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Confronting the Progressive Obsession with Fundamentalism

by Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr.

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

Georges Lemaitre with Albert Einstein, 1932, credit: Associated Press

In the pages of the Righting America website, we often rehearse the varied ways in which fundamentalism has distorted the Christian message. There is good reason for exploring that influence.  As I have noted elsewhere, the meme-like character of fundamentalist theology1 has had a profound impact on American spirituality and one that extends far beyond fundamentalist communities.  

Whether one thinks of penal substitution (on which I have shared some thoughts, here and here), or one thinks of the Book of Revelation (on which I have offered some thoughts, here and here), fundamentalist interpreters have successfully shaped the way that people think about the church’s theology.  In so doing, even where people are repelled by their approach to these subjects and others, fundamentalists have created the impression that their theology is the only orthodox theology that there is.

Given its poisonous and circular character, there is good reason for critiquing fundamentalist theology. Long ago, teaching students who had been reared in fundamentalist homes, I realized that they had been herded into an intellectual and spiritual world where learning something new placed them in an untenable position.  Initially, I had assumed that when we talked about theological subjects – including the interpretation of Scripture – the subject matter we covered in class could be treated without much ado. After all, we were engaged in the first serious religious education that most of them had ever received. But it quickly became apparent to me that the faith of many of my students was not grounded in a confidence in the goodness of God, but in a series of proximate authorities that made faith in the ultimate authority of God possible.  

Among those assumptions were theological memes that my students believed could be proven.  So, not only was their faith focused on these proximate authorities, but – in a very real sense – their faith was not faith at all.  Instead, it was faith predicated upon certainties they believed could be proven. Teaching biblical studies, many of our conversations inevitably revolved around the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and the notion of “literal” truth, but this same faith structure relies on countless other assumptions. Not only do fundamentalist teachers regularly rely on that faith structure, but – worse – those who pause to question the logic of that structure are told that to question these proximate authorities is, by definition, an act of faithlessness.   

All this said, it is time to acknowledge the way in which Mainline-Progressive Protestantism has been distorted by its obsession with fundamentalism.  From the early twentieth century forward, American Mainline-Progressive Protestantism has been living in reaction to fundamentalism. For all its constructive energy, a dominant subplot has been its preoccupation with not being thought of as “fundamentalist.”

As a result, we have shied away from owning the Creeds of the church.  We have focused on teaching people to mistrust Scripture, rather than read it in life-giving ways.  We have indulged our politics as a substitute for robust theological reflection; and we have taught our congregations to approach their own faith with a skepticism that flies in the face of the historical conviction that God has and does reveal God’s self in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  

This reactive pattern was already well under way in 1939, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer registered his dismay with Mainline Protestantism in Manhattan,2 but it remains a powerful force as the adoption of the label “Progressive” illustrates.  My own experience with the adoption of that label illustrates my point.

A word that I never dreamed would be “a thing” – let alone something I do – is the word “blog.”  But several years ago, a friend invited me to begin blogging for a religion website called Patheos. When I first started with Patheos, my articles appeared on what was called the “Mainline Protestant” channel. But after a year or so, the editors of the site decided to use the word “Progressive.”  

I’ve never been particularly fond of that adjective as applied to any version of the Christian faith.  It isn’t theological. It is more of a fashion statement. And, for many, it doesn’t mean much more than, “I am not a fundamentalist.” And when I asked what the word “Progressive” meant I was told that “Progressive Protestants believe in science.” 

Now, compared with fundamentalist Christianity – which is an American invention and dates back to the early twentieth century – I suppose that concern might make some sense.  Fundamentalists in this country were deeply disturbed by some scientific theories that gained ground during that time, and some of them continue to struggle with scientific discovery. But to suggest that today’s Progressive Protestants are the first batch of Christians to “believe in science” – whatever that might mean – is deeply misleading.  

From the eleventh century forward, there are roughly 275 Christian scientists who have made their way into the history books, or are in the process of getting there.  (And these are just the well-known Christian scientists!) These 275 include: 

  • Hildegard von Bingen, who was the founder of scientific naturalism 
  • Otto Brunfels, who is considered one of the founders of botany 
  • Robert Grosseteste, founder of modern optics and scientific research at Oxford University 
  • Francis Bacon, who is credited with inventing the scientific method 
  • Galileo, who is considered the founder of modern astronomy and physics
  • Isaac Newton, the polymath who discovered gravity and developed calculus
  • Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics 
  • George Washington Carver whose work advanced our understanding of soil depletion 
  • Arthur Eddington, who advanced our understanding of the theory of relativity
  • Gerty Cori, who became the third woman and the first American woman to win the Nobel prize for her work in physiology 
  • Rosalind Picard who founded the Affective Computing department at MIT
  • Alexis Carrel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing vascular suturing techniques 
  • Georges Lemaître, who was the first to advance the Big Bang theory
  • William Pollard, who was director of the Oak Ridge Institute in Tennessee
  • Jérôme Lejeune, a pediatrician and geneticist, whose work in genetic abnormalities advanced our understanding of Down’s syndrome 
  • Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome project, and who is now Director of the National Institutes of Health

Just the people I have mentioned include Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, a Quaker, and an Evangelical.  Among them are monks, nuns, priests, and saints of the church. For his work on genetics and Downs syndrome, Lejeune was awarded the highest honor given by the American Society of Human Genetics and the title, “Servant of God,” by the Catholic Church.  And George Washington Carver regularly pointed out that it was only his faith in Jesus that made him an effective scientist.

