a barrier against all claimants to the title "Christ".

Of course the psychological phenomena here are well established. "Fool me once," the old saying goes, "shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." to have been mistreated, abused, and taken advantage of will inevitably tend to create barriers and guards in the hearts and minds of the victims. This is all very well insofar as it helps us to become more critical and more discerning. The wisdom of serpents is as hard to win as the innocence of doves can be to reclaim after all. But we humans fool ourselves in thinking that we are overly rational, and our emotional being is conditioned by betrayal to reject forcefully all that seems too similar to that which first betrayed us.

This, I suspect, is the very heart of what it means to be Anti-Christ. Not a being 180 degrees removed from the real and living person of Jesus of Nazareth, but a caricature just similar enough that allegiance to it ends in subjugation while rejection walls away the very Christ whom it aped to begin with. It was not Puzzle's difference from Aslan which betrayed the drwarfs but his similarity and his identification with the Real Lion. It is, similarly not the dissimilarities between white American Evangelicalism and allegiance to Christ which harms the #Exvangelicals, it is their proximity-in-distance. The old, philosophical term for this is harsh, and yet quite appropriate here: perversion. The gun toting, 'Merica loving, homophobic, pro-capitalist white Jesus is a foul straw man perversion and we are witnessing its current foul work in the unholy union of white American Evangelicalism and Trumps fascist vision of the United States, facilitated by his false court prophets. Rejection of this idol of straw is certainly a necessity and we would do well to offer support and friendship to those who manage it.

I want to return to the story of the Narnian dwarfs for one final bit of Lewisian insight. Griffle and his crew go on, in the story to work with, and against, both the ultimate heroes and villains of the book. Their deadly archery proves decisive in the titular last battle of the book as the employ it both against the talking horses rallying to aid the last true King of Narnia and against the servants and allies of Shift who are working to subjugate the last of the free Narnians. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs. I have found this same dynamic to be true in my interactions with many (certainly not all) atheist #Exvangelicals. Their rhetoric is turned against the straw-man religion of white American Evangelicalism (and Fundamentalism)  as it is against the work and claims of other Christians. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs after all. But I want to caution against certain tempting harsh reactions against this proud, if traumatized population. Or rather, I want to let C.S. Lewis do the cautioning for me.

At the end of all (Narnian) things, the world has ended and our heroes have moved into Aslan's country:
  "I hope Tash ate the Dwarfs too," said Eustace. "Little swine"
  "No, he didn't," said Lucy. "And don't be horrible. They're still here. In fact you can see them from here. And I've tried and tried to make friends with them but it's no use."
  "Friends with them! cried Eustace. "If you knew how those Dwarfs have been behaving!"
  "Oh stop it Eustace," said Lucy. Do come and see them. King Tirian, perhaps you could do something with them."
  "I have no great love for Dwarfs today," said Tirian. "Yet at your asking, Lady, I would do a greater thing than this." 
Our heroes find the dwarfs sitting in a tight circle and believing, despite the fact that they are in a lovely wide open field, that they are held prisoner in a stable. Tirian and the rest try their best but the Dwarfs remain in their circle defiantly insisting on their own misery and captivity. Eventually Aslan, the real Aslan, shows up and Lucy tries again.
  "Aslan," said Lucy through her tears, "could you--will you--do something for these poor Dwarfs?"
  "Dearest," said Aslan, "I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do." He came close to the Dwarfs and gave a low growl: low but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, "Hear that? That's the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don't take any notice. They won't take us in again!"
  Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs' knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn't much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear they couldn't taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of old turnip and a third said he'd found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said "Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey's been at! Never thought we'd come to this." But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses they all said:
  "Well, at any rate there's no Humbug here. We haven't let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs." 

  "You see," said Aslan. "They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out." 
The story really is tragic but I think that one crucial element of it is terribly overlooked. The Dwarfs are not excluded; they are included in the new, real Narnia. True, what was done to them has made them--for the time being and maybe (let us hope and pray not) forever--unable to participate but they are not barred from flourishing. As Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain "The Gates of Hell are locked on the inside." Within the Narnia canon we never find out the final fate of the Dwarfs, Lewis leaves open both the possibility that they will remain forever locked in the stable-prison of their own minds, or that they may in time, wake up to reality and move joyfully "further up and further in" where the inside is always bigger than the outside and joy cascades upon joy. This great sin must be laid once more at the feet of the straw-man Jesus of white American Evangelicalism, that it has inflicted a wound, a trauma of the sort that cannot be healed until healing is sought.

