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

Fear and Faithful Presence

Written by: on February 28, 2019

November 9, 2016 is a day that I will remember for a long time. The previous day the United States had elected a new president – Donald Trump. I was in shock and I did not know how to process this information. A man who from all accounts envisions himself to be Tony Soprano had somehow been elected president of the United States. What had happened?

I have been a political wonk since at least fourth grade. I remember watching the election returns on an initiative to keep the nuclear power plant (Maine Yankee) open and being elated that it passed. I remember running up to my friends on the playground so excited and them having the most confused looks. History, civics, model UN, you name it I did it and I loved it all. In college I was a political science minor and I was on the executive council of the College Republicans at my school. I ate and slept politics. All that is to say that I thought I had a pretty good handle on what would happen in the presidential race in 2016. I was wrong, so very wrong. In order to cope with both the tragedy of who had been elected and my need to figure out how I had been so wrong, I dove into exit poll data. One number stuck out to me, the same number that stuck out to everyone else, 80% of white evangelicalsi had voted for the reality television star who liked to brag about his sexual conquests. This did not help my confusion. I was part of the chorus in 1998 crying, “character counts” when Bill Clinton was impeached. When did character stop counting?

To Change the World, The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter has gone a long way to helping me answer my question in a more complete manner. Hunter sets out to find the answer to two questions: “how is religious faith possible in the late modern world?” and “how do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the late modern world?”ii Both of these questions play out into how Christians operate in cultures where they are given the opportunity to be part of the political landscape. In order to get to his answer of faithful presence we first need to wade through the fire swamp of power, which I think is where the U.S. election of 2016 went so very wrong and a R.O.U.S.iii ended up getting elected.

Hunter argues that as cultures become more pluralistic the foundational beliefs of people become less rooted. Essentially his argument is that “social systems seem to require some basic consensus to survive.”iv In a pluralistic society that basic consensus starts to erode as there is less chance of a dominant culture dictating what the consensus should be. In the United States we are just seeing the fruits of conservative Protestant Christianity losing its grip as the dominant culture and as such there is a sense that power is up for grabs. Conservative protestants are trying not to lose their position while those who have never had the power are seeking to get their part of the pie. Hunter writes,

“My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn to politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicization provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarization is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.”

He is in essence arguing that when cultural power ceases to exist, the next best thing is political power. I, and many other people, think this is what happened in 2016. White evangelicals where presented with a doomsday projection which defied all of their most cherished beliefs that could only be avoided by electing a man who lacks the character to be the dog catcher. Political power was equal to righteousness and so it went. The difference between what Hunter is arguing and what most pundits are saying is that with Hunter the striving for power is not a Machiavellian, Dr. Evil sort of thing. It is rather a natural process. It is not that white Evangelicals wanted to rule the world with an iron fist, they were just trying to not lose the foundation they had always known.

All of this is history, what is the way forward for us? Hunter suggests the answer is in faithful presence, which most clearly manifested in the incarnation and for us now in the Eucharist. Jesus’ pursuit of the lost, his identification with those in need, the offer of life, and his sacrificial love are all on display in the Eucharist. The challenge is for us to become active participants in living this sort of life.

The brilliant thing about faithful presence is that it forms a sort of floating foundation that is able to ride out the undulations of culture and allows us to look upon culture with a sympathetic eye rather than as a thing that is out to get us. Perhaps if white Evangelicals had focused more on faithful presence than on the fear of loss or Socialism we would have seen another outcome in 2016. We can at least start focusing on it now and hope for a better outcome next time.

—–

i “Exit Polls 2016”, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/election/2016/results/exit-polls

ii James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, And Possibility Of Christianity In The Late Modern World, (Oxford University Press, 2010) 3.

iii  “R.O.U.S.” Princess Bride Wiki, princessbride.fandom.com/wiki/R.O.U.S.

iv Hunter, 206.

