by Emily Hunter McGowin
Today’s post is from Emily Hunter McGowin, who is Associate Lecturer of Theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She holds a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her research is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. She is also a priest and Canon Theologian in the Anglican diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO).
According to Christianity Today, Relevant, and a number of other online publications, evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem no longer thinks women married to abusive husbands are required by the Bible to stay married to them.
For those who do not know Wayne Grudem, he is Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary (Phoenix, AZ). He is a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and a co-founder and past president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). He has published over twenty books, including Systematic Theology and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (co-edited with John Piper). The last time he was in the news was in 2016, when he offered vocal support for the newly nominated presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
Grudem announced his change of position during a presentation at ETS, which met in San Diego the week before Thanksgiving. You can read the outline of his presentation in full at his website.
Some reacted to this news with joy: “Finally, a leading evangelical theologian offers support for women to leave abusive marriages! This is great news for evangelical women!” Some reacted with a shrug: “Who cares? Are people really still listening to conservatives like Wayne Grudem?” (Yes, in fact, they are.) Some reacted with anger: “Why wasn’t his change of mind accompanied by repentance? Doesn’t he know how much harm his teaching has done? A simple announcement isn’t good enough!”
I can identify somewhat with each of these reactions. But, as a theologian in an evangelical institution, I can’t help but be troubled by something else. Certainly, it’s good that Grudem has changed his mind and abandoned a harmful interpretation and application of scripture. Yet, his change of mind still reflects deeply flawed hermeneutics.
For the past few decades, Grudem has taught that the Bible only permits divorce in two instances: adultery and desertion by an unbeliever. This perspective was based upon his interpretation of Matt. 19:9 and 1 Cor. 7:15, and spelled out in his 2018 Christian Ethics. So, as long as an abusive spouse falls into neither of these categories, Grudem said the church should provide protection, enact church discipline, potentially support temporary separation, but never condone divorce.
During 2018-2019, though, Grudem says he had “increasing conviction of need for re-examination of divorces for self-protection from abuse.” The reason? He credits “awareness of several horrible real-life situations” of abuse, which led him to think, “This cannot be the kind of life that God intends for his children when there is an alternative available.” Thus, Grudem returned to 1 Cor. 7:15 and found within it what he believes to be biblical justification for divorce in instances of abuse.
In 1 Cor. 7, the Apostle Paul condones divorce among believers in the case of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Verse 15 says, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such cases; God has called us to live in peace.” Based upon a word study of the phrase “in such cases” in extra-biblical literature, and comparisons to similar phrases in the New Testament, Grudem has concluded that “in such cases” should be understood to mean “any cases that similarly destroy a marriage”. His new paraphrase of 1 Cor. 7:15 is as follows: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In this and other similarly destructive cases, the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.”
I agree with Grudem that instances of abuse “destroy a marriage” and spouses undergoing such treatment are not required to remain there for the sake of the union. So, what’s my problem then?
Put simply, the question of divorce cannot—indeed, should not—be answered with a word study. Yes, Grudem has changed his mind. But it’s for the wrong reasons.
A careful reading of Jesus’ teaching on divorce reveals that the welfare of women (and, by extension, their children) was of central concern. When the Pharisees asked Jesus in Matt. 19:3, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”, they were asking him to weigh in on a longstanding debate among Jewish teachers. And they posed their question precisely as men seeking to preserve male prerogative in a patriarchal society. In essence, they were asking, “Do we have the right to put aside our wives whenever we want, for any reason?”
One need not think very long about this to realize the serious problem with men thinking they are free to abandon their dependent wives for any reason. Such a scenario puts already vulnerable women and children in an even worse situation—literally one of life and death.
As usual, Jesus knows the motivations of his interlocutors, which is why his response to them is so firm: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (vv. 8-9). No, Jesus says. You cannot set aside your wife any time, for any reason. Adultery is the only reason for which you are excused in abandoning your God-given obligations to your wife.
We see here that the protection of the vulnerable party in the relationship—in this case, the wife—is Jesus’ primary focus. And that focus drives his instructions to the Pharisees regarding divorce.
Of course, the protection of the vulnerable is not a principle isolated to the teachings of Jesus. The biblical canon as a whole testifies to God’s partiality for the weak and defenseless. The Mosaic Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the apostolic epistles—all testify to the centrality of protecting the vulnerable in the reign of God. The Law required husbands to provide food, clothing, and marital rights to their wives, even if they take another wife. The Mosaic requirement of giving wives divorce certificates was itself a form of protection, enabling divorced women to prove their legal status and, therefore, freeing them to marry again.
Even the (in)famous quote from Mal. 2:16, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord,” is in reference to men of Israel “dealing treacherously” with their wives. “The man who does not love his wife but divorces her,” says the prophet, “covers his garment with violence” (Mal. 2:14-16). This passage is directly aimed at preventing violence against women. Again, the protection of wives is central. And the instances of New Testament writers advocating for the care of widows and orphans are too numerous to detail here.
What’s my point? The case for divorce in the instance of an abusive spouse did not need to be made by a word study and reinterpretation of 1 Cor. 7:15. A reading of the whole canon should have led Grudem (and others) to the same conclusion long ago. Even though specific, word-for-word instruction about what to do in the case of abusive spouses is not found in the Bible, the relevant principles are there for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.
And that leads to the final problem with Grudem’s change of mind. He says he came to reconsider his position because of recent “awareness of several horrible real-life situations.” For many of us, the idea that Grudem has just now become aware of such stories seems truly incredible.
What this tells me, among other things, is that Grudem has been thoroughly insulated from the experiences of women. The truth is that intimate partner violence is so common among women that it is simply impossible to have genuine relationships with women, either as friends or colleagues, and not know at least one who has either survived abuse or is dealing with abuse right now.
Based upon the most recent statistics, one in four women and one in nine men experience severe physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. One in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. (This includes a range of behaviors, including slapping, shoving, pushing, etc.) And one in ten women have been raped by an intimate partner.
For a teacher of his stature and influence to be ignorant of these realities is truly staggering. It should not be extraordinary for pastors, teachers, and theologians to be interacting with situations of abuse. Just in the short time that I’ve been serving in churches and Christian organizations, I have encountered these “real-life situations” over and over again.
I have photographed a friend’s bruises after her drunken husband beat her up yet again, and then watched her return to him because she’d been told so many times “God hates divorce.”
I have listened to another friend detail the psychological abuse she endured at the hands of her mentally disturbed husband, resulting in repeated hospitalization for traumatic stress. And yet she kept returning because she felt she had no other option.
I have listened in disbelief as another friend told me that when she finally got up the nerve to tell her pastor, “I think my husband is abusing me,” his response was to say, “Are you sure? I mean, isn’t everyone a little abusive?”
I have watched another friend struggle for years with shame over her divorce—a divorce that saved her life—because family members remind her regularly that she’s the one who filed for divorce; therefore, the “sin” is hers, and hers alone.
And, just recently, I have listened to another friend as she told me through tears that her family refuses to speak to her because she divorced a husband who regularly assaulted and raped her.
I have only been serving in Christian churches and institutions for 16 years. But somehow, Wayne Grudem, after almost 40 years as a leading evangelical theologian, whose works are read in countless college and seminary classrooms, whose words are repeated in pulpits all over the country, has just now, in 2019, finally realized there are “real-life situations” where divorce might be the most loving, life-giving course of action. It would be impossible to believe if he hadn’t admitted it himself.
Now, none of the above addresses the problematic qualifications Grudem places on his new teaching regarding divorce for abused spouses. Grudem seems to give significant authority to pastors and elders in these situations, saying pastors and elders “need wisdom to assess the degree of actual harm in each case” and “must first hear both sides.” Also, Grudem says, “Pastors…should first try to restore the marriage through counseling, temporary separation, and, if the abusing spouse is a professing Christian, church discipline.”
