Not Good Enough. You Can Do Better.

Perhaps the greatest juxtaposition of my life was sitting in a second-grade classroom in Bowlegs, Okla., under the tutelage of Ms. Octavia Duncan. That name did not fit within the narrow geography of Bowlegs, one of those small American towns that only existed because two state highways met in perpendicular fashion at a four-way stop that was not trafficked enough to warrant a stoplight. South of that intersection was Glenn’s Gas Station, Vandever’s Store, and my great-grandmother Jo’s shuttered diner, closed since before I was born.

Mr. Vandever still kept paper “accounts” to keep track of who owed how much each month. Glenn was a one-armed mechanic and attendant, who, according to my mother, lost his arm while waving out the window of a car as a semi rolled past in the opposite direction. My mother usually told this story when my brothers or I were hanging out the windows of our family car; seat belts were not being treated as messianically as they are these days. That Glenn even had a legend attached to the loss of his arm—truly, it was probably a WWII or Korean War injury—speaks to the ways in which small things become large in a town the area of which is 3.745 square miles, and that makes it sound much larger than it felt at 8-years old.

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Not Ms. Duncan. I’m not that old!

Just south and east of that four-way intersection were Bowlegs Elementary, Bowlegs High School (Go Bison!) and Bowlegs Assembly of God, the church that shaped and ruined and ultimately bored me. The high school still bore the hallmarks of a WPA project: short perimeter walls—short enough for an 8-year-old to jump atop—made from native stone. The elementary school was one of the state’s poorest, so we ate pinto beans and cornbread at least once a week to stretch the food budget. I can’t even remember why we were in Bowlegs anymore, but the absence of my father from my memories makes me think it was because he was on a “remote” duty assignment for the Army, probably Korea. We were living with my maternal grandmother temporarily; she lived in Bowlegs most of her life, having returned from Bakersfield, Calif., as one of the Dust Bowl refugees returned home.

Octavia Duncan taught 2nd grade, and she had been teaching elementary school most of her life. I have no idea why she was in Bowlegs. I’ll likely never know. Given the near impossibility of an 8-year old estimating old age beyond descriptors like “old,” “really old,” “my parents’ age,” and “ancient,” let’s just say she was in the “really old” category, probably in her 60s. She oversaw classroom activities with the discipline and authority that only adheres to those who have decades of experience, who foresee issues, who see bruises and puffy eyes, who see hungry children try to hide their hunger or struggle to stay awake, who recognize nascent skills and intelligence, who recognize the signs of well-ordered households, and who love to teach, but most importantly, really like children.

My mother’s recounting of my experiences has made Ms. Duncan into a ever-virginal, authoritarian, bitter schoolmarm, but that can’t have been the truth. We don’t often recognize how our parents’ shape our earliest memories, and there is a reason children will say “tell the story again” over and over and over. They are filling in details of their hazy memories, and they are at the mercy of their parents’ perspective, including biases and assumptions.

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8-year old me

I remember liking Ms. Duncan. I remember fearing her, too, but in the way you fear someone you don’t want to disappoint. Had she been cruel or authoritarian or disinterested, I would not have a pleasant if nebulous memory of her. My mother took offense to Ms. Duncan’s feedback on many of my assignments: Not good enough. You can do better. My mother was still viscerally angry about the feedback 20 years later. I assume she still would be if I asked her today 45 years later.

At Bowlegs Elementary, the grades were not A-F; they were rather varying degrees of satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The homework grades were adorned with a U or an S, and Ms. Duncan would write her feedback at the top of the page, a practice I adopted as an educator. For the bulk of my assignments, I received the feedback already noted. My mother saw some sort of perverse obstinance of Ms. Duncan’s part to accept that I was gifted and brilliant, but I’ve come to believe that Ms. Duncan already knew that part, but what she saw was a tendency to value social interaction over actual work, and so she took steps to foster a tenacity in me related to writing things. The feedback was almost always tacked onto the top of penmanship, vocabulary, or grammar lessons, never math or any other subject.

I am a writer today because Ms. Duncan saw something, some emerging skill with words, and she responded, not by patting me on the head and telling me I was wonderful, but by creating a program of instruction with feedback that pushed me to develop the skills that have served me so well throughout my life. I did not need the kind of affirmation that many neglected children need; my mother fawned over me, and people generally liked me, so I responded to their attention with attention of my own. Ms. Duncan recognized the dangers of that course, and so became the sole voice in my life that pushed me to do the hard things. Talking came easily to me, but writing requires a commitment to words and grammar and tone and clarity, and so penmanship was important, not because I need calligraphic handwriting, but because clarity matters, both written and spoken.

