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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Evangelical Entanglements

Written by: on February 13, 2020

“Tom” is a lifelong member of our church. He is regular in his worship attendance. He attends a Bible study during the week. He frequently participates in serving opportunities. And yet, he lives each day not with the sure and certain hope that God is in control, but instead under a storm cloud of dread and discouragement, informed and influenced by talk radio and cable news pundits. He says his prayer life does not bring him comfort, just more anxiety.

Jason Clark’s dissertation is shaped by a personal and pastoral question. He writes, “Evangelicals like you and I are supposed to live our lives faithfully around Jesus. Everything we have; all we own, our jobs, homes and relationships, are meant to be given in service of a life lived around Christ. … (But) my research explores why that so often isn’t the case. Why do Evangelicals say that, but then live something different?”[1]

Clark’s work is deep dive into an understanding of why this is. Exploring the history of Evangelicalism and capitalism and the ways these have been linked over the past few centuries, it is an invitation to consider how Evangelicalism could be untangled from capitalism and to understand “how and why the forces of life in capitalism often overwhelm the aspirations and beliefs of Evangelical Christians for faithful living in Christ.”[2]

One challenge today is how Evangelicalism, especially in the United States, is enjoying a moment of immense political influence. Evangelical leaders are courted by the White House and, in many cases, serve as administration and campaign surrogates in media outlets. Evangelicals are not likely to give that power up, nor are they likely to detach from capitalist ideals, especially in light of how that would play in the political arena.

Earlier this month, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., conservative scholar Arthur Brooks gave a keynote address to call attention what he called “A Crisis of Contempt” in US American politics today. His speech quoted Jesus’ command for us to love our enemies. It included a personal reflection in which he invited the audience to consider that one’s political opponents are neither stupid nor evil. And he reminded a room full of politicians from both sides of the aisle that arguments are not won with insults, but with respect and love.[3]

Brooks’ speech concluded with a hopeful statement about marking the day, February 6, 2020, as the day when the national healing would begin. Despite his carefully crafted words at an event intended to be bi-partisan and prayerful, delivered to an audience of leaders who profess to be people of faith, Brooks’ desired national healing would have to wait.

President Trump had arrived at the breakfast spoiling for a fight and anxious to go on the offensive in light of the Senate’s vote to acquit him of impeachment charges just the day before. He spoke suspiciously about the faith of political opponents and made broad assumptions that most of the people in the room would agree with him.

Here is where we see an example of how deeply entangled Evangelicalism and politics and the forces of capitalism have become as President Trump enjoys broad support among white evangelicals. He can stand before a large group at a National Prayer Breakfast, look them in the eye, and tell them plainly that he does not think he agrees with the idea of loving one’s enemies. Jim Wallis, a champion for Christian social justice noted the disconnect by saying, “Trump’s white evangelical supporters … are willing to trade off and even sell out Jesus for the reward of getting judges they like in the Supreme Court.”[4]

Evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress defended President Trump’s remarks saying, “I think the president was completely right in what he said. It’s not politically correct, but he didn’t get to be president by being politically correct.”[5] Jeffress, a leading voice of Evangelical support for the president had cemented his support of candidate Trump in 2016 saying, “I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation. And so that’s why Trump’s tone doesn’t bother me.”[6]

And so it should not be a surprise that the Church, formed on the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus Christ and launched into the world through the power of God’s Holy Spirit has created a means to allow people to separate their “faith life” from their work, political affiliations, social obligations, even cultural heritage. Church (and religious engagement) is just another “thing” that claims some percentage of a person’s time, resources, and attention, and exists independently of everything else. And while Christians may talk a good game about living for Jesus, being “all-in” for the sake of their faith, living sacrificially, and giving all in service to God, this is not the case.

So what can the Church do? Clark’s earlier work had asked if there were “disciplines of religion and of capitalist market as para-religious activities that are in competition with the disciplines and beliefs of Christianity?”[7] Certainly there are. Clark does not try to put the genie back in the bottle, but he does propose that the same Evangelicalism that found itself capitulating to the forces of capitalism, and the subsequent results of consumerism and commodification that have emerged in the modern Church, also possesses the capacity to resist it.

The answers could be closer than we realize. “Despite the problems it has caused, Evangelicalism contains within itself an affective theological anthropology that is the antidote to the deforming forces of life in capitalism.”[8] Could an intentional return to the ancient spiritual practices of faith communities remedy the economic (and also political?) entanglements that have created an Evangelicalism that seems much more aligned with the ways of this world than the teachings of Jesus? Clark writes, “the possibilities and practice of re-narration are deeply engrained in our worship liturgies, be they singing, coffee, doughnuts, ministry to the poor, praying for the sick, or ‘healing on the streets.’”[9]

Prayer is also one of those practices that has the power to call us back to the way of Jesus Christ. Though the Church probably should not wait for the president to lead it.

[1] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (PhD diss, Middlesex University, 2018,) 252-3.

[2] Clark, 250.

[3] Arthur Brooks, “America’s Crisis of Contempt: What I Said in My Address to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday,” Washington Post, February 7, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/07/arthur-brooks-national-prayer-breakfast-speech/?arc404=true.

[4] David Crary, “Trump’s Prayer Breakfast Jibes Jolt Many Faith Leaders,” ABC News, February 6, 2020. https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/trumps-prayer-breakfast-jibes-jolt-faith-leaders-68807388.

[5] Crary.

[6] Peter Wehner, “There Is No Christian Case for Trump,” The Atlantic, January 30, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/01/there-no-christian-case-trump/605785/.

