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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.

Are Mormons More Faithful Than Evangelicals?

by William Trollinger

Mitt Romney announces his vote in favor of convicting Donald Trump before the Senate. February, 2019, via The New York Times (c) Erin Schaff

Mitt Romney’s February 05 vote to convict Donald Trump of abuse of power was one of the most remarkable moments in recent American political history. The only Republican to cross party lines – in fact, the first Senator in American history to vote to convict a president of his own party – Romney explained his vote in a dramatic speech on the Senate floor:

The president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust. What he did was not “perfect.” No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security interests, and our fundamental values. Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.

Trump and his followers immediately began an anti-Romney smear campaign: the President put out a video describing Romney as a “Democrat secret asset,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham demanded that Romney resign, and Donald Trump Jr. called Romney a “pussy” on Instagram.

Romney and Trump have been at odds since the 2016 presidential campaign, when Romney referred to Trump as “a fraud” who was “playing the members of the American public for suckers.” But to focus on their mutual animosities would be to minimize Romney’s courage in going against Trump and the breathtakingly compliant Republican Party. More than this, to focus on individuals would be to miss the larger religious dimension of this story (a dimension that helps explain why in Republican Utah Romney may very well not pay a high political price for his vote to convict).

While Mormons are well-known for being overwhelmingly conservative when it comes to politics, and while a Democratic candidate for president has not won the state of Utah since 1964, it turns out that Donald Trump has a Mormon problem. In a recent Voter Study Group article, Daniel Cox notes that “while white evangelical Protestants and Mormons have had nearly identical presidential voting patterns since 2004,  their voting patterns diverged sharply in 2016,” with 61 percent of Mormons voting for Trump (20 percent below white evangelicals).Today 55% of Mormons approve  and 40% disapprove of Trump’s performance; in contrast, 71% of white evangelicals approve and only 26% disapprove of the president.

In explaining these differences, Cox notes that Mormons are much less inclined than white evangelicals to accept the culture war binary that Republicans are good and Democrats are bad. Mormons are also markedly more accepting of immigrants than white evangelicals, and thus less amenable to Trump’s white nationalism. And despite their history of being persecuted for their religious beliefs, and despite the fact they make up only 2% of the American population, “fewer Mormons than white evangelicals believe there is a great deal or a lot of discrimination against Christians (32 percent vs. 50 percent).” 

In his stirring speech explaining his vote to convict Donald Trump of abuse of power,  Romney observed that

As a senator-juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential . . . I support a great deal of what the president has done. I voted with him 80 percent of the time. But my promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and political biases aside . . . I’m sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters. Does anyone seriously believe that I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?

Is it possible that Mormons are much better than white evangelicals at not conflating support for Donald Trump and the Republican Party with their commitment to God? Put it another way, is it possible that Mormons take their faith more seriously than do white evangelicals? 

The Nature of the Beast: Fossil Fuel Corporations, the Cornwall Alliance, and Climate Change Denial

by Scott Howland

Scott Howland is a doctoral student at the University of Dayton in the Department of Religious Studies. Scott earned his BA in Psychology from Holy Cross College in South Bend, IN, and his MA in Theological Studies from the University of Dayton. His work focuses on the history of American Christianity’s engagement with the issue of climate change over the course of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach, drawing heavily from the fields of dialectical materialism, twentieth century French psychoanalysis, and the study of radical emancipatory politics. 

Portrait of Charles Koch by Gavin Peters (2019) via Wikimedia Commons

In his internationally renowned work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century,  Thomas Piketty posits that extreme economic inequality can only be sustained—that is, without being answered by reform or revolution—if there are in place “apparatuses of justification.” He states, 

if inequalities are seen as justified, say because they seem to be a consequence of a choice by the rich to work harder or more efficiently than the poor, or because preventing the rich from earning more would inevitably harm the worst-off members of society, then it is perfectly possible for the concentration of income to set new historical records. (263-264)

The existence of such “apparatuses” can hardly be disputed; the notion that wealth rightly belongs to those who possess it, no matter the means by which they acquired it or the needs of others around the world, is certainly well within the mainstream of contemporary thought, especially in North America and Europe. Ideas such as this did not, however, permeate contemporary culture on their own. They are derived, developed, and distributed by corporations, government offices, “independent” think-tanks, etc. 

In order to support their primary goal of sustained economic inequality, these apparatuses must extend their reach into other areas of socioeconomic and political thought. Today, one of the most pressing issues into which these apparatuses have thrust their talons is the climate crisis that now threatens nearly every aspect of life on Earth.

See, for example, the Cornwall Alliance, which has its origins in the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA), which emerged on the scene in 2005, after Rick Warren and other prominent evangelical figures had come out in support of efforts to combat anthropogenic climate change. In response, the ISA “was launched to oppose action on carbon emissions and to deny the existence of climate change.” One of the primary founders of the ISA was Paul Driessen, who has worked as a consultant for ExxonMobil, mining corporations, and the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). In 2006, the ISA was relaunched as the Cornwall Alliance, and “with the new name came a redesigned website, highly produced web videos, and an organized network of churches to distribute climate change denying propaganda to hundreds of pastors around the country.”

The public face of the Cornwall Alliance is filled by E. Calvin Beisner. Beisner holds a B.A. in interdisciplinary studies in religion and philosophy, an M.A. in economic ethics, and a Ph.D. in Scottish History. In addition to being the founder and national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, Beisner is also “a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute, an adjunct fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty; an adjunct scholar of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow; [and] a fellow of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.” Prior to his position with the Cornwall Alliance, Beisner was an “associate professor of historical theology and social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary… Before Knox he taught for eight years at Covenant College as associate professor of interdisciplinary studies in economics, government, and public policy.” In his role at the Cornwall Alliance, Beisner has 

written [12] books, edited over 30, contributed to over 35, and published thousands of articles, popular and scholarly, has lectured at universities, seminaries, conferences, and churches in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and testified as an expert witness on the ethics and economics of climate change and climate and energy policy before committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, briefed the White House Council on Environmental Policy, and presented a paper to a scholarly colloquium on climate change of the Pontifical Institute for Justice and Peace at the Vatican in Rome. 

In 2014 the Heritage Foundation honored Dr. Beisner with the Outstanding Spokesman for Faith, Change, and Stewardship Award at the Ninth International Conference on Climate Change.

The Cornwall Alliance takes great efforts to keep its funding sources a secret; their website is even registered with a service that makes its source information invisible to users. While there are no records that directly cite the funding sources for the Cornwall Alliance, investigations have revealed the complex network through which they receive their funding. In order to understand the flow of money through this network, one must start with the Cornwall Alliance’s parent organization, The James Partnership. The James Partnership, The Cornwall Alliance, and “Resisting the Green Dragon” (the primary project of the Cornwall Alliance), are all registered to the same address in a business park in Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C. 