1 For the sake of clarity, I will, in this article distinguish between #Exvangelicals and post-evangelical. for my purposes, #Exvangelicals are those who identify themselves primarily in opposition to Evangelicalism, while post-evangelicals are those who identify with where they have arrived. Of course real people lie along a spectrum between these two poles and the whole thing is far messier than my binary treatment would seem to imply. Nonetheless I think the distinction useful insofar as there is value in understanding the characteristics which shape polar ends of a gradation.
2 There may well be quite a few Jews and Muslims who believe in this straw-God as well but I am insufficiently versed in those traditions to make such an assertion with any degree of certainty. I am confident of the planks in my own tradition's eye that I would be remiss in finding specks in theirs.
3 If all of this is seeming far fetched or overly strange to you then please stop reading here, go read the full Chronicles of Narnia and come back. You will thank me.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Refugees from Evangelicalism

In church today, the preacher referred to a group of us as "refugees from evangelicalism" and that lodged in mind. Earlier this weekend another friend reflected "I found the Devil, right inside of the community where I also found God". So I think "refugee" may be exactly the right metaphor for my relationship to evangelicalism.

One big difficulty for those of us who are post-evangelical and yet still Christian is the fact that the toxicity which drove us out of white American Evangelicalism was not the only thing present in that space. For all of it's faults white American Evangelicalism was not all bad. Poisoned soup is still soup, even if poison is one of the ingredients. I certainly did find God through white American Evangelical style Christianity. That isn't to say that I might not also have found God through any of a million other faith traditions, it is only to say that white American Evangelicalism happens to be the vehicle through which (and, yes, in some ways in spite of which) I did find God. And also that is where I found the Devil.

Having spent some significant parts of my life with refugees it strikes me that there are some worthwhile parallels. Refugees are people who leave countries which have become entirely inhospitable to them, whether through wars, famines, or political tyrants. Countries fall apart; sometimes countries collapse. But many refugees can remember a time when their home countries were still habitable places, even places where they thrived. But then the rot set in, the war began, the economy collapsed, the crops failed. In some cases the rot was there all along; maybe the war was already being waged and they were protected from it for a time.

White American Evangelicalism is failing; it is collapsing; the center can not hold and it leaves behind a throng of refugees wondering who will take us in. Some of us are finding new homes, and some of us are still wandering. My family and some of my friends were accepted, welcomed, into a loving, Jesus-centered, LGBTQ+ affirming Mennonite Church in North Baltimore. I have seen other friends find refuge among the Episcopalians and the Eastern Orthodox, a few new groups have established themselves in the embers or on the edge of the desert. As so many refugees do, we are making real home, finding new citizenship among these lovely new communities (God has special blessing for those who welcome in the outcasts and the wanderers) and sometimes they let us bring a bit of our culture--the gold we smuggled out of Egypt--with us. And for all of that, some days it is hard to know how to feel about the death of the "land that gave us birth"--the communities where we found God and the Devil and were taught a love of both. "Home" must always have two meanings for us now because we are immigrant peoples finding home, making home, finding new Life away from the toxic home where we first found Life. But then, I suppose, that is what death and resurrection is like isn't it?

Friday, August 9, 2019

An Experience I Had with the "Vineyard Theological Forum (unofficial)" or "One Reason I Worry About Christian Nationalism"

In 2017 I was kicked out of the Vineyard Theological Forum (unofficial) on Facebook—and let me emphasize that it really is unofficial, these folks do not represent the Vineyard USA or the Vineyard movement internationally in any official capacity; I have even been informed that the group was asked, and refused, to take "Vineyard" out of its title—because, after years of interactions and conversations, the forum administrators decided that my continued advocacy for LGBTQ+ acceptance within the Vineyard movement specifically and Evangelical Christianity more broadly, was too divisive, and was out of line with the forum's stated theological non-affirming position on the subject(1).

Just so that you have a good idea of what I am talking about, the Vineyard Theological Forum (unofficial)—VTF(u)—is basically a collection of theologically charismatic conservative evangelicals—think The Gospel Coalition but they also speak in tongues. Now I am not at all saying that it was somehow horribly wrong or unfair for this little group to kick me out over my LGBTQ+ advocacy. It is their private forum and they can exclude or include whomever they choose for any reason they find compelling. What stood out to me then, and now, is not that I was booted, but rather the contrast between their approach to me and approach the administrators took to some of the other participants on the forum. To put it plainly: that forum (and I suspect many like it) is a breeding ground for online extremist Christian radicalization, and it represents a tendency within white American Evangelicalism which is still insufficiently understood.

