Victory Comes By First Overcoming Evangelical Leadership
Evangelicals, your leaders are trying to demoralize you. Let me show you.
In Andrew Whitehead’s new book American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays The Gospel and Threatens the Church, he condemns “Christian Nationalism,” which, for him, means nothing more than the use of civil government to enact traditional Christian values. He defines “White Christian Nationalism” as “a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates for a fusion of a particular expression of Christianity with American civic life.” Here, Whitehead makes an important qualification: “The “white” of white Christian nationalism does not necessarily refer to the skin color or racial identity of an individual American who might embrace it. Rather, it refers to “whiteness,” the values, habits, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes that result in the organization of society in such a way that white Americans, as a group, tend to have greater access to power, privilege, wealth, and other benefits bestowed by various social institutions.” This, of course, means that Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and anyone else can be a “white” Christian Nationalist for simply desiring America to adhere to Christian ideals. The fundamental thread unifying Christian Nationalists is a desire to wield power to enact these ideals. Whitehead interprets this cynically, “Christian nationalism is fundamentally concerned with wielding power for the benefit of one’s own group. It is focused on defending “our” rights, practices, history, or privileges. Americans who embrace Christian nationalism… emphasize how others…are trying to take away their cultural and political power.” While Whitehead does acknowledge the demographic and cultural marginalization of Evangelicals, he actually welcomes it saying, “when a group is used to privilege, equality feels like discrimination.”
Thus, Whitehead’s plea to Evangelicals is to embrace their marginalization, repent of their desire for power, and welcome new versions of Christianity that uplift the marginalized (except for them). Christians should reject the “temptation” to use civil power, a temptation since Constantine, and instead consciously refuse to procure earthly power while championing the ideals of modern social justice. Whitehead’s vision apparently models Jesus, who denied all earthly power. “We exercise kingdom power when we stand with the marginalized.” Of course, this vision requires being vigilant against Christian nationalism in the entire Evangelical ecosystem. “We will need to commit to changing how our congregations, denominations, other faith organizations… operate. Only then can we hope to remake American Christianity.” Behind Whitehead’s loaded rhetoric and sociological sleights of hand is an agenda to make Evangelicals welcome the loss of their influence and use whatever cultural capital they have left to aid in the inevitable progressive transformation of the United States. For him, the failure of the moral majority and the decline of American Christianity indicates that Christians were never called to “win” the culture for Christ. So, the Christian thing is to let everyone else except them wield civil and cultural power. Presumably, when Christianity is no longer a threat to progressive ideals, the masses will regain their trust in the Church and return.
Next, consider Kaitlyn Scheiss’ book, The Bible and the Ballot, which came out a week after Whitehead’s. Scheiss, an Evangelical blogger and podcaster, engages in a brief survey of the use of the Bible in American political culture from John Winthrop to Donald Trump. In her narrative, she criticizes Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” (i.e., Model of Christian Charity) sermon, a call to righteous living knowing that God will judge nations according to His law, as misappropriating the promises of the Israelite covenant. “Winthrop (and generations of politicians and pastors after him) appropriates the terms of Old Testament covenants, warning listeners that material blessings or judgments will follow their actions.”
For instance, 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land”) is often used in American political discourse. For Scheiss, this is an instance of inappropriately reading “our own nation back into the text… to replace the rewards of these promises with our own national ambitions.” This promise, apparently not a timeless expression of God’s overflowing mercy and concern for our earthly good, is a specific promise reserved for Israel and should never be invoked by people or polities post-Pentecost.
Instead, Scheiss tells her readers that our society is doomed for destruction anyway, “No earthly government is promised healing. We’re awaiting a new city, with new bounds of citizenship.” Curiously, later on in her book, Scheiss lifts Black Christians who drew upon the Exodus tradition to fuel their struggle for political recognition. “Enslaved people could look to the oppressed Israelites, to the oppressed within Israel…and to the “suffering servant” himself, Christ. They found in the Bible a story of God identifying with the oppressed and bringing victory to the unlikeliest people.” On Martin Luther King Jr., she writes, “In King’s work… the most persistent single biblical symbol is the exodus… the people of God are one community, their experiences are shared across time and space, and so King can take up the mantle of Moses standing in front of Pharaoh.”
Clearly, what the Black Christians and MLK did is appropriate the promises and traditions of the Israelites’ covenant for America. Now, Scheiss does not explain why it’s mistaken when Winthrop does this but okay when Black Christians do. She appears to be captured by the liturgy of her politics. So, she continually urges her readers to take the Exodus traditions, as interpreted by liberation theology, as the paradigmatic lens in which to read the Bible politically. “[The Bible is written] very often from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized – God’s people suffering under Pharaoh or Babylon or Rome. Our interpretation must be done in a way that recognizes this perspective.” Of course, this task means that Evangelicals must wrestle away our “obsession” with making the United States follow Christian ideals and instead pursue a Christianity that coincidentally aligns with progressive values.