This list, alone, makes two things very clear: 

First, the notion that the church and science are at war with one another is simply not true.  Fundamentalist Christians may have waged a war against science, but they represent a tiny percentage of Christians world-wide, and they have been a very small part of Christian history.  A certain kind of atheist may find it profitable to argue that Christians are afraid of science and are, therefore, benighted, but that is not true. 

Second, far from being at war with science, Christians have been at the forefront of science.  They have laid the groundwork for the scientific method, they have pioneered the work in subdisciplines, and they have done cutting edge work across the sciences – including the areas that people assume would be the most controversial for people of faith: physics, evolutionary biology, and astronomy.

So, what does this say about a Progressive Protestantism that – in reaction to fundamentalism – seems to ignore both of these facts, and seemingly thinks of itself as the first brand of Christianity to embrace the benefits of science?  At a minimum, it seems to me that this can be said:

One, by reading the history of the church with a fixation on fundamentalism, Progressive Christians run the risk of distorting the historical facts.  For a movement that prides itself on its ability to embrace those facts and face them head on, this is a massive error.

Two, by measuring themselves over against fundamentalism, Progressives tend to self-isolate, confining themselves to an attenuated range of theological options.  

Related, the Progressive obsession with fundamentalism also robs Protestants of the subtlety and breadth of the Christian tradition, treating fundamentalism as the measure of orthodox expressions of the Christian faith, instead of treating it as what it is: A relatively recent and relatively minor tributary of the Christian faith that punches above its weight, thanks in part to the reactive behavior of Progressive Christians.

All this to say that it is extremely important not to be held captive by fundamentalism, given the high cost of that obsession.


1In a recent article here on penal substitutionary atonement, I coined the phrase, “theological meme.”  Theological memes are ideas and theological ideas that propagate across traditions, shaping the theological assumptions of people without them necessarily knowing it.  So, as I argued in the article, penal substitution has a meme like character which shapes how people understand atonement well beyond the fundamentalist community, even though its bona fides are late and the concept is problematic.  See: “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution”: https://rightingamerica.net/the-monster-god-of-penal-substitution/

2Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 282-284.

The Day That Young Earth Creationists Tend to Forget

by Susan L. Trollinger

 “Elohim Creation” by FotoGuy 49057 is licensed under CC BY 2.0  (Via Flikr)

One of the things I have learned over the years as a rhetorical critic—it’s really a simple insight—is that what does not appear in, say, a speech, an image, or an advertisement, is at least as important (if not more so) than what does. A great example of this is an advertisement for Pedigree dog food that came out a few years ago. It’s a two-page ad. On the left page, you see a man, likely in his thirties, sitting on a rock overlooking the ocean. As a viewer, you easily imagine given the grey sky and his wind breaker that he lives in Seattle or some other northwestern coastline locale. He is looking down at the rock. One arm is propping him up as he leans back. And the other is relaxed over his lap. You can see his right hand just resting there near the rock. 

On the opposing page, you see the same man. He is seated in the same location in exactly the same position. But there’s a difference. Now, next to him on that rock is a lovely mutt. In the first image, the man appears alone, sad, maybe even depressed. In the second image, he is with his buddy. They are just chilling on a gorgeous rock enjoying a spectacular view. The point of the ad is to exhort you to adopt a mutt. My point is simply that what is missing in the first image is just as important as what is present in the second.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the fact that the rhetoric of young Earth creationists focuses on the six days of creation and has precious little to say about the seventh. I’ve been thinking especially about what that means for Christians—that is, for people who make the audacious claim to follow Jesus.

Before I get to that, I want to be clear. I think the six days of creation are beautiful. They are, among so many other things, a powerful testament to the word and what language can do. To quote from Genesis 1: 1-5:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”: and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (NRSV)

They remind us that words have the power to bring into being whole worlds. And they remind us that we need to take care about the worlds that our words bring into being. They can be absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous—as the Creation was. And they can be bone chillingly ugly—as was the Jim Crow South and the Holocaust.

As I have studied the rhetoric of young Earth creationism, I have attended to the way it talks about the God that it worships. It is a God who, whether as Father or Son (it tends to leave out the Holy Spirit—another important absence), is something of superhero. He (and, importantly, God is always gendered as masculine in the rhetoric of young Earth creationism) might as well be a superhero in a Marvel blockbuster movie. He creates order out of chaos. He separates the waters above from the waters below. He produces Eve out of a bone.1

But what this rhetoric leaves out is the seventh day. The day of grace. The day of rest. The day of gladness. The day in which God is so delighted with creation that God just stops and marvels at what God has produced. 

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (NRSV, Gen. 2:1-3)

How extraordinary. According to the first account of the creation in Genesis, God worked so hard to create a gorgeous order out of chaos—earth and sky, sun and moon, plants, sea creatures, animals, and human beings. And then, when God was done, God rested. God stopped. God enjoyed. God loved the love that God had made incarnate. 

The rhetoric of young Earth creationists skips over this day. Of course, they mention it here and there. But they don’t take it to heart. They don’t work it into their theology. Theirs is a rhetoric of scarcity and judgment. Yes, the creation was beautiful but what we have to focus on is the fall and how God was obliged (if God is to be God) to banish, shun, and eventually slaughter in the global flood. 

What if we took the seventh day to heart? The day in which God just loved what God had created. In a very simple minded way, I can imagine God kicking back in some celestial recliner and thinking—I totally nailed this. 

