Jeffress Vs. The Benedict Option
A reader points me to today’s Slate profile (by Ruth Graham) of Robert Jeffress, the leader of Donald Trump’s “court Evangelicals.” Especially this passage:
When I talked to Jeffress by phone after my visit to the church, he quoted Jesus’ command in the book of Matthew that Christians should be “salt and light”—preservative and illumination—in the world. “Many Christians have forgotten that,” he said. “They take the Benedict Option, where you just stand in your holy huddle and hope no one does you harm. … The church is to be on the offensive, not on the defensive.” When a group of Trump-skeptical evangelicals met recently at Wheaton College to discuss the future of their movement, Jeffress dismissed them in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “Many of them are sincere,” he said, “but they are having a hard time understanding that they have little impact on evangelicalism.”
“Holy huddle.” Heh heh heh. I take it as a compliment that Jeffress contrasts his style of public Christianity with the Benedict Option. Jeffress pretty clearly has no idea what the Benedict Option actually is, but I can tell you what it isn’t: politicized Christianity, of either the pro- or anti-Trump kind.
As I’ve written before, white evangelicals’ bargain with Trump is better understood as a desperate deal born of anxiety in the face of a changing nation than as a fulfillment of their aspirations. White evangelicals were the last soldiers still manning the barricades opposing same-sex marriage, and their resounding legal and cultural defeat on that issue put an end to any lingering serious talk of being “the moral majority” in the country.
I think that’s true. As I’ve written before, I know a fair number of Christians who voted for Trump because they were convinced (accurately!) that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be terrible for the religious liberty of traditional Christians.
There is nothing reluctant or tragic about Jeffress’s embrace of Trump. And Jeffress is (alas) correct that the anti-Trump white Evangelicals are out of touch with mainstream white Evangelicalism, where four out of five Evangelicals call themselves Trump supporters.
However, according to Jones:
But by tying themselves to the Trump brand, white evangelicals risk their movement’s ability to grow. During the sea change in cultural attitudes over the last decade, white evangelical Protestants were also losing demographic ground, dropping from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 15 percent of the population in 2017. Most of the declines in the overall evangelical population have come from young people, resulting in stark differences in generational representation. White evangelicals comprise 26 percent of seniors ages 65 and older, for example, but make up only 7 percent of Americans under the age of 30.
He goes on to point out that young Americans in general are turning away from religion, and that they are far more supportive of gay rights than conservative Evangelicals. The Benedict Option accepts this reality too, and accepts that the Christian churches who are faithful to Scripture and Tradition on this and other unpopular matters will continue to shrink as America moves further into post-Christianity.
So Jones is right to say that holding to conservative social positions will hurt growth. Growth at the expense of the truth is a cancer that will kill the churches, though.
Conservative Christian churches are going to experience decline, difficulty, and possibly even persecution. If that is coming, then we should prepare to be hated for fidelity to the Gospel, not because we have allied ourselves with a despised politician who lives in ways contemptuous of Christian values. Under Jeffress’s leadership, his congregation produced the MAGA choir idolatry, and devoted part of its Sunday worship to an interview with Fox News star Sean Hannity. It’s hard to think of a single figure who does more to make traditional Christianity look like the Republican Party at prayer than Robert Jeffress.
Ruth Graham points out that unlike most politically engaged white Evangelical leaders (e.g., Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham), Jeffress actually leads a congregation. Jeffress’s hypernationalistic conservatism makes a certain sense in Dallas, but outside it? And how long will it last there?
Again, the Benedict Option is not at all what Jeffress says it is (“a holy huddle”), but Christians who have put their trust in princes, and in currying favor with worldly powers, are in for a hard, hard landing. All of us traditional Christians may be reduced to huddling, but it’s better to huddle in the holiness of tradition than in the garish, power-coveting worldliness of Jeffress-style Christianity.