When I was kicked from the forum, I contacted one of the administrators and asked him for the reasons. He gave the answer which I have summarized above. Now, I had been involved in discussions on that forum for quite a few years and had interacted with many, many people over various aspects of theology as it relates to LGBTQ+ poeple. In that time I found that a significant majority of the forum participants basically held to the position which the American public seems to expect from Evangelicals: the "love the sinner hate the sin", "gay marriage is wrong", "transgender identities are not valid cuz—God made people" pabulum; essentially they are big fans of the Nashville Statement(2). These are the folks I was frequently arguing with. After that there were also (I have no idea whether they are still there) a smallish minority of participants who were theologically affirming of LGBTQ+ folks. All of that is what I think the US public would expect to find in that context. What I was shocked and appalled to discover is that there was (and likely still is) a vocal minority of participants who believe and advocate for the death penalty for LGBTQ+ folks. Further, they were clear on that forum (I have the receipts—screenshots are forever) that in public they do not yet advocate for their draconian punishments of LGBTQ+ people because they realize that the public isn't ready for "truly Biblical governance" yet. They believe that they have a responsibility to play a waiting game, and to shift the laws and social beliefs gradually to a point where they will be able to publicly advocate for their position.

My surprise was not that these people exist—we have likely all read about them or encountered their depraved vitriol in one context or another—my surprise was that their advocacy was tolerated in what I had taken to be a mainstream white Evangelical context. The point I want you to catch is that in 2017 the administrators of that forum felt like my position (the full equality, participation, and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in society and the life of the church) was too divisive and extreme for their forum but that advocacy for killing (one man literally hopes to bring back stoning to death) LGBTQ+ folks was not.  I need to bottom-line this before moving on:
In the eyes of these conservative evangelicals, it is worse to advocate for the full acceptance of LGBTQ+ people than it is is to advocate for the death of LGBTQ+ people. 

Hold that thought. Sit with it if you need to.

(1) FWIW The Vineyard USA is of the position that Lesbian and Gay Christians who are in sexual relationships (married or otherwise) with someone of their own sex are not eligible for ordination within VUSA and that Vineyard pastors are prohibited from officiating same-sex marriages (at least insofar as they do so acting in their capacity as VUSA pastors). VUSA is officially silent on all questions relating to transgender identities and church participation. The VTF(u) takes a significantly more restrictive position condemning all same-sex sexual relationships as sinful, and denying the validity of transgender identities.
(2) In fairness VTF(u) does contain a number of participants who take the more nuanced "gay sex is sinful but being gay/lesbian as such is not sinful" position.
(3) It is worth keeping in mind that neither Hitler nor Mussolini came to power by winning majority popular support in free and open elections, and Franco used a civil war. That doesn't mean it is at all impossible for a fascist to gain power by fully winning a fair election (some of the new-fascists may have managed to do just that), only that the original fascists didn't.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Anti-Intellectualism and the Rejection of Modernism: Wrapped in the Flag and Carrying a Cross—Evangelicalism and Fascism Part 2

Sinclair Lewis probably never said "When Fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." But he should have because he would have been right.

For Part 1 in this series Tradition and the Mythic Past CLICK HERE.

I want to begin by backing up a little. The project for this series is to examine the intersections between white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism and U.S. fascism as a politics. But this is really two projects because it involves both demonstrating that U.S. fascism is a going concern in the present day—a claim which is not at all universally accepted—and also that it is shaped by and intersects with white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism (wAE/F). Because I take Trump himself to be a fascist—by which I mean that "fascism" describes his politics more accurately than any other term of which I am aware—I further take wAE/F support of Trump to indicate if not active support of fascism then a tolerance for and/or willing blindness towards U.S. fascism. I want to make it clear though that I do understand that the validity of the the latter argument (that support for Trump = support for fascism) depends on the validity of the former (that Trump is a fascist) and I will be making both of those arguments in parallel over the course of this series as I work to identify the presence of Eco's 14 features of ur-fascism and Stanley's 10 pillars of fascism in both Trumpism and wAE/F. Fascist politics does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state but it is dangerous nonetheless. Thus the fact that the U.S. is not (yet at any rate) a fascist nation does not at all imply that the president is not a fascist.

I think that I demonstrated effectively in the last post that both wAE/F and U.S. fascism share a common national myth, or at least that there is a national myth which is accepted and promulgated by a segment of wAE/F which is perfectly conducive to the purposes of U.S. fascism. I hope to demonstrate in this post that there are significant voices and themes within wAE/F which share the anti-intellectualism and rejection of modernism around which U.S. fascism is able to coagulate. Once more, this is not to say that all white American Evangelicals (or even Fundamentalists) are fascists or crypto-fascists—just because the soil in a garden is conditioned in a way that is especially nutritious for one type of plant does not mean that it cannot or does not host other plants more or less effectively. I do think that wAE/F is especially hospitable soil for U.S. Fascism and there have been U.S. fascists among the ranks of white American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists but wAE/F plays host to other politics as well.

