Christian Converser: US Theological Influences On NZ Churches [2]

First published on Christian Converser
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This part has somewhat less to do with NZ than looking at ongoing theological trends in the US and the issues arising. An article in “The Atlantic” in October 2021 highlights huge division in evangelical churches, which is a high price to pay for years of craven obeisance to conservative politics. The author lays the blame squarely at the feet of Donald Trump in the present term whilst also acknowledging that the issue has been steadily developing over the past several decades. The major problem that exists in the US as a nation is a high degree of political polarisation, which is a complex issue but is likely rooted in part in its high level of income inequality and history of racial discrimination. The fact that evangelical churches have perpetuated both of these issues, including racial segregation as ongoing, is illustrative of the highly compromised theological foundation of the US and it is perhaps illustrative to suggest that America has entrenched to a significant degree some of the most narrow and polarising forms of theology found in the First World. The reason is straightforward to understand: conservatism as a whole represents the big money in most societies and especially in the US, hence there has been plenty of funding available to support the development of bible colleges and seminaries producing these extreme viewpoints. US society is largely geared around elitism and celebrity, and churches there have to a large extent embraced these values rather than standing apart from them.

So we have several examples often discussed in this blog: dispensationalism, complementarianism and nationalism, all of which as Christian theologies are strongly entrenched in the US evangelical churches, but none of which are particularly notable outside North America. To them we can add segregationalism, and conversionism (if that is the appropriate word) which refers specifically to conversion therapy, which has been in the news recently in both the UK and New Zealand where in both countries legislation is before the respective Parliaments intending to ban this type of activity. Conversionism has only really been a feature of the Christian landscape for about 50 years and lost a lot of ground when Exodus International disbanded in 2013. Segregationalism was still being applied to US conservative Christian schools and universities into the 1970s, at which time the IRS revoked the tax exemption status of a large number of such institutions, including Lynchburg Christian Academy run by Jerry Falwell Snr. As recently as 1983, Bob Jones University lost a case in the US Supreme Court concerning their charitable status due to their refusal to admit students in interracial marriages. BJU still banned its students from interracial dating until the year 2000 and did not regain its tax exemption until 2017. Elitism as mentioned above is the final strand of influence on evangelicalism; it essentially allows that the US version of evangelicalism can spend a lot of time loudly broadcasting their values and beliefs to the world, as they particularly do with Christian television networks. This blog has access to TBN as a research source and this network, apart from its overwhelming programming trend supporting US evangelicalism, also carries advertising of a distinctly conservative political flavour.

The Atlantic’s article highlights the problems which are occurring in the US in the wake of the Trump years in the presidency, and which is likely to be repeated in a few years if Trump again stands for the Republican Party. The substance of the publication is that churches have become riven by political polarisation with a particularly strident line being taken by those wishing to align their churches with Republicanism, especially in the Trump years. The Southern Baptist Convention is a particular example of this with the recent formation of its Conservative Baptist Network, which is clearly established with the intention of pushing the SBC in a firmly political right-wing direction of allegiance. SBC is also staunchly dispensationalist and complementarian in its overall theology. The events of January 6 2021 with the storming of the US capitol showed how extreme the situation has become in infiltrating and corrupting Christian culture within churches and replacing it with various forms of idolatry and nominalism based around prevailing political culture and objectives.

Before that, events such as the Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rally of 2017 and Trump’s first impeachment in 2019 provided ample opportunities for the President’s evangelical support board to distance themselves from the administration at this time, yet there appeared to be no willingness to do so as reported in The Guardian and other media. The 2017-19 White House chief of staff General John Kelly was far more forthright about his former boss’s failings; in 2020, Kelly labelled Trump as “the most flawed person he had ever met”, citing in particular “the depths of his dishonesty”, and followed this up on January 7, 2021, commenting that Trump had “poisoned people’s minds with lies and fraud”. The Charlottesville situation also led to the mass resignation of several Trump advisory boards for business. Yet the evangelical board saw only the resignation of prominent black pastor A R Bernard, who had ceased his active participation some months earlier. The craven obeisance continues with the formation of a new national faith advisory board, as reported by Christianity Today in September 2021, at the launch of which a prominent megachurch pastor repeated Trump’s claims of a stolen election.