About the Author

mm

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

12 responses to “Fear and Faithful Presence”

  1. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thank you, Sean. I was actually comforted by your post. Hunter’s book served to make sense of this last season of political craziness. I especially appreciate the way you describe faithful presence as a “floating foundation.” The fear and ressentiment, as Hunter calls it, has done more damage to evangelicalism, in my opinion, than just about anything else. My hope is that faithful presence can overshadow the characterization presented by many in a fear based mode. Do you have hope for that?

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      I’m a fairly cynical person, but I have a lot of hope that perhaps we’ve pushed the pendulum so far to one side – power grabbing – that we are about to see it go back the other way towards a faithful presence type model. Maybe I’m being naive and possibly I’m stuck in my own bubble but it feels like Christians are starting to get a sense that we’ve gone too far in one direction. At least that’s what I hope.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Great post Sean. I think you are right on many accounts and I will add that it seem most people in this demographic felt like the other “options” were worst (some how) then Trump. I’ve said it before and will say it again there will be many PhD done on this portion of US History in the future! Besides the artcile political insight, how did this book help you towards your topic of research?

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      I think more than anything it reinforced my belief that hospitality is the way forward for Christian faith. Faithful Presence is in many ways how I would describe hospitality. In that regard it was a helpful voice in reinforcing the point I hope to make.

  3. mm Rhonda Davis says:

    Thank you, Sean. I am especially thankful for your challenge to “look upon culture with a sympathetic eye.” Hunter gives us the freedom to stop striving with political power and to pause and be present in our world. I think many things would be different if we practiced this, not just elections.

  4. mm Mary Mims says:

    Thank you Sean. I think Hunter made sense out of all of our Christian beliefs and really points to in many ways, how we are fighting each other. He steps on everyone’s toes sort to speak. I do believe that the Faithful Presence of the Lord is what “trumps” all (pun intended). If we can all work on that, showing the faithful presence of God’s love, we would all be better off! Blessings!

  5. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I would confess that American politics has always been a bit perplexing to me. Much of the world watches your elections with a sense of vulnerability. (Ok, and entertainment.) Who America elects has almost more impact on our nation than who we elect. Even then, a huge consideration for who we elect is how they will be able to handle who you elect. While I resist the implication that changing American culture (whatever strategy you choose) would change the world, there is no denying the high level of influence your nation has on mine. After living abroad, I’m increasingly considering how my vote impacts not just myself or my nation, but the whole world. Do you think many Americans consider this as they vote? Should this be part of faithful presence? May I confess the fear that pierces my heart when our only neighbour, who is 10X our population size and responsible for a lot of our trade economy proclaims ‘America First’? (Not to mention I keep selfishly monitoring the exchange rate for my tuition.)

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      It’s always possible Trump could kill our economy and flip the exchange rate so it’s cheaper for you than for the Americans in the program.

      American elections are won on domestic policy. Unfortunately it doesn’t dawn on most of our electorate the effect our president has on other nations. Thinking about that makes the last election more frightening considering the rhetoric espoused by the winner. I’m sorry this is probably scaring you more, but I think it’s true.

  6. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Phenomenal Princess Bride Reference. Thank you, thank you!

    With all due respect, I think there are shadier things that went on in 2016 than just what Hunter lifts up. That said, I agree that we are witnessing unique cultural shifts, and Mario is right, many a PhD will be made from this mad time in America’s history.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      I have no doubt that we have yet to plumb the depths of the horribleness that happened during that campaign. But I think that in terms of the cultural issues, Hunter hit it pretty much on the head.

  7. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Sean, Wow, you have forgotten more about American politics than I will ever know! That is, I really appreciate your perspective and analysis of this text. Your statement, “The brilliant thing about faithful presence is that it forms a sort of floating foundation that is able to ride out the undulations of culture….” provides an excellent construct. Here in Texas, reinforced concrete slabs are the preferred residential foundation that can ‘ride out the undulations’ of our predominant clay soil. As long as the integrity of the foundation remains, it doesn’t matter how the soil shifts relative to the superstructure sitting upon the slab foundation. You are so right, character matters, especially the character of the church living out faithful presence among the diverse strata of our culture. Thanks again for your insightful post.

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