I don’t have time to go into all of the potential problems with this approach. For now, I’ll simply ask: How well are these pastors and elders trained in recognizing abuse and assessing harm? Holding the position of pastor or elder does not immediately qualify someone to evaluate and advise in these situations. Indeed, the fact that this subject is already known to be a major blind-spot among most evangelical pastors makes me very suspicious about their involvement in adjudicating such matters. And this is one reason why it is so troubling that nowhere in Grudem’s paper does he mention the involvement of law enforcement, or the fact that physical abuse is a criminal offense.
In closing, I want to be clear: Grudem’s change of mind is most welcome. I am glad he is no longer teaching that women (or men) in abusive marriages must remain married to their abusers. But the fact that he couldn’t see the problem with his position before now testifies to serious weaknesses in his theological method: a lack of attention to the social and cultural context of biblical teaching on divorce, a lack of engagement with canonical interpretation on the subject, a lack of attention to the detrimental effects of his teaching, and a lack of interaction with women’s experience.
All of these are glaring oversights within any theologian, let alone one so prominent and well-respected in evangelical circles. And it raises serious concerns about the state of evangelical theology and ethics as a whole. We can, and must, do better.
by Susan Trollinger
Susan Trollinger is Professor of English at the University of Dayton (UD), where she teaches courses in visual rhetoric, religious rhetoric, and writing. Her books include Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia and, most recently, Righting America at the Creation Museum (with William V. Trollinger, Jr.), which was selected as a 2016 Times Higher Education (UK) Book of the Week. In 2016, she received the Faculty Excellence Award for Research from the Southwestern Ohio Council of Higher Education; in 2017she received the Outstanding Scholarship Award from UD’s College of Arts and Sciences. Susan also writes reflections for Ite Missa Est, the online Faith Formation Ministry of Dayton’s Immaculate Conception Church. This post is adapted from her Thanksgiving reflection.
A lot of Christianity right now has a bad name. And a lot of folks are fleeing it as a result. That is why a a recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trust reveals that while the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians (of one sort or another), the fastest growing (and increasingly large) group in the US is the “nones”—that is the “non-religious,” or people who don’t identify with any particular faith or organized religion.
Why does Christianity have such a bad name? And why are especially young people fleeing from it? The answer is pretty simple. These days too much of Christianity (certainly among Protestants, but Catholics too) is just downright mean.
There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon within Christianity. I’ll talk about just one that is especially popular these days. As readers of this blog know, Bill and I write on the Creation Museum (Petersburg, KY) and Ark Encounter (Williamstown, KY). These two very popular sites (together they have attracted millions of visitors over the last twelve years) tell a certain story about God. It’s a simple story according to which God issues clear rules (like the Ten Commandments), human beings willfully violate those rules (as Adam and Eve did in the Garden), and then (because God—to be God—must be “just”) God slaughters them. Or almost all of them. By the count of the folks who created these two sites, God slaughtered as many as twenty billion human beings when he sent his global flood. And saved all of eight.
Just to be clear, we are talking twenty billion people including the elderly, the mentally ill, people with significant mental and other disabilities, those who never had the benefit of hearing the Gospel, teens, toddlers, infants, and newborns.
And the unborn. It is estimated that at any one time 2% of women in the general population are pregnant. So if, according to the folks at Answers in Genesis, there were perhaps ten billion women on the earth at the time of the global flood, that means that 200,000,000 women were pregnant. That is, 200,000,000 unborn killed in a matter of days.
That makes the alleged 60,000,000 abortions in the 46 years since Roe v. Wade – which Ken Ham talks so much about – pale in comparison.
All twenty billion people (plus 200,000,000 unborn) were drowned because God was so angry about their sin that he just had to kill them—all of them. This is the God that the creators of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter (and millions of other Christians who visit these sites and otherwise hold to similar views) worship. He is one mean, angry, and violent God.
Oh, and God will do it all again because God is getting madder by the minute at all the disobedience that God witnesses among human beings. It’s only a matter of time before the next genocide begins.
If this is the Christian God, no wonder so many people are fleeing the faith.
But what does Jesus say? After all, he is the word made flesh. If ever we are unsure of the word that someone is preaching about God, we need only look to Jesus as the true word.
In the Gospel reading before us today (Luke 17:11-19), Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Along the way, he is approached by ten lepers who ask him to heal them. Now, we all know very well that in those days lepers were considered profoundly unclean. People, and especially religious leaders who could not afford to be made unclean, didn’t want to get anywhere near them. And they worked really hard to avoid them.
Not Jesus. He heals them right then and there. And prior to doing so, he doesn’t grill them on their theology or who they think God is or whether they’ve followed all God’s commandments or how badly they’ve sinned recently. He doesn’t do any of that because he knows they’re sinners. He knows they’ve come up short in all kinds of ways. And he heals them anyway. It’s called grace.
That said, Jesus does ask a question of the one who saw that he was healed, shouted glory to God, and fell at Jesus’s feet in gratitude. Jesus wants to know where the other nine are. Why aren’t they also proclaiming God’s excessive grace and kissing Jesus’s feet?
For Jesus, it’s not about whether we are sinners (he knows we are) or whether we are obedient to all God’s rules (he knows we aren’t). It’s about gratitude. We don’t deserve God’s grace, but God gives it to us anyway. We are healed. The challenge to us is whether we can live in gratitude. The challenge is for us to proclaim God’s ridiculous and excessive and undeserved grace for us sinners and thank God for it every day.
On this Thanksgiving, may we wholeheartedly thank God for his grace and may we commit ourselves to living as Jesus calls us to—not in fear and anticipation of God’s wrath but, instead, and in keeping with his word, in gratitude for his grace that heals.
by Daniel G. Hummel
Daniel G. Hummel works at Upper House, a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is an honorary research fellow at UW-Madison. He is the author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
Why do so many evangelicals support Israel? The question has been asked and answered so many times that we can offer at least a few generalized explanations. Dispensational theology is one common answer, with its peculiar emphasis on God’s covenants with “Abraham’s seed” and literal readings of biblical prophecy. A second related explanation is that Christian support for Israel is linked to missionary efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. By befriending Jews, this explanation goes, opportunities for conversion multiply. These two answers often dovetail in the details of most dispensational end-times scenarios that require the mass conversion of the Jewish people as part of prophecy fulfillment. Other scholars point to a form of religio-nationalism that is uniquely American and Protestant in origin, while still others highlight Islamophobia or American-Israeli cultural affinity.
In my recent book on the subject, Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), I make the case that the answer to “why do so many evangelicals support Israel?” has to always be qualified with the follow-up: “when and who are you talking about?” Not only are there multiple roads to Christian Zionism, but there has been a definite historical progression in Christian Zionist motives. In my book, I focus on the past 70 years (since 1948) and almost exclusively on white, North American evangelicals (a category that comes to include, by the end of the twentieth century, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and charismatics, in addition to self-identified evangelicals). I have found at least three distinct generations of Christian Zionism, with three related but distinct sets of motives.
It would take too long to describe here the entire arc of this argument. Instead, I want to illustrate how, within a single individual, the motives for Christian Zionism can change over time. I will take the example of John Hagee, currently the most prominent and influential Christian Zionist in the United States. Hagee is the founder and president of Christians United for Israel, a lobbying group that now claims more than 7 million members. In recent years, CUFI’s annual Washington D.C. summit has attracted keynote speakers such as Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Nikki Haley. Hagee’s personal arc helps illustrate a larger development in Christian Zionism over the last 30 years: a trajectory originating in dispensational theology, but which is now based in a type of “blessing theology” that has no necessary linkage to dispensationalism.
Hagee’s history with Christian Zionism stretches back to the early 1980s. Born and raised in southeast Texas, Hagee comes from a long line of Methodist preachers steeped in dispensationalism. At the age of 8, he wrote, his father told him that the day Israel declared its independence was “the most important day of the twentieth century. God’s promise to bring the Jewish people back to Israel is being fulfilled before our eyes.” Hagee completed his theological training at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, and founded his first church in 1966. He later founded the non-denominational Church on Castle Hills (later Cornerstone Church), which soon grew into a megachurch complex with thousands of weekly attendees.