What if instead of imagining a God who is hell bent on punishing sinners (which, of course, includes us all) young Earth creationists imagined a God who actually took joy in God’s creation. What if they took the seventh day as seriously as the other six? What if, in other words, they took as seriously God’s love for God’s creation (with all of its beauty and all of its flaws)? What a different rhetoric that would be! 

I don’t know exactly what that would sound like since I haven’t heard it. But I can well imagine that it would be a rhetoric in which we would embrace the God of love, mercy, and excessive grace. A God who admonishes God’s followers to love their neighbor, to turn the other cheek, to give up their cloak. I think, in other words, we would live quite literally into the ridiculous, gracious, and merciful words of Jesus. The true Adam.


1I should point out that while the first two examples come from the first account of the creation in Genesis (Gen. 1:1-2:3, the last one comes from the second account of creation that begins at Genesis 2:4. These two accounts are, as many a biblical scholar knows, incommensurate with each other, a fact that young Earth creation literalists elide.

Endangering the Least of These: A Word From the (Evangelical) World of Wrestling

by William Trollinger

Photo Credit: Smiley N. Pool, Staff Photographer, Dallas Morning News

While the NCAA responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by shutting down all sporting events (including March Madness for both men’s and women’s teams), the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA) – which consists of club teams outside of the NCAA – held its national championships last weekend in Allen, Texas. Over 600 wrestlers from 84 schools participated in the March 12-14 tournament. 

Despite the NCWA’s assurances that “protocols have been put into place to enhance our already comprehensive practices that prevent the spread of disease,” it is fair to say that safety precautions at the tournament were not exactly rigorous. According to the Dallas Morning News, there were only three competition mats, and they sanitized just three times a day, with dozens of matches taking place in between mat cleanings (and it is not clear if/when the practice mat was sanitized). Moreover, while the NCWA asserted that any athlete whose temperature was over 100.4 would be disqualified, tournament executive director Jim Giunta acknowledged afterward that not one wrestler had their temperature taken. And efforts at social distancing – in the stands, or in the wrestlers’ waiting area – were at a minimum.

Unsurprisingly, Giunta and other tournament officials maintained no communication with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But it is not difficult to imagine what the CDC would have had to say to them.

While the Dallas Morning News reporter failed to point this out, the NCWA is an organization with a strong evangelical flavor. One of its programs is the 6:12 Project, the name coming from Ephesisans 6:12:  

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 

Not only does the 6:12 Project encourage wrestling teams to come up with community service projects, but it also, through a link on its website, provides member teams with BeliefMap, described as an “advanced debate simulator” that prepares Christians to successfully convince unbelievers not only that God exists, but that 

We are all guilty of sin (lying, stealing, lusting etc.) and, in virtue of His holiness, God’s wrathful final destruction of evil and evildoers is coming soon. There is only one way to be saved from it: you must throw yourself at the mercy of God, and freely accept Jesus’s cleansing of you and transformation of you into a sinless person for heavenly living.

As reported by the Dallas Morning News, executive director Giunta explained that he chose not to cancel the NCWA tournament because he thinks a lot of the response to the escalating pandemic “is driven by fear,” and “we’re going to operate on faith rather than fear.” 

Then there is coach Jesse Castro, whose Liberty University wrestling team came away with top honors at the tournament. Echoing his boss (Jerry Falwell Jr.), Castro said that he thinks the coronavirus is being “overhyped” by Democrats as a way to impeach Donald Trump:

Call me a conspiratorist [sic] or whatever. Is that to minimize what’s going on? Absolutely not. But you cannot view this from a prism without being political to some degree. It’s too obvious.

It is too easy to point out that Giunta’s and Castro’s comments are nonsense. Beyond ridiculous and illogical, their comments and actions (and the actions of the NCWA as a whole) are recklessly dangerous. More than this, they are reflective of, as Rod Kennedy pointed out in the previous post, the evangelical anti-intellectual and hyper-partisan disregard for science. 

Such disregard places all of us in danger. Especially the elderly, the ill, the poor, and the unborn.

The common good be damned.

Responding to COVID-19, or, Evangelicals v. Science

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.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. with Donald Trump. from the New York Intelligencer (May 6, 2019) Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last Friday Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. appeared on Fox News to suggest that the media attention to the novel coronavirus is actually a conspiracy designed to sabotage Donald Trump’s presidency: 

It’s just strange to me how so many are overreacting. It makes you wonder if there’s a political reason for that. Impeachment didn’t work, and the Mueller report didn’t work, and Article 25 didn’t work. And so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.


The inquisitors and censors are back, and this time the effort to reject scientific knowledge doesn’t come from Rome or Geneva. Instead, it comes from the White House and Trump’s evangelical enablers. 

Some years ago, Holiday Inn had an ad where a man would be dressed in surgical garb, apparently doing surgery on a patient, and telling the camera, “I’m not a surgeon but I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night.” 

Advertising parody has now become reality in our time. Our nation is riddled with people who say, “I’m not a doctor but I attend an evangelical church, and we believe vaccinating children is dangerous.” Or “I’m not a historian; but I’m a dentist in a large city in Texas, and I don’t trust these experts.” Or “I’m not a biologist, geologist, or physicist, but I’m sure God created the world in six literal days.” 

Until recently Americans have had a scientific soul. We have marveled at the abundance of biological and paleontological evidence of Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful and wonderful” (Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin ). We have been practical, demanding, and pragmatic. We have demanded to see the evidence, collect the facts, and see all of it for ourselves. We have served as “an incubator for ideas, an engine of scientific creativity that has lifted the condition of mankind and opened new horizons of understanding from which the rest of the world can draw.” 