[7] Jason Clark, “The Double Movement of Evangelicalism: The need for a reparative account of Evangelicalism and late-capitalist markets,” Academia, June 28, 2011. https://www.academia.edu/751885/Evangelicalism_and_Late_Capitalist_Markets?email_work_card=title.

[8] Jason Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism,” 243-244.

[9] Clark, 248.

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

11 responses to “Evangelical Entanglements”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    “Why do Evangelicals say that, but then live something different?” I would think it has a lot to do with models and mentors. There’s an axiom in Total Quality Management: you get more of what you measure. I would think that is one path to results we experience.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    John,
    This whole post is just brilliant. Thank you for pulling together some of the stuff that’s been swimming in my heart this past week or so.

    I appreciate you suggesting prayer as an antidote to the calamity. But do we even know how to pray? Some say Trump is evidence to answered prayer. Those “bible teaching and believing” congregations led by ultra-right conservative leaders who experience “blessing” would say God’s favor is upon them and prayers have been answered. Is there a way to find our true bearings again, in prayer, in communion, in community? And if so, how?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I think most of us still have consumeristic understanding of prayer – that we only think our prayers are answered if we get what we want. My call to prayer would require much more humility and more listening than speaking. I don’t see much of any of that happening in the public forum. As far as the current economic “blessing and favor” we seem to be experiencing right now, well, this just fits right in the the conversations we’ve been having over the past few weeks. If it’s good, then it’s because of God and Trump and if it’s not, then “thanks Obama.” Most people are blissfully unaware of how economic drivers work and how they carry over from one presidential era to another. Still, I think Jason’s whole point was that we’re not going to find the answers in any of that. His was a call back to worship, liturgy, spiritual practices, and authentic faith. That’s much harder to do. Which is why it seems to me so many Evangelicals would just rather keep telling their constituents that Nancy Pelosi is the devil.

  3. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Thanks for bringing the Nat’l Prayer Breakfast into this conversation, John. I had a number of friends in the room, each of which offered me an analysis similar to this: “It was actually quite good until Trump showed up.”

    I’ve offered, since the beginning of this white Evangelical alignment with Trump, that he is not an aberration of Evangelicalism, but is the fruit of it. In the eyes of many, he is the embodiment of what white Evangelicals have sought since their inception: he’s male, white, powerful, wealthy, narcissistic, myopic, sexist, xenophobic, and racist.

    Let’s imagine (and, based on his behavior and that of many prominent white Evangelicals, we don’t have to strain too hard to do so) that this analysis is true. What does it say about the anthropology of white Evangelicals? What does it say about our theology…most notably, our construction of God whose image Trump is made in?

    While evidence would suggest that it’s a theological anthropology that has contributed significantly to the mess the globe finds herself in, is there equal evidence to indicate that this same theological anthropology is sufficient to get us out of it?

    To me, the argument that the anthropology that contributed to the mess is the same one that can fix it seems near-sighted and self-congratulatory. I would love to get your take.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I think that’s Jason’s argument- that an intentional return to worship, liturgy, spiritual practices, and authentic faith does have the power to pull us back from the mess we’re in. If I have any cynicism about that, it would be because my experience has been that most of us aren’t really interested in what that would really require of us. Our discussions over the past several weeks have highlighted all of the constructs we’ve erected in life to keep us from the harder work of truly following Jesus, some under the very guise of “doing the Lord’s work.” Still, I think it’s worth being said that the answers we seek aren’t in national or denominational identity, but the full expression of being a child of God, claimed by Jesus, gifted by the Holy Spirit- creative, resourceful, and whole. Some are still pointing to that- it’s just painfully clear that very few are listening!

      • mm Jer Swigart says:

        John, I hear you and so empathize with what both you and Jason are saying.

        I guess I’m just wondering about the how of our unlearning, lament, confession and repentance. We have to play an active role in the reformation/renovation/replacement of the systems we’re a part of. And, the critique I’m offering is that a huge part of our (white male) activity must involve tirelessly pursuing the perspectives, analyses, input, feedback, and prophetic exhortations by non-white males. While I think I believe that the Spirit’s power is limitless, I do wonder about how our commitment to homogeneity has further imprisoned rather than awakened our becoming through worship, liturgy, and spiritual practices.

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    John,
    Great post! We live in a strange time. We have people in the church blame the devil for America’s situation and yet others rejoicing in God over the same thing! I am a strong proponent and believer in prayer. I have seen it change people’s lives including my own. Why is that when people quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 that they miss the fact that God is calling His people to repentance in this passage not anyone else? God put the responsibility for the condition of the country of Israel on His people not on other sects and beliefs of others. Is it possible that a good portion of the problems we face in America are due to the church not being the church? Can we really blame anyone else for the spiritual condition of America other than the American church? Have we hid our heads in the sand to long to finally awaken to a climate we helped create?

  5. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Since entering university, I’ve recognized more and more how much of American evangelicalism has acted as more of a political institution rather than a religious one. The outcry that we see over various issues (from my perspective at least) are reminiscent of a political party losing its power. I remember when Obama was president, a lot of my conservative evangelical friends cried out in dismay as “Christian rights” were “being stripped away.” It seemed that the big push for a candidate like Trump was to maintain or reacquire the level of power they had held for so long that they felt they lost. Adding to this what was perceived as a loss of identity and it would make sense that they would try whatever means they could to maintain a grip on who they think they are. What would it look like to disentangle this political leaning that much of evangelicalism has to where they do not see their political/economic station as their power, but rather Christ?

  6. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Great idea to lead with “Tom’s” story. These recent conversations aren’t benign, abstract debates, but are impacting many each week. How do you the Tom’s of your congregation into something more profound, deep, and redemptive?

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