On Weasel Words and Mollycoddles
“Everyone senses that something is wrong, but no one has the courage or energy necessary to set it right. People feel desire, regret, sorrow, and joy, but nothing visible or lasting comes of it.”
~Alexis de Tocqueville, Introduction to Democracy in America
America is at a point of cultural and political crisis. Many see it, although many cannot admit it to themselves, because to do so is frightening.
Evangelical churches in America are experiencing the same turmoil and upheaval that characterizes the broader culture. Ideas nearly unthinkable three or four years ago now seem unquestionable truths to many influential evangelicals. The list is long, but it includes such ideas as the moral imperative of reparations for slavery, the notion that nearly every evangelical institution in America is infected with (possibly unconscious) white supremacy, and the claim that homosexual desire, or orientation (if not “acted on”), is neutral before God.
Many members of evangelical churches feel bewildered, stumbling through a fog of confusion, desperate for solid ground to stand on, for signposts to guide the way through the morass of competing claims and counterclaims. Anxious and fearful, confused and demoralized, with leaders who often remain strangely silent about the most pressing issues, it is easy to become paralyzed.
One laywoman in the Presbyterian Church in America recently expressed the desire felt by many for bold leaders to courageously stand up and guide their people through the confusing maze of opinions:
I need substantial and considerable ammunition against the devil’s snares. I need companionship and support as I attempt to raise godly children. I need my elders for biblical encouragement and sure footing as I navigate this precarious responsibility of parenting. I do not care what you feel, or how I feel, or about feelings in general. I care what you think. I need to know what you believe. I need clarity. I need conviction. I need truth. My children need solid doctrine to weather the ever-changing landscape of spiritual warfare. Do not send us to do battle with pea shooters. I want a cannon. I need men who unabashedly profess the whole doctrine of God, all of Scripture, who are not ashamed of its direct language. I need pastors who exegete these difficult and sometimes uncomfortable passages, who explain the entirety of God’s Word plainly to me and to my children without embarrassment.
This is the need of the hour: clarity, conviction, truth spoken without embarrassment. This is the goal of American Reformer, a new online journal of Christian social thought. Many know that things are not as they should be, but don’t feel confident that they have the words to express what is wrong or what to do about it. American Reformer will help them find their voice. An alternative to the contemporary secular consensus, grounded in a Christian understanding, and in the American and Western traditions shaped by Christianity, can have broad appeal. American Reformer will offer that alternative.
American Reformer will address the most pressing cultural challenges of our day: politics, history (especially regarding the relationship between Christianity and political power and church/state relations), sexuality and gender, race, marriage and the family, education, and the impact of all of these issues on evangelical denominations. Reviews of influential contemporary books will also be central.
American Reformer seeks to build and foster a fellowship in bold truth-telling. None of us can face the challenges and pressures of our culture alone. As Merry says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring:
You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you can keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the ring. We are horribly afraid–but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.
In times of great trial we need friends who will stand by our side and encourage us to boldly stand firm for the truth. Boldness in truth-telling runs against the prevailing current of contemporary evangelical discourse, where a culturally derived, but decidedly unbiblical notion of “niceness” has crept in, which is little more than a justification for cowardice, timidity, and apathy. While there is no place in the church for abusive or brutal treatment of others (see 2 Tim 3:2–5), or for fighting for its own sake, nonetheless, Christians must “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Eph 6:10) “for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor 10:4), including the destructive ideological strongholds that have taken root in the church today. To combat these we must “boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me’” (Heb 13:6)? Boldness and zeal, neglected virtues today, will by God’s grace define us. On zeal see John 2:17; Rom 12:8, 11; 1 Pet 3:13; on boldness see Acts 4:13, 29, 31; 9:27, 28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 28:31; Eph 6:19–20; Phil 1:14; 1 Thess 2:2.
Race is a good example of the power of culturally-determined niceness. Many otherwise sound evangelical leaders appear unwilling to address widespread, unbiblical teaching on race among fellow evangelicals because progressives have been so successful in closing the Overton Window of what counts as acceptable (nice) discourse in public life. There is little that causes more fear today than the thought that one might be labelled a racist, and so radically unbiblical notions (including the adoption of various popularized tenets of Critical Race Theory), which would have not long ago been deemed far outside the bounds of evangelical beliefs, have become normalized almost overnight.
American Reformer will also help Christians push back against the false ways in which so many issues today are framed in public discourse. We often can’t see the issues clearly because they come packaged in an underlying narrative framework that is false. Consider, for example, the claim often bandied about by progressives that “the culture war is a conservative project.” This framing has been very successful, so that the thought that a Christian would even attempt to use political power in any way for good is dismissed as “fighting the culture war,” while radically progressive attempts to deploy political power are framed as the only rational and sensible positions a person could take, as the norm and default for all people of good will. Christians then shrink back from “fighting the culture war,” while progressives simply win it, while claiming not even to fight it. Christians cannot resist false narratives if they can’t see through them.
