Escaping Politicized Evangelicalism
Molly Worthen has an interesting long piece in The New York Times on “How To Escape From Roy Moore’s Evangelicalism.” It’s worth reading. It intersects (Look, Mom! I used that word!) with my work a bit. Excerpts:
It’s no secret that humans — religious and secular alike — often act on “less than logical” impulses. Social scientists have documented our tendency to reject reliable evidence if it challenges our beliefs. Hours of tearful victims’ testimony will not deter evangelicals who see Roy Moore as the latest Christian martyr persecuted by the liberal establishment. “Their loyalties are much more strongly formed by conservative media than their churches,” Ms. Schiess said. “That’s the challenge for church leaders today, I think — rediscovering rather ancient ideas about how to form our ultimate loyalty to God and his kingdom.”
When I sought out conservative and progressive critics of white evangelical politics and asked them how to best understand it, this was their answer: pay attention to worship, both inside and outside of church, because the church is not doing its job. Humans thrive on ritual and collective acts of devotion. And the way we worship has political consequences. It shapes the way we respond to evil and react to people different from ourselves.
True dat. With that context, look:
In that case, rooting out idolatries means radical lifestyle change. Some disillusioned conservatives have embraced what the Christian writer Rod Dreher calls the “Benedict Option”: a retreat from the world to preserve the values of Christian civilization during these new Dark Ages, in the spirit of St. Benedict.
He argues that Christians should stop trying to “make America great again,” abandon the ends-justify-the-means politics that leads them to defend predators and scoundrels like Mr. Moore, and focus instead on nurturing local Christian community. “Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians,” Mr. Dreher writes in “The Benedict Option.”
This kind of intense localism may lead one to befriend unfamiliar neighbors, and hospitality is a major theme of Mr. Dreher’s book. But at a time when many Americans live in economically and ethnically segregated communities, it seems doubtful that further withdrawal from the world will stimulate radical empathy. The urge to batten down the hatches may actually feed the cultural patterns that enabled the election of Donald Trump: the impulse to associate only with people like ourselves and grow even more certain that evil forces are persecuting us.
Luma Simms likes to say that she tried the Benedict Option before it was trendy. She emigrated to California from Iraq as a young girl. Her father was Syrian Orthodox, her mother a Chaldean Catholic, but the desire to assimilate drove her to convert to evangelical Protestantism. “When I asked myself, what does it mean to become American, part of the answer was espousing an evangelical Protestant worldview,” she told me. “I wanted to be on the political side that believed America was good.”
After Ms. Simms became a parent, she began to worry about the influence of secular culture on her children as well as the politicization of mainstream evangelicalism. In 2006 her family moved to Arizona to join an insular church that promoted home schooling and strict patriarchal authority. “We were protecting our children, raising them up to be stronger citizens of a rightly understood America, so that when American culture starts collapsing like Dreher keeps telling us it will, they would rise up, having been well disciplined and educated, to become leaders,” she said.
The community was so cloistered and dogmatic that it estranged her from her oldest daughter and pushed her to cut off contact with her own parents. The church “made families like us view almost everyone outside that circle as a potential enemy of our thoughts,” Ms. Simms told me. After a dispute over the pastor’s authority, the church disintegrated in 2010.
Luma Simms’s old church sounds like a big ol’ nest of crazy. I wouldn’t stand for that for two minutes. I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t a Ben Op community — it sounds like it was aiming for something like that ideal — but I want to stress that the old Simms church is not not not the only model for the Benedict Option. My book has a number of examples of healthy Ben Op-style communities, all of which are looser and far less separatist and authoritarian than Simms’s former church seems to have been. And The Benedict Option also has within it a cautionary tale by a young woman driven to atheism by the separatist fanaticism of her Christian parents and the community in which they raised her and her siblings (two of whom also became atheists as soon as they were old enough to leave the house).
My point is: if Luma Simms is holding up the worst example of intentional Christian community as normative, she is wildly distorting the Benedict Option concept.
Let me address this part from Worthen:
But at a time when many Americans live in economically and ethnically segregated communities, it seems doubtful that further withdrawal from the world will stimulate radical empathy. The urge to batten down the hatches may actually feed the cultural patterns that enabled the election of Donald Trump: the impulse to associate only with people like ourselves and grow even more certain that evil forces are persecuting us.
