"Alarmist" has become the newest label given to conservative Christians who raise concerns about the current trajectory of the culture in general or churches in particular. Like other labels — fundamentalist, theocrat, reconstructionist — the word itself is now used as a slur, and once deployed, the user feels no need to justify the accuracy of their claim.
Do conservative American Christians have legitimate reasons to be alarmed?
The meteorologists warning of winter storm Stella this week were alarmist also. Was that a bad thing?
The "alarmist" accusation goes like this: "Conservative Christian leaders are using false information to stoke fears for their own personal gain, either to sell books or mobilize voters."
Looking at the history of conservative Christians in America, one can certainly find instances in which this accusation is correct. But, if it's true sometimes, does that mean it's true all the time?
There was a time when I tended to side more with the "false alarmism" argument. As a political conservative and theologically conservative evangelical, I have many sympathies with the policy proposals of Christian Right leaders. But when I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the Christian Right in the early 2000s, I thought their warnings of discrimination against conservative Christians were overblown. Until, that is, their predictions came true.
It was in President Barack Obama's second term when conservative Christians got fired from their jobs and lost their businesses, and when there were attempts to force Christian institutions to accept leftist orthodoxy or lose funding or accreditation, that I began writing articles like:
"Will Liberal Professors Wake Up to the Dangers of Their Anti-Conservative Hostility?"
What was most eye-opening and heartbreaking to me during the period I was writing these articles was how few of my liberal friends were willing to defend my religious freedom. So, sure, I was alarmist. I was alarmist because what was happening was alarming.
Was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts an alarmist when he wrote, "Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage — when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples"? Of course he was. We also now know he was completely justified in his alarmism because everything he warned about actually happened.
Some on the left accuse conservative Christians of false alarmism for saying Christians are discriminated against and advocate policies that are discriminatory toward conservative Christians. What do you call someone who says Christians are crazy for saying Christians will go to jail for their faith and cheers when Kim Davis is sent to jail? Hypocritical? Clueless? Silly? Just plain weird? I'm open to suggestions.
Due to this "just plain weirdness" coming from the Left, conservative Christians are now having to both defend their own religious freedom and explain why they are complaining about their loss of religious freedom. Some just see the conservative responses and naturally find it just plain odd when they don't see the weirdness to which the conservatives are responding. This whole odd-weird-mishmosh must strike outsiders as a comedy of errors, but it makes more sense when you understand the players.
The most recent accusations of false alarmism have been in response to Rod Dreher's new book, The Benedict Option.
Dreher's book, according to a blurb on Amazon, "calls on American Christians to prepare for the coming Dark Age by embracing an ancient Christian way of life."
Progressive occasionally-evangelical author Rachel Held Evans was one of those accusing Dreher of false alarmism, or what she calls the "White Christian Industrial Persecution Complex."
"White Christians have enough influence to hand Donald Trump the presidency. They are NOT a marginalized group," Held Evans tweeted. You can read the rest of her tweets along with Dreher's response here.
Notably, while my comments are mostly focused on religious freedom, because that's my area of interest and expertise, Dreher's book is not primarily about that. In response to one of my tweets he acknowledged that it's mostly about defending the church from apostates like Rachel Held Evans.
Dreher's other accuser was Calvin College professor of philosophy James K.A. Smith in a Washington Post op-ed, "The new alarmism: How some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope."
Since Smith works at Calvin College, actually read the book, is not a progressive liberal, and has a Ph.D., I expected his response to be more thoughtful than Held Evans' response. I was wrong.
Smith accuses Dreher, along with Charles Chaput and Anthony Esolen, of false alarmism ... no, wait ... that's not right ... Smith accuses Chaput-Dreher-Esolen of "new alarmism," a term he coined, with the implied assumption that anyone engaged in new alarmism is engaged in false alarmism. There is no effort to explain why he thinks Chaput-Dreher-Esolen's alarmism is unfounded.
Smith only gets worse from there, eventually implying the authors have racist motives by the time he reaches his conclusion (no joke). For more responses to Smith, see Mark Bauerlein at First Things, oldlife.org and Dreher himself.
Alarmism is, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder. Skimming Held Evans' Twitter feed, there is much that could be considered alarmist, for those who don't like Trump and think churches should be more liberal. Accusing conservative evangelicals of having an "out-of-control ... obsession with homosexuality" could also be considered alarmist. And when Smith said that in the future the secular age "will intensify a sense of living in a wasteland" (for all, not just Christians), that might strike some as alarmist.
I'm not saying that all alarmism is good or correct. I'm saying alarmist arguments should be judged by their merits and not simply dismissed (or accepted) simply because they're alarmist.
And, I do prefer my own alarmism to be tempered with an acknowledgment of the strengths of conservative Christians in America. As I've noted in many of my writings, the Christian Right is not weak, and Kim Davis won, after all.
False alarmism is a problem among evangelicals (and others), but a false-alarmism-accusation should be wielded with precision, not like a sledgehammer. Is everyone who warns of bad outcomes from making poor choices guilty of malicious motivations? That's how the "alarmist" accusation is often used against conservative Christians today.
Like Held Evans and Smith, I have raised alarm bells about the Trump presidency. Were we wrong simply because we were alarmist? I don't think so. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the future of our nation with Donald Trump in the White House.
Meteorologists weren't sure exactly how bad Stella would be. They advised Northeasterners to prepare for the worst. Can you blame them?