I am basing much of my work in this series off of  Umberto Eco's 14 features of Ur-Fascism from his essay Ur-Fascism together with Jason Stanley's 10 pillars of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them while much (but not all) of my analysis of white American Evangelicalism comes from Frances Fitzgerald's The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America together with my own experience as someone who experienced Christian homeschooling in my elementary and middle school years, matriculated at a conservative Bible College, and who identified as an Evangelical for at least the first 30 years of my life.

Anti-Intellectualism and the Rejection of Modernism

While I intend to treat these two facets of fascism together I should begin by emphasizing that their relationship is more one of resonance than identity. One can be anti-intellectual without rejecting modernism per se and one can reject modernism (even in the very specific mode in which Eco is speaking) without being an anti-intellectual.


Fascism is not alone in anti-intellectualism, it shares that quality with significant leftist forms of totalitarianism as well. The rejection of modernism is, perhaps, peculiar to fascism as a totalitarian politics since most (all?) leftist politics tend to locate their origins in the Enlightenment. Now both of these elements are evident in Trump and in white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism but they tend to manifest in ways that are more or less obvious depending on the context. That Trump and the modern Trumpist(1) movement are anti-intellectual is, on a surface level, fairly obvious in the stock in opposition to "educated elites", attacks on tenure for university professors, regular mockery of intellectuals and academics as functionally useless, and Trump's well known aversion to reading books. But Trumpist anti-intellectualism takes a deeper, and probably more sinister, form as well. Trump and trumpists make a point of casting suspicion on college in general and especially on non-technical college education (mostly sciences and the liberal arts). The tactic involves assertions that universities are functionally little more than indoctrination centers for "liberal" politics and is usually embedded in bad-faith arguments about free speech on college campuses(2).
conservative complaints against public intellectuals, the valorization of white blue collar culture framed

What really strikes me about that second form of anti-intellectualism is the degree to which it parallels a pernicious attitude among wAE/F. For a variety of historical and cultural reasons  fundamentalists and evangelicals often frame "secular" universities as centers of indoctrination to the point that a heavy focus of the youth ministries I was involved with as a teenager was "preparing our faith to withstand college". One friend of mine who attended Summit Ministries (currently advertising itself with testimonials from James Dobson, Josh McDowell, and Eric Metaxas as preparing post-high school students to "strengthen their faith, prepare for cultural engagement, and earn money for college") recounted "an amazing lecture" in which the central figure (a young woman) went to college without "world view preparation" and became successively, a communist, an atheist, a feminist, and a lesbian. Fitzgerald frames the Evangelical and Fundamentalist attitude towards higher education well describing her experience at Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church:
For Thomas Road people, education—in the broad sense of the word—was not a moral or intellectual quest that involved struggle or uncertainty. It was simply the process of learning the right answers. The idea that individuals should collect evidence and decide for themselves was out of the question. Once Falwell told his congregation that to read anything but the Bible and certain prescribed works of interpretations was at best a waste of time. He said that he himself read all the national magazines just to keep up with what others were saying, but that there was no reason for them to do so. (Most of his church members seemed to follow this advice faithfully; their weakness, if they had one, lay in the realm of television watching.) He and his fellow pastors attacked the public schools for teaching "immorality" and "secular humanism." But what bothered pious members of his congregation was not just that the public schools taught wrong answers; it was that they did not protect children from information that might call their beliefs into question. When I asked Jackie Gould whether she would consider sending her children to something other than a Bible college, she said, "No, because our eternal destiny is all-important, so you can't take a chance. Colleges so often throw kids into confusion." The progress of education, then, was to progress in one direction to the exclusion of all others.
Notice that technical college and degrees are, in this analysis "safe" in that they exist to teach skills and provide pre-established answers whereas liberal arts and theoretical sciences, which teach students to think critically and engage with a large variety of ideas are viewed as "corrupting" and "dangerous". At the most basic level, the anti-intellectualism of U.S. fascism and of white American Evangelicalism and (especially) Fundamentalism values training rather than education. And this is important because fascism is not, strictly speaking, opposed to all schools or all teaching; fascism is opposed to teaching and schools which deviate from the party line, which teach students to question
authority, teach histories which challenge their nationalist mythologies, develop empathy in students and teach them to broaden their horizons and assumptions about the nature of the world and their (collective and individual) place in it. Fascism requires technical expertise since technology is fundamentally one method whereby humans gain power over one another and our environment but is threatened by critical thinking, and this accords very nicely with the Evangelical/Fundamentalist desire to see people trained towards a specific predetermined set of conclusions and skills without "endangering their faith" through exposure to challenging facts, ideas, cultures, and beliefs.