Tax records show that the James Partnership has received much of its funding from an organization called the Donors Trust. The Donors Trust “is a not-for-profit company that distributes millions of dollars in grants each year to groups, organizations and projects that are ‘dedicated to the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,’” many of which are committed to denying anthropogenic climate change and “the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.” It has been described as “the dark-money ATM of the right.” Donors Trust operates differently than normal “family foundations” and other similar charitable organizations. Donors Trust is a “donor-advised fund,” which means that “the people who donate to Donors Trust don’t get final say over how their money is spent. But they get to recommend where their cash goes, and in exchange for giving up some control, they get a bigger tax write-off than they would with a family foundation.” The basic sales pitch used by Donors Trust goes something like this: 

Rich folks can give to Donors Trust and rest easy knowing that their millions will continue bankrolling the conservative movement long into the future, even after their death. They don’t have to worry that, after they die, their heirs and trustees will use their bucks for causes they would never support . . . Donors Trust promises its funders that conservative money stays with conservatives.

Donors Trust has drastically increased the amount of money it has taken in over the last several years: “in 2003, grants to DT totaled just $1.03 million. Between 2012 and 2013, contributions and grants to DT went up from $45.9 million to $103.4 million.” While many of the contributors to Donors Trust choose to stay anonymous, it has been reported that the largest regular contributions have come from Donors Capital Trust (DCT) and the Knowledge and Progress Fund (KPF). DCT is Donors Trust’s sister organization, and operates within the same ideological framework; DCT contributed $57,799,525 to Donors Trust between 2001 and 2017. Then there is KPF, which is a Koch Family Foundation (Koch Industries of course is America’s largest privately-owned energy company). Between 2001 and 2017  KPF donated $17,320,000 to Donors Trust, while also giving 5,450,000 to DCT. 

Then there is the Donors Capital Fund (DCF), which “distributed some $170 million to conservative causes, many of which deny the science and impacts of human-caused climate change or the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions” in the years between 2002 and 2013. Similar to Donors Trust, most of “ DCF’s income comes from unknown private entities with some $347 million of untraceable and unknown income since 2005.” An important side note: one of the “key recipients” of DCF is the Heartland Institute, which is the organization that helped bring into being the ISA (and thus the Cornwall Alliance), and which is one of the organizations for whom Beisner serves as a “policy advisor.” Heartland has received a total of 17 million dollars from DCF. 

Let’s summarize. The Donors Trust has raised hundreds of millions of dollars – from folks like the Kochs – to fund organizations that deny human-caused climate change and that seek to prevent government action to address climate change. One of these entities is the James Partnership, the parent organization of the Cornwall Alliance, which is devoted to spreading climate-change-denial propaganda to evangelical pastors and churches. 

And how much money has the James Partnership received from Donors Trust? The James Partnership received $1,309,000 from Donors Trust between 2009 and 2015—ninety-nine percent of its total funding during that time. These numerous funding connections to the fossil fuel industry and its efforts to shape the discourse on environmental issues are more than sufficient evidence to support the claim that the Cornwall Alliance acts as an apparatus of justification for climate change denialism and thus the perpetuation of the capitalist system that continues to accelerate the present climate crisis. 

But the Cornwall Alliance has additional connections that further bolster this claim. Let’s go back to the Cornwall Alliance’s relationship with CFACT. CFACT is run by Philip Rothbard, and has as its purpose the proliferation of free-market economics and limited government, and is a big supporter of efforts to fuel climate change denialism. It has been found that CFACT is directly funded by the fossil fuel industry. The five largest financial donors to have given money to CFACT are: Donors Trust ($7,855,387), The Carthage Foundation ($1,565,000), the Sarah Scaife Foundation ($1,495,000), Exxon Mobil ($582,000), and Donors Capital Fund ($395,000). While the Cornwall Alliance claims to have no ties to CFACT, it turns out that  Calvin Beisner serves as a CFACT board member, and the two groups share a common fundraising firm.

It is clear, after the analysis presented above, that the Cornwall Alliance, with its direct links to the fossil fuel industry, right wing think tanks, and conservative billionaires, is a textbook example an apparatus of justification. While Cornwall targets American Evangelicals with its relentless propaganda, it serves not the best interests of American Evangelicals but, instead, the financial and political gain of the one percent. That is to say, the Cornwall Alliance operates in service of the ruling class, with the intention of, as George Monbiot puts it, “allowing the rich to seize much of our common wealth, to trample to the rights of workers and to treat the planet as their dustbin.” (1)

Editor’s Note: In April Answers in Genesis is sponsoring a “Climate Change” conference at Ark Encounter, one purpose of which is to counter the “climate despair paralyzing the younger generations or the alarmism of the media and many scientists.” It is not surprising that the Cornwall Alliance’s Calvin Beisner will be one of the featured speakers. Apparatus of justification, indeed.

Hymn for the 81%, and More

by William Trollinger

“Worldwide Armageddon” image via WorldNews/ChristianNews/
Prophecy Updates

It is 2020, Donald Trump has made more than 16,200 false or misleading statements in his three years as president, and yet white evangelicals remain overwhelmingly supportive. Below we have three responses, from a renowned scholar who is renouncing the term “evangelicalism,” from a journalist who delineates one particularly terrifying aspect of evangelical support, and from an interview with a worship leader at a midwestern church who has produced a song that has gone viral, and that challenges evangelicals to live up to their words. Enjoy!

Randall Balmer, “Evangelicalism is Dead. We Need a New Label for Our Faith,” Sojourners

For the past three decades Randall Balmer, John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and author of books such as Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, has been one of the most insightful scholars writing on American evangelicalism. During this time Balmer, who grew up fully immersed in the evangelical subculture, has expended great effort “trying to call evangelicals back to their own heritage and to their better selves.” But as he notes in this cri de couer, it was “all for naught,” as evinced by the fact that “81 percent of white evangelicals voted for [and continue to enthusiastically support] a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator and former casino operator who cannot even feign religious literacy.” While some anti-Trump evangelicals are fervently trying to redeem the label, I (as someone who also grew up evangelical) find it very hard to counter Balmer’s argument that evangelicalism – having been “stripped . . . of all claims to moral credibility” – is dead.  