I’m not sure what that one academic year has been worth in terms of my lifelong development. It’s nearly impossible to quantify, but we are in the midst of an experiment in Oklahoma that is attempting to do just that: quantify the value of educators. I’m writing this week because the teachers are walking out because they’ve been undervalued for too long. I’m for them. Calling someone a teacher is reductionist to a fault. Yes, they teach, but they also shape lives in ways that we can’t predict, and I sincerely don’t know how to quantify that except to say, “Give them all the damn money.”

Evangelical by Definition, not Practice

I cannot tell if evangelicals are having an identity crisis, or if they are just victims of definitional confusion. For the longest time, I argued the latter, even recently, but I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that there is probably a third possibility (more on that another time). Unfortunately, a new joint study from LifeWay—a self-described evangelical research firm—and the National Association of Evangelicals works against my previous defense. For the record, and this is important, LifeWay isn’t just evangelical; they’re Southern Baptist.

Bob Smietana, one of the better religion writers working today, does an excellent job of summarizing some of the reports findings, but one issue related to the study’s reliability is appended at the bottom without commentary, and one is missing completely, which is not Bob’s fault. The italicized portion at the bottom of the story lists the four statements to which participants responded. They are:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

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The key to a good taxonomy is classifying and dividing such that there is no overlap at key points in the classification system. For example, if I want to understand what an evangelical is, it’s helpful to know how it differs from its Christian cousins, most especially Mainline and fundamentalist churches or movements. If there never comes a point at which no overlap occurs, there is no division. That’s a lot of words for a simple concept: family resemblance is not the same thing as sameness.

The four statements cannot possibly separate fundamentalists from evangelicals, so the taxonomy is already broken. Key points of difference are not even included in the statements. If the two entities hoped to further confuse the public about the hazy line between evangelicals and fundamentalists, they succeeded. I can imagine a member of a Mainline church saying “disagree” to one or more of those four statements, but every fundamentalist of whom I’m aware will answer “strongly agree.” That is non-controversial, and so obviously a flaw in the study that I’m amazed no one noticed. (Perhaps they think the two tribes are one.)

Related to this problem is that three of the four statements are about beliefs, and only one is about practices, and the practice of evangelism hardly distinguishes evangelicals from other movements or religions. In short, if you hoped to create a taxonomy that does very little to help identify evangelicals, this would be a good starting point.

The methodology is flawed, too, though, in the sense that it seeks to establish two categories: evangelical by belief and evangelical by belonging. Please note that something hugely important is missing. (I typically tell students to avoid dichotomous classifications, as they usually leave out something that’s important for fleshing out the actual issue.) According to this study, aside from telling people about Jesus, I only need belong to a so-called evangelical church, or “strongly believe” all four statements to be evangelical. Can we get some love for “evangelical by practice?” No?

This is why I think it’s important to note that LifeWay is Southern Baptist. The denomination (They’re a denomination. Get over it.) is eaten up with the idea that Christianity is about belief to the point that they have no actual guidelines for behavior that aren’t sexual or criminal. In other words, no gay sex, no cheating on a spouse, no premarital sex, no misdemeanors or felonies, etc. (Certainly abortion factors in, but it’s an odd category between human sexuality and criminal behavior, according to Pro-Lifers, at least. Given that they consider it murder, it probably would go under the criminal category.) Dozens of proscribed behaviors that call identity into question can be summoned, but no prescribed behaviors that establish identity. Belief, it seems, is sufficient. To say this is barely the Christianity of the Apostles, even within the generous boundaries of family resemblance, is too kind. It’s not Christianity, and that’s what makes it so easy to exploit on the cultural and political fronts.

We Wholeheartedly Reject Truth-telling: Trump, Marketing and the Megachurch

This sign is in the offices of Oklahoma’s largest church: Life.Church, formerly known as Lifechurch.tv, formerly known as Life Church, or Lifechurch. I can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter.

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There is in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein this idea that you cannot pick up the vocabulary of one community of reference or language game and simply port it over to another community of reference without bringing some of the grammar with you. (This is not grammar in the sense of how speech is coherent; it’s grammar in the sense of how we use words to give life the semblance of coherence.)  The sign above is the clearest indication I’ve seen in a very long time that he was correct.