If we look at where modern evangelicalism came from with its poisonous sectarian concepts, the current dominant strand of it came from the Southern States with entrenched racist and sexist beliefs. Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College professor of church history and theologian, highlights this in a number of commentaries, including one published in the LA Times in August 2017. The key issue which Christian conservatives rallied around at the time was not abortion, but the previously mentioned insistence of the federal government that Christian academies and colleges desegregate. Balmer cites the muted response from Trump evangelical supporters over Charlottesville as evident that racism is simply ignored or glossed over within conservative white evangelicalism, and this certainly appears to be supported by the current attempts by conservatives to vilify critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement. Numerous of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th also cited white supremacism together with their Christian faith. The latest and very concerning trend since the presidential election is the move by many conservative / southern states in the area of voter suppression in the wake of Trump’s attempts to undermine the integrity of the electoral process, which Vox claims is aligned to the cause of the religious Right.

Michael Horton, a theology professor at Westminster Seminary, California, appears to have originated the term “Christian Trumpism” to describe a convergence of particular theological beliefs previously mentioned in this post and blog, especially “American exceptionalism” (i.e. theological elitism) and dispensationalism, as well as the prosperity gospel. Witnessing the “Jericho March” of December 12, 2020, Horton used strong terms such as blasphemy and heresy to expand on his definition of these terms and their relevance to the US evangelical cause. Salon columnist Chris Hedges cited in particular the backlash against Christianity Today’s condemnation of Trump in the leadup to the 2020 election, whilst former SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission head (and theologian) Russell Moore has criticised Trump and his evangelical support base on many occasions, including a post on January 11, 2021. It is now relevant to wrap this post up by going back to the Atlantic article cited at the top. Sources quoted assert that the roots of the US evangelical crisis have been building up for decades, but found their strongest expressions in the Trump term. Trump not only gave evangelicals more policy gains than any previous president, he also exposed open hatred and resentment within his own personal values, with former WHCOS Kelly citing in particular his views of Trump as engaging in deliberate divisiveness, something apparently willingly engaged with by Christian supporters. Timothy Keller, a theologian, pastor and Christian apologist, suggests that key aspects of American evangelicalism, such as being anti-institutional, make its communities more prone than others to political idolisation, fanatical ideas and conspiracy theories. This includes anti-intellectualism, even though many of the major evangelical leaders are highly educated people, suggesting a double standard applies. It also does bring about questions as to the standard of theological training in the US for those evangelical theologians and pastors who are contributing to the poisonous divide. A root issue in this for Christians worldwide (the US is no exception) have become more nominalist in their faith and spend far less time studying core beliefs (catechism) and far more time interacting with other sources of “truth” such as social media, television and other technologies and platforms.

New Zealand is relatively fortunate in having a less extreme and less divided society, as is also the case for many First World nations outside the United States. The trend here and in a lot of other places is for the conservative evangelicals who are particularly strong supporters of Trump to be those who are also at the forefront of anti-masking and anti-vaccination campaigning. This is also strongly connected with anti-intellectualist beliefs, in that it is apparent that few who are championing these values have studied theology in any real depth even if they may be fervent and committed Christians who follow the key disciplines such as regular Bible reading, devotion and prayer. In a recent blog post (Anti-vaxxers Polarise NZ Christian Community) it was highlighted that few pastors in NZ would be prepared to take a stance on either side of the anti-covid-control debate as their congregations would likely be divided on the issue (the exception being the small number of churches slavishly parroting American viewpoints). What can, however, be an important message to share with congregants is the importance of personal discipline and devotion and sound theological knowledge. Conspiracy theories themselves are a special area of concern, and a future post on this blog will particularly focus on particular characteristics of these that Christians should avoid.