Today Andy Crouch, the editorial director of Christianity Today, managed to do two things with a single essay: make me look much smarter than I am, and give me hope that the evangelical movement might actually learn something from this debacle of an election.
First, making me look smart:
I’m in Denver to speak at one of my denomination’s retirement communities. It’s a great way to shake off some sabbatical rust as a teacher, and I always enjoy speaking to adult groups. All the more so when the topic is so timely: “Christians and Culture: Then and Now.”
After starting last night with a sermon on what it means for Christians to be heirs of Abraham, who “stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents” (Heb 11:9), I’m doing hour-long classes sharing historical examples for four of Richard Niebuhr’s models of “Christ & Culture.”
We started this morning with “Christ over Culture,” tracing the development of “Christendoms” from Constantine’s empire through the Middle Ages to the cultural predominance of Protestants in American society. While I admitted that this category doesn’t have much resonance for me, I did suggest that it prompts us to ask at least one important question: how do Christians use power, political and otherwise?
I encouraged attendees to check out Crouch’s book, Playing God: Redeeming The Gift of Power, which argues that power in its various forms is unavoidable. The question is, rather, how those made in the image of an all-powerful God will use their own power well. Then at the end of the session, I turned briefly to the current election and suggested that evangelical Christians like Crouch and me were being confronted with a particularly salient version of this question.
I think I’ve made clear that I think evangelicals should have nothing to do with Donald Trump, whatever their reasonable and unreasonable concerns about Hillary Clinton. Indeed, the degree to which evangelicals have embraced him has caused me to rethink my own use of that religious label, and to suggest that evangelicalism has little future if it can’t use this moment to reevaluate its leadership and relationship to partisan politics.
So I was astonished and thrilled to come back from this morning’s class to see Crouch had written an editorial for Christianity Today entitled “Speak Truth to Trump.”
You should read the entire piece, but Crouch ultimately argues that supporting Trump is “substituting the creation for the Creator and the earthly ruler for the true God” — that is, idolatry.
…there is hardly any public person in America today who has more exemplified the “earthly nature” (“flesh” in the King James and the literal Greek) that Paul urges the Colossians to shed: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5). This is an incredibly apt summary of Trump’s life to date. Idolatry, greed, and sexual immorality are intertwined in individual lives and whole societies. Sexuality is designed to be properly ordered within marriage, a relationship marked by covenant faithfulness and profound self-giving and sacrifice. To indulge in sexual immorality is to make oneself and one’s desires an idol. That Trump has been, his whole adult life, an idolater of this sort, and a singularly unrepentant one, should have been clear to everyone.
And therefore it is completely consistent that Trump is an idolater in many other ways. He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge. He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.
Crouch doesn’t shy away from criticizing Clinton, and he acknowledges that the choice of candidates and platforms has led some evangelicals to support the Republican nominee out of a “reluctant strategic calculation, largely based on the president’s power to appoint members of the Supreme Court.” But, continues Crouch,
there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
I wish this editorial had come out a few hours earlier: I would have just read it for the last fifteen minutes of our class. With his warnings against idolatry, Crouch returns to the language of Playing God and its broader analysis of the wrong uses of political or other power:
Idolatry is the biblical name for the human capacity for creative power run amok. Human beings are vested by their Creator with the ability to make something of the world, both to fashion tangible artifacts out of the fruitful material of creation and to give voice to the meaning of creation….
In idolatry, however, this capacity for making something of the world is misdirected. An idol is a cultural artifact that embodies a false claim about the world’s ultimate meaning. The word ultimate is crucial here….
An idol is a special kind of human creation, one that is not just mistaken in a superficial way. Rather, it advances a claim about the ultimate nature of reality that it ultimately mistaken. And since the Creator God is the ultimate meaning of the world, an idol is a representation of a false god. Implicity or explicitly, all idols represent a challenge and counterclaim to the identity and character of the true Creator God. Like the serpent in the Garden, they all raise the question of the Creator God’s truthfulness and goodness, subtly or directly suggesting that the Creator God is neither true nor good. (pp. 55-56)
So it’s one thing for a man who has spent his entire career making an idol of himself to seek even more power to abuse. It’s quite another for evangelicals — especially those already invested with power over the opinions of other evangelicals — to make his election into an idol.
It’s a remarkable piece for Christianity Today — both overdue and timely. When supposed evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Tony Perkins shrug off profane, vicious comments that should only confirm what we already knew about Trump’s misogyny and narcissism, it’s imperative that the historic flagship of evangelical media finally issues a statement like this.
Not to say that Crouch’s editorial will necessarily cut too much into Trump’s numbers among evangelicals. Even at supposedly more unified times in their history, American evangelicals have never accepted any central authority. And it’s entirely possible that some CT readers will dismiss Crouch as just another one of us benighted Christian intellectuals.
But his editorial — and the decision of Harold Smith and other CT leaders to run it — does give me hope that it’s not too late for mainstream evangelical institutions to help facilitate the kind of agonizing reappraisal that we so desperately need if the word “evangelical” can continue to stand for the Evangel. Otherwise, as Crouch added, “Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord.”