Other than writing for magazines this past year, I’ve barely been able to force myself to write about what is happening to our country, both culturally and politically. This is in large part due to my ongoing conviction that words are now mostly used to indicate tribal affiliation, not get at the truth of a statement or position. They aren’t worthless yet, but the moment is close. I am never surprised when politicians—Left, Right. Libertarian, Green, etc.—use words cynically. The entire Trump team is eaten up with cynicism at a level that is hard to fathom, even as he used words throughout the campaign and in his first year to indicate he is bereft of an interior life, the final stage of cynical nihilism.

Churches have factored into the Trumpian narrative since the beginning of his campaign. Just this morning I read Amy Sullivan’s excellent piece at Politico in which she does a solid job of explaining who the Charismatic/Pentecostals are, and why they got involved with Trump and remain his strongest supporters. Save You A Click: They Think God Orchestrated Trump’s Election. If that sounds too far-fetched, just know for now that it’s really not. Many of them, Stephen Strang of Charisma Magazine most especially, sincerely believe that God has given us Donald Trump as a means of “saving” our nation. (We’ll ignore the civil religion component of national soteriology for now.)

That churches have so wholeheartedly embraced a man who has to be a top three contender for Presidents Who Took the Lord’s Name in Vain has been both shocking and dispiriting.

Yes, I said dispiriting. In spite of my own lack of faith, I still held some fundamental beliefs about the role of churches, temples, mosques, etc., in our collective ethos, not the least of which was that they are genuine conversation partners about what is right and good. No, I did not often agree with them, especially about issues of human sexuality and gender, but about issues of character, I often found myself in agreement. There are still faith communities that are pursuing the truth, but it’s past time to say that those who support Trump as God’s man in any meaningful way are simply not Christian faith communities. They are practicing a Christianity so modified by the tenets of civil religion that they have created a new hybrid every bit as exotic as the other Christian hybrids of the modern era: Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And now we come to a sign in a church office. I have to reiterate that this is by far the largest church in the state, and it’s one of the largest in the country. The senior pastor is commonly invited to speak at large-scale religion conferences, especially of the “how to be a better marketer” variety. Pastor! I meant pastor, not marketer. Sorry.

I am not of that tribe of skeptics or atheists who believes you cannot teach religion without teaching lies. That, too, is cynicism, just from a different ideological location. Do I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, or that a snake talked to Eve, or that the Prophet went to heaven on a horse, or that Vishnu regularly took human form? No. Of course not, but myths of a faith community (or country) are fundamentally different than corrupting the use of words in an everyday context. If you teach people to believe an obvious lie, it’s not a long journey to them disbelieving obvious truths.

The first line of the sign might as well say, “We wholeheartedly reject the label truth-teller.” They are a megachurch in every single way that matters. They have tens of thousands of members in multiple states on multiple campuses, more than 20 campuses, in fact. Not a single one of those multiple campuses qualifies as “micro.” The campuses in Oklahoma City are larger than nearly every other church in the city, so what the hell does “micro” mean in this ad?

The simplest way to describe the idea that Life.Church is a micro-church is to call it utter horseshit. It’s so clearly false that to tell your people that it’s somehow the truth is to do violence to language. Worse, it conditions your people to parse untruths as truths, and the corollary is always therefore to parse truths as untruths, the fake news of religion and politics. It’s not just a venial sin; it’s taking the Lord’s name in vain and failing at being a pastor. It is hating the truth.

In short, it’s to prefer marketing results to gospel results. Life.Church has always used the language of marketing, but they were foolish enough to believe that you can borrow the vocabulary without borrowing the grammar. Marketers don’t care about the truth; they care about results. If the product isn’t new and improved but saying it is increases sales, then the shit is new and improved. The metric is about margins and bottom lines, not truth-telling. Truth-telling is supposed to be the domain of the religious community, so why are so many failing so badly at it?

On Poetry and Pedophiles and Meaning

If I could write poetry—and if poetry mattered culturally beyond trite pop music—I’d start with a poem called “Everything is Shitty and I don’t Think Words Matter Anymore.” You can almost feel the essential poetic elements oozing out of that one, right? Ironically, it would require words, and it’s no coincidence that lately I find myself listening to music without lyrics more than ever before.