There is that danger, sure. But what is the alternative to building stronger local Christian communities? Assimilation into non-existence. I think contemporary American Christians have a major conceptual problem with the idea of exclusion, even if it’s not done maliciously. But all communities, religious and otherwise, have to draw the line somewhere. The Democratic Party could not do what the Democratic Party is supposed to do if it welcomed into its ranks conservative Republicans. The local Buddhist temple couldn’t do what it is supposed to do if it tolerated in its worship and community a cluster of obstreperous Jehovah’s Witnesses. Heck, the Garden Club couldn’t be the Garden Club if it accommodated people who hated gardening and wanted instead to talk about model airplane-building.
The point is that the Church is not its own telos. That is, the Church is supposed to form its members in certain ways, to draw them closer to Christ and change them over time into more Christ-like people. If the world were more favorable to Christian belief and practice, then the Church could be more relaxed about relating to it. But we do not live in that world anymore. Therefore, if the Church is going to be the Church — that is, serve its purpose — then it must withdraw in a limited but clear way behind “monastery walls,” so to speak. The door to the metaphorical monastery must be open for people both within and outside the community to come and go, but outsiders can only stay with the community if they recognize that that particular community exists for a particular purpose, and they are willing to join that purpose.
And those within the church must understand that certain behavior is forbidden to them, because it interferes with the purpose of their life, and the church’s life. That means also to avoid being part of communities whose beliefs and practices are inimical to the church’s. This is hardly un-Christian. As St. Paul told the church at Corinth:
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Corinthians 5:11)
The Church is not by definition an ethnic community (though it often is in practice), or a community restricted to a certain class (ditto). It is a moral and religious community — and as such, it must establish and maintain boundaries between itself and the world. As I say in The Benedict Option, for lay Christians, those boundaries should be relatively porous (as opposed to a monastery’s), but they must be there.
To put it in plain language, it’s like this. Here’s a link to a webpage for a 1999 PBS Frontline episode called “The Lost Children Of Rockdale County.” It’s about the fallout from a syphilis epidemic in a public high school in a prosperous suburban Atlanta county. What state investigators (and Frontline) found is a culture within the school of rampant promiscuity. From the transcript (emphases below are mine):
NARRATOR: A panel of community experts – health and law enforcement officials, school counselors, and a local minister – were brought in to discuss with parents the events that had led to the outbreak.
KATHLEEN TOOMEY, M.D., Dir., Georgia Div. of Public Health: And I remember it vividly because I’ve never had such an audience for any talk I’ve ever given, any public talk. This is an audience, an auditorium full of skeptical parents.
[parents meeting] There are some things that I’m going to tell you today that probably you won’t like-
And I remember when I put up the slide that showed that interaction, the sex partners, and the partners of the partners, it looked like a ball of yarn. There was actually a gasp from the audience and this total disbelief that this could have happened in their community.
RANDY POYNTER, Former Rockdale County Commissioner: [parents meeting] The only way we’re going to stop it is to do exactly what you folks are doing here tonight, coming here and being aware of it and making sure-
NARRATOR: Randy Poynter was the county commissioner at the time.
RANDY POYNTER: I know when the parents were approached about this, they could not believe their kids had been part of it. I mean- and I understand because people I would consider good friends of mine, people that I would consider just like my wife and I, with the same values and the same habits and the same, you know, lifestyles, were having kids that were having- you know, were involved in this.
MODERATOR: [parents meeting] [reading question] “Would it be out of the question to initiate a class on the Gospel to only kids who were interested and had the permission of their parents?”
Dr. KATHLEEN TOOMEY: What was so extraordinary to me is these parents started looking for externally who to blame. “This has caused this,” “T.V. has caused that,” “External groups have caused this.” But few of them – none of them that I can recall – ever looked to themselves. And the minister turned to me and said, “They don’t see. It’s them. It’s the parents. They have done this. The kids don’t talk to them.”
What was extraordinary to me, a year after this outbreak, was here was a community in total denial about what happened.
NARRATOR: In the end, the syphilis outbreak had come and gone, leaving barely a ripple behind. But some believe that the community, by regarding the outbreak as an anomaly, had missed a larger point about all its kids.
CLAIRE STERK: I would say it’s very sad because there are so many lessons we could have learned from this. And part of me feels that we’re not picking up on all those lessons and still leave adolescents hanging there, forcing them to take care of themselves when we know that they’re not always able to do that.
WES BONNER, Pastor: They’re coming from middle class homes, upper middle class homes. They have so many things, you know, every convenience. They all have a cell phone, a pager, you know, anything that they need. But what they’re looking for is, you know, “Where’s the road? Where’s the path? I don’t see that. You know, everything’s so spread out. I don’t know, you know, where to go.”