Visiting Israel with his second wife, Diana, in 1978, Hagee had an awakening: “We went as tourists but came home as Zionists.” Hagee ordered “$150 of books” on Jerusalem, and in the remainder of the trip he read Catholic priest Edward Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews (1965) and Jewish philosopher Dagobert Runes’ The War Against the Jew (1968), both documenting the church’s history of anti-Judaism and indicting it for the rise of racial antisemitism. These books, he recounted, “became the intellectual foundation of my life’s work from that moment forward.” By the time he was once again flying over the Atlantic, Hagee was “jotting down notes on what I could do to bring Christians and Jews together—without starting a riot.”
In response to news reports speculating that the U.S. might “abandon” Israel after it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981, Hagee organized an interreligious “Night to Honor Israel” at his San Antonio church. No mere worship service, the event was a blend of American and Israeli nationalism. A color guard presented both national flags while the crowd sang the Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. Interspersed between speeches were slots for “U.S. Patriotic and Israeli music,” as well as an offering collection for the Israel Emergency Fund, which sent $10,000 to Israeli hospitals.
“A Night to Honor Israel” was Hagee’s ticket into the wider world of Christian Zionism. Saul Silverman, the Jewish national director of the events, praised the Israeli government for being “beautifully related” to Hagee by sending diplomats and lending official support. Hagee also befriended a diverse set of rabbis, from Reform rabbi Ron Kronish, founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, to Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of the Congregation Rodfei Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue in San Antonio. A frequent speaker at early events was Hagee’s high school football coach, Herman Goldberg, who typified for the Pentecostal preacher the best of Judeo-Christian values.
In the 1990s, Hagee published a trilogy of prophecy books in the 1990s — The Beginning of the End (1996), Final Dawn Over Jerusalem (1998), and From Daniel to Doomsday: The Countdown Has Begun (1999) — which landed him on The New York Times Best Seller List. In the same mold as dispensationalists before him, Hagee used prophecy to warn Americans that God would soon be sending his judgment on a secularizing America. Previous prophecy-oriented Zionists like Hagee found almost no political success in the Christian Zionist movement. Hagee, however, possessed the allies—and the longevity—that gave him a prominent role in Christian Zionist circles.
By the early 2000s, Hagee was part of a distinctly Pentecostal wing in the Christian Right, along with Rod Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church, Christian Broadcasting Network executive Michael Little, and Bishop Keith A. Butler, founder of Word of Faith Christian Center in Michigan. Each developed an understanding of Israel’s role in prophecy that included elements of dispensationalism. But just as crucially, the note of prosperity preaching that had been part of Hagee’s more general ministry in San Antonio became more pronounced. He preached a politically conservative Christianity that combined a Pentecostal emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit with the teachings of the prosperity gospel, promising God’s followers wealth and happiness in return for faith. Christian Zionists before Hagee had combined this basic theme of God blessing those who blessed Israel into their rationale for support. But previous leaders like Jerry Falwell rejected prosperity gospel teachings as “bad doctrine” and regarded it as crass materialism. Hagee, more than any Christian Zionist before him, began to bind prosperity theology and Genesis 12:3 together and placed them at the center of his thinking about Israel.
This prosperity-oriented understanding of Israel was deeply tied to Hagee’s broader shift in ministry. In the years leading up to his founding of Christians United for Israel in 2006, Hagee published a slew of prosperity books: Mastering Your Money (2003); The Seven Secrets: Uncovering Genuine Greatness (2004), The Life Plan Study Bible: God’s Keys to Personal Success (2004); and Life Lessons to Live By: 52 Weeks of God’s Keys to Personal Success (2005). Hagee sought to unite Christians around a program to unleash God’s blessings by fulfilling the covenantal commands of scripture. With individual and national keys to success, as decoded from the Bible, the American people and the church would find unprecedented material and spiritual flourishing.
Hagee defined more precisely than any other Christian Zionist the calculus of blessing—the measurable balance of God’s material, physical, and financial blessings that followers would accrue through prayer and right living—that was at work in Christian support for Israel. The economy of blessings was laid out in Genesis 12:3, when God tells Abram “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Hagee elaborated on this passage in his annotated study bible, asserting that this verse was “the one purpose of God for humans in to which all of God’s programs and works fit.” Hagee approached the Abrahamic covenant, and the duties it entailed, from the calculus of the prosperity gospel, arguing that support for Israel was crucial for the United States and individual Americans to accrue God’s favor. “God is going to judge us on how we treat Israel and the Jewish people,” Hagee warned in a sermon series on Israel. “Are you listening Washington? Are you listening Senators? Are you listening Congressmen? There’s a God who’s watching you! Pay Attention!” Hagee tracked the rise and fall of nations in relation to “God’s Mandate to Bless Israel.” The early church, he insisted, found success in relation to its treatment of the Jewish people. “Several combined scriptures verify that prosperity (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 122:6), divine healing (Luke 7:1–5), and salvation and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10) came first to Gentiles who blessed the Jewish people and the nation of Israel in a practical manner,” he wrote in 2007.
Combining prophecy and prosperity, Hagee expanded his influence beyond the evangelical Christian Right and into Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Hagee speculated about the prophetic significance of current events, but his political activism operated with all of the transactional logic of the Genesis 12:3 mandate: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This was no vague or generalized promise for good things to happen to those who were good to Israel, but a well-defined process to curry God’s favor. Writing in his study bible, Hagee declared “God’s policy of anti-Semitism is established beyond all doubt in these verses [Genesis 12:1-3]. He has promised to pour out His blessings on those who bless the Jewish people and Israel, and He has promised to curse those who are anti-Semitic.”
Hagee culled the Bible and history for case studies: Laban, who employed the patriarch Jacob and declared “the LORD has blessed me for your sake (Genesis 30:27); Joseph, whose captivity in Egypt allowed “The Gentile world [to be] spared from starvation because of one Jewish slave who became prime minister [sic]”; George Washington, who accepted funds from Jewish banker Hyam Solomon and turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. It was up to Christians to prompt God’s blessings, and the Bible explained the process clearly.
By 2006, Hagee’s case for Christian Zionism was overwhelmingly framed in terms of blessings and curses. This placed him directly in the mainstream of global Pentecostalism, too, which contains a significant Christian Zionist movement that also focuses on blessings and curses in the context of prosperity teachings.
What does Hagee’s evolving theology on Israel tell us? First, Hagee has never ditched his dispensational framework, so we cannot speak of a drastic change, as if he dropped one rationale in order to pick up another. Yet the two arguments do not entirely cohere, which is perhaps a reminder that people are rarely completely consistent in their thinking. The same is true for Christian Zionists. That said, his evolution on Israel was part of a larger evolution in his ministry to more explicitly preach a prosperity gospel. Israel is never an issue that evangelicals treat in isolation.
Second, and more importantly for historians, explanations of Christian Zionism fall short unless they pay close attention to the theological, political, and social contexts of the specific Christian Zionists in question. Writings of dispensational theologians (from John Nelson Darby to Hal Lindsey) do hardly any work on their own to explain Hagee’s current relationship to Israel. The same is true of Jerry Falwell’s views, a contemporary of Hagee’s but hardly a Pentecostal. Instead, qualifying any discussion of Christian Zionism with the follow-up of “when and who are we talking about?” is the first step to painting a more accurate picture of Christian Zionism, and thus a more enlightening history of American religion and politics.
by William Trollinger
It was June of 1972, and I was heading into my senior year of high school in Denver. I was president of the youth group in my evangelical church. Driving my red Toyota Corona, I helped lead a caravan of cars filled with high schoolers the 800 miles to Dallas. We were headed to Campus Crusade’s Explo ’72, which attracted over 80,000 students from across the nation, which was described on the cover of Life as “the Great Jesus Rally,” and which is seen by some as marking the beginning of Christian Contemporary Music.
