Thoughts on Conservatism, Evangelicalism, and political devotion to begin 2019…

After much thought and discussion with close friends I’ve decided to stay true to the name of this blog and make my posts daily! This will be challenging but beneficial for me. Not everyday will have a big news story or book review or movie opinion, but all of these elements will appear eventually. For now enjoy the following as an opinion piece as we begin this new year.

When you are too conservative to be conservative. When you are too evangelical to be evangelical. When you are too devoted to be a political devotee. These are all thoughts an American evangelical may have as we move into 2019

How can somebody be too conservative to be conservative? Well, that depends on what is meant by the use of the word “conservative.” Is the word being used in regards to theological conservatism, moral conservatism, or political conservatism? The underlying issue with the word “conservative” in American society is that it has become a word used to identify somebody who is conservative in each of these three areas. So, for example, the modern young woman may say of another “She is very conservative.” In saying this, that young woman normally means she sees this person as religiously (theologically) conservative, socially (morally) conservative, as well as politically affiliated with the platform of the Republican Party. However, many Christians (this author included) do not mean this at all when they label themselves as conservative! If one were to study the divisions and disagreements within the protestant church ever since the modernist/fundamentalists debates of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s they will discover each of the major dissensions have arisen over views of the Doctrine of Inerrancy whether those involved in the dispute realized at the time that is what they were fighting over or not. Therefore, theologically conservative people have really become those who hold to a view of Biblical inerrancy while theologically non-conservative people have been those who hold to a view of Scripture which is in any way less than Inerrant. This is a huge discussion (that we don’t have time for here), but Paul Feinberg provided a helpful definition of the word “Inerrancy” for reference, “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”

If it is accepted that theological conservatives are those who hold an inerrant view of Scripture then that would mean in the current climate in the United States, a conservative (theological) will find they are too conservative to be conservative any time Scripture claims something is true that is in direct disagreement with the platform of the G.O.P. How hard do you have to look for an example of this? Not very hard. The very first few sentences of the official 2016 platform of the Republican Party stated, “We believe in American exceptionalism. We believe the United States of America is unlike any other nation on earth.” The Bible says nothing in agreement to this point in the G.O.P’s official platform, however, the Bible does say in Revelation 7:9 “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…” Rather than Americans being treated as exceptional in God’s Word one will find by an elementary reading that Americans are lumped into this “great multitude” just like everyone else. One will find that God deals with Americans not in an exceptional way, but in the same way he deals with all people who believe in Jesus as John 14:6 says, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” This biblical truth is true of all Americans as equally as it is true of all Iranians (just for example). Therefore, if an American who is truly a theological conservative is rational rather than sentimental about her faith she will eventually have a realization that at times she is too conservative to be conservative. (P.S> to this paragraph– I love America and do think it is a wonderful nation and I’m amazingly fortunate to live in the USA, however, as American Christians it is wise for us to be thankful for our nation, to participate as citizens of said great nation, while still holding to a biblical view of how God sees the nations.)

How can one be too evangelical to be evangelical? Well here is where our society is currently making a grave mistake in that we as a society are currently allowing people from outside of a body of faith to have insight into, and even a voice into matters which according to a true understanding of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, we should be allowing internal decision makers to be making such insights and to have such voices. So, for example, currently the media at-large has labeled “Evangelical” to be what they perceive “Evangelical” means. Considering the escalated political rhetoric of our era it is not surprising that they then focus their definitions around politics, because they largely see “Evangelical” as connected to a block of voters that must be appealed to; this relegates evangelicals to nothing more than a very large and very conservative special-interests group.