The film points out that there were Christian alternatives on offer, but:
NARRATOR: Ultimately, though, the Christian way of life demanded sacrifices that D.J. and many other kids were unwilling to make.
INTERVIEWER: Keith, it didn’t stick with D.J. What happened? What went wrong?
KEITH AIKEN: To me, I don’t- I don’t really know. Me and him kind of grew apart a little bit. We quit hanging out as much, and he started hanging a little bit with this other crew that he used to hang out with before he started hanging out here. People you hang out with really influence you, no matter if you say you’re strong or not. Who you hang out is pretty much what you’re going to be.
NARRATOR: D.J. himself says God failed him.
D.J.: I asked God one day to show me something. “God, please show me. Please, I’ve been a servant to you the whole time. I’ve completely devoted my life to you.” You know, “Show me one thing. Prove to me this is not myself making myself feel this way.” I wanted something, some tangible evidence, some proof. And I got none.
NARRATOR: Kevin is 17 now, and it’s been more than a year since he went to Throne [the name of a weekly devotional Christian rock performance in the neighborhood].
KEVIN: I didn’t really want to live the life that- like Christians lived. I wanted to have the life that was go out and have fun. So I just stopped going. And I- like, I felt stupid every time I’d go there every Thursday and be saved. And I just didn’t think I needed to do that.
NARRATOR: Kevin lives with his family in Irwin Place, one of Rockdale’s nicer subdivisions. Kevin lives in the pool house out back. He says he comes and goes as he likes.
You cannot allow your children to be part of a community like this one, not if you want to save them from it. And you cannot allow yourself to be fully in the community either, because you will likely assimilate to its norms without even knowing it.
For some kids, the message has stuck. Before the morning bell rings at Heritage High, a Christian prayer service can be heard echoing down the hallways.
JENNIFER: I know where I stand. I know who I am in God. And nobody on this earth is going to be able to pull me off of that.
NARRATOR: Jennifer is 17. Her friends, Penie and Kira, are 16. They are devout Christians.
INTERVIEWER: Are you guys all virgins?
JENNIFER, KIRA, PENIE: Yes. Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Why? Why have you stayed virgins?
KIRA: Because that’s- that’s my morals that I live by. My parents have taught me from- since I was little that that’s a good thing to do. I mean, it’s just always been a right to me. It’s always been right to save it.
NARRATOR: The girls say their way of life has isolated them from their peers.
KIRA: We got into high school, and high school’s a lot different than middle school. Sex is the cool thing, and drugs is the cool thing, and drinking is cool. I went to one party in 9th grade, and I just- I just didn’t like it after that. I mean- I mean, I wanted to go, I mean, because everybody wants to go to parties. And I got there, and I just knew that was not what I’m- that’s not what I’m about. I’m about something different.
NARRATOR: The girls all left the Conyers public schools for a private Christian school called Springs Academy. Their circle of friends has narrowed, too, to those who share their beliefs.
JENNIFER: Guys definitely seem to be intimidated- I don’t know by other Christian girls, but seem to be intimidated by me. Sometimes it’s hard, and it’s- like, you question yourself. It’s, like, “Why is this worth it?” It’s, like, “These guys are there afraid of me.” It’s definitely been lonely at times.
PENIE: It really is hard, you know, when you try to be good, and then people want to always tar you and say, “Oh, no. You’re a hypocrite,” you know? It’s really hard.
NARRATOR: At times, the girls say, they have even been harassed by their peers.
PENIE: People like to say things. You know, they said that I was sleeping with- around with a lot of guys, you know, and that’s not the case, you know? And they’d say I get drunk, and I was not doing that at all, you know? And drugs and anything else you can imagine. You know, none of that was true.
What is this sacrificial Christian life, isolated from the broader community (which has made them outcasts), saving these girls from? Here’s a discussion with three girls, who are ages 14 to 15:
INTERVIEWER: What do you think of girls who decide they’re going to stay virgins till they get married?
KATY: It’s not going to happen. I mean, there’s still a few out there that actually do stay virgins till they get married, and that’s real good. I wish I could have done that. But it’s just- most of them that say that that’s going to- they’re going to do that, it’s not going to happen because of peer pressure and just being curious, falling in love with somebody.
NARRATOR: Katy and her friends are freshmen at one of Rockdale’s three public high schools.
INTERVIEWER: What’s the typical age for girls to lose their virginity?