I buy poetry books regularly because I want to be challenged to dig deep into words used metaphorically, to find the snapshot or vignette the poet is describing that lies beneath the layers of meaning, all of which are constructed by lived experience that differs from mine in substantive ways, such that I can never really read the same poem the poet created. That is the beauty of poetry done well—the expanding vistas of a shared life, but one shared with different lenses: same shared moment or circumstance, but different interpretations, different impacts, different understandings.

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Photo via The Daily Beast

Poetry in that sense is not truthful, but it is truthy; it is rich in meaning, but short on shared referents. The poet is not—as a rule—describing what ought to be, but what is; her task is usually descriptive, not proscriptive. The language is meant to be loose, to be open to different perspectives, to be intentionally oblique. That is why poetry is for poets, and it’s why poetry points back to a shared lexicon of words we all understand (How else do you write comprehensibly?), and it’s why the best poets don’t tell us what to think or believe or do, but they encourage us to practice those things. The form serves a particular purpose, and that purpose is the encouragement of wonder, awe, imagination, delight and despair, hope and, yes, faith.

I’ve been teaching in various contexts since 1989, and central to my pedagogy is the idea of clarifying what we mean when we say things. This became even clearer to me in grad school, where I discovered Ludwig Wittgenstein and his therapeutic approach to meaning. Words mean something, not in some innate sense, in which the meaning comes with the word—as if there is some cosmic dictionary, a holy book of definitions, so to speak—but in the sense of how they are used in a particular community. The community determines the meaning, and then uses the word according to that grammar. It’s slippery, but it’s not as inconsistent as people suppose, and it has the added benefit of being easily demonstrable when language is deconstructed.

The key component in this therapeutic approach is recognizing what kind of communication is happening: poems, commands, requests, stories, aphorisms, etc. The rules of language are applied contextually. This present moment reminds me of the end of a Scrabble game, when players turn over all the tiles on the board and then swirl them around to destroy whole words, to reduce the tiles to singular phonic elements. Imagine that each of those tiles is a way to use language, a rule or a set of rules that make language comprehensible, and imagine that we are swirling those tiles around, dumping them in a bag, pouring them back out on the board, and then inviting our fellow citizens to construct a grammar of meaning with the scrambled tiles. The tiles all look familiar; we can even sound them out, but applying them to a context and understanding the rules of that particular form of speaking are lost to us. They are literally scrambled.

This is where we are. Jesus says this nearly indecipherable simple thing in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, and throughout this little deep dive into the state of meaning in America, I’ll keep referencing that text, because it ought to be a controlling text for my Christian friends, but it isn’t. I almost typed, “…it seems not to be,” but there is no seeming; it is not a controlling text. An entire series of ethical commands from God made human—God given a physical voice and breath and meaning and the time to use them, and Christians believe he wasted his time to deliver utter, unvarnished bullshit—and the rules are piously ignored as if the speaker is the greatest ignoramus in history, an idealistic fool who either had too much faith in humanity’s ethical potential or a saccharine savior who had no faith in it, and so wasted thousands of words, rather than simply say,

“I’ll be dying on a cross soon, so just try not to be dicks, but if you must grab women by the pussy, make sure you know how to cite a Bible verse or two.”

That simple thing he says, though? Let your yes be yes and your no, no. Why? Why that? Why in that discourse? It’s an odd emphasis amidst all the other more complex theological wrangling he’s doing, much of which consists of making Moses look like an asshole. The emphasis is important because it’s in the context of oaths, and the point is clear-ish. If you have to add extra guarantees to your words, you’re not following Jesus. If you say you are going to do something, that is your word; it’s literally the authority behind your own name, and it’s the guarantee of your character. If I can’t trust you to say a simple yes and follow through, then there are no grounds for me to trust your “I promise.”

The extension of this rule is pretty simple. Speak truth plainly, even when it works against your side. Politics is not poetry. Civil government is not poetry. The philosophical underpinnings of republican forms of government are not poetry, nor is journalism or intelligence reports or definitions of illegal behavior. They need to be made plain. The poet wants us to work to infer meaning from the poem; our different lives bring different meaning to the experience of the poem by different people. The meaning changes because it’s meant to, but that is for a specific context. To try to apply those rules outside of that context is the death of meaning. When necessary, speak truth plainly, and if someone is not, then the “deconstructionists” taught us to look behind the speakers’ words for their intentions. That has never been more important than now in this country.

