For those of you who are the regular readers of these blogs, you would know how totally dismayed, even undone, I am over the phenomenon of this present administration, and the way the president and the ‘religious right’ have hi-jacked and even bastardized the noble designation evangelical. It defies easy explanation, how those whose policies stand as the stark opposite of the radical social agenda taught by Jesus and the apostles. But this week a refreshing light of explanation has dawned. In the April edition of Atlantic is the cover article by Michael Gerson, a columnist for the Washington Post, former congressional aide, and speech writer for a president, as well as a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois.

The article is entitled: The Last Temptation. I cannot commend it too highly. It is profoundly researched, eloquently written and quite brilliant in its historical, sociological, cultural, Biblical and theological components. In seven journal pages, it spells out the huge contradiction that exists when those who identify as ‘evangelicals’ identify with the political alt-right as though that political extreme reflected the teachings of Jesus. … And to see Donald Trump as their “dream president” is off-the-chart. (The article can be accessed on Google.)

Gerson begins: “One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary development in recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.

The author then tracks the history of the evangelical movement from the mid-nineteenth century when Jonathan Blanchard, the founding president of Wheaton College, was a social progressive opposing slavery and making the college a safe-haven on the Underground Railroad for run-away slaves. He also tracks the history of Oberlin College; whose president was evangelist Charles G. Finney, also a social progressive. There is a very real sense in which they were both socially radically, and with large influence in the Christian community in the United States. That brand, or definition, of evangelicalism was, Gerson asserts, the predominant religious tradition in America. But came the Civil War and much disillusionment about any golden age of Christianity, and evangelicals began to become more defensive, reactive, and adversarial, what with the emergence of the social gospel, the assault on the supernatural by much of the intellectual community.

The seminal event was the famous Scopes Trial in Tennessee in 1926 over the teaching of evolution in the schools. It was at that point that evangelicals began to be identified as anti-intellectual, … and it all ‘went south’ from there. I hope I am whetting your appetite to read the whole much more persuasive and eloquent essay by Michael Gerson (Please do. You’ll be much the richer in understanding if you do.)

Skip down to the end of the article and Gerson laments: “It is difficult to see something you so deeply value discredited so comprehensively. “Evangelical faith has shaped my life, as it has the life of millions. Evangelical history has provided me with models of conscience. Evangelical institutions have given me gifts of learning and purpose. Evangelical friends have shared my joys and sorrows … And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.”

Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy? Yes, and Amen.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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5 Responses to BLOG 3/20/18. “HOW EVANGELICALS LOST THEIR WAY …”

  1. Paul hartgrove says:

    Taking the 2 articles together, they make for an excellent analysis. Especially compelling is voting for a candidate vs joining “the tribe”

  2. Libba Carpenter Wells says:

    Bob, I was going to recommend the article to you! I think it is excellent as well, and I have been utterly dismayed at what has happened! God have mercy indeed. Thank you for your voice.

    • rthenderson says:

      Libba: It’s great to reconnect with you. It is an incredbly confusing moment in history. I’m not always certain the nation will survive in tact, but the church as composed of Christ’s obedient followers will.

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