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The Strange, Closed Cosmos of Evangelical Secularism | Righting America

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 Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – for which he has a contract with Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

Charles Taylor, in A Secular World, makes the brilliant argument that we live in a secular age. There is, in my view, one exception to the secular world we inhabit – American evangelicals. In my view, evangelicals are a resistance movement pretending to be a restorationist movement – they are both secular and not secular. They have a Christian nationalism (with its own dubious historical origins) that is more rooted in patriotism than gospel. They utilize secular media technology as a defense shield against what they perceive as a liberal secularism. They preach a prosperity gospel that is more a religious con-man’s version of Wall Street – greed dressed in clerical robes. They bemoan the secular culture while buying Lear jets, living in gated communities, and depositing checks larger than most Americans can imagine. Most pointedly, they have an obsessive commitment to secular politics and to one secular politician in particular – Donald Trump. 

Taylor argues that we all inhabit a “social imaginary,” which he defines as the way ordinary people imagine their surroundings; it is how they construct meaning as “imagined communities.” Most of the world has experienced a shift in the social imaginary – a move from a “cosmos” to a “universe” – the move of spontaneously imaging our cosmic environment as an ordered, layered, hierarchical, shepherded place to spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space, evangelicals stayed put in their little “cosmos.” While this shift might have been prompted and amplified by increasing empirical evidence (geological evidence pointing to an older earth; astronomical evidence pointing to an expanding universe; biological evidence pointing to a different origin of humankind; etc.), Taylor emphasizes the existential nature of this shift. 

This is precisely the battlefield the evangelicals have chosen. They are fighting to maintain the “old cosmos.” The displacement has been too much cognitive dissonance for them to process. They are pushing back by insisting that the entire Bible must be true, every word of it, or the entire book is false. They insist that Genesis 1 has to be a literal six-day creation or the entire faith crumbles into the abyss. A contingent, debatable, diverse, contestable universe is not a friendly space in the evangelical mind. It generates enormous fear because the “universe outlook” is deep and wide, a “dark abyss of time.” Evangelicals seem like ancient mariners, afraid of what is beyond the observable horizon, staring at a map that reads, “Beyond here, Dragons.” For evangelicals, the really, really large universe or multi-verse is just too damned scary for occupation. 

John Fea, in Believe Me, argues that fear is a dominant factor in the evangelical world. I agree, but  I push beyond that to ask what is it that makes them so afraid. And as I see it, it’s just about everything that exists in the world that they have found too large and too intimidating, a world of contingency, probability, a world lacking in certainty. 

Rather than thinking it a good thing that Christians now live in a world with various options in relation to God, evangelicals have turned to coercion in the attempt to force everyone back into the little circle of their protected world. Evangelicals seem wed to the “ancient regime” (the ancient and medieval ordering that tied religious identity to political identity: the king is divinely appointed). The hold that this social imaginary has on evangelicals is almost impossible to break. They still insist on the habits of a faith that longs to be a civilizational order. This is the “spin” evangelicals have placed on culture – a construal of life that does not recognize itself as a construal and has no room to grant possibility to any other alternatives. 

This helps understand why evangelicals find evolution so unacceptable. The very notion of evolution produced a “nova effect” among evangelicals – an explosion of different options for belief and meaning, and this evangelicals could not allow. Evolution implies movement, shifting paradigms, change, difference, diversity – all enemies of the closed little cosmos of the evangelicals. Nothing is more frightening to an evangelical than the “fragilization” that occurs with different options and people believing something different. This creates a state of fragility in some evangelical minds and this can’t be allowed. “This might also explain the new design-fixation as a response in this era: ‘What makes for the heat at this neuralgic point is that there is a strong sense of deficit in a world where people couldn’t help feeling the lack of support as undermining their whole faith; and very much needed to be reassured that it oughtn’t to” (Taylor 329-330).                  

As a result, evangelicals remain terribly frightened by the “cross-pressures” of our evolving world and its explosion of knowledges. Their malady really is an epistemological fear. Back in 1921, Harry Fosdick alerted us to the fundamentalist/evangelical fear of knowledge:

“The Fundamentalists see that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought. A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession—new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history” (“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”) 

This anxiety remains constant, but it is now suffused with more resentment and anger and the potential for coercion. Evangelicals know that they are losing, but they wrongly blame this losing on liberals, so they are lashing out. They seem as if they are on the road to Damascus, with signed orders from the President, to arrest and imprison all the liberals, socialists, Democrats, and sundry other enemies of the state. At Trump rallies (church for secular evangelicals) they shout, “Lock her up!” and “Send her back!” 