Before going on I want to say that this is one area in which white American evangelicals, particularly more recently, take some pride in distinguishing themselves from fundamentalists. When I was studying at Columbia International University (CIU), an evangelical Bible college(3), I was told that the key difference between "us" and fundamentalists was that we evangelicals were not afraid of the academy or the intellectual life. While I have since come to believe that there is no hard distinction to be made between white American evangelicals and fundamentalists but that they exist along a spectrum, the distinction made sense to me at the time. The other major Bible college in my state was Bob Jones University, a school so fundamentalist that it did not allow interracial dating until 2000 when it dropped that policy in an effort to shield George W. Bush from national criticism, and which was regularly cited as a foil for CIU in our efforts to prove that we were not fundamentalists. I will have more to say about the "evangelical vs. fundamentalist" distinction in future posts, but here I think it worth saying that in my experience white American evangelicals differ academically from fundamentalists primarily in their levels of confidence. Whereas fundamentalists tend to think that their children will be corrupted by a modern liberal education, white American evangelicals are more prone to believe that, with sufficient training, their children will prevail because they are already correct about all matters of faith. Put another way, the fundamentalist approach to education and the truth is more fideist while the white American evangelicals take a more apologetic approach. Neither, however are fully open to the full and free exchange of ideas or to following a line of questioning wherever it might lead. That is to say that their fidelity is to a pre-defined truth rather than to truth-whatever-it-may-be.

Rejection of Modernism

The rejection of modernism is somewhat more complicated, both as Umberto Eco means it, and as it applies to the Evangelical world. In discussing the rejection of modernism, Eco acknowledges that fascists embrace technology—remember that they champion technique rather than understanding—it is rather the larger philosophy of the Enlightenment (particularly the political and social philosophies which emerged from the enlightenment) that they reject. His exploration of the theme in Ur-Fascism is worth quoting in full:

Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both Fascists and Nazis worshiped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.
The desire to parse the Enlightenment in order to critique or affirm it in parts is not, I think, peculiar to fascism though its concomitant rejection of Enlightenment liberal thought is clearly an important element in fascist thinking. Certainly post-modernism, of which many leftists and anti-fascists today are often fans, is more define-able as a critique and rejection of modernism than in any other way. It is the politics of the enlightenment that liberals tend to celebrate and which fascists reject.

Cornelius Van Til
At this juncture it could be tempting to imagine that wAE/F folk must embrace the liberal and antifascist, rather than the fascist critique of modernism. Given the wAE/F boosterism of the United States, and the U.S. history of championing liberal democracy(4) it would make sense that wAE/F people would largely support the liberal politics of the Enlightenment—and in some cases that is exactly how it plays out. However, as I described in my last post in this series, wAE/F (particularly in the more Fundamentalist leaning portions of the wAE/F spectrum) includes an element of historical revisionism which involves defining "America" not as the first liberal democracy birthed of the Enlightenment (the standard "secular" story of the country's identity) but as a fundamentally Christian (and white) nation. Further, as Fitzgerald makes clear, this anti-liberal democratic outlook is only one element of a far larger tendency on the part of wAE/F which does include a significantly larger portion of the Evangelical side of the wAE/F spectrum.

The apologetics of Gresham Machen and most Princeton scholars, based on Common Sense Realism, sought to prove the truth of Christianity through factual evidence. Van Til, by contrast, held that facts did not speak for themselves but were meaningful only within some presupposed framework of interpretation. The truth, he held, lay only in God's framework as revealed in the Bible. Natural law, or autonomous human reason, reflected only man's fallen state, and the attempt by nonbelievers to create their own coherent interpretation of reality was doomed to failure. (His interpretation of the Bible was nonetheless based on Common Sense Realism.) Rushdoony took this notion farther, arguing that there could be no common ground between believers and nonbelievers. Then, while Van Til avoided the social and political consequences of presuppositionalism, Rushdoony did not. In the 1960s he became an early advocate of home schooling, arguing that education was not theologically neutral, and the state had no business imposing its own truth and its own religion on the American populace. (p.339)
Rushdoony and the christ-fascist re-imagining of the American myth are thus situated as an offshoot of a larger branch (mostly Calvinist—now celebrated largely by the PCA, reformed Southern Baptists and especially the Gospel Coalition crowd) of an Evangelicalism which rejects Enlightenment epistemology—the study of knowing and truth. It is important to recognize that this rejection of Enlightenment epistemology is, in its incarnation in individual thought leaders among these groups, almost always concomitant with a rejection of post-modernism as well. This is, at first blush, ironic since both Van Til and the post-modernists agree both in the rejection of Enlightenment epistemology. What makes sense of this is the fact that Van Til influenced presuppositionalists reject modernist epistemology by a method which is just as much (or more) subject to the post-modern critique as the system they both reject; presuppositionalism amounts to a sort of fideism which responds to modern and post-modern observations, critique, and questions by the simple expedient of refusing to recognize their legitimacy. The presuppositionalist claims to win all arguments by refusing to "see" anything which would undermine their central tenets with the result that they will only really entertain discourse with people who agree with their narrowly defined vision of reality. Again the training vs. education distinction comes into play since any apriori restriction of the realm in which truth is deemed "discoverable" must ultimately be reduced to training by restricting the questions and critiques which can be acknowledges or explored.