Stephanie Mencimer, “Evangelicals Love Donald Trump for Many Reasons, But One of Them Is Especially Terrifying,” Mother Jones 

There is much to like about this well-written, fascinating, and (yes) terrifying article. For one thing, Mencimer nicely establishes that Trump has surrounded himself with apocalyptic preachers and politicians from what the marvelous Diana Butler Bass “delicately describes as the ‘not respectable charlatan wing’ of evangelical Christianity.” Many of these folks understand “war with Iran as a necessary step towards the End Times,” a prospect that they and many of their supporters giddily welcome; as Bass pithily puts it, “when Iran gets into the news, especially with anything to do with war, it’s sort of a prophetic dog whistle to evangelicals.” The Trump Administration is filled with evangelicals – such as Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence – who whole-heartedly share these apocalyptic speculations, and it’s Pompeo “who was reportedly instrumental in pushing for the killing of” Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Mencimer does not overstate her case. It’s not that the Trump Administration assassinated Soleimani in a deliberate effort to spark the evangelical-imagined Rapture; it’s that Trump’s evangelical supporters (inside and outside the White House) happily cheer that this assassination might produce this result, with the attendant slaughter of billions of human beings. So it is that Mencimer bolsters Balmer’s argument.    

Shane Claiborne, “‘Hymn for the 81%’: A conversation with Daniel Deitrich,” Religion News Service

Daniel Deitrich is a worship leader at the South Bend City Church, which he describes – in this interview with Shane Claiborne, co-director of Red Letter Christians – as a “Jesus-centered community . . . where spiritual exiles have found a home, . . . where you don’t have to check your brain at the door, . . . [and where] people who have been excluded from or wounded by the church feel safe and seen and loved.” Deitrich has composed and performed “Hymn for the 81%,” a song that has gone viral in the past week, and that Claiborne has rightly described as “a cocktail of prophetic fire and Christ-like grace.” In the song Deitrich – who (like Balmer and myself) grew up in the evangelical subculture and was taught to heed the words of Jesus – asks how evangelicals could possibly justify the treatment of children at the southern border. And as he sings, “you weaponized religion and you wonder why I’m leaving to find Jesus on the wrong side of your walls.” Anyway, if you have not heard the song, you should click onto the article.

“Climate Change Scientists Are Part of an Anti-Capitalist Conspiracy”: Another Fallacy Promoted by Climate Change Deniers

by Bob Brecha

Bob Brecha graduated from Wright State University (B.S. in Physics, 1983) and from the University of Texas at Austin (Ph.D. in Physics, 1990).  Since 1993 he has been at the University of Dayton where he is Professor of Physics and of Renewable and Clean Energy Program, and was founding coordinator of the Sustainability, Energy and the Environment (SEE) initiative from 2007 – 2015.  From 2006-2017 he was a regular visiting scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, including one year as a Fulbright Fellow (2010-2011).  Since January 2018, he has been affiliated with the Berlin think-tank Climate Analytics as visiting scientist and from June-December of 2018 as Acting Head of Energy System Modeling and Interim Co-Leader of the Climate Policy Team. Since August 2019 he has been funded by the European Union Marie Curie Fellowship Program to work with Climate Analytics on energy access and sustainability in least developed countries and small island developing states.

A firefighter works during a wildfire near Robore, Santa Cruz region, eastern Bolivia on August 22, 2019. – Up to now, wildfires in Bolivia have devastated about 745,000 hectares of forests and pasturelands. Neighboring Peru, which contains much of the Amazon basin, announced it was “on alert” for wildfires spreading from the rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a strain of strained reasoning that appears – and not only on websites like Answers in Genesis – that says that climate change scientists represent an anti-capitalist agenda.  Let’s take a look at some of the pieces of this claim to figure out if there is any coherence to it at all.

Two of the main targets here are the motivations of climate scientists themselves, as well as that perennial favorite, Al Gore, or others who try to make money from trying to prevent, or mitigate, climate change.  First, the scientists. The reasoning here seems to be on a couple of different levels. Since scientists apply for and, in a minority of cases, actually receive research grants from federal agencies (not so much these days) or from other sources, they must be doing their research just for the money.  Let’s say a scientist receives a grant for $500,000 for three years from a foundation or agency. Seems like a pretty good income stream, especially if it continues over time, as is the case for the best and most prominent scientists. Except for the inconvenient fact that a university scientist cannot earn more in salary than what the university has set according to their internal criteria.  It is true that at some of the high-power research universities a faculty member’s position may depend on her or him attracting grants, but whether the grant is large or small, the salary stays the same. The money goes partially to cover faculty salary, but also to pay for graduate students, laboratory or office space, computers, etc.  

Still, one might argue, that whole system is rigged to keep scientists producing certain results that align with … what?  Who sets the worldwide agenda as to which results are acceptable, and therefore will be funded, and which ones must be buried deeply away from public view?  For well over a century scientists around the world, from widely varying political, scientific and educational systems, have been doing the basic research that feeds into climate change science. Has there been a worldwide conspiracy over that time period – a conspiracy that stretches across Communist China, social democracies in Europe, more libertarian societies such as the US, as well as developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia – all keeping results oriented in a specific direction?  This seems a bit hard to fathom.

Of course, once worldwide conspiracies are credited with being behind climate change science, it won’t be long until the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change appears as a villain.  But the IPCC is made up of a group of well over a thousand scientists who volunteer their time to read and digest the published literature, both academic and “grey” literature like reports from governmental, non-governmental and commercial organizations.  These thousands of publications are processed into draft reports, to which anyone is free to make comments. The comments are recorded and each and every one is answered, with both comments and responses publicly available. Once the draft report is revised, another round of comments and revisions is followed by a final report, and from the final report a Summary for Policymakers is written.  

It is this last document that is often seen as “political,” but not in the sense this is often used by critics.  The Summary is scrutinized and approved word-for-word by consensus by government representatives in excruciatingly long sessions. It is not the scientists who have the final say in this document, which is frankly the part of IPCC work that is read by the most people.  The result is a lowest common denominator that all governments, both those supporting more action and those trying to thwart action, can agree upon, with the scientists there to ensure that the final result is consistent with the science in the underlying report.  In the end, the strong statements in IPCC reports that are usually quoted in news accounts stem from a conservative reading of the underlying science.

I want to return to the greed line of argument used by denialists to try and discredit climate change science, in which Al Gore is used as the demon.  It is not clear how a monetary motivation can be used to paint climate science as anti-capitalist. Let’s say scientists decide from their own research work that it will be clearly advantageous over the long run to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.  In most situations, supporters of capitalism would proudly refer to this as the entrepreneurial spirit. More generally, the rise of a new technology sector with growth of 20% or 30% per year or more would be hailed by capitalists as a wonderful opportunity. It only seems to be in the context of climate change and the switch to renewable energy that all innovation is suspect, all evidence backing the need for that transition seen as dubious.  Among many climate deniers, and widely proliferating in federal agencies under the Trump administration, a true “Can’t do” spirit has taken root.