Taylor calls this “the great disembedding.” This disembedded view of the self seeps into their social imaginary well before thinking reflectively about it. They absorb it from childhood, and to that extent it’s very difficult for them to imagine the world otherwise; “once installed in the evangelical social imaginary, it seems the only possible one” (Taylor 168). It’s as if Clarence Darrow is still asking, “What do you think?”, and evangelicals are still answering, “We do not think about things we do not think about.”

In Taylor’s estimation this means evangelicals still inhabit a small world – a self-contained “cosmos” rather than the “universe” of all others. Evangelicals have a religion of subtraction, resistance, and reduction. The rest of the Christian world embraces a religion of multiplication, diversity, and transformation. It is this sense of epistemological smallness that serves to make all of the evangelical movement appear so petty, so uptight, so out-of-step, so little.                                    

I find Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community” instructive here. Evangelicals have “imagined” the United States in unhistorical ways. It is odd that they wish to maintain that certain vestigial rituals or prayer in certain civic arenas are absolutely essential to being a Christian nation. Never have so many literalists been so fired up about images, symbols, and pictures. Their tribal symbols teach us more than their diatribes. 

For example, here are a few of the visual metaphors that warm evangelical hearts while giving other Christians a serious case of disgust:

Evangelicals have successfully, it seems created a “social imaginary,” a little “cosmos” different from the rest of the world. The framework of the evangelical world is “naïve” as opposed to “reflective.” The reflective framework is dangerous, in the evangelical mind, because it opens questions that are foreclosed in the naïve state by the unacknowledged shape of the background. In contrast, evangelical beliefs are held within a framework of the taken-for-granted as well as often unacknowledged. 

In Taylor’s terms, evangelicals are caught between their existing “naïve” framework and the constant attempted intrusions of a “reflective” one. They are facing the crosswinds in a giant valley of dry bones – suspended between their “cosmos” and the expanding “universe.” Their “cross-pressured” existence has created a raging against the night, a groaning into the abyss, a crying of persecution and mistreatment while enjoying the benefits of secularity. Paul’s desperate cry in Romans 7 catches the agony of the evangelical predicament: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”             

This is a description of the evangelical mind – naïve, enchanted, porous, disconnected from the universe, hunkering down in a little closed “cosmos,” but secretly yearning for more. This is the root anger of evangelicals, a people trapped in two worlds, one imaginary, mythological, impossible, the other buffered, secular, disenchanted. This marks the evangelical world as being about affects/feelings/emotions/pathos. This is not a matter of a carefully constructed epistemology; it’s about feeling good without thinking much. While the rest of the world has shifted from a naïve understanding – what we take for granted – evangelicals have not moved.

As a case study in this small, enchanted world let us consider the recent prayer meeting conducted in Orlando, Florida by televangelist Paula White. She was pumping up the crowd for a Trump victory. “I hear a sound of victory, the Lord says it is done,” she said. “For angels have even been dispatched from Africa right now . . . In the name of Jesus from South America, they’re coming here.” How is this possible?     

Paula White and her rant about African angels to the rescue is possible because evangelicals attempt to live in two worlds at once – “cosmos” and “universe.” It is possible because they are secular and not secular at the same time on a pick-and-choose basis. It is possible because they live in a mythological “social imaginary” fighting against the “cross-pressures” of a diverse universe. It is possible because they have “imagined” an America not rooted in history but in a false mythology. It is possible because evangelicals are so desperately afraid of openness to a diverse world riddled with possibilities of transformation. While we tend to make jokes and remind Paula that the angels never arrived, that misses the point of the alternative world that evangelicals inhabit and their steadfast desire to turn us into “droids” of evangelical nonsense. 

Of course, all of us who are people of faith have our own challenges with the emerging power of exclusive humanism, have our own challenges with finding a way to make transformation possible through incarnational and sacramental faith. 

But the answer is not the small, self-contained, closed, nonsensical cosmos of the evangelicals.