This openness, creativity, and search for truth is under sustained attack as anti-evolution, young Earth creationists, and other sorts of evangelical Christians attack and censor science, all the while attempting to insert anti-science material into the biology textbooks of our high school students. 

We will not continue to be the world’s leading scientific nation if we surrender to the anti-science Christians.  Instead of listening to Jerry Falwell, Jr., Jim Bakker, and Ken Ham, we are better served by trusting the health community, the scientific community, the medical community that have given us organ transplants, cures for various kinds of cancer, pain-relieving drugs, and a host of other practices that have led to a higher quality and longer duration for human life. Science, a gift from God, was brought into life by the church, serving as an incubator for the great universities and the resulting arrival of the Western scientific tradition (David C. Lindberg,  The Beginnings of Western Science). 

This is not the time for the church and culture to abandon centuries of tradition dedicated to the pursuit of truth and better lives. As Kenneth R. Miller, a leading biologist, says: 

A society that genuinely supports science is a rare and delicate thing. Science demands free inquiry, open discussion and debate, and popular support for the life of the mind. These are threatening principles to many human institutions and have been actively opposed by authoritarian regimes in the past and even in our own times.  

A people who insist, against all the evidence, that the world was created in six literal days, can’t be trusted when it comes to science. A people who still insist that Darwin was the devil and Clarence Darrow his cohort can’t be trusted to tell us the truth about science. These Christians have been nursing a grudge against science since the Scopes Monkey Trial, when Darrow made William Jennings Bryan look like a bungling idiot. 

These anti-science Christians should not be exerting influence over our nation’s health policies when it comes to vaccines, pandemic viruses, vaccination, the state of the climate, and a host of other issues that are scientific. They are not to be believed or trusted. Their readings of Genesis are untrustworthy. Indeed, they are unbiblical, unchristian, and dangerous.

Discrimination as Love: Asbury, BYU, and LGBTQ+ Students

by Rebecca Barrett-Fox

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University. The author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas 2016), she researches and writes about religion, hate, and sexuality and gender. Her work has appeared in Contention, Youth & Society, The Journal of Hate Studies, Thought & Action, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. You can follow her research at her blog, Any Good Thing, or read her commentary on politics, culture, and family from a (mostly) Mennonite perspective at Sixoh6.

Students who attend BYU in Provo agree to adhere to the code of conduct known as the “honor code,” and nearly all are members of the Mormon church. 2020 Associated Press via Huffington Post.

Earlier this month, Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, a nondenominational Christian university, did not renew the contracts of two professors over their support of LGBTQ+ students. 

At least, that’s the perspective of the many students who are grieving the removal of two beloved educators. Like most young people, including increasing numbers of white evangelicals, Catholics, and Latter-day Saints they feel that discrimination based on sexuality is harmful or wrong. As many of those who have signed a petition, started in 2015, calling for a change to Asbury’s anti-queer policies wrote when they signed, the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people doesn’t align with the very values of love and grace that Asbury proclaims otherwise. Said one, discriminatory policies are “against the Gospel of our Christ.”

But for conservative Christians who oppose same-sex romantic and sexual relations, the issue isn’t that the two professors supported LGBTQ+ students—it’s that they didn’t. For those who view same-sex sexual contact (whether in a casual encounter, a romantic relationship, a long-term partnership, or a legal marriage) as inherently sinful, immoral, or deficient, then what looks like support to people outside this frame is, within it, the exact opposite: enabling, leading astray, or even exploitation. 

A different story: 

On February 19, the Latter-day Saints’ Church Educational System, which includes Brigham Young University (BYU) in Salt Lake City, revised its Honor Code to remove language that prohibited “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings”—including, depending on interpretation, platonic hugs or hand-holding. Students were verbally told that this meant that affection in chaste same-sex romantic relationships was no longer prohibited. On March 4, the Commissioner of the Church Educational System clarified that sexual relations were still limited to monogamous, married male-female partnerships, and romantic affection between same-sex couple, even if not overtly sexual, was prohibited. BYU students who had come out in the previous few weeks were suddenly in violation of the school’s Honor Code. While the university assured students that they would not be punished for their sexual behavior during the time when they were led to believe that BYU permitted affection between same-sex couples, the revised Honor Code is now supposed to be understood as prohibiting any kind of same-sex romantic or sexual behavior. 

And, at BYU, the Honor Code has often been used to justify students reporting their peers for disciplinary action. Kevin Utt, BYU’s Honor Code director, notes that the Honor Code asks students to “[e]ncourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code” but notes that

[e]ncourage is not synonymous with “turn someone in.” Encourage is an action that means to give support, confidence or hope to someone. We are all members of the BYU community—thousands of people coming together to develop faith, intellect and character, and we should always reach out in love and support to those around us.

This echoes LDS General Handbook’s comments on same-sex attraction, behavior and marriage (the terms that the handbook uses): same-sex sexual relationships are “sinful and undermine the divinely created institution of the family” and Mormons should “reach out with sensitivity, love, and respect to persons who are attracted to others of the same sex.” At BYU, this looks like banning same-sex sexual contact, knowing that doing so causes “isolation and pain,” while also framing the university’s choice as one of “sensitivity, love and respect” and insisting that the Honor Code Office has a “responsibility” to investigate violations of the code.

You see, they love you, which is why they don’t want you to hold hands or kiss or have sex with or legally marry a person of the same sex, and if you do, they’ll punish you. 