Or perhaps we should really turn the arguments around. Over the past few years relatively good examples of free markets have taken root in parts of the energy sector, for example with electricity generation.  Electricity producers offer their products at different time intervals ranging from long-term contracts to very short (sub-hour) time periods. Whoever submits the lowest bid is allowed to produce electricity and feed it to the grid.  We still do not take into account the negative externalities of fossil fuel generation in most regions, but some attempts have been started with sulfur dioxide emissions and even carbon dioxide emissions, where these pollutants result in higher generation costs for some fuels, like coal.  These markets, the alleged goal of capitalists, have worked reasonably well – until renewables, and even that relative newcomer to the fossil-fuel world, natural gas, began to threaten the hegemony of coal, and most recently, nuclear power. As soon as owners of these latter electricity sources realized that they could no longer compete in a free market, they did what capitalists have often done historically – they used their lobbying power to force the government to create new rules favorable to their entrenched interests, and asked for government handouts to supplement the advantageous deals they had been receiving for decades.

In the end, the only way to understand in a self-consistent way the argument that climate change mitigation is anti-capitalist is if one starts with the assumption that “capitalism” can only be defined in terms of the use of fossil fuels, not renewable energy, and that the use of fossil fuels must be allowed to have a special dispensation such that harmful costs can be spread across all of society in an intransparent way so as to be hidden from consumers.  

But I have yet to find an economics textbook that uses that definition as a starting point.

“Decreasing the Consumption of Fossil Fuels Will Harm the Poorest of the World’s Citizens”: Another Fallacy Promoted by Climate Change Deniers

by Bob Brecha

Bob Brecha graduated from Wright State University (B.S. in Physics, 1983) and from the University of Texas at Austin (Ph.D. in Physics, 1990).  Since 1993 he has been at the University of Dayton where he is Professor of Physics and of Renewable and Clean Energy Program, and was founding coordinator of the Sustainability, Energy and the Environment (SEE) initiative from 2007 – 2015.  From 2006-2017 he was a regular visiting scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, including one year as a Fulbright Fellow (2010-2011).  Since January 2018, he has been affiliated with the Berlin think-tank Climate Analytics as visiting scientist and from June-December of 2018 as Acting Head of Energy System Modeling and Interim Co-Leader of the Climate Policy Team. Since August 2019 he has been funded by the European Union Marie Curie Fellowship Program to work with Climate Analytics on energy access and sustainability in least developed countries and small island developing state.

Ebeye Island in Kwajalein Atoll. Photo by NASA, Date unknown

As was pointed out by William Trollinger here, here and here, the arguments of climate change deniers shift rapidly, and have actually over time shown a retreat, in that the key talking points have moved from “It isn’t happening,” to “we aren’t causing it,” to “it might be good for us anyway.”  Overall the approach resembles a game of Whac-a-Mole in which a serious sustained intellectual discussion is impossible.

Rather than trying to engage with the scientific arguments about climate change, which really are very clear, I want to spend a few words here and in a follow-up blog on two objections to taking climate change mitigation seriously.  First, and the topic of this blog, it is claimed that efforts to avoid the worst impacts of climate change by decreasing our consumption of fossil fuels will necessarily harm the poorest members of society. In the second piece I will look at the strangely incoherent claims that climate change action is inherently anti-capitalist.

We can look at three different cases that illustrate the fallacy of the “harm the poor” line of thinking.  It is clear that our modern societies have been built over the past two centuries on the use of fossil fuel resources, although we should also remind ourselves that almost 90% of history’s total emissions have come within little more than the past half-century or so.  As they say in the finance world, however, past performance does not guarantee future returns.  Not only have we created economic growth and well-being for a fraction of the world’s population by using fossil fuels, we have also created severe environmental impacts along the way, even beyond climate change itself.  Perhaps just as importantly, we have advanced our knowledge of energy generation to go beyond the model of digging carbon out of the ground and burning it at low efficiency, wasting most of the resource we go to such great lengths to recover.

That’s where renewable energy has entered the picture in a big way.  The use of wind, solar and water energy resources has become very much mainstream over the past couple of decades.  Whereas twenty years ago engineers were telling us that we would not be able to incorporate more than about 5% wind and solar energy into the electrical grid, countries such as Denmark and Germany are approaching 50% or more, and  states like Iowa and Texas in the US are approaching these levels as well.  At peak times, as much as 70-80% renewables have been absorbed, without negative impacts on the stability of the electricity system.  These are really engineering challenges that are increasingly solvable, especially with the advent of battery technologies coupled to renewable energy that lead to enhanced system stability.

But the engineering aspect does not seem to interest critics. They often simply make a blanket statement, against all evidence to the contrary, that large-scale renewables simply cannot work. Their issue is the cost of renewables compared to the cost of coal, oil and natural gas.  But one of the remarkable developments of the last two decades is a common feature of technologies: the more we install, the cheaper each additional unit becomes. Over the past ten years alone, the cost of installing solar photovoltaic systems has dropped by 80-90%; wind power systems have dropped rapidly in cost as well, with the result that in many parts of the US and the world, the cheapest new source of electricity available is often wind or solar power.  In parts of the world that have either never had access to electricity (one billion people) or have only inadequate supplies (another two to three billion), the economics of local, smaller scale renewables gain an additional advantage because large centralized power plants (i.e. fossil fuel power) need expensive grid infrastructure as well.  

Beyond the fact that in most parts of the world renewable energy is much more attractive than fossil fuels, there are also the neglected negative externalities of fossil fuels themselves.  Economists posit that we must include all relevant costs when weighing options for any goods; if the price does not include all costs, then the market is distorted.  For example, with fossil fuel energy sources, we should consider, in addition to just the cost of buying the fuel and producing the electricity, the negative impacts on health and the environment that often come along with emissions from power plants, pollution from the mining of coal (mountain-top removal, for example), extraction of oil (BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, catastrophic conditions in Nigeria near oil fields, etc.). Fossil fuel companies have throughout history been able to foist off these costs onto the rest of the society, often giving the illusion that their products represent the cheapest option available.  In the past, there may have been reasonable arguments to support their view, but this is becoming increasingly untenable.

Then there is the situation in which many island states find themselves.  They do not argue about whether climate change is real; they are already feeling the impacts too strongly, whether from stronger hurricanes, increased drought intensity or rising sea levels.  In many cases, however, historical circumstances led to the development of their own energy systems based on the import of fossil fuels, often oil, both for the production of electricity and for transportation.  Countries in the Caribbean pay some of the highest electricity prices in the world, two to three times the rates of the US. At the same time, these countries have abundant sources of solar and wind energy, and, depending on the specific case, geothermal, ocean or hydropower as well.  Transitioning is difficult due to the up-front costs of replacing an entrenched system, but as the current infrastructure ages, the clear and economically prudent decision will be to move toward renewables.  Although these countries have contributed a vanishingly small amount to global climate change, they will see benefits of a renewable-energy-based economy in terms of lowered pollution, increased energy security and lowered dependence on imports, and increased resilience in the face of climate change threats.

If the starting point of argumentation by deniers is that there is no such thing as anthropogenic climate change, then further discussion is difficult when it comes to the solutions presented above.  As that stance is becoming increasingly hard to defend, the deniers move onto terrain that leaves them even more vulnerable to counter-evidence on the ground. Humans have developed socially and technologically, often through our understanding of the natural sciences.  

