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Evangelical Stumble

by Berry Friesen (May 12, 2016)

Yesterday, two related items arrived by email.  

The first was A Call to Resist Bigotry—A Statement of Faithful Obedience.  It is the recent public letter from prominent Christians--many of whom are evangelicals--urging Americans not to support Donald Trump for president.  Among the 50+ signers are luminaries such as Richard Rohr, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren and David Gushee.

The second was from William Boardman via Reader Supported News: “Donald Trump is the greatest threat to America today, or so the conventional wisdom left and right would have you believe. More realistically, the greatest threat to America today is actually believing that Trump is the greatest threat to America today.”

Also yesterday, I sat for an hour with my co-author, John K. Stoner, and talked about the call to resist Trump.  John’s response was spot-on.

“1. These condemnations of Trump are important and necessary.

“2. To the extent that they divert attention from the corruption of the whole system, they do not help.

“3. To have hope for the future we will have to do vastly more than stop Trump.”

To begin unpacking the problem with the evangelicals’ letter, we can start with the fact that it could be roundly and enthusiastically endorsed by Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.  When it describes how “faithfulness to Jesus” is at grave risk in American, it describes only personal attitudes and aspirations of Donald Trump.  He is a bigot, the letter says, and so Christians should not vote for him.  The letter says absolutely nothing about the practices and policies of the US government.

Thus, the declaration denounces Trump’s proposal to ban temporarily the entry of Muslims, but does not mention the 2,000,000 Muslim deaths caused by the US government since 9/11. Nor does it mention the wars of aggression (war crimes) committed by the US against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

Apparently, it’s all about who we vote for, not about the imperial goals that define the behavior of the US government and much of US society.

Writing at Religion News Service, Gushee defended the statement as “not a mere declaration of political preference or candidate taste. It is about something much more fundamental.” What in particular?  Gushee points to language of “confessional resistance” used in the letter.  And he says:

“The language of ‘confessional resistance’ harks back to two particular moments in 20th-century history in which groups of Christians made major statements claiming that the very purity of the faith was at stake in political events and that a failure to resist represented a failure to follow Jesus. Those two instances were Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. While no direct comparison is intended, the language of confessional resistance draws on that history.”

The historical precedents Gushee seeks to invoke are the 1934 Theological Declaration of Barmen and the 1985 Kairos South Africa declaration.

The so-called Barmen Declaration, written and distributed about a year after Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party took power in Germany, rejected the false teachings of the Nazi government and of the church leaders who collaborated with that government.  The idolatry of the state was the fundamental threat addressed in the Declaration. The signers said:

“We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church's vocation as well.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.”

Kairos South Africa declared that “a moment of truth” had arrived in which Christians had to decide whether or not they supported false theologies that buttressed  the South African apartheid state.  The first false theology was “State Theology,” which used the Bible to justify “the status quo with its racism, capitalism and totalitarianism.”

The second false theology was “Church Theology,” which used biblical concepts related to “reconciliation (or peace), justice and non-violence” to foster “a spirituality that, when faced with the present crisis in South Africa, leaves so many Christians and Church leaders in a state of near paralysis” with “very little to do except to pray for God’s intervention.”

This recent declaration by American evangelicals denouncing Trump’s bigotry is nothing like those two historic Christian statements.  It is weak tea by comparison.

Boardman is right:  to demonize Trump as the great threat of our time is itself a great threat because it distracts us from the real crisis in which we American Christians find ourselves.  If we are serious about bearing witness to the truth we have found in Messiah Jesus, our declarations will require much more depth and courage than this.