Conclusion to Part 2

So do white American Evangelicals/Fundamentalists engage in anti-intellectualism and the rejection of modernism in the same way that fascists do? Clearly there are some differences, the popularity of the new atheism and sort of banal nihilism (as distinct from philosophically informed nihilism) among America's online alt-right communities makes that abundantly clear. However there is much that both groups share in their habits of mind—rejection of both modern and post-modern epistemologies, a preference for technique over theory and question, distrust of liberal education to name a few—which precondition wAE/F individuals and communities to be particularly receptive to fascist propaganda and politics under the right conditions (such as the emergence of a shared and powerful enemy or a sense of threatened identity). There are also, certain stop-gap, beliefs of many wAE/F groups which need to be overcome before they (or the individuals of which they are constituted) can be subborned by US fascism. The Bible cannot be easily interpreted to allow for ethno-nationalism and, at the very least, presuppositionalim does include sufficient intellectual resources to argue against such a politics. So, I am not saying that white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism is tantamount to fascist thinking. What I am saying is that there are major (and increasingly dominant) strains within white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism which encourage habits of mind able to serve as a hospitable environment to US fascism.

As a coda to this post I want to emphasize that these problems in white American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism are (so far as I can tell) particular to those specific strains of Christianity and are not shared by the many Christian traditions which are distinct from that particular stream. Within the US Roman Catholicism, for instance, has a profound intellectual tradition which could hardly be farther from the presuppositionalism of Van Til (for those who are interested in peculiarly Roman Catholic vulnerabilities to Fascism I would recommend this piece over at Mudblood Catholic); the so called "progressive and ex-evangelical" movement which has emerged in the US  over the last decade or so, is largely defined by its embrace of doubt—see particularly Pete Enns' bibliography—, of openness to questions and exploration—one defining feature of the late Rachel Held Evans' work—,and sometimes of an almost naif acceptance of modernist empiricism and the authority of the sciences—check out "Science" Mike McHargue. That is not to say that either tradition is perfect by any means, only that they are different and that in those differences they posses greater protections against US fascism in this instance.


(1) I want to begin using Trumpist and Trumpism to distinguish the president and those whose political affiliation seems to be driven by allegiance to his leadership, personality, and political "style" from Republicans or political conservatives whose relationship to Trump may take a number of different forms.
(2) For a good run down on the ways in which trumpists and the alt-right utilize bad faith arguments about free speech generally, check out this video essay.
(3) I am, in retrospect, well aware of how ironic it was that I learned this at a Bible college.
(4) I am not claiming the US has always been a particularly good or effective champion of liberal democracy, only that "championing liberal democracy" on a global scale has been the primary stated raison d'être for US interventionism since WWI. "Being a champion of democracy" is, in the US mind, roughly equivalent to "being a good patriot".

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Wrapped in the Flag and Carrying a Cross — An Introduction to Evangelicalism and Fascism Part 1: Tradition and the Mythic Past

Sinclair Lewis probably never said "When Fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." But he should have because he would have been right.

Introduction: White American Evangelical Christianity and Fascism 

This post will begin a series on the rise of fascism in the US today and the ways in which it intersects with, co-opts, and is suborned by white American Evangelicalism. My goal is to work through what is happening in our current political moment and how it has happened. Umberto Eco's 14 features of Ur-Fascism from his essay Ur-Fascism together with Jason Stanley's 10 pillars of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them are my key texts for the nature of fascism. Much (but not all) of my analysis of white American Evangelicalism comes from Frances Fitzgerald's The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America together with my own experience as someone who experienced Christian homeschooling in my elementary and middle school years, matriculated at a conservative Bible College, and who identified as an Evangelical for at least the first 30 years of my life. I will also bring in additional readings and sources as appropriate and necessary. While this series of essays will take the form of a series of positive arguments informing one another and building towards a final conclusion, I hope that it will be read as an invitation to discussion. To that end I would invite reflection, reaction, push back and suggestions in the comments section of each post.
Recommended reading for this blog series

One important caveat I want to make at the outset is that I am not claiming that all white American Evangelicals are fascists or crypto-fascists. I do not at all believe that to be the case. I do, however, believe that some white American Evangelicals and particularly American Fundamentalists, are functional fascists (by which I mean that they do not recognize or realize the fascist nature of their own politics) and that there are significant historical and thematic strains within white American Evangelicalism which render its adherents particularly vulnerable to fascist ideology and leadership. It is, for instance, importantly true that 19% of the Evangelicals who voted in the 2016 election rejected Trump, but it is equally important that 81% of voting Evangelicals voted for him. Specifically this means that Trump received a higher percentage of the self-identified white Evangelical vote than any previous Republican candidate on record. The most fascist GOP president to date was more attractive to white Evangelicals than any previous GOP presidential candidate. Even that does not mean that the 81% of voting white Evangelicals who voted for a fascist president are themselves fascist, but it does at least suggest they were drawn (reluctantly or enthusiastically) by some degree of fascism. In this series I hope to explore that.