Jonathan Merritt did an interview through the Religion News Service along with John Stackhouse, and in that interview he rightfully points out that when labeled by people outside of Evangelical scholarship and churches the term comes to have a racial element (Evangelicals are white, but not black, latino, etc.), the term tends to become synonymous with fundamentalism. So, when allowed to be defined outside of evangelicalism itself, “Evangelical” comes to be a term having more to do with politics, race, and narrow beliefs than it has to do with anything else. But, wouldn’t most rational thinkers agree a term linked to a movement has the right to actually be defined by the movement itself? Think along these lines… Would you feel comfortable having a non-Muslim construct theological beliefs from the Quran that a Muslim supposedly believes and holds onto? Of course not! Most people would think it right that a Muslim cleric or scholar be the one who interprets the Quran for themselves and draws out the theological implications for the lives of Muslims. Would you feel comfortable having a non basketball referee interpret the rules of the game of basketball? Probably not. Most basketball fans don’t want a tennis referee defining and interpreting the rules of basketball… So, shouldn’t it be the same in regards to allowing Evangelicals to define what their own name means?

When we allow this to happen we can discover how it is that an evangelical becomes too evangelical to be an evangelical! Stackhouse helpfully replies to one of Merritt’s questions, “’Evangelical’ just means ‘of the gospel’ or the good news of God saving the world through Jesus Christ. Alas, those who append this lovely word to themselves often mean to imply, ‘We’re of the gospel—and you, or those people over there, aren’t.’ Thus it has been used to distinguish Protestants from Catholics in the 16th century; warm-hearted and observant Protestants from cold-hearted and desultory Protestants in the 18th; Bible- and Jesus- and evangelism-focused Anglican Protestants from tradition- and religion- and propriety-focused Anglican Protestants in the 19th; and warm-hearted, observant Protestants focused on Jesus who steer by the Bible while trying to become holy and convert everyone else in the 20th. Only in the United States does ‘evangelical’ primarily mean ‘white Protestants descended from fundamentalists who want to re-convert America and then use its influence to convert the rest of the world.’ If Stackhouse is correct then this means it is incredibly easy for a person to be too evangelical to be evangelical.

Going back to the verse used earlier in this piece, Revelation 7:9 which states, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…” If Stackhouse is correct in what it means to be an evangelical then that means there is no racial element whatsoever regarding who can be an evangelical. If Stackhouse is correct then that would mean an evangelical is a person who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ regardless of their race, gender, national background, but when we allow non-evangelicals to define what it means to be an evangelical you may come to believe it means less about a personal relationship with Jesus and more about a personal relationship with the NRA. This is just wrong. When used in such a way, we are mistaken about what “evangelical” actually is and what it actually means. Simply because a lot of people believe they know what they mean by “evangelical” doesn’t mean they are right. But, then again what does Stackhouse know about evangelicalism he’s merely an evangelical? No, the right response is to once again allow evangelicals to define their own movement for themselves, and for evangelicals to be the ones to take the reins in doing so.

How can somebody be too devoted to be a political devotee? This is a much simpler answer now that we have laid the groundwork. A person who is a conservative evangelical in the ways promoted in this piece will inevitably become a person who understands politics are fleeting because “We are citizens of heaven and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body by the power that enables him to subject even all things to himself.” Someone who is devoted to this “Lord Jesus Christ” is somebody who realizes all things are subjected under his feet and that includes the United States of America as well as the G.O.P, and therefore, they are too devoted to Jesus Christ to be more devoted to either the U.S.A or the G.O.P. The reason why people have this confused outside of those who truly are devoted to Jesus, evangelical, and conservative in the way promoted in this piece is not because they are wrongly observing the behaviors of “evangelicals,” but it is because many in the United States who claim the name of Jesus and may claim to be conservative evangelicals have gotten their devotion out of order! This has caused too many Americans for too long to be a political devotee primarily which results in them actually not being devoted to Jesus (remember Jesus said “No one can serve two masters…”).

In 2019 it seems quite clear that the way forward then for many conservative evangelical groups devoted to Jesus is to repent of getting their devotions out of order, to move forward in continuing to use the word “evangelical,” but to stop allowing others from outside of the movement to define it for them, and also to cling to the more important conservatism which has to do with biblical inerrancy. If evangelicals were to do this on a large-scale then this sort of conversation will be very different in the years to come.

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