Asbury’s Statement on Human Sexuality makes a similar argument: “all forms of sexual intimacy that occur outside the covenant of heterosexual marriage are sinful distortions of the holiness and beauty for which God intended,” but “conditional immunity” is offered to students “who come forward to seek help or forgiveness prior to administrative knowledge of the violation” and will be “supported with accountability and mentorship instead of disciplinary consequences,” according to the Morality Statement.

Though their theologies are different, both Asbury and BYU frame punishment for sexual contact between same-sex couples as a loving intervention. Here, they may reference the Biblical directions from James 5:19-20:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. 

In this framework, what looks to the world like “support” is really allowing someone to wander from God. It is enabling a sin that separates the person from God’s presence. It may also be framed as teaching false doctrine—that it’s okay to engage in same-sex sexual contact when it’s not. It may even be seen as an attempt to use another person’s sexual sin as a way to signal your own righteousness; that is, if you encourage queer people to accept their sexual identity, you might only be doing so to appear enlightened to a world that calls the “accountability” that Asbury describes or the “responsibility” that BYU refers to as “homophobia.”

In this view, what the world—and an increasing number of Christians, especially younger ones—calls love for queer people is actually harm to them.

Not surprisingly, queer Christians consistently experience the “love” that universities like Asbury and BYU insist they are showing as pain. They write and speak about being unable to be authentic, about living in fear of being outed, about the high cost of living with integrity, including expulsion, social isolation, and exclusion from institutions that are often part of their family history. 

But living a closeted life has its costs too. When we ask students, faculty, and others members of a campus community to choose between living honestly and their educations or jobs, we are coercing them into lying. And that, too, is a violation of an ethical code. 

Keeping It Safe: Asbury College Fires “LGBTQ-Affirming” Faculty Members

by William Trollinger

Asbury University, Photo by City of Wilmore, Kentucky.

As Adam Laats convincingly demonstrates in his wonderful Fundamentalist U, evangelical and fundamentalist colleges are all about presenting themselves – to donors and parents – as “safe” educational havens for their students. What constitutes “safe” is different from institution to institution; more than this, what is understood as keeping students safe changes over time (e.g., at most of these schools today dancing is not seen as the great threat to student morality that it was a few decades ago). That said, and as I wrote years ago in an essay on evangelical/fundamentalist higher education, the obsession at all of these institutions with being intellectually and culturally “safe” for their students is evidence that

evangelical and fundamentalist schools are not as different as individuals in both sorts of schools might assert. For one thing, the faith statements at both sorts of schools are often quite similar; while the statements at fundamentalist schools are typically longer and much more detailed, the fact is that, even at many evangelical schools faculty are required to sign on to inerrancy and premillennialism statements. Moreover, both sorts of schools engage in a good amount of “boundary maintenance.” While fundamentalist schools are much more concerned with strict, impermeable boundaries, and while a good number of faculty members at evangelical schools would not be allowed to teach at a fundamentalist school, the fact is that evangelical colleges can also be quite restrictive, and, on occasion, engage in a purge [of “unsafe” faculty members].

In fact, I am hard-pressed to identify an evangelical school that has not, at some point in its history, purged its ranks of “dangerous” professors. 

For the most recent example of a purge, see Asbury University of Wilmore, Kentucky (which, coincidentally, happens to be one of the schools I discussed in the aforementioned essay). As reported by Linda Blackford at the Lexington Herald-Leader, “two popular and beloved faculty – Jon Roller [Worship Arts program] and Jill Campbell [music education] – were told their contracts would not be renewed,” the reason being that “they were supportive of Asbury’s LGBTQ students.”  

What does this mean? Did Roller and Campbell fail to properly condemn LGBTQ students for their sin? Did they have the audacity to suggest to these students that God loves them as they are? 

Whatever the specific offense, Blackford details that discrimination against LGBTQ students at Asbury has a long history (to the point that, according to one graduate,  LGBTQ students at Asbury Seminary were forced to receive psychiatric treatment). And when the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage in 2015, Asbury secured a waiver on the basis of religion, thus ensuring that the school and its students can receive federal loans even though Asbury discriminates against LGBTQ students (and, apparently, faculty and staff who are too kind to those who are LGBTQ). 

But the Asbury administration may not have adequately reckoned with the fact that many of their students would find the firings of Roller and Campbell to be appalling, and unChristian:

On Tuesday, several hundred students gathered with administrators, and according to an audio recording of the event [embedded in this article], numerous students expressed anger, frustration and confusion over the firings. Several cried as they recounted how much the two professors had helped them through their time at Asbury, and others asked why their compassion and caring would be punished in this way.

Here is the conundrum for evangelical colleges and universities. Donors and parents want these schools to be “safe” from the LGBTQ “menace.” But many of the evangelical students who attend these schools simply do not share and cannot understand their elders’ views on human sexuality. 

How are these schools to negotiate this generation gap? Can these schools really ride it out until the youth become adults, at which time they can end their anti-LGBTQ discrimination?

And are evangelical and fundamentalist colleges simply doomed to playing it “safe,” always looking over the right shoulder to the most conservative segment of their constituency?

“The Monster-God of Penal Substitution”: A Response to Dr. Matt O’Reilly

by Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr.