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If you can’t say hebephile (Roy Moore) with a straight face, if you can’t call a predator a predator, if you can’t not vote for a demagogue because your weak faith in God leads you to distrust God with SCOTUS, if you will call evil good, if you will insist that one man whose ideology is different than yours is evil but a lecher and robber baron is a lower-case messiah, then you are liar. Your speech is not plain. Your truth is not manifest. You are following an ideology, not that ignoramus of a savior who might just have believed in your ethical potential. The only way back from the edge of the cliff is to return to speaking the truth, even when it cuts against your personal politics and preferences, and that this is where we are with American Christianity—that we have to say “you should love the truth”—means that the cruciform life is as dead a concept in churches as it has ever been.

Teaching Religion as a Skeptic, or How to Defend God

I teach religion. That someone who no longer practices religion teaches it seems an irony at one level, and more than a few students have been confused when I tell them I’m a skeptic.

“Why would you teach something you don’t believe?” One asked.

“If I was a Christian, should I let someone else teach the sections on Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and the others?”

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They readily agree that the system would make no sense, and I wish every adventure in missing the point ended so easily. What follows is an explanation of pedagogy in the context of a religion class. I tell them I’m going to tell the story the way adherents tell it, and then we’ll look at it critically. Was Muhammad truly illiterate? Was Jesus born of a virgin? How does culture impact hermeneutics? The big one: what answers have you been taught that actually don’t answer the question?

An example. Nearly every horrifying punishment for sin detailed in the Tanakh will be “explained” away by Christians who are content that those words emerge from a construct known as “the old law” or “the old covenant.” We are now under grace, they say, with a self-satisfied smile. This is a college class, so the next question is meant to unsettle them, and quite frankly, someone in their church should have forced them to confront the question years ago, but that assumes someone in their church has actually wrestled with the question, a likely false assumption.

“So God used to be okay with stoning rape victims to death, but then Jesus died on the cross, and God is now against it?”

Usually, they didn’t know that was in the Bible, and after showing them the relevant passage, they freeze up. Completely. What do you say, after all? No one prepared you for this moment, and the tendency not to read the whole Bible, or to suffer through it only once, means that there are dozens of stories like this of which students are blissfully ignorant.

Depending on the context, we can substitute slavery, killing LGBT people, or killing witches. The impact is generally the same, and while some have said the question is too abrupt, the rupture is what I’m looking to cause. It’s a general education class about religion, not an in-depth look at hermeneutics, canonicity, canonical criticism, etc. If their pastors haven’t bothered to mention that the words “God’s Word” indicate that God has some answering to do—the blowhard speech in Job notwithstanding—then their pastors have not been honest.

More simply, someone should have introduced them to these difficult passages along with a conversation about inspiration and authority. That never happens. Never. Not until college. I have not yet encountered a student aged 18 to 65 (my oldest so far) who has been taught to craft a hermeneutical lens that admits to some textual problems. It is clearly not their fault that their system of religious education is badly flawed, if not broken outright, but that is also not my problem. My concern is to teach the material, and having presented it, to make them interact with it in ways that are often challenging, even infuriating.

What a college class with diverse perspectives cannot allow is permission for students to avoid a glaring contradiction in their own ethical constructs, especially when the contradiction grants a pernicious permission. Truthfully, no Sunday School class should allow that either, nor should a pulpit minister, but that requires a commitment to treating the text differently than as the totem it has become in American churches. It binds a community together, but it does not shape them. It grants them salvation, but it does not require more of them than a prayer for forgiveness. It tells them who the “other” is, but it does not require they love them. Jesus has made the only sacrifice that matters, and now American Christians, by and large, are borrowing Jesus’ merit, but they are never asked to repay the loan—to make their own sacrifices. The only demand seems to be a guiltless quest for their own self-actualization with appropriate gratitude directed toward God. #blessed

The wrestling does not happen because ethical formation is not required. Even the Sermon on the Mount—the longest, clearest discourse of Jesus in the New Testament—is interpreted as a means for God to show humans that they require His grace because it is simply too hard for mere mortals to obey, as if “don’t divorce your wife” and “love your enemy” are at the same difficulty level.

Yet, for those of us outside, there remains a singular problem. I make this argument regularly in class, and, yes, I’m defending the honor of a God they claim to follow, because if there is such a being, he or she ought not be morally repugnant. And so I insist that some things are always wrong. I argue for at least a few universal moral principles.

