Dealing With Hostility to Evangelicalism
Christian author and social critic Os Guinness discussed the unprecedented hostility American Evangelicals now face, and how they should respond to it at a Faith and Law presentation on Feb. 23. The intensified hostility, he said, has lasted for about the last 10 years. This has been "a steadily swelling chorus of voices" criticizing Evangelicalism. Guinness said that Evangelicalism faces three charges – moral hypocrisy, the claim that the Evangelical movement has had its "back broken forever," and that the term "Evangelical" needs to be abandoned.
But Guinness does not think that the term should be abandoned. He referred to the Evangelical Manifesto of 2008 and its understanding of Evangelicals as "those who define their faith and their lives by the good news of Jesus of Nazareth, and try and live as closely to that as they possibly can." He observed that Saint Francis of Assisi was called Evangelical. Also, the Reformers in the 16th-century referred to themselves as Evangelical rather than Protestant. They wanted to find the "heart of the good news" and "direct and unmediated relationship" to "God himself through Jesus Christ." While this definition "must be theological," it is not a checklist of doctrines to be checked off and "then you're in." Guinness said that in the Christian religion "nothing is earlier or deeper than Evangelical." And it is "profoundly and overwhelmingly positive ... it is good news ... the best news ever."
In some sense, Guinness said, Evangelicals do indeed "need revival and reformation." This is true, at least in the West, despite the fact that Christianity is the "most numerous" religion in the world, and growing rapidly in parts of the non-Western world. On the other hand, in only one country in Europe and the United States are Christians still a substantial majority among Western nations. Yet even with this continuing majority, Christians have a small cultural influence on America, compared to minorities, such as "advocates of the sexual revolution."
Guinness said that Evangelicals of the 1960s had a "privatized faith," but it was "publically irrelevant." This was less noticed than it might have been, because there was a broad Judeo-Christian consensus in society before the 1960s. However, in 1973, Watergate, the oil crisis, and the Roe vs. Wade decision were turning points for Evangelicals. After this, Evangelicals moved from an "overly privatized faith" to an "overly politicized faith." This has resulted in Evangelicals depending on "politics to do more than politics can do." First liberals (in the early and mid-20th century) and then Evangelicals (in the 1970s) placed too much trust in politics. Guinness quoted "the old maxim" that "the first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing." Guinness quoted another maxim from the nineteenth century, that Evangelicals of that day "tried to do the Lord's work, but often not in the world's way." William Wilberforce was once the "most vilified man in the world," except by the British royal family. But he responded only with "grace and love." Guinness remarked that Wilberforce's "love for his enemies was remarkable." It was entirely in line with God's "radical call" to love our enemies.
On the other hand, there is for Evangelicalism the danger of decline by accommodation. Modern Jews, Guinness said, have found that when it is easy to be a Jew, they drop out. The Old Testament story of Israel is repeatedly a story of "a break with the surrounding culture." Evangelicals should be defined by the Lord's call, not by "other people's views of them." But God "told us we would suffer ... we would be treated badly." But we have an "audience of one." If "he's angry at us," that's a real problem.
Christians are more effectively post-modern than we realize, Guinness believes. He described this as believing what is plausible, but not what is credible. This is the difference between appearance and objective reality. What matters, however, is not what other people think, but "our integrity before the Lord." Guinness said that the Christian faith is true even if no one believes it, but if it is false, it is false even if everyone believes it. But Christians should believe in objective reality, and in that reality, what matters is not what other people think, but "our integrity before the Lord."
Guinness also sees "a political mistake" in contemporary criticism of Evangelicals. President Donald Trump did not create the crisis for America, but he is a consequence of the crisis. What is the crisis? It is the deepest division in the country since the Civil War. The ideology of the French Revolution, which was secular and anti-Christian, is replacing the heritage the American Revolution, which looked to the Bible for inspiration. This "will be disastrous for freedom." Evangelicals intuitively voted against the worst side. Trump is not the problem; he is giving the country a pause to decide which way to go. "For all the corruptions and confusion, I would still stand" with the term "Evangelical," Guinness said. He quoted twentieth century Jewish philosopher and civil rights activist, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, that it is better to be "burnt to a cinder in Auschwitz" than to lose one's faith. In line with this, Evangelicals should "stand more faithfully."
At the conclusion of his discussion, he quoted the British scholar of Christian history, Christopher Dawson, who asked after World War II, "can the church in Europe be warmed again?" While theologian Emile Brunner said "I'm not sure," Dawson said "every true Christian should say yes ... on the outcome of that question depends the future of humanity."
It seemed to this writer that there is some tension between Os Guinness' admonition to "stand faithfully" and his obvious desire for an enthusiastic and ardent presentation of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Our situation is not that of William Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelicals in early nineteenth century England. Eighteenth century England was nominally Christian and decadent; there could then be a loving and positive appeal to reform of personal and social life. The social result was Victorian morality, which was a decided improvement. At a personal level, people responded in overflowing congregations to the preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon and others like him.
But mid-19th century England also saw the beginning of the intellectual attack on Christianity that continues to this day in the form of Biblical criticism and the critique of Christian morality as needlessly constraining and inadequate for the world we live in today, and will live in tomorrow. James Hitchcock, in a 2004 article, identified the "strong demands" of the Christian faith as the reason for the attack on Christianity and the religious freedom that protects it in our day. In particular, Christian faith involves a doctrine of marriage and its associated morality, and a view of the eternal destiny of human beings that requires submission to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. Put bluntly, the conflict is about sex and hell. We can respond with apologetics defending Christian faith, and to legal attacks on our duty to obey God. But these "strong demands" cannot be negotiated, and they are utterly unacceptable to secular liberalism, which cannot tolerate them even among believers.
Pope John Paul II identified the proclivity to choose death over life as an essential error of the modern world, and obeying God's commands as crucial to entering into life. We indeed have the hope of eternal life, but it is a hope that involves the narrow way, which must be prominent in proclaiming the gospel if it is to be an authentic gospel. The narrow way has been an essential to Christianity through twenty centuries of enormous obstacles and accomplishments. It must continue to be until Christ returns.
Rick Plasterer is a staff writer for IRD concerned particularly with domestic religious liberty. He attended Eastern Mennonite College (now University) receiving a B.A. degree in history and sociology, and an M.S. in library science from Drexel University. @RickPlasterer
Originally posted at Juicyecumenism.com.