My youth group, my church, and the attendees at Explo were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly conservative: anti-civil rights, antifeminist, and prowar. But that was not me. Having been exhorted again and again to read my Bible, the inerrant guide for living as Christ would have us live, I did. And somewhere around the age of 12 – I can actually date it to the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, when my father overturned the dinner table in response to my comment that on that day a great man had been killed – I started to realize that there was some disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and the politics of my family and church.
And as the Christians around me supported the election of Nixon and the turn away from civil rights and the invasion of Cambodia (and simultaneously blaming the killings at Kent State on the students), it became increasingly clear to me that the conservative politics preached and taught in my church had precious little to do with the Gospels. How could one hold to the Word, and support segregation and the Vietnam War?
For the most part, Explo was just like my church, just on a bigger scale. Patriotism was everywhere and so was Billy Graham. I attended seminars on topics such as purity in dating, which was taught by fundamentalist apologist Josh McDowell, and which made me feel guilty about the fact that on the way down to Dallas (when a friend was driving the Toyota Corona) I “made out” with a young woman in the back seat.
All this said, I was thrilled at Explo to discover that there were tables where I – in my “One Way” t-shirt – could gather antiwar material and sign petitions calling on the United States to get out of the Vietnam. I was ecstatic that I could join in chants to “Stop the War.” I was so happy to find that there were evangelicals like me.
Of course, as David Swartz points out in his very smart article, “The New Left and Evangelical Radicalism,” we were very easily absorbed by the sea of conservative evangelicals. That was even more true of me, given that I had no network of “evangelical radicals” to connect with. And when we returned to Denver, and gave our presentation on our “Explo experience” at a Sunday evening service, there was no interest or room for comments about the alternative evangelical politics I glimpsed in Dallas. Instead, what the pastor and youth pastor wanted us to talk about was the “revival” that was finally coming to America, after the dreadful 1960s.
Oddly enough, I was not discouraged. I assumed that a “progressive evangelicalism” would soon triumph. And that hope was reinforced when I was a student at Bethel, an evangelical college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Bethel was also like my church, only bigger. But while I was there, thanks to professors like G. William Carlson, I read folks like Jim Wallis (who was at Explo, although at the time I had no idea who he was) and Richard Pierard and Nancy Hardesty and Art Gish and John Howard Yoder and John Alexander, all of whom, in one way or another, understood the Bible as instructing Christians to work on behalf of justice and peace.
It was heady stuff. And yet, it was at Bethel – surrounded by students who overwhelmingly supported Gerald Ford over the evangelical Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election – that I began to realize that calling on evangelicals to read the Gospels might produce individual conversions, but it was not going to bring about a large-scale progressive evangelical movement.
Over time, I came to understand that an evangelical Left might always be present (see, today, the Red Letter Christians), but it will remain tiny, dwarfed by a white evangelicalism (or, perhaps, white evangelicalisms) that is overdetermined by white nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, and homophobia.
But all these years later, there is still some small part of me that does not know why this has to be the case.
by Larry Smith
Larry Smith is Founder & President of Leading Edge Advisory Firm (LEAF LLC), a consultancy that he founded in 2009. LEAF helps academic, non-profit, for-profit, and faith-based organizations improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Larry is also the former Managing Director of Indiana University’s Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. He received the Indianapolis Business Journal’s “Forty Under 40” award, “Indy’s Best & Brightest Award” from Junior Achievement, was named to the inaugural class of NextGen Fellows by American Express and Independent Sector, and was selected for the 2010 class of Tobias Fellows at Indiana University. Larry also serves as Associate Pastor at New Direction Church, and is the proud parent of three wonderful children. Larry earned a BA from Williams College, where he was a Lehman Scholar, and an MS from Stanford Business School, where he was a Sloan Fellow.
Now John answered Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not forbid him… For he who is not against us is on our side. Mark 9:38-40 (NKJV).
The question of who has the authority to act or speak on behalf of Jesus has been controversial since He walked the earth. All but a tiny percentage of historians acknowledge that Jesus, at a minimum, was a real historical figure. That does not prevent Jews, Muslims, and Christians – as well as atheists and agnostics – from arguing about the exact nature of His identity. Scholars engage in “textual criticism” regarding what Jesus actually said, as well as the general reliability of Scripture.
Such debates would be much easier to “win” if Jesus had simply copyrighted (or otherwise legally protected) His intellectual property. If we had to gain permission from His estate in order to use and promote said intellectual property, we could end at least a few of the arguments. (Maybe.)
I raise this thought exercise as hip hop impresario, businessman, fashion designer, and Trump whisperer Kanye West has re-imaged himself as a modern-day preacher, pundit, and psalmist. West seems to have caught the Spirit – or at least a spirit. Is it a mere zeitgeist that allows him literally to capitalize on a major global market (i.e., Christians)? Or is it something more… spiritual? Is it a bit of both?
The sad fact is that, if Kanye is a charlatan, he’s far from the only one. (For example, there is no shortage of “prosperity preachers.”) Still, the astronomical level of his celebrity means that he could lead millions to salvation – or to perdition. Thus, even if Yeezy’s conversion is genuine, such would not necessarily exonerate him in God’s eyes. Preachers must be relevant, but they also must be right.
The man who boasted that “Jesus walks with (him)” – while demonstrating little evidence thereof – is drawing thousands of people to his “Sunday Service,” which is both the name of a gospel/rap group that he founded and the name of the religious gatherings that he has conducted every Sunday since January of this year.
West also performed on Friday, September 27th. Presumably, it is no accident that this “service” coincided with the announced release of his ninth album, Jesus is King.
Speaking of which, Jesus Is King is not only West’s ninth straight album to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 200; every song on the album debuted on that list. (The album is also #1 on Billboard’s Christian and Gospel music charts.) A few months ago, Mascotte Holdings, which has filed several trademark applications for West, applied for one regarding “Sunday Service.” Apparently, Yeezy wants us to be cozy in his socks, shirts, pants, scarves, and other apparel. Understandably, this has caused people to wonder whether he is more interested in building his brand than in saving souls. Considering one of the lines from Jesus Walks, one can now definitively say that Yee’s foray into Gospel is neither taking away from his “spins” (i.e., radio play and streaming) nor his “ends” (i.e., money). But will it take away from his sins?
West is the rare major celebrity who has no qualms about sharing his faith. He admitted on Keeping Up with the Kardashians that he has long wanted to have a church of his own. (Of course, given our tax laws, that could lead to a nonprofit organization that generates a lot of, well, profit.) Yet, assuming that he is sincere, he conceivably could be responsible for converting people everywhere from Rodeo Drive to Main Street.
However, we should not expect a steeple to be raised any time soon. In an interview with Elle magazine, spousal unit Kim Kardashian-West stated that “Sunday Service” is not a church. She revealed that it is “more like a healing experience” for Yeezy. She said, “It’s just music; there is no sermon. It’s definitely something he believes in – Jesus, and there is a Christian vibe.”
As a minister of the Gospel, I struggle with nebulous notions of “spirituality” (or “Christian vibes”), which generally connote that one wants to receive blessings from God (or at least “be in relationship” with Him), but does not want to obey His commands. The only thing that God wants is for us all to feel good about ourselves, right? Hogwash…
Celebrity branding expert, Jeetendr Sehdev, has said, “It’s great that Kanye is putting his faith front and center and showing us what really matters to him. It’s a brave and unapologetic move that should be lauded.”
This is in line with the lauds – and jeers – that West has received for his close relationship with President Trump. He has even engaged in “reverse code switching”, which keeps social media outlets ablaze with arguments as to whether he is a “sellout” in order to keep literally selling out stadiums and streaming services.
One fan tweeted about West’s apparent conversion, as well as hers:
I used to strip dance to the song “Gold Digger” by Kanye West. Now, years later, I am praising and worshiping the Lord while listening to his album ‘Jesus Is King… You are never too far gone. God will call you, appoint you and work through you to bring him glory.
The Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways.
(A version of this post appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder.)
by Cory Kinnan
Cory resides in Columbus, OH with his wife Hannah and the world’s cutest puppy. With both a B.A. from Anderson University (IN) and a M.A. from the University of Dayton in Theological Studies, Cory uses his research and writing tools in writing about sports. He is a writer for Dawg Pound Daily and an editor for The Pewter Plank, websites featuring content on the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. While Cory does not intend to further his theological education, he continues to identify the place of religion in pop culture and politics.
The year is 1901, and the setting is Ravenna, Ohio. This is the exact moment that Henry Parsons Crowell founded Quaker Oats company by purchasing an oat mill and merging his business with four other mills. Whether he realized it at the time or not, Crowell would go on to not only change the way businesses market and advertise, but also – as Timothy Gloege explains in Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of American Evangelicalism – the landscape of American Christianity as well.
Crowell, a Christian man who was greatly impacted by 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody, took it upon himself to use his business ventures as a way to be a man who was, in Moody’s words, “fully and wholly consecrated to Him.”
In 1886 Moody would found in Chicago one of the beacons of evangelical education, Moody Bible Institute. But after Moody’s death in 1899, the Bible Institute that he founded found itself at a crossroads, both financially and directionally. Crowell stepped in at the eleventh hour with a substantial financial donation, and was awarded with a set on the MBI board of trustees. Soon he was president of MBI, a position he held for 40 years.
Merging his business and religious convictions, Crowell helped preside over the Bible Institute Colportage Association (eventually to be named Moody Press). He and other Moody officials also published a twelve-volume publication called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915). Crowell’s goal was to flood the nation with the evangelical message. In other words, Crowell revolutionized the way in which the Christian message was marketed. Capitalism and Jesus Christ were now working hand-in-hand; the gospel, and not cereal, could be seen as Crowell’s best-selling product.
MBI named a dorm and their library for Crowell, for both his generous donations and his service as the institution’s president. Unsurprisingly, Quaker Oats’ corporate headquarters can also be found in the Windy City of Chicago.
Fast forward nearly a century, and a man who grew up just 20 miles from MBI released his first rap album. The year was 2004, and Kanye West had become the face of Chicago for his album The College Dropout; West went on to win a Grammy in 2005 for the best rap album, and The College Dropout was later named as BET’s best rap album of the 2000s.
West went on to release five albums after his debut album. All of them earned platinum status in sales. Seemingly on top of the hip hop world, the Chicago rapper’s career then took a weird turn.
In the late winter of 2016, Kanye released his seventh album, the highly anticipated The Life of Pablo. However just one day after its release, West took to Twitter in a series of posts claiming that he was $53 million in debt, and that he was reaching out to the likes of Google’s Larry Page and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg in hopes of forming a business partnership.
Fast forward to October of 2018, and Kanye found himself in the most unlikely of places: the Oval Office and in a meeting with President Donald Trump. Wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, West discussed issues like police brutality and Chicago gang violence with Trump.
At one point in this interaction, Kanye even suggested that black people are Democrats because they like getting welfare funds. This was just the beginning of West’s alignment with the Republican party and conservative ideology. The man who once stated on national television that George W. Bush did not care about the lives of black people was now aligning with a man in favor of stop-and-frisk policies in black neighborhoods, and who had the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” removed from the Housing and Urban Development website.
And just last month, Kanye West made the announcement that he had converted to Christianity and had been born again. While still sporting the red hat with white letters. calling his choice in apparel “God’s practical joke on all liberals,” he dropped his ninth album, Jesus is King.
In response to the release of Jesus is King, West has been embraced by the evangelical community as an example of God’s mysterious wonders; the prodigal son has returned, Saul has been reborn as Paul, and so forth.
While evangelicals are quick to rebuke anyone who dares question the motives of Kanye’s conversion, there is reason to remain skeptical. In less than three years, West had publicly announced that he was millions of dollars in debt, aligned himself with a man whose net worth is allegedly upwards of $4 billion and who is supported by 80 percent of white evangelicals, announced that he had been born again and was a follower of Christ, and then dropped his first gospel album.
Crowell helped to create the tight relationship between capitalism and evangelicalism. Now, over 100 years later, Kanye West is benefiting from the ingenious marketing tactic of merging his product with the ideology of evangelicalism. With Jesus is King, Kanye has spread his product to a demographic who had little-to-no interest in him previously: the white evangelical Christian.
Capitalism, conservatism, and evangelicalism in America remain undeniably intertwined. From Quaker Oats to Kanye West, it is not a surprise to see rich men using religion to dupe people into buying what they have to sell. The gospel may just become Kanye West’s best-selling product yet.
by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.
Some heterosexual Christians like to claim that their sins are forgivable because they repent and ask forgiveness. According to this account, homosexuality is itself the sin, and unless the homosexual person asks forgiveness, repents, and becomes a heterosexual, the homosexual person is condemned.
This works well for heterosexuals, whose obsession with gays and lesbians seems to have been the product of a frantic search through the Bible to find a sin of which they can’t be accused or convicted. They landed on calling “being gay” a sin.
Of course, almost all conservative Christians will put as much distance between themselves and Fred Phelps and his little family church, Westboro Baptist, because they all know how hateful, damaging, and awful Phelps was. But they can’t do it. Rebecca Barrett-Fox, in her book, God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right, rightly argues they are all in the same business.
Conservative evangelicals may make all the statements they wish about being welcoming but not affirming, about loving gays, about being redemptive, but they can’t hide from their antigay theology and hatred. Here’s a sample of what conservative evangelical preachers have had to say about gays:
- John Hagee: In legalizing same-sex marriage the “Supreme Court has made America the new Sodom and Gomorrah. God will have to judge America or is going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
- Pat Robertson: Accepting homosexuality “is the last step in the decline of Gentile civilization . . . This is not a message of hate – this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It’ll bring about terrorist bombs; it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”
- Jimmy Swaggart: “I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I’m going to be blunt and plain: If one ever looks at me like that I’m going to kill him and tell God he died.”
- Charles Worley: “I figured a way out, a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers but I couldn’t get it past the Congress. Build a great big large fence, 50 or a 100 miles long. Put all the lesbians in there. Fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals, and have that fence electrified so they can’t get out. Feed them. And you know in a few years, they’ll die out. You know why? They can’t reproduce.”
- Steven Anderson: “If you executed the homos like God recommends, you wouldn’t have all this AIDS running rampant.”
These are all members of Fred Phelps’ family. These same heterosexual Christians insist on a literal reading of Leviticus 18:22 – “It is an abomination to lie with a man as with a woman” – as their primary defense against gays.
But as Dr. Marvin McMickle has pointed out,
Why are the people who are so quick to quote Leviticus 18:22 and the evils of homosexuality so mute about what is found in the very next chapter, let alone the rest of the entire book?
If Leviticus is the defining text, then I must ask if anti-gay Christians are going to embrace the theology of those American Christians known as “dominionists”? An example of dominionism in reformed theology is Christian reconstructionism, which originated with the teachings of R. J. Rushdoony in the 1960s and 1970s. Rushdoony’s theology focuses on theonomy (the rule of the Law of God), a belief that all of society should be ordered according to the laws that governed the Israelites in the Old Testament, specifically the book of Leviticus. Rushdoony is not the first Christian to read Leviticus and get everything wrong. His theology is a scary, heretical one, and yet there are dominionist preachers who have the ear of our president and are filling him with the idea of his anointing, and his right to rule the nation by the “laws of God.”
If Leviticus is the defining text, then I must ask if anti-gay Christians are going to advocate for stoning to death a man and women found in adultery?
If Leviticus is the defining text, then I must ask if anti-gay Christians are going to accept Leviticus 25, which says that every 50 years is a Jubilee to the Lord. This is a practical, actual, literal economic revival. All debts are forgiven. All prisoners are released. All land is given back to original owners. In Jubilee, the poor come to get their stuff back. The radical teaching of Jubilee insists that the practice of the economy shall be subordinated to the well-being of the neighborhood. Are evangelicals – many of whom are raising hell about food stamps and welfare – willing to take Leviticus 25 as seriously as they take Leviticus 18:22?