Features of Fascism

In Ur-Fascism Umberto Eco identified 14 common features of "Eternal Fascism or Ur-Fascism" that is, Fascism as a political practice and ideology abstracted from its specific instantiation in early 20th century Europe. Eco suggests that each of these may be present in other forms of totalitarianism "But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it." The features are:
  • The cult of tradition
  • The rejection of modernism (but not technology)
  • The cult of action for action's sake
  • Disagreement is treason
  • Fear of Difference
  • Appeal to social frustration
  • The obsession with a plot
  • The enemy is both strong and weak
  • Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy
  • Contempt for the weak
  • Everybody is educated to become a hero
  • Machismo and weaponry
  • Selective Populism
  • Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak
Jason Stanley provides an overlapping "list of pillars" of abstracted Fascism in How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
  • A Mythic Past
  • Propaganda
  • Anti-Intellectualism
  • Unreality: the rejection of truth
  • Hierarchy
  • Victimhood
  • Law and Order
  • Sexual Anxiety
  • Sodom and Gomorrah: heartland values vs. decadent cities
  • Arbeit Macht Frei: portrayal of the out-group as "lazy"
My plan is to combine the two lists where I can but also bring them into conversation with one another and with what I have seen and read about what is happening in US politics and with white American Evangelicalism.

The Cult of Tradition/Mythic Past

Both Eco and Stanley (and pretty much everyone else who has studied fascism) point out that fascism establishes, or reinforces a mythologized past in which the "us" flourished. Now, there can be some value in a national myth, so long as it is recognized as myth and not mistaken for an actual period in real history. A national myth which is known to be a-historical can be aspirational—a dream of what the nation hopes to become—and insofar as the aspirations are good, the myth will serve a good purpose. However when myth is mistaken for real history even good myth is going to corrupt; bad (racist, bigoted, xenophobic, imperialist etc...) myth will not be any better but it might be easier to spot. Contemporary US fascists use bad myth to feed their base supporters while using good-myth-mistaken-for-history as propaganda. Specifically, the myth they feed their base is the myth of northern Europeans "heroically" dominating the continent and "properly" subjugating indigenous peoples (they don't like to think of them as Americans) and African people in the service of a white nation. This myth minimizes all contributions and achievements of non-white (and usually non-Protestant Christian) people as often as possible. The myth that US fascists feed the moderates as propaganda on the other hand essentially erases the genocide and slavery which the first myth celebrates; it focuses on the good that the US has done (always incidentally crediting Euro-Christian folks for those achievements) and minimizes the harms and atrocities the country has committed, blaming them on "liberals", "humanists", "outsiders", and  "socialists" when they can't get away with ignoring them. Of course the two myths are contradictory but that is entirely irrelevant to Fascists. The myths suit their purposes. They are each attractive to their target audience and they each occlude the actual history of the nation in favor of one which will elicit anger and defensiveness on the part of the adherent when it is challenged by factual histories. In the latter effort Fascists have made particular inroads with Evangelicals and Fundamentalist Christians. 