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

Satan in the Middle Ages: Image via Paul Williams/Getty Images

In a response to my recent article on “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution,” United Methodist pastor, Dr. Matt O’Reilly, takes exception to my characterization of penal substitution and the God it presupposes.  As I understand it, Dr. O’Reilly has two central objections to my article: 

  1. He feels that I failed to critique the best version of penal substitution, preferring a “straw man” to a “steel man”
  2. As a result, I failed to grapple with the loving God of a “robust” theology of penal substitution in which “the second person of the Trinity took upon himself the penalty that the one triune God requires for transgressions of the law that the one triune God has issued.”

Dr. O’Reilly does not, as far as I can tell, grapple with my assessment that the basic failure of penal substitutionary atonement is that it fabricates theories out of metaphors, and then moves without justification from a single point of comparison to a narrated description of atonement that tries to make the case for multiple points of comparison.  Nor does he seem to recognize that my primary concern is with the meme-like character of that theory and the way in which it has wormed its way into popular consciousness.

I have no apology to make for the last and central concern.  Frankly, I am rather more troubled by the devastating pastoral impact that penal substitution has had on laypeople, than I am with the refinements that might be offered in its defense.  Dr. O’Reilly’s refinements aside for a moment, the fact of the matter is that the Monster-God meme is exactly what people in the pews hear. I know this from my own pastoral work and my efforts as a spiritual director, but it has also been a problem for the church’s theology for quite some time.  

In 1949 Dorothy Sayers noted that penal substitution had so distorted our theology of atonement that people were given “all the wrong answers” to the questions one might ask in a catechetical examination.  Fingering the problem in her characteristically acerbic style she described the probable results:

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Father?

A.: He is omnipotent and holy.  He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfillment: He is very angry if these are not carried out.  He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgments and miracles, distributed with a good deal of favoritism. He…is always ready to pound on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun.  He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Son?

A.: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth.  It is not His fault that the world was made like this, and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did His best to reconcile man to God (see Atonement).  He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to him.


Q.: What was Jesus Christ like in real life?

A.: He was a good man – so good as to be called the Son of God.  He is to be identified in some way with God the Son (see above). He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism….If we try to live like Him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead.

Q.: What is meant by the Atonement?

A.: God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and, therefore, a particularly attractive victim.  He now only damns people who don’t follow Christ or who never heard of Him.

So, straw man or not, there is good reason to be concerned.

That said, Dr. O’Reilly’s “steel man” seems to be decorative sheathing for the “straw man” meme he accuses me of skewering.  He rightly insists that what any person of the Trinity wills, the whole of the Trinity wills. But his defense, then, for penal substitution is that Jesus, no less than the Father, “requires” and pays a “penalty…for transgressions of the law that the one triune God has issued.”

This refinement is necessary if one supposes that God requires a penalty to be paid.  But this way of describing atonement places a very strange priority at the center of God’s redemptive work that depended upon feudal motifs, and did not play a significant role in the church’s theology of atonement until the Protestant Reformation.  It is also at odds with the larger biblical narrative.  

Neither the Old nor the New Testaments describe a God who is preoccupied with having a penalty paid.  Rather, the dominant theme through both Testaments is the longing of God to restore the intimacy between God and his children that existed from the beginning.  It is also out of that longing that God risks himself in the person of the Son, not out of a desire for satisfaction, but out of a love that finds its expression in the one who enters the burning houses that are our lives and emerges with us in his embrace.  

To recast this drama in terms of required penalties may have a certain kind of sense to those who lived with feudal lords. But the way in which this account distorts the focus of the redemptive narrative of Scripture is as clear in Dr. O’Reilly’s refinement as it is in the version I outlined at the outset.

Why, then, the language in Scripture about the anger or wrath of God, particularly if the only absolute affirmation there is that God is love?  As I noted in my earlier article, this – it seems to me – is the language that the writers of the Old and New Testaments use to describe the distance from God that we experience when we prefer to be our own gods.  One does not need to believe in a God who requires a penalty in order to believe that we are in need of God, that our sins are the thing that puts us at peril, or that we need to be saved.  

The writers of Scripture are moral consequentialists. They are clear that we, not a God who is waiting for satisfaction, have placed ourselves in the spiritual predicament that we face.  The fact that we experience those choices as alienating is akin to the experience of the choices that the prodigal makes. He is certain that his behavior has placed him beyond the loving care of his father, but he discovers that his father is loving, ever ready to forgive. So it is with the theology of the church that affirms that its perfect expression is found in the One who is with us, in it, all the way.

Ken Ham Misleads Again: An Attack on We Believe in Dinosaurs

by William Trollinger

This image shows the full length of the Ark Encounter, a large replica of Noah's Ark.
View of Ark Encounter. Photo Credit: Susan L. Trollinger (2018).

When it comes to Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter, there is much to criticize. Just for starters, Ham and company have created a tourist site dedicated to celebrating divine genocide. As commemorated by Ark Encounter, a righteously furious God drowned up to twenty billion individuals – including toddlers, infants, and the unborn – in Noah’s Flood. Adding to the grotesquerie, the Ark tells the story of Noah and his family happily enjoying delicious meals and contentedly engaging in various crafts, all the while blissfully ignoring the global slaughter just outside the walls.

Pointing all this out – which we have done again and again – does not faze Ham in the slightest. After all, the Monster-God is the God he is selling at the Ark and at the Creation Museum.