If Leviticus is the defining text, then I must ask if anti-gay Christians are going to take these verses from Leviticus 19, which connects our treatment of aliens with our economic practices:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the Lord.
If Leviticus is the defining text, then I must ask if anti-gay Christians are going to heed the words in Leviticus in 23 that instruct us on how we are to treat the strangers and the poor:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.
As Dr. McMickle has said:
Some Christians want to be able to embrace one favorite verse while ignoring all the rest. It does not and cannot work that way.
So my question for evangelicals stands: How much of Leviticus do you really want?
by Kelsey Lahr
Kelsey Lahr is a communication professor at Los Angeles Pacific University. Her scholarly interests include climate change communication and environmental rhetorics. She also works summers as a seasonal Ranger in Yosemite National Park. Her writing about life in Yosemite has appeared in The Cresset, Gold Man Review, Green Briar Review, Saint Katherine’s Review, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as inclusion in America’s Best Science and Nature Writing series. You can find links to her published work at https://kelseylahr.wordpress.com/.
When I started college, I was a registered Democrat, a feminist, and a Baptist. I was aware of the contradiction; I was aware that I was a contradiction.
I had grown up in a Regular Baptist church, a denomination that is theologically similar to Southern Baptist, but with a greater emphasis on separation from the world. It had been an uncomfortable fit for most of my life, since I learned to read. I got my first Bible at age 7, and that’s when I had my first faith crisis. It was a King James Bible but, somehow, was supposed to be for kids. It had the words Holy Bible written in big, bubbly font on the apple-red cover, and colorful insets with kid-friendly commentary. I read that Bible daily, struggling through a chapter or two each night before bed. It didn’t take long to find something unsettling: there were contradictions in there. In particular, I was disturbed by the description of the plagues on Egypt before the Exodus. I noticed that in some passages, the Pharaoh is said to have hardened his heart each time he refused to let the Israelites go, and in others, it is said to be God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This inconsistency was just a matter of a couple of words, but it challenged a central tenet of my church’s teaching: that every word of the Bible is to be taken literally, at face value. How can every word be taken literally when one passage says one thing and a different passage says another? So, at age 7, I hit on the key tension inherent in fundamentalism and its strictly literal interpretation of Scripture.
Other points of conflict piled up as I got older. How could women be kept out of church leadership, when it seemed that God had made many of us to be leaders? I returned again and again to the stories of Deborah, Queen Esther, the women at the empty tomb of Jesus, and Lydia—Biblical accounts of women taking charge and doing it right—while women at my church weren’t allowed to speak from the pulpit on Sunday mornings, not even to give announcements. I wondered why we didn’t help out at local homeless shelters or soup kitchens, even though Jesus told us to take care of the people with the least. As I got older, I started to wonder why just about everyone at my church was a Republican, when it seemed like the Democrats generally cared more about the poor, people Jesus also cared a lot about. When I turned 18, I registered as a Democrat, suspecting I was the only one at my entire church. Each of these contradictions incited an explosion of panic inside me, and I turned myself inside out to make it all work, to make all those pieces come together. But my church was also my home; it was a place where I was loved and accepted, where old people I barely knew sent me birthday cards with five dollar bills inside, where my family spent every Sunday morning and evening and every Wednesday night, where my friends met up for game nights. I wanted to be a part of this church, but I didn’t understand how to swallow all the questions and all the panic and all the doubt that came along with being part of it.
And just as all this panic and doubt were coming to a head, I went off to college. I had decided on Westmont College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Santa Barbara, California.
“Kind of liberal, isn’t it?” sneered a girl at my church youth group, who would be attending the ultra-conservative Master’s College.
“I don’t think so?” I said, recalling that Westmont didn’t allow drinking, smoking, or overnight guests of the opposite sex. But I secretly wanted her to be right. I hoped that Westmont would help me deal with the panic I continually felt reading the Bible, that it would help me figure out how to be a Democrat, a feminist, and a Baptist.
It didn’t. Instead, Westmont taught me that I didn’t have to be a Baptist, but that I could be a Democrat, a feminist, and a Christian. At Westmont I took Christian doctrine classes and Bible classes, and learned that the Bible contains metaphor, poetry, hyperbole, and figures of speech—elements of literature that make it beautiful. All of a sudden, I was free from the terror that came whenever I saw inconsistencies. If the hardening of a heart was allowed to be an evocative image instead of a literal and quantifiable process, then the contradiction that had bothered me as a seven-year-old was cleared up. If the first chapters of Genesis were allowed to be beautiful, poetic accounts of creation instead of a literal timeline, I didn’t have to reject the findings of science. I learned from professors who were orthodox Christians and who believed that women could be pastors; I learned from women professors who were pastors. I learned from professors who openly discussed their progressive political orientation and connected it straight to Scripture. Learning from these professors, I found myself in the company of progressive, hyper-educated Christians who made me feel like I could stop turning myself inside out to fit within the rigid confines of Christian fundamentalism, but still be an orthodox Christian. I stopped having panic attacks.
But I didn’t stop asking questions. I became increasingly aware of poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation, and the Church’s lack of concern about these problems. I became increasingly disturbed by the problem of evil as I studied human suffering through history and pondered God’s refusal to intervene. I became increasingly jaded about the hypocrisy of the “Christian” Right, which had begun to seem power hungry and corrupt. How could I be part of this Church, with all its failures? How could I continue to worship this God, with all God’s cruelty or indifference?
A lot of my friends at Westmont asked many of these questions, too. By the time graduation rolled around, most of them were on their way out the door of the Church, and now, almost ten years later, they haven’t looked back. It was unsettling, of course, but I had other examples to follow. I thought again and again about those brilliant, progressive, hyper-educated professors who had seen more of the world than I had, who had probably seen more suffering than I had, and who still worshipped God. They had seen the failings of the Church and still stayed part of it. Those were the people who first made me feel like I could be a Christian and be myself, and they were the people who made me feel like I could stay a Christian. Today I have about as much doubt as I did as a panicky seven-year-old, but I’ve come to accept it as simply part of the contours of my own faith, a faith I practice even when I don’t know if I really believe it. I attribute this to the fact that I learned at Westmont that Christian orthodoxy is actually a pretty big tent, and that I could be myself, and ask hard questions, and still be a Christian. I had seen my professors do it.
I will be forever grateful to the Westmont faculty who provided this template for a thoughtful, grace-filled Christian life. I wish that could be the end; just gratitude and a steady personal faith. If I had graduated from Westmont and never looked back, maybe it would have been. But alas, five years after I finished undergrad, I went to grad school and then I started looking for teaching jobs.
Around the same time I went on the job market, I got a call from a Westmont professor whom I greatly admire. She had been my academic advisor while I was a student and I had taken a number of classes with her. We had stayed in sporadic contact after I graduated.
She was going on sabbatical for the coming year, she told me, and Westmont needed someone who could take over her classes for her. If I wanted the job, it would be mine.
I had spent my entire grad school career hearing about the brutality of the academic job market, and now, before I had seriously applied to a single position, a job was dropped into my lap. Sure, it was just a year-long gig, and I would be an adjunct making far less than a livable wage in one of America’s most expensive towns. But I had only a master’s degree, so even an adjunct job at a four-year school was a great opportunity. I didn’t have to think too long before I accepted. That’s when my education really began.
As a student, I had been only vaguely aware of the workings of the administration. Now, as faculty, I saw it in staggering detail at each monthly faculty meeting. I was first unsettled by the college’s economic orientation. They funneled in who knows what massive sums of money, naming various institutes and programs after wealthy donors, institutes and programs that mostly had no benefit to students. And of course, it struck me in a rather personal way that I was living in a 200-square-foot-studio, barely making it on the meager salary Westmont was paying, while a newly-created position, the Vice President for Marketing, was making six figures. At the same time, a search for a new campus pastor was underway to replace the one who was retiring. This process ended with the selection of a generally unpopular candidate – who had connections to donors – over the candidate favored by students and faculty alike, a candidate with a record of speaking out on issues like racial inequality. This was the first real red flag that something was seriously amiss. And it just kept getting worse.