KATY, BRIDGET, CHRISTINE: Thirteen. Fourteen. Thirteen or fourteen.
INTERVIEWER: That’s typical?
INTERVIEWER: What kind of music do you guys like?
INTERVIEWER: Like what?
GIRLS: Like, Master P. Tupac, definitely. Oh, I love Tupac.
INTERVIEWER: What do you like about rap?
GIRLS: The beat. The beat. And the words. And it’s just, like, loud. You can really get up and dance.
CHRISTINE: And the way that it’s, like- they can talk about something that’s, like, completely stupid, like drugs and stuff. [crosstalk] But it’s the way they put it, it sounds interesting.
INTERVIEWER: Give me an example.
CHRISTINE: I can’t think of a song.
GIRLS: [singing rap] Oh, take three witches and put ’em in a [unintelligible] I take clothes off you, and I’m blowing [unintelligible] mind. Take one more before I go [unintelligible] Seven bitches get fu**ed at the same time. The [unintelligible] she can suck a ding-dong all day, all night, all evening long. Bitch has never done it. She says she never tried. [unintelligible] mother-fu**ing [unintelligible] if the bitch is a good trick. Anybody can talk to a bitch and get the bitch to f**k, but how many [unintelligible] talk to a bitch and get their d**k sucked like me? A pimp that you never saw [unintelligible]
INTERVIEWER: That’s about group sex.
INTERVIEWER: Is that something anybody does around here?
BRIDGET: Lots of people. A lot of people.
CHRISTINE: Yes, a lot of people.
KATY: It’s something that is nasty to think about!
BRIDGET: Yeah. I couldn’t do it, but I know a lot of people that do. [crosstalk]
KATY: A lot of people do stuff like that, just experiment.
BRIDGET: Like riding the train.
KATY: Like, say there was one guy here with us. This is our man, okay? He sleeps with me first. And when we get done, he sleeps with Bridget. They get done, then he sleeps with her. When they get done, he’ll probably come back to me. [crosstalk]
CHRISTINE: Or there’s another way. This is the girl. This is the girl. This is the guy. She’s on him, and he’s on her. [they laugh]
BRIDGET: That’s a free-for-all.
CHRISTINE: I know, but it’s also riding the train.
This is also what being an outcast from the Conyers community back then was saving these kids from:
AMY: One time I was at my house, and there was one- just one of my friends was there with me. We were baby-sitting my nephew, and we got both got really drunk. And then this guy called us and he said, “Can we come over?” And we said, “Sure.”
And then there was about four of them, four guys. I guess two other guys told- asked us, me and my friend, to go upstairs with them. And we said, “Okay.” You know, I didn’t really know what was going on. Everything was sort of- you know, well, we were just wanting to do whatever they wanted us to do, and so-
It kind of got nasty in the room. We were doing some- a few things. And I had forgotten about my nephew.
NARRATOR: Later, the little boy spoke to his mother of what he had seen.
AMY: He said that he just thought that they were trying to kill me. He said, “I thought they were trying to kill her” because he was, what, about maybe 3 or 4 years old. And I just felt so bad. She said, “I don’t know if I want you to be around him anymore.” And I just- I just cried and cried and cried all night. I didn’t know what to do. I was just mortified. So that- that I regret really a lot.
FRANK, Amy’s Father: I’m not a- I’m not a hard person. I got a lot of feelings that I try to hide a lot of times. I’ve gone through a lot of tears, and I’ve cried actually openly, not in front of anybody, going through this. But what can you do about it? You know, you can’t lock a kid in a closet, 13, 14, 15 years old.
No, they don’t want their parents to go with them and their friends, and you’ve got to understand that. You’ve just got to hope that you’ve instilled the kind of values in them or that you’ve taught them the kind of values, what is important, and when they get that old, they will respect that.
And I think Amy possibly did. And she knew that. And that was probably something that was really tearing her apart in that she knew how we felt and the pressures that we put on her. But then to be accepted, you know, it had to be just tearing her apart.
INTERVIEWER: How did you feel afterwards at the time? Did you think about it afterwards?
AMY: I just felt really sad and angry at myself because I knew I couldn’t change anything about it. But I just had wished it would never happen after it always happened.
INTERVIEWER: But it would happen again?
They were being saved not only from girls like Amy, but from permissive parents like Frank.
Read the entire transcript of “The Lost Children Of Rockdale County,” and think about how, exactly, your Christian children would be able to be “salt and light” to that moral cesspit.