On the other hand, Ken Ham gets quite exercised when someone notes that Ark Encounter has received a lot of government assistance (how can that be, when everyone knows that government persecutes Bible-believing Christians?). So last August Ham blasted me – in an article entitled University of Dayton Professor Attacks Ark and Ken Ham in Unscholarly Article – for having pointed out that in 2013 the little town of Williamstown issued $62m in junk bonds and then loaned the proceeds to help get the Ark Encounter project underway, and that this sweet deal was made even sweeter by the provision that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes over the next three decades will actually be used to pay off the loan. I also pointed out that Ark Encounter used the vision of great economic benefits to persuade Williamstown to underwrite the bonds, but it turns out that the town has seen virtually no economic benefits from this deal (a fact Ham now blames on the town being too far on the other side of the interstate to get Ark visitors, something he neglected to say as he and his colleagues were wooing Williamstown).

Ham responded to my post with misrepresentations of what I had to say, failures to come clean about how the Ark has been funded and how the project was sold to Williamstown, and various ad hominem attacks. In my post, Ken Ham Attacks rightingamerica, I responded point by point to Ham’s misstatements and elisions while also delineating his attacks on my religiosity, my scholarly competence, and my ability to teach. I concluded by noting that 

if Ham’s post were a paper written by a University of Dayton in one of my first-year classes, I would have written this at the bottom of the paper: Failure to provide substantive evidence to back your claims, and a dismaying tendency to resort to ad hominem attacks. This is not acceptable for a university-level paper. Revise and resubmit.[Thanks to Susan Trollinger for the italicized text.]

Ham is at it again, with his February 19 Cincinnati Enquirer article blasting the wonderful film about Ark Encounter, We Believe in Dinosaurs. In Ark documentary another hatchet job, Ham lets loose a volley of unsubstantiated attacks, including references to “deceitful producers,” an “agenda-driven propaganda piece,” a “supposed ‘documentary,” “clever camera angles and selectively-edited interviews,” and more. But as is Ham’s wont, over half of this article is devoted to claiming that the Ark has not received huge tax breaks. In the process Ham completely (and predictably) elides the aforementioned $62m bonds and property tax forgiveness package he received from the town of Williamstown; as regards Williamstown’s failure to benefit from the Ark (that it helped fund), the Answers in Genesis CEO once again blames the town for being on the opposite side of the interstate from Ark Encounter.

One of the individuals featured in We Believe in Dinosaurs is David McMillan, a former young Earth creationist who has become a critic of creationism and its denial of mainstream science. In a February 24 Cincinnati Enquirer article, McMillan succinctly and successfully rebuts Ham on all counts, concluding with the observation that “Ham’s treatment of Williamstown is a reminder that these sorts of cult-like organizations have impacts that go much farther than the foolish ideas they promote.” No need for me to summarize McMillan’s brilliant article. Here it is: Ham fleeced a town that gave him his Ark Encounter.

Take the Young Earth Creationist Quiz Used in a Kentucky School

by William Trollinger

An acquaintance passed along to Dan Phelps a quiz – displayed below – that was given to pre-high school students at a private school in rural Kentucky. If you find this young Earth creationist quiz ludicrous, please understand that the logic employed here is very much in keeping with what one finds in the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, as well as in Answer in Genesis apologetics materials. That is to say, creationist materials for adults are not notably more sophisticated or nuanced than what one finds in this quiz.

I have a few additional comments to make at the end. But first, here’s the quiz (and good luck!):


  1. While the explanations of the right answers for questions #5 and #7 claim that they were “covered above” in earlier explanations, this is obviously not the case.
  2. The explanation of the right answer for question #8 – “creationists and evolutionists . . . interpret the facts differently because they have different presuppositions” – is at the heart of all creation science apologetics, and is central to what is going on at the Creation Museum. Of course, such an argument goes beyond young Earth creationism to legitimate all forms of pseudo-science.
  3. The explanation of the right answer for question #10 – “all Christian doctrine is founded in the book of Genesis” – is (to understate the point) a novel theological assertion that is at odds with two millennia of Christian thinking. But it is all part of the young Earth creationist effort to minimize the Gospels and – in particular – the teachings of Jesus.
  4. The explanation of the right answer for question #1 reflects a young Earth creationist obsession with explaining why Cain marrying and having sex with his sister was ok. This is the topic of one of the most bizarre placards at the Creation Museum, “Where Did Cain Get His Wife?” The argument presented on this placard is virtually identical to the argument presented in this quiz. As we note in Righting America:

Even in the context of the Creation Museum, this is one strange placard. Here we have an argument on behalf of incest that includes questionable claims about human genetics, an attack on those who criticize incest on any grounds other than the Bible, and the suggestion that incest is not as bad as it seems, given that all humans engaging in sexual activity are having sex with relatives. Here we have an argument that renders a near-universal moral taboo wrong primarily on instrumentalist grounds. (177)

The Monster-God of Penal Substitution

by Frederick W. Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

Satan in the Middle Ages: Image via Paul Williams/Getty Images

Penal substitutionary atonement is not a phrase that is widely known beyond the academic and theological world.  But the storyline that goes along with that theology is, and – although it is older in some respects than the movement itself – it is at home in many fundamentalist circles.  Significantly, it has also made inroads into the popular imagination.

The result is that people far beyond fundamentalist circles are convinced that penal substitution is the only way in which atonement in the Christian tradition can be understood.  At the heart of this narrative is the conviction that God, the Father, was so deeply angered by the sin of humanity that we were justly deserving of punishment, but instead the Father inflicted that price on Jesus, the Son, who played the role of innocent victim and – in so  doing – secured our redemption.