After my first year as a sabbatical-fill, Westmont offered me another year-long contract. They said they couldn’t offer me benefits this year, so I was on my own for health insurance. I considered a little longer this time, but again decided that a job was a job, and I was lucky to have it. I picked up additional teaching gigs at two other colleges and took on a weekend job in order to scrape by.
This time, in addition to the classes I would be teaching, Westmont also gave me the role of faculty adviser to the student newspaper, The Horizon. This role gave me even deeper insight into the workings of the administration. It also gave me a greater sense of the conversations that were happening among students. I already knew administration wasn’t really working for me, as an adjunct. Now it became excruciatingly clear that administration wasn’t working for students, either, and especially not students of color.
Students, and to some degree, faculty, were deep into an ongoing conversation about race. Students were aware that Westmont desperately lacked diversity in its student body; it came up often both in my classes and in the pages of The Horizon. It was a conversation that administration really didn’t want to have.
Just before Halloween, the humor section of the paper ran a piece of satire called “How to Spook White People.” The piece poked fun at Westmont’s lack of diversity and highlighted issues of white privilege. (Some options for spooking White people included telling them that they have white privilege, suggesting that some Halloween costumes are racially insensitive, and taking away their almond milk lattes.) The piece was written by a white student, who acknowledged her race and her privilege within the article. Over a decade since the advent of the widely-read blog Stuff White People Like, this piece of satire struck me as utterly tame and uncontroversial. Yet it earned me an appointment with the provost, and it earned the student editor-in-chief a stern talking-to from the Vice President of Student Life. The provost told me the piece “ruffled some feathers,” and the rumor I later heard was that those ruffled feathers belonged to a couple of alumni. Nowhere in the paper’s charter is there any mention of alumni; The Horizon exists for the benefit of students. Yet students weren’t the ones complaining about the piece of satire. It began to dawn on me that alums and donors are the audience Westmont’s administration cared the most about.
If this tendency to cater to donors instead of students were limited to a silly piece of satire in a mediocre student newspaper, I could get over it. But it goes much deeper than that, and has been on display in many other ways. For example, last spring, The Horizon was once again part of a racially-charged controversy, one that showcased the administration’s concern for donors and alumni over those of students, particularly students of color. The Horizon published an open letter to the campus community from three students (none of them on the paper’s staff) asking for the removal of a high-profile depiction of Jesus as a white-appearing man. As I wrote for Adam Laats’ blog I Love You But You’re Going to Hell, at the center of Westmont’s spiritual life is a prayer chapel in the middle of campus. The chapel is always open, and is the only overtly “religious” building on the campus. At the front of the chapel is a stained-glass window that depicts Jesus as white, standing on a globe that is positioned so that he is right on top of North America.
In the past couple of years, students have begun to recognize this depiction as problematic, colonial, and inappropriately conflating Christianity with whiteness. Many students of color expressed that the centrality of this depiction on campus made them feel even more marginalized than they otherwise would, in a school where white students and faculty far outnumber students and faculty of color. At the same time a group of students wrote this open letter in The Horizon, they also started a petition asking the administration to take the window out of the prayer chapel and put it somewhere less visible and less central to the community’s spiritual life. (You can read more about the window issue here and here.) As a faculty member, it was my impression that most students either supported this proposal or didn’t really care about the window one way or the other. Yet the administration balked, and their responses always revolved around the importance of the window to Westmont’s history. (The chapel and the window were both installed in 1961 as a memorial to the daughter of the college’s president at the time, who died in a car accident as a young woman.) The prioritization of “history” over the concerns of current students of color seems typical of the administration. And of course, older donors are the ones who care about that particular phase of Westmont’s history.
Today the window remains in place. Westmont remains a campus lacking in diversity. Some of the few faculty members of color who were at Westmont when I was a student have since left, and one of them told me flat out that it was due to the racial climate on campus, primarily coming from administration. All of these things together—the lack of diversity among students and faculty, the prioritization of donors and alumni over current students, the administration’s unwillingness to take a clear stand for racial inclusion—all of these paint a picture of a college that fails to live up to the Biblical imperatives of seeking justice and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I, too, have left Westmont since the White Jesus controversy brought into focus the white supremacy that permeates the college. I wish I could say I left Westmont because I could no longer be part of that white supremacy. The truth is that I left mainly because they didn’t pay me a living wage and I was simply exhausted from working so many jobs just to be able to afford health insurance. But when I learned last month about Westmont’s final decision to leave the White Jesus window in place, I contacted the alumni office: “I would like to be removed from Westmont’s mailing list due to the handling of the recent White Jesus situation,” I wrote. “In light of the administration’s shameful disregard for the needs and feelings of students of color in this situation, I no longer wish to be associated with Westmont.” Then I took to social media to let my network know what step I had taken and why. I asked my fellow alumni to consider taking a similar stand. It’s a small step, to be sure, and probably a trivial one. But the administration isn’t going to listen to the students or faculty asking for a more inclusive community. And if their past track record is any indication, they might just listen to alumni.
When I take a step back and reflect on the role Westmont has played in my life and faith, I ultimately have to be grateful. I am still part of the Christian community in part because I saw progressive, loving Christianity modeled by faculty members at Westmont. And it was there that I really learned to think critically, to examine issues of race and privilege. My ultimate disillusionment with the college is largely due to the values that very college instilled in me as a student: the importance of justice and inclusion, the critical necessity of examining privilege, the skills to assess and begin to dismantle unjust power structures. I can only hope these values will one day percolate back up to Westmont’s administration. Maybe one day Westmont will be the kind of place that truly models what it means to love the Lord our God and love our neighbors—all of them—as we love ourselves.
by William Trollinger
In August, Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis CEO) and Charles Ware (founder and executive director of https://gracerelations.net/), spoke at the Indianapolis Castleview Church on the topic, “One Race, One Blood.” Ham and Ware drew from their co-authored book of the same title to – as the conference was promoted – discuss “how evolutionary thinking has led to an increase of racism,” as well as “the Bible’s powerful answer to racism.”
As we note in Righting America (184), AiG’s ubiquitous evolutionism-equals-racism claim “could easily lead the historically unaware to conclude that Darwinism had something to do with the 250 years of slavery in North America, even though Origin of Species was published just six years before slavery was abolished.”)
One of the attendees at the “One Race, One Blood” conference was Larry Smith, founder and CEO of Leading Edge Advisory Firm, and graduate of Williams College and Stanford University. In an Indianapolis Recorder article entitled, “One discussion, two perspectives,” Smith highlighted the differences between the two presentations: while Ware (who is black) “spoke from the perspective of one who has a close kinship with the subject matter,” Ham routinely wandered into “tangentially related” topics before “remembering that he was supposed to have been discussing race and racism.” And even then, Ham “tended to speak from a 25,000 foot level.”
In short, Ham’s spiritual gaze was fixed beyond the sky to an ethereal future; Ware understood that people of color must endure an existential crisis on Earth – in the here and now. (Importantly, neither man spoke to the scourge of systemic racism, preferring to focus on cross-racial interaction, personal recognition of the sin of racial bigotry, and personal transformation based upon faith in Jesus.)
Smith sparked Ham’s ire. While it took him a couple of months, Ham has now penned a response. As is his wont, Ham includes ad hominem innuendos: Smith “is an African-American who states that he is a ‘devout evangelical Christian,’” and yet “he was very lukewarm about the content presented at the conference.”
Ham’s suggestion is obvious: if Smith really were a Christian, he would have been thrilled with what Ham had to say.