Conservative and Evangelical home school and private school curriculum has long included a false American History narrative claiming that the american founders were Evangelical-equivalent Christians who founded the US as a Christian nation to the extent that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are really Christian documents thinly disguised as secular or pluralist documents. As it turns out, the connection between conservative Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism and U.S. Fascism goes back quite a ways. In the words of Frances Fitzgerald's magisterial history of Evangelicalism in US Politics The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
In the early 1930's a number of other leaders, among them Arno Gaebelein, James M. Gray, William B. Riley [whom Fitzgerald credits as the architect of northern fundamentalism] and Gerald Winrod, embraced the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and integrated it into their end times scenarios—uncomfortably, as it sat with their prophetic Zionism....Like the notorious Father Charles Coughlin and his Protestant associate, Gerald L. Smith, some of these fundamentalist leaders became Nazi sympathizers. Hitler, Riley wrote, has snatched his country "from the very jaws of atheist Communism" with "help from on high."(p.144-145)
They also tend to propagate Lost Cause revisions of civil war history, downplaying slavery and emphasizing states rights narratives. Certainly this is something I encountered in the the Christian homeschooling curriculum I grew up with (Bob Jones, and Abecka mostly). In general, the homeschool narrative (one which traditionalist conservatives, dominionist and Christian Reconstructionist thinkers have had a large hand in shaping) teaches a remarkably strident version of the myth of white Christian/Protestant American exceptionalism. Again from The Evangelicals:
A voracious reader and a prolific writer, Rushdoony [a prominent proponent of the Christian homeschooling movement and whom Fitzgerald credits as one of the two "thinkers of the Christian Right" in the second half of the 20th century]  in the mid 1960's wrote two books on American history... he argued that the intellectual roots of the American Revolution were purely Calvinist and owed nothing to the Enlightenment... The Constitution, he maintained, was a secular document in appearance only... The early American Republic, he maintained, was an orthodox Christian nation with an economic and social Protestant feudal system. By 1860, however, only the South had a Christian system, and in the Civil War the Union troops destroyed it. ... The South, he wrote, had a right to defend slavery because the radical reordering of its society by atheists was a far worse alternative.
R.J. Rushdoony a Christian Fascist
Rushdoony discovered the works of Palmer and two other leading Presbyterian defenders of the Confederacy and used them to argue that the Civil War was essentially a "theological war"—and the civil rights movement anti-Christian. Rushdoony found both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments unconstitutional and nothing but an effort to impose the power of the federal government on the states. By his account, it was downhill from there on, with increasing federal power and increasing racial and religious diversity. "Minority groups," he wrote in 1965 "hold the balance of power in many states—Negroes, Catholics, Zionist Jews, pensioners, and the like... Only by restoring localism, by amending the Constitution to require the coincidence of the electoral college and its vote with the structure of Congress, can minority rule, with its attendant evils, hatred and injustice, be checked." Rushdoony's America was white and Calvinist, and at the heart of his politics was not just racism but an all-purpose, full-service bigotry"(p.339-340)
If those don't sound to you like the talking points of "alt-right" today then may I suggest that you have not been paying attention. I think it is important to recognized the myth that conservative Evangelicals and the Christian Right have been promulgating as it does so much to explain the current co-incidence of Evangelicalism of far-right Trumpist Fascism. The Evangelical "myth of America" is a myth of a white and Protestant America which was founded on reformation (rather than enlightenment—I will be addressing the "rejection of modernism" in a future post) ideals, which was most fully instantiated in the Confederacy, and which has been under attack from "liberals" both theological and political (the conflation is a popular and much-exploited one) since the nation's inception. This provides them all the fodder that Fascists need from their Nationalist myths. In the words of Jason Stanley "Fascist politics invokes a pure mythic past tragically destroyed."  The Fundamentalist/Evangelical "pure mythic past" which was lost because of the work of "the enemy" (political and theological liberals) but which good members of the "us" group (white, conservative, patriarchalist Evangelicals) can work to reclaim by (re)gaining political power integrates rather seamlessly with that of more readily identifiable alt-right and neo-fascist groups specifically because they both locate the mythic past in a fundamentally white and "Christian" America and both see "liberalism" (though they put different spins on the meaning of the term) as the villainous force responsible for the decline they are trying to reverse.

Further, of course, is the fact that Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism understand themselves largely in opposition to theological liberalism—particularly 19th century German liberalism—and as fighting to reclaim a Christian theological past which only they have preserved. Certainly my own experience with church history classes specifically structure the history of "true Christianity" as one which faded after the fall of Rome (one Church history course from the Reformed Theological Seminary ignores the Eastern Orthodox church altogether, not even mentioning the Great Schism) and was practically resurrected at the reformation. Again, this is not to say that all white American Evangelicals are fascists, but to point to themes within white American Evangelicalism which render its adherents more open to fascist propaganda and red pilling.

From this perspective, it is entirely consistent that the Charlottesville Protests, centered around the "Unite the Right" rally served as the first significant conflict between American fascists and an alliance of Liberal Mainline and Progressive clergy with Antifa counter-protesters. Nor should it be surprising that Evangelicals, in defending Trump for his "both sides" speech, have centered the question of "honoring the Confederate past" rather than the obviously racist intent of the initial rally.
Clearly this is about more than just statues for them

By now the heavy blending of the religious right with the Republican party—particularly the tea-party, freedom caucus, Trumpist arm of the GOP—has resulted in a state level pressure campaign to promulgate the myth of white and Christian American exceptionalism in public schools. Essentially, Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and allied groups (the National Legal Foundation, and Wall Builders in particular) are pushing legislation which would make the Fundamentalist white, Christian revisionist US history of my home schooling days in the late 80's and early 90's the standard curriculum in public education after painting it with a thin veneer of secular pluralism. According to their Project Blitz playbook (they even name it after a Nazi battle tactic) the first focus category in their project is to enact "legislation regarding our Country's religious heritage". 

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that the current president's campaign slogan was Make America Great Again a statement which both references and participates in the creation of nationalist mythology.