Or consider the case of “wokeness.” Wokeness can be attacked from many vantage points, ranging from its harmful practical effects (men in girls’ locker rooms, etc.) to its philosophical basis (all of life is nothing but power relations). But it also should be seen in its deeper dimension, as a pseudo-religion of intense fervor and devotion. It is, in fact, a graceless religion as militant as the most intensely fundamentalist sects of any religion, something Joshua Mitchell expertly captures in his recent book American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time.
Beyond providing alternative framing to current discussions, and introducing readers to perspectives they are not likely to find on mainstream Evangelical sites, American Reformer is oriented toward real-world action. This does not mean that articles will be of the “10 steps toward a perfect marriage” variety, but it does mean that we will seek to do more than simply put forward good ideas. Our focus will be on getting Christians to act in the various spheres in which God has placed them, to seek to do what is good and true wherever they find themselves. Ideas do have consequences, but they don’t mean anything if they are not put into practice. Much of the anxiety and paralysis felt by average Christians today is due to their inability to see how they can act for the good of their families, towns, churches, and nation.
American Reformer is not anti-intellectual, but it is anti-intellectualism, where ideas are bandied about endlessly, without focused thought given to implementing them. What might this look like? Write a letter to your local school board about Critical Race Theory. All fine and good. How about organizing an electoral campaign to take control of the board? Real change for the better is possible with the latter, as evidenced recently in Southlake, Texas. Plenty has been written about how infected American colleges and universities are with poisonous ideologies, but such writings alone accomplish nothing. State legislatures, however, through their control of the budget of state universities, can do much to remove harmful ideologies, as has been shown in Idaho. There are also many alternatives on offer to massively expensive, and increasingly valueless, university education. Creative opportunities abound exploring business and skilled trades apprenticeship programs, alternative college education models, and much more.
Instead of being filled with dread and anxiety about how bad politics is at the national level, get involved locally, where many positions are simply filled by volunteers. Christopher Rufo, although not coming at the issue from any sort of Christian perspective that I am aware of, has done much to combat the mandated teaching of tenets of Critical Race Theory in American schools and businesses. He has received much scorn for doing so, many claiming that his approach is too blunt. Maybe it is. The solution, then, is to do it better. It shouldn’t be controversial that public schools should be prohibited from teaching that white schoolchildren are racists (unknowingly perhaps) simply by virtue of the color of their skin. Concrete action must be taken in this area, and many others. American Reformer will publish writers who, in addition to whatever intellectual discussions they may take part in, will provide guidance to Christians seeking to do concrete good in the various stations in which they find themselves.
Some final distinctives. American Reformer will seek to introduce readers to the riches of classical Protestant social thought. This does not mean that we will ignore the insights of other traditions, but Evangelicalism on the whole has a shallow approach to the issues American Reformer will address.
Protestants have a rich tradition of social and political thought that is largely unknown among evangelicals today. One example is the doctrine of the lesser magistrate (quite apropos today, where some form of renewed federalism seems the only way to stave off increasingly dangerous divisions in our country). Another is simply the historic recognition among Protestants that political power can and should be used to promote what is good and to punish evil (see Romans 13:1–7), an idea sometimes at odds with classical political liberalism, but also with the thought of many evangelical leaders today, who at best counsel political apathy, or at worst the notion that politics is inherently dirty business. Finally, one could mention natural law, which was vital for historic Protestantism, but is virtually unknown among evangelicals today.
This neglect has produced any number of moral issues where evangelicals have little to say, because they can do little more than reason by means of superficial biblical prooftexts. “Don’t have a verse for that? It must not be biblical,” and so on. The natural difference between men and women is one area where this is most evident: evangelicals can see that Scripture explicitly prohibits women from being pastors, elders, and deacons, but they have little idea how to talk about the many God-ordained differences between the sexes because they can’t locate isolated prooftexts about these. And yet these differences must be understood for there to be flourishing churches, healthy marriages, and God-honoring childrearing among Christians.
Theodore Roosevelt once quipped: “Weasel words from mollycoddles will never do when the day demands prophetic clarity from great hearts. Manly men must emerge for this hour of trial.”
American Reformer seeks writers who can speak with prophetic clarity to the most pressing cultural challenges of the day, and who can do so in such a way as to inspire Christians to live boldly and unashamedly for Christ and his Church in the midst of the upheaval of society and morals we are currently living through.
*Image Credit: Pixabay