This is what I’m talking about in The Benedict Option — the need to build communities that stand in opposition to this degradation. I don’t want my kids to be away from kids of other races. I don’t want them to be away from kids of other social classes. I want them to be away from kids whose parents are checked out, and who are themselves morally dissolute because they’ve been formed by popular culture.
So, when Molly Worthen writes:
The urge to batten down the hatches may actually feed the cultural patterns that enabled the election of Donald Trump: the impulse to associate only with people like ourselves and grow even more certain that evil forces are persecuting us.
… I have to wonder why she would think that Christians should embed themselves in communities like that of the lost children of Rockdale County and their parents, and why she doesn’t see that within that ordinary middle-class American community — indeed, one in which the institutional church is strongly present — there really are “evil forces” at work. The most powerful evil forces are not an outside Them, but the Enemy Within.
Anyway, I do think you should read Worthen’s entire article, because there are some really interesting things in it. She talks at one point about how some younger Evangelicals are investigating Catholicism:
Catholic theology is not inherently more moral than Protestantism, and the sacraments have not saved the Catholic Church from its share of hypocrisy and crime over the centuries. But for some evangelicals, a stronger sense of participation in holy mystery offers a metaphysical jolt to the system — at a time when the relationship between evangelical worship and politics seems broken.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and prolific author who runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, was surprised when his publisher told him that his books on Christian contemplation and the power of liturgy are most popular with young evangelical men — who see a direct connection between changing worship and changing politics.
Worthen talks about a podcast that has become popular with seekers:
All these people have one thing in common: the instinct that worship should be an act of humility, not hubris. It should be a discomfiting experience, not a doubling down on what’s easy and familiar. The battle for the soul of evangelicalism, the struggle to disentangle it from white supremacy, from misogyny — and from the instinct to defend politicians like Roy Moore — demands sound arguments grounded in evidence. But the effort must also advance at the precognitive level, in the habits and relationships of worshiping communities. Fellowship has the power to refashion angry gut feelings and instead form meek hearts and bounden duty.
Look, if you are a frustrated Evangelical or other kind of seeker, I’m going to put it to you straight: go to visit your local Orthodox church. Do it today, at vespers, or tomorrow, for the Divine Liturgy. There is nothing else in this world like the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. I have been worshiping within it for 11 years now, and it has changed everything. It is in my bones, and I cannot imagine my life without it. It takes you out of yourself and reshapes you. It doesn’t do it all at once, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, it remakes you.
Here are a couple of short videos about Orthodox worship, by my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, who is probably the foremost American evangelist for Orthodox Christianity. They are supplements to her wonderful book Welcome To The Orthodox Church, which I highly recommend for seekers. Check these out — it won’t take much time at all. If you can’t watch both, at least watch the first, which is about Orthodox liturgical worship.
You are not going to find the perfect Church in Orthodoxy. You are not going to find the perfect Church anywhere. But if you feel called into the ancient depths of liturgical worship as it has been done for over 1,500 years, it’s right there, in your local Orthodox parish, however humble (St. Matthew’s, our Baton Rouge parish, meets in a strip mall, but it’s the same liturgy).
“Who you hang out is pretty much what you’re going to be,” said one of the Rockdale County folks. True. Choose well your community. One last thing, an excerpt from The Benedict Option:
Peer pressure really begins to happen in middle childhood. Psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris, in her classic book The Nurture Assumption, says that kids at that age model their own behavior around their peer group’s. Writes Harris, “The new behaviors become habitual — internalized, if you will — and eventually become part of the public personality. The public personality is the one that a child adopts when he or she is not at home. It is the one that will develop into the adult personality. ”
Harris points to the example of immigrants and their children. Study after study shows that no matter how strong the home culture, first-generation offspring almost always conform to the values of the broader culture. “The old culture is lost in a single generation,” she writes. “Cultures are not passed on from parents to children; the children of immigrant parents adopt the culture of their peers.”
On the other hand, says Harris, is that in most cases, it’s not too late for kids who have been exposed to bad influences. Researchers find that damage to a child’s moral core can be repaired if he is taken away from a bad peer group. What’s more, determined parents who run a disciplined home, and who immerse their children in a good peer group, can lay a good foundation, no matter how lax they have been until now.
The bad news about the fragility of culture is also good news, according to Harris: “Cultures can be changed, or formed from scratch, in a single generation.”
Joining, or building, and defending a good culture for your family does not require you to head for the hills à la Luma Simms, and don’t let anybody tell you different.