The popularity of this line of reasoning illustrates one of the challenges posed by fundamentalist theology that might otherwise be easily dismissed.  Conceptually, there are considerable problems with the theology of fundamentalism, which can be easily identified, if conscious attention is given to equipping non-specialists to analyze the implications of a doctrine of this kind.  But more often than not, it is the storied nature of fundamentalism that possesses a meme-like character that can be replicated and spread without ever attracting serious scrutiny.

The resulting distortions alter the way in which large numbers of people think about a dizzying array of subjects, changing not just what people think about those topics, but the ways in which their lives are shaped by them.  In the case of the penal substitution meme, for example, the narrative that fundamentalism promotes touches on doctrines of God, the Trinity, atonement, redemption, sacrifice, suffering, sin, and the nature of the Christian journey itself.  As a theological educator who is as interested in the formative power of such ideas as I am in their theological credibility, the power of this meme and others like is of no small concern.

The only available corrective in that regard, however, seems to be a two-fold, educational and formative process that (1) identifies the problems with a meme like penal substitution and (2) offers a credible alternative.  

In attempting the first half of the task it is important to alert people to the weaknesses of a  meme of this kind. In the case of penal substitution, there are two major problems.

One, it purports to be a (the?) theory of Atonement, when – in fact – the multiple biblical and traditional pictures of atonement are better described as windows into atonement or as metaphors that attempt to explain a religious and spiritual reality that is beyond our grasp. The gambit of appealing to the “theoretical” nature of a view like penal substitution suggests that it has a quasi-scientific underpinning that lays greater claim to credibility than it might otherwise have.  But, of course, the language of theory also does violence to the language that was originally used. Metaphors work selectively and allusively to a reality that, by definition, cannot be completely understood. By contrast, theories – in popular parlance, at any rate – suggests that the subject of atonement can be accounted for in categories that master the reality to which they refer.

A second problem with penal substitution is that it expands on a point of comparison with Temple practice, committing the same error that people often make in reading parables, moving without justification from a single point of comparison to an allegory that tries to make the case for multiple points of comparison.  In the case of the penal substitution meme, this approach yields the storied character of a doctrinal position which gives the meme its attractive power. But when interpreters do this, they are almost always wrong; in this case, penal substitution produces a picture of God, the Gospel narrative, and the character of the spiritual journey that is problematic to say the least.

From the first and second problems flow a variety of other difficulties of a more specific, theological nature.  Penal substitution offers a Monster-God whose both character and motives are at odds with the Christian tradition, and a picture of Jesus as a passive actor and victim.  From a Trinitarian point of view the notion that God the Father and God the Son work in such disparate ways is, in the technical sense of the word, nonsensical. And the meme also fosters a picture of the Christian journey which is tied all but exclusively to a notion of positional righteousness that is entirely transactional in nature, emphasizing the act of moving one’s name from the column labeled “damned and going to hell” to “saved and going to heaven.”

Offering a credible alternative that competes with the storied character of penal substitution is the larger challenge, but it can be done.  Irenaeus of Lyons (b. 130 AD), for example, sketches a powerful picture of God’s redemptive effort in terms of “recapitulation.”  

The word itself lacks attractive power, but the storied companion to it is one of a triune God of love: 

  • who – in the incarnation – unites the life of God with the life of humanity. 
  • who – living among us – risks the perils of our existence, offering a lived alternative to the not-God lives that we live. 
  • who—in his dying — confronts our final enemy. 
  • who – in his Resurrection – creates a way out of the peril that we find ourselves. 
  • who – in his Ascension – reunites our humanity with the God who made us in God’s image.  

In an effort to give that narrative even more attractive power for a modern audience, I have used the metaphor of the triune God as “the ultimate first responder”: 

  • who launches a one-of-a-kind rescue mission with Jesus on the frontlines.
  • who accomplishes that mission by confronting the enemy who has us under his control.
  • who — with skin on — goes back into our burning houses, suffers the same death that threatens to consume our lives, and brings us back from the dead.

In a liturgical tradition, this meme has considerably greater power, since it is also distilled from the creeds of the church, and it is the story that we tell every year, from Advent through to the Feast of the Ascension:  

  • Advent: The ultimate first responder is on his way.  
  • Christmas: He shows up with skin on.  
  • Epiphany through Lent: He is with us in the burning house, pointing the way out.  
  • Good Friday: He confronts the enemy that enslaves us and meets death, face to face.
  • Easter: By the power of the Resurrection he comes back from the dead, bearing both his divinity and our humanity in the harmony that was always meant to be ours. 

This approach suggests a very different understanding of the Christian journey as well, which is anything but transactional. What Scripture and our part of the Christian tradition teaches is that God the First Responder entered our lives, ran the risks, experienced losses, and emerged to lead us out of death into life.  When we were baptized, we were drawn into that life-giving rescue mission – and now, hour by hour, day by day, we ask God to help us to live into that death-free existence.  

And the good news is, God hasn’t just seen the movie, God has lived our lives and comes alongside us in love, compassion, and understanding: 

  • Ready to pick us up when we fall. 
  • Ready to forgive us when we fail. 
  • Ready to help us see what is not-God, and anxious for us to join the rescue mission – doing our own best to bring people out of their own burning houses, where people struggle with loneliness, despair, abandonment, abuse, poverty, and all those other things both big and small that are not a part of God’s will for us.

There are undoubtedly other ways to offer a credible alternative to the Monster-God of penal substitution. But in this connected world, formed as it is by an ever-wider array of memes, those engaged in theological and spiritual formation can ill-afford to neglect the task I have outlined above.

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