However, one could imagine a world in which technologies became available, but in which we did not develop the current level of understanding of our impact on the natural world.  Even in that counterfactual world, the progress we have made with renewable energy would be a desirable path to take, as would replacing fossil fuels over the next few decades; blissfully ignorant of our contribution to climate change, we would then at least partially be avoiding the worst impacts. In such a case one might almost believe in a divine plan for preservation of the species and the natural world through technological progress.  

Unfortunately, in our real world, many entrenched special interests and power structures have intentionally muddied the waters of understanding over the past few decades, slowing down and counteracting gains in knowledge and delaying action needed to protect the most vulnerable among us.

A Climate for Hope? (Updated)

Erratum: An incomplete version of this piece was posted on Friday, January 10, 2020. The corrected version was updated on Sunday, January 12, 2020. We apologize to the author for the error.

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/.

A fire rages in Bobin, 350km north of Sydney on November 9, 2019. Image by Peter Parks, Agence France-Press via Getty Images.

There were a few weeks this fall when everything seemed pretty hopeless to people who care about the environment. Greta Thunberg was showing the world what climate rage looks like. Perhaps as a response, climate despair got a lot of coverage around the same time. On September 7, 2019, NPR’s Scott Simon delivered an on-air op-ed about mass extinction. The following day, The New Yorker published an essay by novelist Jonathan Franzen titled “What if We Stopped Pretending?”,  which asked readers to reconsider what it means to have hope, given that the “climate apocalypse” can no longer be averted. On September 19, the New York Times published an op-ed exploring whether or not it is ethical to have children in the era of climate change. 

At bottom, each of these pieces asked the same question: Where can we find hope for a future that will be devastated by climate change? Scott Simon, in particular, hit on a theme that appears again and again in environmental discourse—the idea that the earth will endure, and will thrive once again, when humans eventually go extinct. “…Earth endures,” Simon says. “It’s us, all the living things that inhabit it for a while, who are fragile…” 

Here we find a perverse but very rational sort of hope, bound up with the notion of human extinction. It is a brand of hope that says that humans are irredeemable. We will trash the earth for as long as we inhabit it. Then, once we bring about our own demise, the earth will have the last laugh. It is hope by way of despair. I identify with this kind of despair, but I’ve also been thinking lately about other sources of hope in the face of climate change. Where you get your hope, if you get it anywhere, depends a lot on your politics, your understanding of science, and if you’re a Christian, your understanding of Scripture.    

I recently published an essay at The Cresset that indulged in environmental despair. I wrote about environmental degradation, and the fact that we know that our behavior is causing mass extinction, yet we don’t do anything about it. I wrote about my own grief at all we are losing, all we have already lost.

I was also, I admit, writing about eschatology, the branch of theology concerned with the end of all things, the ultimate fate of the human soul and the world. By my lights, the Bible is not particularly clear on the topic, but several passages indicate that this earth will be burned up, and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth in which there will be no night and no cold (Zechariah 14: 6-8; 2 Peter 3:7; Revelation 21). This is not an eternity I want, I confessed in the essay, and in fact the description of “Heaven” is pretty apt for our current world, where artificial lights have not only gotten rid of darkness, but also blocked our view of the stars, while an ever warming climate is rapidly abolishing cold. 

And I personally would not consider our current world to be anything akin to paradise, but actually fairly hellish. “This earth, the one that Revelation and Second Peter say will pass away, is already well on its way to being a place of one continuous summer afternoon,” I wrote in the essay. “Electric lights instead of dark night. Warmer and warmer days, sunshine and drought instead of cold and snow. As we reshape the climate and the very boundaries of day and night, we are already creating the new earth. But instead of the glory of God as the source of light and warmth, it is us and our machines. Either way, I want the old earth, the one with daily and seasonal shifts, the play of light and shadow, a cold wind… If God is going to burn it all up, then he can burn me up with it, because I want no part of any eternity that doesn’t have stars.”

Some of my theologically-minded acquaintances reached out to offer some hope by correcting my eschatology. 

“There are lots of faith traditions that don’t believe we’ll lose any of this good and beautiful earth when God moves all creation to new creation, that it will in fact be this very earth but all put to right by God’s reign of light and love and peace and justice,” commented my friend Alicia, a pastor, on the link to the essay I had posted on Facebook. 

“I happened to read your recent essay in The Cresset…” said a kind former colleague in an email. “There is always the possibility, to which I cling, that the world-consuming fire in 2 Peter 3:7 is a fire of cleansing and purification, not of outright destruction, a word applied in the verse to ‘the godless,’ not to the earth itself.” 

Even my grandmother responded, elevating terse email to an art form: “Having read your pieces on Facebook, I’d like to comment on your quotes about no darkness or night in heaven. I think those words are synonymous with sin and evil. Therefore, no sin and/evil in heaven. I think heaven will have everything we love about nature, only magnified. So, no need to be concerned about no stars in heaven. Love, Gram”

To be honest, I was being intentionally provocative in that essay. Truthfully, I don’t spend that much time thinking about the end of all things, because I don’t see much point in it, and because the Bible says about a million different and often contradictory things about the end and I don’t know what to make of any of it. I was struck, though, by these responses from my acquaintances, two of whom are avid nature-lovers and one of whom is an old woman who probably misses a lot of things that are gone now. Those responses got me thinking about the unique situation of Christian environmentalists, who, like most other environmentalists, feel grief and rage at species loss and the degradation of the earth, while also possessing a rare and genuine hope that is perhaps denied to irreligious environmentalists. Not hope that the earth will endure and re-evolve intelligent life and beautiful biodiversity once we go extinct, but hope that the earth’s old glory, the glory we’ve destroyed, will be restored in the hereafter. 

Maybe because of my, um, shaky eschatology, I find it difficult to land on one kind of hope or another—either the hope of restoration shared by Christian environmentalists, or hope via despair, à la Scott Simon. I’m generally leery of Christian thought as it relates to the environment; at this point it’s a cliché to note that Judeo-Christian ideologies of human dominion over the earth did a great deal to bring about the current mess. The idea that God will burn up the Earth has led many evangelicals to treat it like a giant garbage dump. At the fundamentalist Baptist church where I grew up, I often heard, “It’s all gonna burn anyway.” Conservative Evangelical publications like The Christian Post still regularly publish op-eds calling mainstream climate science into question. In response to September’s global climate strike, The Christian Post’s Michael Brown wrote,

It’s true that this world will not endure forever. One day, Jesus will return and make a new heaven and earth. So, live your life here with passion, in expectation of His return, making every moment count. That way, whether you live to be 100 or if He comes back in 10 years, your life will be full and blessed. I challenge a climate change religionist to come up with a better message than that.”