God cannot order the murder of rape victims and be morally blameless. That is nonsensical all the way down—and evil. (The Calvinist who offers that God can do whatever God wills is a juvenile in his thinking. Of course God can in their construct, but why use the word “good” at that point? In other classes, I simply have students read Twain’s Letters from the Earth to deal with that issue.) If God did not order it, then a new model of hermeneutics and new vision of the character of God are required. As I like to put it: “The kind of God you believe in determines the kind of person you are allowed to become.”

Trump isn’t the first guy who knows more than Jesus.

This was supposed to be shocking:

The quote comes near the end of the clip, and the interviewer takes it as hyperbole. I probably would have done the same thing, but it’s worth noting that viewers on both sides of the ideological divide (belief vs non-belief) have commented on it as if the words, taken at face value, are revelatory of a primary axiom of Trumpvangelicals: some version of “In Trump We Trust.”

Clearly, it’s possible the guy could have been at least partly serious, but if he was 100% serious, it would simply mean he’s just like the overwhelming majority of evangelicals and fundamentalists in American Christianity. They don’t believe Jesus either. They haven’t in a very long time, if ever.

Every semester, students in my world religion class are forced to endure my reflections on this guy named Silly Jesus. He is the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who tells his followers to love their enemies, not to resist evil, not to get divorced, not to worry about their lives, not to swear oaths or pray in public, etc. I tend to refer to him as Silly Jesus, because, with the exception of the Anabaptists, I don’t know a single Christian who takes the longest collection of Jesus’ words seriously, at all.

Christian ethics have not been formed by the words of Jesus. In fundangelical circles, Christian ethics are formed by exegetical magic tricks that combine Moses, David, Isaiah, non-red-letter portions of the Gospels, and Paul, but mostly Moses and Paul. In fact, the typical approach to Christian ethics, especially in those areas where Jesus seems to speak clearly, is a dialectical exercise wherein Jesus is pitted against one or both of the Bible’s architects. Jesus always loses. Always.

Consequently, Jesus exists for evangelicals and fundamentalists as a savior, not an anthropological model. They are supposed to be grateful for the work he did on the cross, and then ignore him like they would a conspiracy theorist uncle at a Thanksgiving dinner.

Silly Jesus. Didn’t he know he came to die for me, and then remain silent (stfu)? All those words and deeds prior to the crucifixion? Who knows? It’s so hard. My pastor said the Sermon on the Mount is there to show us our need for grace. I mean, who could possibly do all those things? I’m not perfect. What’s that? Jesus said to be perfect? Silly Jesus. Eat your turkey and stfu.

So you see, that nice Trump voter wasn’t being scandalous, after all. He was simply applying one component of evangelical Christianity to this emerging religious category I’m calling Trumpvangelical for now. It’s clearly a syncretistic category that combines components of evangelicalism, fundamentalism and civil religion, so if evangelicals are upset about his assertion that he’d trust Trump ahead of Jesus, they’re going to need to be upset with their own ethics, hermeneutics and Christology first.

Roy Moore is not an Evangelical

The title is more straightforward than my normal parallelisms, and that’s because I’m still tired of words. The current POTUS uses too many of them (mostly nonsensical or outrageous), and the machine tasked with defending, explaining, condemning and following him uses exponentially more. I said early on in this administration that I was going to say less out of fear of adding to the glut of words, especially given that I think the surfeit of commentary from the entire spectrum of Right to Left (or vice versa) is making words even less meaningful.

When Jason Micheli of Tamed Cynic invited me on his podcast, I wasn’t sure what the topic would be. Shortly after, I tweeted the following:

Jason messaged me to say we had found the topic. I recorded the interview this morning, and we did manage to talk about the definitional issue I have with the way the two words are being used. But because Jason is curious by nature, it seems, and a good interviewer, we meandered through several subjects, much like a real conversation. I decided to use the podcast as motivation to get this done, both for myself and for anyone who wanders here after Jason posts the new episode.

A few days ago, a longtime reader of the old Parish blog blocked me on Facebook because I wasn’t satisfied with his less-than-nuanced definition of “evangelical.” I’ve tried to explain what I think the best definition of the word is in the current context, and if you want to ask who I am that I get to set definitions, I’ll need to respond at length at some point, but for now, just know that I’m not making up definitions. What I am trying to do is apply 20+ years of writing about religion (professionally and on a blog), 10 years of teaching religion at the college level, and 30 years of reading and researching the nexus of religion, politics and culture to understand what “evangelical” means. I told Jason this morning that I’m really trying to defend the good guys in this endeavor, both because I still have friends in professional, evangelical ministry, and because I would never have wanted to be sullied by association with Roy Moore or Donald Trump when I was an evangelical pastor.