More substantively, Ham argued that “there is no way to fix the systems of this world in regard to racism,” just as there is no way to “fix the world’s political systems” and there is no way to “fix the planet” from what “is supposedly happening regarding climate.”
We can’t fix things (politically, socially, etc.) on this earth! And sadly, the majority of people are also doomed, but there’s real hope! What we can do is proclaim the “fix” for each individual – and that “fix” is to respond to the gospel and build all of one’s thinking on God’s Word!
Reading Ham’s blog post, someone unfamiliar with Ham might imagine that he is an apolitical evangelist who focuses his efforts on rescuing individual souls from the fires of Hell, and who has little or nothing to say about politics.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It just depends on the issue. As Smith pointed out, while at the conference “Ham was generally dispassionate regarding racism . . . he ‘came alive’ when railing against the social issues that bedevil white evangelicals (e.g., abortion, homosexuality and gender identity).”
This is precisely how it plays out on Ham’s blog: a multitude of posts regarding the specifics of gay marriage, transgender bathrooms, and the like, and nary a word about the particular and multitudinous ways in which racism bears down upon people of color in the United States. As we note in Righting America, the contrast is startling:
While Ken Ham and AiG immediately launched a series of attacks on the June 26, 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, they had nothing to say regarding the Supreme Court decision that came down one day before, a decision which, to quote the New York Times, “effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.” This striking contrast was weirdly repeated in the summer of 2015: while Ken Ham and other AiG contributors published a raft of angry articles in response to the June 26, 2015, Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, they were (as far as we can tell) silent as regards the Confederate flag controversy that erupted in the wake of the June 17, 2015 massacre of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina (189).
Larry Smith is exactly right when it comes to Ken Ham (and white evangelicalism more generally, as Camille Lewis noted here) and racism. As Smith noted in his final paragraph:
Though I am a devout evangelical Christian, it is impossible for me to overstate the following: Being a baptized believer in Jesus Christ is far from enough to eradicate racism. Slaveowners usually were devout “Christians.” So were their progeny who created and protected Jim Crow, sharecropping, “separate but equal” laws, and domestic terrorism against African Americans.
by Camille Lewis
Camille Kaminski Lewis is currently a Visiting Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal. She is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled Klandamentalism: Dysfunction and Violence in America’s Most Romantic Religious Movements, while also compiling and editing an anthology – White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity – as part of Peter Lang’s Speaking of Religion book series.
I was trying to explain “the Hegemon” to my 300-level class a few weeks back—the idea that a governing power gains its strength from those it subjugates. I think I failed. In my head, I imagined it to be King Kong scooping up radical ideas like another Fay Wray and digesting them as its own. I lumbered across the front of the room like a pre-CGI movie monster and munched on imaginary but hapless ideas I found in my path: labor, feminism, and reconciliation.
The Hegemon has been on my mind. I think I actually caught it shuffling across a church platform last month—not my own church, if that’s any consolation. I have been participating in local conversations among evangelicals – almost all of them white – about racial reconciliation. Every talk follows the same pattern.
We start with a wish disguised as a declaration that “this isn’t a fad.” We mean, “we hope this isn’t only a fad.”
Following a fad isn’t the crux of the problem. Feeding the Hegemon is the problem. A fad, in time, becomes hilarious. Have you looked at your tenth-grade school photos?
The Hegemon, however, is never funny. The Hegemon gets stronger as it digests the ideas that could topple it. Those who would critique its power are mere snacks fueling its walk between skyscrapers.
In one particular racial reconciliation talk, the speaker began by reassuring the “Truly Reformed” bow-tie crowd that he is not a member of the “radical left.” Don’t be afraid, fathers and brothers. This white cis-het male Ph.D. in History speaking in front of you is not “being led by academics,” whom he identifies as scholars of “critical race theory.”
This first step reveals the entire path. You know where the Hegemon is going when he starts with this Othering. Academics are too bitter for the evangelical Hegemon to consume. Don’t pick those. And avoid the “dark meat” of critical race theory too. Too much cholesterol.
After explaining what we are not, the speaker summarizes the available metanarratives. Predictably, in his telling there are “two schools of thought” in historical scholarship: evangelicals have either “reflected” culture (naively tripping into its vices), or evangelicals have “challenged” culture (following the Bible’s mandates).
So we have either submitted to peer pressure, or directed people to God. We have either followed blindly like dupes, or led triumphantly like heroes. We have either been influenced toward the bad, or have influenced toward the good. When we are passive, it’s unfortunate; when we are active, it’s always virtuous. King Kong either gets tricked into hurting people or leads them to a better world.
I have yet to hear an evangelical historian in these talks plainly confess the sin of our tribe. For a group that holds to the Westminster Confession (chapter 15) and that confesses our sin every Sunday in the liturgy, we just don’t confess our sin of white supremacy. We never mention that evangelicals led culture toward the bad. Never. It’s not even in our purview.
So if we’re not like those bitter academics, and we have the two choices of following the bad or leading toward the good, the third step is easy. Let’s look at all the good we South Carolinian evangelicals have accomplished. Let’s pull out the Hall of Famers! All the talks include the same ones. There’s the Zion Presbyterian Church in Charleston which integrated and placed African Americans at the center of the ministry, albeit with a white pastor, thirteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And yes, Black South Carolinian Robert Smalls did represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. All true.
Then it gets weird. Benjamin Franklin Perry gets props for being a Greenvillian who resisted secession, a hero whom Andrew Jackson recognized and affirmed in appointing him South Carolina’s Reconstruction Governor. Governor Strom Thurmond is another hero, didn’t you know? He condemned Greenville County’s most infamous lynching of Willie Earle in 1947.
Hell no he didn’t. Thurmond said that Willie Earle’s lynchers “ought to be strongly prosecuted. The Officers are doing a mighty fine job up there, and it won’t be long until the entire case is cleaned up.” That’s it. He praised the police. He didn’t mourn white supremacist injustice.
And Perry’s opening address to the 1865 South Carolina constitutional convention—the very convention that would create black codes eliminating freedmen suffrage—is unadulterated white nationalism. Perry conceded that, while slavery must never again exist in South Carolina, the Negro will never in any way be a citizen, no matter what the Northern radicals (i.e. “critical race theorists”) want:
The African has been, in all ages, a savage or a slave. God created him inferior to the white man in form, color, and intellect, and no legislation or culture can make him his equal. You might as well expect to make the fox the equal of the lion in courage and strength, or the ass the equal of the horse in symmetry and fleetness. His color is black; his head covered with wool instead of hair, his form and features will not compete with the Caucasian race, and it is in vain to think of elevating him to the dignity of the white man. God created differences between the two races, and nothing can make him equal.
When finally I heard the speaker actually admit, in so many words, that we are fueling the Hegemon, I genuinely questioned my participation as a listener: “White Christians in the South can benefit from studying African-American history.” Yes, the bow-tied Powers-that-Be do benefit from casting aside critical voices, from narrowing historical narratives to make us either the dupe or the hero, and from telling only the pleasant facts from the historical record. That benefit is the problem. We’re making the monster stronger.
When my students and I talked about ideological rhetorical criticism that week, I mentioned that sometimes our best analyses start by asking “What’s missing?” What’s missing in recent white evangelical racial reconciliation attempts? Dissent, truth-telling, and humility. We throw out our most pointed critics, we bend history to make us heroes, and we skip past confession.
In my framing the problem this way, I admit that I, too, am bending the story. I think we white evangelicals can do better. I think there is hope. But that hope isn’t in feeding the white nationalist monster. It’s admitting that we created him.
The Hegemon might eat that idea too. It’s a risk. The next class period I ended up describing the Hegemon as a Weeble. It wobbles, but it doesn’t fall down.
 “Sheriff Bearden Swears Warrant in Lynching Case,” Orangeburg Times and Democrat, February 22, 1947, 1 and 3. Wayne Freeman, “Constables Assisting in Lynch Probe,” Greenville News, February 18, 1947, 1.
 Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (New York: Penguin, 2008).