From this perspective, protecting the environment is obviously not a high priority. 

Of course, this is most definitely not the perspective advocated by Alicia or my former colleague, and probably not by my Gram either. There are many, many Christians who love the Earth precisely because it is God’s creation, and all God’s creation deserves nothing less than our utmost respect and care. (I suspect they also love the Earth for its own sake, as I do, because it is beautiful and vast and incomprehensibly complex.) For them, I think, restoration is the answer to their grief at all we are losing. How beautiful it must be to say to oneself, “Someday I’ll get to see Carolina parakeets! And passenger pigeons! And Tasmanian tigers! In the next world, the Great Barrier Reef will still be vibrant!” 

I want to believe this. But, like I said, I don’t know what to believe about the next world, if there even is one. (Christian orthodoxy obviously says that there is one. But I never claimed to be good at faith, or particularly orthodox.) And I also find myself questioning if hope for a restored Earth is really all that different, in practice, from the It’s-All-Gonna-Burn-Anyway school of thought. Ultimately, both of lines of thinking let us off the hook for the long-term fate of the earth. God will burn it all up, or God will put it all right eventually. Either way, why worry about it? 

Some Christians respond by focusing on the human toll of climate change here and now. For example, Galen Carey, the National Association of Evangelicals’ vice president of government relations, told Christianity Today,

Christians should be at the forefront of efforts to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions because we know that this is our Father’s world. We also know that these efforts will particularly benefit our most vulnerable neighbors, those whose health and livelihoods most directly depend on clean air and a stable climate.

This is a response I appreciate, because it strives to hold Christians accountable for our treatment of the Earth, while recognizing that human wellbeing is inextricably tied to the health of the environment. I myself am uncomfortable with this level of anthropocentrism; I care deeply about the millions of species that are threatened or have already been wiped out by human activity, and I care about the integrity of ecosystems for their own sake, not only as they relate to human wellbeing. But I also recognize, even if I’m not sure I buy it personally, that Christian orthodoxy gives humans a special place among all creation because we alone are said to bear the image of God. So for Christians to care about the environment because the environment matters for humanity—it’s a perspective I understand and respect. And if that perspective leads to environmental advocacy and sustainable action on the part of Christians, I don’t much care what kind of theology underlies it.   

So where does that leave me? I don’t exactly know. I want to believe that God will eventually restore the Earth to the beauty and complexity and diversity that we have largely destroyed. I want to believe a lot of things. In the end, I’m left with the knowledge that action is required, and it is the right thing, no matter where I find my hope for the future. Maybe the earth will persist long after humans have passed from the scene, and something unimaginable and complex and pristine will spring up in our absence. Maybe in the next world, God will restore all we have lost. Maybe something else entirely. In the meantime, humans and countless other creatures depend on us to get our act together and reverse as much environmental devastation as we can. I am reminded of the words of Kyle Van Houtan, chief scientist at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium who also studied theology at Duke Divinity School. He told Christianity Today that it is “important for Christians to understand the long game and do something that we’re called to do because it’s good, independent of the results and effectiveness that we may observe ourselves.” To that I can only say, God help us, amen.  

Looking Back at 2019

by William Trollinger

2019 was another very good year for the rightingamerica blog, both in the number of visitors/viewers, and the variety of authors’ voices and topics featured. This past year has made clear that we are a community of engaged scholars who seek to understand evangelicalism, young Earth creationism, and Christian Right politics. We hope for even more authors and even a wider range of topics in 2020. We invite you to write a post or posts for the site – if you are interested, please be in touch.

Below are the year’s ten most popular posts – enjoy reading or rereading! 

10. Dear Evangelicals: How Much Leviticus Do You Really Want?, by Rodney Kennedy (November 01, 2019)

“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 . . . [in which] all debts are forgiven . . . 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?”

9. Mr. Rogers Wasn’t Pro-Family (and That’s a Good Thing), by Margaret Bendroth (December 10, 2019)

“Mr. Rogers . . . was not ‘pro-family’ in the narrow evangelical culture-wars sense of the word, where the family is a stand-in for American moral decline. He loved and respected children, and modeled an ethic of care that extended beyond their immediate families to the world they would one day inherit.”

8. Funding Ark Encounter: The Rest of the Story, by William Trollinger (January 31, 2019)

“Even while he blasts journalists for their secular bias and their unwillingness to tell the truth about Christian ministries, Ken Ham refuses to tell the whole story about how . . . Ark Encounter is being subsidized in a major way by the town of Williamstown . . . Will Ken Ham ever come clean?”

7. Science and Religion: The Casualties of an Unnecessary War, by Frederick Schmidt (June 11, 2019)

For atheists, the religion-science “warfare image serves as leverage, discrediting the church in particular and religion in general . . . . [for fundamentalists,]  the assumption that scientists are ‘out to get’ the church strengthens the hand of [folks] like Ken Ham, galvanizing audiences and advancing their financial goals.”

6. A Black Evangelical Has Schooled Ken Ham on Race and Racism . . . and Ken is Not Pleased, by William Trollinger (October 22, 2019)

“As [Larry] 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.”

5. Ken Ham Misleads Again, by William Trollinger (July 31, 2019)

“Now – with the deal done, with the Ark built, with millions of dollars of property taxes lost to the town for decades into the future – Ham is telling Williamstown that the town itself is to blame for its economic misery, as it is too far from the interstate to get Ark visitors.”

4. Ken Ham’s Christmas Letter, by William Trollinger (December 24, 2019)

“Given the occasional tensions between the folks at the Ark and local government officials, this holiday is the perfect opportunity for Ark Encounter CEO Ken Ham to send . . . a Christmas letter . . . I drafted a letter that I think could work quite nicely. Ken, you are free to cut and paste as you see fit.”

3. White Jesus at Westmont College: The Controversy, by William Trollinger (March 30, 2019)

“Evangelical colleges are forever trying to thread the needle, moving to become more progressive (or, better put, more Gospel-oriented) while at the same time not alienating their fundamentalist constituency. Will there be an evangelical college that simply decides to quit ‘looking over the right shoulder?’”

2. Every Child is a Gift . . . Except When They Aren’t, by Emily McGowin (July 09, 2019)

“When children do not seem to be like ‘us,’ when children are causing ‘us’ discomfort . . . when children are challenging our ideologies — most evangelicals have had enough. The children of ‘others’ – political, religious, or ethnic – are not worthy of sacrifice and activism.”

1.Wayne Grudem on Divorce: The Right Conclusion for the Wrong Reason, by Emily McGowin (December 03, 2019)

“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 . . . a lack of attention to the detrimental effects of his teaching, and a lack of interaction with women’s experience.”

Finally, An Evangelical Defense of Donald Trump Worth Responding To (It’s Still Terrible, but There It Is)

by Rodney Kennedy

Evangelical Leaders Pray over Donald Trump. November, 2019. White House Photo.