I will end up modifying the thinking that contributed to that first tweet, because I don’t think either category–fundamentalist or evangelical–is thorough enough to describe what is happening in our political climate after Trump’s victory in the general election. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Roy Moore represents a toxic combination of fundamentalism and civil religion, a benign form of which has been present in many Southern Baptist and Pentecostal/Charismatic churches for a long time, like this shot from Dallas First Baptist in July of this year.fbc dallas

For now, I’m convinced there is a difference because three key markers of fundamentalism are not present in evangelicalism. I’m working with a definition of evangelical that does take into account the three streams that Mark Noll wrote about more than 10 years ago: small group Anglicanism, Calvinist theology (especially soteriology), and European pietism. However, the American form of this changes dramatically after the rise of the new evangelicals, as embodied by Carl F. H. Henry and Billy Graham, and even more so after Barna and Warren. It becomes far more enculturated, much more American, much more responsive to market forces and cultural shifts.

That last bit is the beginning of the key differences in the markers. Fundamentalism is adversarial to culture; evangelicalism is not, for the most part. Fundamentalism is separatist in orientation; evangelicalism is not. Fundamentalism is painfully, inconsistently literalist in hermeneutic, bordering on bibliolatry (e.g., inerrant, infallible talk); evangelicals have settled on a nebulous definition of “inspired” or “God’s Word”  that borders on being an empty signifier, often keeping the “infallible” category but losing “inerrant,” recognizing the latter category as nonsensical or not helpful.

To be fair, both movements have contributed to the degradation of Christian witness, and while fundamentalists engage in self-deceit, cover ups, and outright lies, modern evangelicals tend toward a more permissive soteriology that makes for good consumers, if not good Christians. Taken as a whole, though, I’d far rather spend time with the latter, and the kind of faux Christian piety we see bubbling to the surface among supporters of Roy Moore is far less likely to be present in evangelicals. Still, as I already said, we are going to need a new taxonomy to take into account Christianized hypocrisy and the redefinition of holiness in Trumpvangelical America.

Not Gonna Bow to Your Idol

Continuing the PRRI information, I was very curious about the “Unaffiliated” category in American religion, which is second only to the aggregate White Christian sectors: Evangelical (17%); Mainline Protestant (13%), and; Catholic (11%). Unaffiliated now accounts for 24% of the population, but what exactly does the word mean? When “nones” first started showing up on American polls, we were fairly certain that it was a response to institutionalized religion, which is to say these were mostly the oft-demonized millennials who were “spiritual but not religious.” Turns out that category is less than 20% of the Unaffiliated demographic.

unaffiliated

The chart is great at pointing out that the explicitly religious are a sizable percentage of the Unaffiliated, but it’s less clear how people mean the words “secular” or “agnostic.” I know many Baptists who are also secularists, and many in the Americans United movement are outspoken secularists because they are strong proponents of church/state separation, but some are also Christian. My experience teaching religion class is that most of my agnostic students are simply people struggling to keep believing. It’s entirely possible that they will come back to faith, but that metaphysical inertia can last for years. The category is likely going to be hopelessly muddy until pollsters separate it into more meaningful segments and clearly define the terms.

Still, the numbers indicate a powerful and profound shift in American metaphysical claims, and as the position becomes more common and less marginalized, we can expect to see a much more robust and less aggressive form of atheism emerge, one that is not a reactionary position and therefore less zealous and angry.

As a side note, I still teach the term “agnostic,” but I tell students that it’s not of much use anymore. The classic term “skeptic” is far more accurate.

Y’all Need More Babies

Been trying to get to this for a while. PRRI released their American Values Report from 2016 recently, and I’ll have a few observations to make. For now, though, since the new semester is still kicking my ass, I thought I’d start with one of their most fascinating charts. This one details the percentage of each sect based on age group. If you look at white Protestants, it’s easy to see their future is bleak. Given that there really is no conversion growth in the U.S., combined with the impossible to determine future attrition rate of the youngest demographics, white Protestants are aging themselves out of relevance, if not existence. It’s worth asking, and I will in a later post, how the political posturing, the Trump support, and the Nashville Statement are helping to bring those numbers down.

chart