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.

Jack Graham, senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas, has penned a robust defense of President Trump,  “Why It Is Wise for Christians to Support President Trump.”  Here, at last, is an actual defense of the president worthy of a critical response. After four years of evangelical defenses of President Trump that came straight out of the crazy land of “make the Bible say whatever you want it to say,” a Southern Baptist preacher has taken the time to lay out his reasons for defending President Trump. 

Rev. Graham is responding to the editorial in Christianity Today that calls for the impeachment of President Trump. Evangelicals usually resist such public displays of disagreement, given their commitments to homogeneity, but this is a fight well worth watching, and I think, in my usual pugilistic way, a fight worth engaging. Perhaps the fact that evangelicals are arguing about President Trump represents a small tremor beneath the foundations of the Tower of Babel. 

Graham’s opening gambit is well known among preachers of the South. He sets himself up as a poor preacher insulted by those who think he and his fellow tribe members are “foolish and gullible” (while actually he is quite certain that he is “wise as a serpent”). The idea that evangelicals are gullible and not that bright is mostly a misunderstanding fostered by media elites who fail to grasp how the evangelical mind works. It is a mistake to treat evangelicals as if they are not-very-smart-Christians who have been duped by the great and powerful Wiz, i.e., President Donald Trump. 

Instead of dummies, evangelicals are the ultimate pragmatists. Whatever it takes to win is the evangelical credo. The evangelicals are the organ grinder; Donald Trump is their monkey. In fact, President Trump is more the culmination of decades of evangelical dreams than he is the providence of God. The smoldering fires of “residual resentment” have been smoking since the Scopes Trial in 1925. As Jerry Falwell, Jr. put it, Donald Trump is “our dream candidate.” 

Rev. Graham represents evangelical pastors who know exactly what they want and how to get it. And he repeats what has become a mantra for the defenders of the president in the evangelical circle of power, the people historian John Fea identifies as “court evangelicals”: “Our critics seem to have a theology with so little grace and they fail to recognize that someone with an unrighteous past can still make righteous decisions on behalf of those they lead.” Accusing liberals of lacking grace would be laughable if Rev. Graham weren’t so sincere in his false charge. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has made this same argument by saying that Trump is like King David, who in Falwell’s words was “an adulterer and a murderer,” but was still used in mighty ways for God. 

It used to be that evangelicals would proclaim that true repentance was required for a person who committed sin. But President Trump has publicly announced that he has never done anything that requires repentance, and so he sees no need to repent. David, on the other hand, cries out to God, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1). 

Perhaps the most incredible claim Graham makes is that Christians in the United States are oppressed and persecuted. When you have a successful, wealthy, and influential evangelical preacher claiming that Christians are oppressed in the US, you know you have a problem. Preachers making hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, building multi-million-dollar facilities, and jetting around the country in private jets are not a persecuted clan. More than this, no one has taken away their ability to spew forth their vile rhetoric.

The most disturbing argument that Rev. Graham makes comes under the guise of “religious liberty.” Rev. Graham gushes,

“When it comes to the United States’ role in advocating for religious liberty around the world, the facts are incontrovertible.  Just take into account the State Department’s Ministerial on International Religious Freedom, which represented the largest human rights event of any kind in State Department history.” 

The appeal to “religious liberty” sounds like a liberty bell whose clapper is broken. The evangelicals have been at the forefront of the attempts to oppress women, gays, immigrants, people of other faiths, and liberals. Graham and company use their religious liberty argument to build the false claim that they are the persecuted ones. The religious liberty that Rev. Graham wants is the liberty – once again – to oppress others and stick a Bible in their faces. It’s like Queen Mary claiming her “religious liberty” to behead dissenting Protestants had been taken from her. 

Rev. Graham also insists that Trump’s election is proof positive of the “providential hand of God.” My opposition to this statement has nothing to do with God’s providence, but with the preacher’s arrogant assertion. How easy it is to survey what happens in our nation, and then blithely ascribe it to God’s “providential hand.” David Bentley Hart, in The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsumami?,  notes that whenever events that defy cause and effect occur, it is the strident atheists and unrelenting Christian preachers who show up with loud, certain, absolute proofs of cause and effect. 

These are the same arguments we get when evangelicals say God sends hurricanes to punish gay-friendly cities. These are the same preachers who “read the signs” and insist that the Rapture will occur in the next few years. These are the same arguments advanced by preachers when they push the idea that God gave us the various geological strata in the rocks to test our faith. To manipulate God like this is to drag God into the political mess we have all created, and then announce, on the basis of nothing at all, that somehow this is all God’s will. I think God is embarrassed with how his name gets bandied about as supporting this or that cause. 

All of this is in keeping with what Rowan Williams describes as “bad religion.” God’s mysterious ways are appealed to when we want history to work out according to our dreams and aspirations. Bad religion is about manipulating God, stamping God’s signature on the goals and policies of conservative evangelicals. These preachers would really struggle with the theological assertion that Jesus never promises us success within history. 

What does puzzle me here is how these evangelical preachers, who are deeply committed dispensational premillennialists, seem to have jettisoned premillennialism — with its rhetoric of doom, fear, and declension — in favor of what had been a discredited postmillennialism. Instead of wanting Jesus to hurry up and come back, they apparently want Jesus to wait, at least until they have gone about the business of straightening out the country and undoing all the terrible policies enacted by President Obama. They are the organ grinders, and President Trump is delighted to dance to this odious tune.

But in keeping with other evangelical preachers, Graham reverts to premillennialism when it suits his argument. So it is that Graham argues that President Trump’s moving of the United States embassy to Jerusalem is proof-positive that he is a strong supporter of Israel. The hypocrisy of this support for Israel is hard to grasp since it is based on a steadfast belief that a new Temple will be built in Jerusalem, Jesus will return to Jerusalem, the church will be raptured, and the unbelievers will be destroyed. This, of course, would include most Jews. David Sofian, rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel in Dayton, Ohio said to me, “Of course, we are aware of how evangelical support of Israel is rooted in their awful theology, but we will take their money now and leave it to you liberals to take care of this mess.” 

Rev. Graham attempts to restore some historic and traditional evangelical faith in his arguments. He speaks of President Trump’s efforts at prison reform and feeding the hungry. This is commendable, but again it is not standard operating practice among evangelicals, whose efforts in these critical social areas are often undone by their opposition to the government programs designed to help the hungry, the poor, and the prisoners. But for the good that they do in these areas, I offer commendation and thanks.  

But as a review of any presidential rally will show, it is obvious that all that applause and laughter is not engendered by Trump’s support of feeding the hungry, setting the prisoners free, and caring for the poor. Graham demonstrates this reality, by rapidly shifting his argument from humanitarian efforts to a scathing condemnation of the evangelical enemy du jour: socialism. Using populist misunderstandings of socialism, and painting all aspects of social concern as demonic, Graham insists that President Trump has been the “strongman” holding back the threatening tsunami of socialism, i.e.,  “the dangerous and destructive ideology” that has “resulted in massive religious persecution for the past century and the death of millions.” 

I am not calling into question Rev. Graham’s sincerity because I have no doubt of his sincerity. I am sure he is a very serious and sincere Christian. What I don’t recognize is the Christianity he represents. I am convinced that the Christianity represented by the evangelical defenders of President Trump is in fact not Christian. It is not shaped by the gospel but by the secular political philosophy of evangelical leaders. It is an “Americanized” faith that has faith in the USA, in “Make America Great Again,” in a false patriotism that excludes dissenters, in a greed-infested idolatry of wealth, in an ignoring of the teachings of the prophets and especially of Jesus. 

This version of Christianity no longer knows how to recognize idolatry. It exists in an atmosphere of fear, nostalgia, and a deep-seated desire to have the power to control others (John Fea, Believe Me). Pulling no punches, Stanley Hauerwas concludes that churches identified with the “church growth movement” are nothing more than paganism in disguise” (In Good Company: The Church as Polis, Kindle ed., 4). 

What Rev. Graham defends is not historic evangelical faith, but a Trump evangelical understanding rooted in secular political power and wealth. Graham’s argument in behalf of President Trump represents just another example of the church and her preachers failing to take the radical good news of Jesus to heart and apply it to all of life.

Ken Ham’s Christmas Letter

by William Trollinger

Ark Encounter, photo (c) 2018 by Susan Trollinger

It is the season for Christmas letters. Some of these letters provide much-needed information from friends whom you have not heard from recently. Some of these letters are extended and exhausting lists of spectacular achievements, from Chelsea’s third-place finish in cross-country regionals to Johnny’s perfect attendance as a second-grader at Mark Twain Elementary School. Some of these letters are simply a creative fail, as in using the pet hamster to recount the family activities over the past year.

But Christmas letters can also provide the opportunity for letter writers to issue mea culpas, to make amends, and to begin the process of restoring broken relationships. I thought of this when I received from the intrepid Dan Phelps – thank you, Dan – a month-by-month breakdown of Ark Encounter attendance numbers over the past 2½ years. (It’s his numbers I use below.) Given these numbers, and given the occasional tensions between folks at the Ark and local government officials, this holiday is the perfect opportunity for Ark Encounter CEO Ken Ham to send Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner and the members of the Williamstown city council a Christmas letter that will put their relationship on solid footing heading into 2020.

I drafted a letter that I think could work quite nicely. Ken, you are free to cut and paste as you see fit.

December 24, 2019

Dear Rick, Amanda, Bob, Greg, and Kim:

Merry Christmas from the Ark! While we are just on the other side of I-75 from you in Williamstown, it feels as if we never see you. Maybe over the holidays you could have a City Council excursion to the Ark. At $48 apiece ($38 if you are over 60!) it’s quite the bargain, made even better because you don’t also have to rent hotel rooms (which is a good thing, because, as you can see from our website, there aren’t any Williamstown hotels to recommend!

I fear that, in my obsession with the overwhelming dangers posed by the LGBTQ menace, I have failed to adequately express my gratitude for all the gifts you gave to the Ark. My bad! Our big boat does not get built without you floating $62m in high-risk municipal bonds (I will NOT call them junk bonds — they are not junk!) in our behalf. But this is not all. There’s the gift of $175,000 from Grant County. There’s the sale of 100 acres to us for only $1. It goes on and on — so many gifts from government!  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

And the repayment scheme – wow! Pure genius: over the next 30 years, 75% of what we would have had to pay in property taxes will instead go to paying off our loan, It doesn’t get much sweeter than that – thank you so much!

Of course, much of that lost property tax revenue would have gone to local schools. But let’s face it, that’s no great loss for the children of Williamstown. Public schools are havens of atheism! Home schooling is a much better alternative – it is a great way to make American Christian again – and it just so happens that parents can get fabulous creationist curricula at the Ark gift shop (and the Creation Museum bookstore), including the famous 23 foot Adams historical timeline that begins when God created the Earth in 4004 BCE. Moreover, Mom (and Mom should be in charge of homeschooling, as it is best for her to be in the home) can bring the kids to the Ark for science field trips ($25 apiece for ages 11-17, and only $15 apiece for ages 5-10!)

So, once again, thank you, and my apologies again if I have not been clear as to how grateful we in the Ark Encounter family are for your remarkable generosity! 

Speaking of your remarkable generosity, I have to bring up what could be – I hope not! – a touchy subject. And that is the 2013 Ark Encounter Feasibility Report. You remember, the report we provided you as you were considering whether or not to float the $62m worth of bonds for our big boat project. I know that in our report we stated that our first year attendance would be between 1.2 and 2 million, with the likelihood that it would be closer to 2 million. More than this, the report asserted that there would be 4% attendance growth annually. More than this – and this is where the we got crazily optimistic – the report claims that there will be 10% annual growth after years 3, 5, 7, 9, and 10. (These are the years in which we promised major improvements to the theme park, like the Tower of Babel and the Ten Plagues Ride and the Walled City). 

According to our formula, our projected minimum attendance for the Ark’s year #4 (the year we are now in) was 1,427,712. Whups!! In 2018 our attendance was 827,591; in 2019 our attendance through November is 859,319. Maybe we will get to 900,000. That’s better, but it is a long way from 1.4 million . . . and our October and November 2019 attendance was below our October and November 2018 attendance. Hmm. 

We can’t even get to our projected minimum first-year attendance in year #4, much less get the attendance growth that we told you we would have. Now, I am sure you have heard me say that the attendance numbers would be much higher if we counted children under 5, and if we counted the free tickets given to lifetime members. But between us, we know that this is ridiculous. Who counts infants and toddlers? And, really, who is dopey enough to believe that we actually have enough lifetime members to make up this year’s attendance shortfall of 500,000 (or more)? 

If the Feasibility Report is what led you to float the bonds, I am sorry. Truly sorry. And I confess, as I re-read the report I am amazed at some of the claims that were made. The proposed “Ten Plagues Ride” – described in the report as including “special effects depicting the ‘Ten Plagues’ in a fun way [to] help make the story memorable” – would draw in the crowds? Really? What could possibly be entertaining about watching people covered with gnats and flies and locusts and boils?

Trust me, I am not blaming you for believing what we said – that’s an easy mistake to make! In fact, let’s just forget what we said in the feasibility report! Let’s just let bygones be bygones! Merry Christmas from all of us here at Ark Encounter. And remember, for a paltry $48 you can visit the Ark and learn why God found it necessary to drown twenty billion people. It’s the perfect way to get into the holiday spirit!


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