Finally, consider Andy Stanley’s book Not in It to Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines The Church. Stanley popularizes the key agenda of Scheiss and Whitehead: Evangelicals should give up on winning the culture. “Saving America is not the mission of the Church.” Stanley believes Evangelicalism’s obsession with cultural influence divides the Church and alienates the country. He writes, “The church or church leader who publicly aligns with a political party has relinquished their ability to make disciples of half their own nation.” Because of this, Evangelicals should not focus on winning, but on maintaining the unity of the Church. “We’re running the wrong race. We’re striving for the wrong prize. We are more concerned about the loss of religious liberty than our loss of unity.” Evangelicals should not fear marginalization but willingly embrace the loss of power. Stanley encourages Evangelicals to “discontinue the centuries-old tradition of importing Old Testament military imagery, narratives, and metaphors into our new-covenant preaching, teaching, and application.” Instead, the New Testament, for Stanley, casts a vision of Christians as utterly repulsed by the use of Earthly power. In Stanley’s reading of the Gospels, Jesus was crucified, not because it was his will to do so, but because he refused to use power to resist empire. “Jesus… would suffer disappointment, defeat, and defection… Love wasn’t enough. So they lost.” Yet, this “loss” was for the goal of winning sinners. So, Stanley concludes we should likewise follow suit: give up the desire for Earthly power and focus on being as amenable as possible to the social order to draw people to Jesus. “Jesus came to lose. And he invited us to follow him.”
So a professor, podcaster, and pastor, all within a year of each other, parrot, in their own unique way, the same loser mentality: in the face of demographic decline and diminished cultural influence, Evangelicals should not seek power but embrace being second-class citizens in their own country. They then seek to justify this loser mentality by claiming that the state of affairs is precisely what the Church needs. But these three authors are not unique in purveying this narrative. I chose these specific books for their variety, but I could’ve just as well chosen Russell Moore’s Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America, David Vandrunen’s Politics after Christendom, and Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. The narrative is the same: You should not hold power. Embrace being an exile. Embrace being a loser.
From this point flow numerous theological rationalizations. How often have you heard, without serious corroboration, that the Church flourishes when she’s on the margins? How often have you listened to the example of the Early Christian martyrs being the “seed of the Church” as a reason to desire martyrdom? How many leaders have you seen welcome the decline of “Cultural Christianity”? Ironically, the appeal of this posture is the acquisition of a certain kind of power, of acceptability, within a secular liberal milieu. Assertive, self-confident, and exclusionary Christianity is a threat to the status quo, whereas a self-regulating, so to speak, Christianity that has embraced a majority-minority status is not.
I remember as a teenager when Obergefell v. Hodges came down, and the Sunday after, my predominantly Hispanic working-class church’s senior pastor commented that we shouldn’t be surprised at this since the world’s not supposed to obey God’s laws. I highlight this story because this is the same loser-mentality in popularized theological garb: keeping Evangelicals docile that the ongoing political hostility against them and God’s law is meant to happen. The most pernicious justification of this narrative comes from characterizing Jesus not as the all-powerful God-man who, from His abundant life, came to give life (John 10:10), but instead as the paradigmatic loser.
The call to embrace “exile” places no new demands on Evangelicals. By virtue of being a conversionist movement, Evangelicalism sets itself on the margins of mainstream society. We are the ones who have been born-again, who have met Jesus not with fancy arguments or a storied theological heritage but in the simple Gospel. The motto for Evangelicals has been and will always be, “The Bible tells me so.” Evangelicalism is historically populist and anti-institutional compared to the American mainline, which has traditionally filled the elite ranks.
However, as the biggest voting block in the United States, Evangelicals, whether they like it or not, hold considerable raw political power. This situation worked so long as America still constituted a positive world amenable to Christianity. Yet we are in a negative, hostile world to Christian life. So when Evangelical leaders tell their people, who are already inclined to be political exiles, to embrace being on the margins, they are stifling any attempt by Evangelicals to renew American society. Evangelicals see the house burning, and leaders accuse them of unwarranted fear, implicit racism, and betraying the Gospel– which itself is subject to an ever-expanding range of social issues, wrong opinions on which become a Gospel violation. Their rhetoric implies that resistance is futile so just get in line.
In fact, docility must be the intended aim of the narrative because if these writers legitimately considered what Evangelicals with a genuinely biblical exilic mentality would do, it would threaten their losing narrative. Allow me to speak personally. I am a Copt. My people are known as the most persecuted Christian minority in the world. I grew up hearing stories of the historic systematic persecution of my people—from coordinated attacks on Churches to intentional obstacles to educational attainment. Historically, Copts in Egypt since the Arab conquest existed as second-class citizens, a status popularly called dhimmitude. Under dhimmitude, Copts faced choosing between forced conversion, slavery, or death. Their surrender required a condition of inferiority and humiliation.1 This forced subjugation lasted until the early 19th century when Mohammed Ali sought to modernize Egypt’s government, including its bureaucracy and military. Ali’s desire for new talent, regardless of religious affiliation, opened a pathway for Copts to move out from a state of dhimmitude. Copts, known for their emphasis on education, became experts in land surveying, accounting, and tax collection. As a result, they became essential to Egypt’s civil government, constituting nearly 45% of Egypt’s bureaucracy.2 Consequently, a new land-owning Coptic elite emerged from the descendants of the early bureaucrats, which controlled up to 25% of Egypt’s wealth by the middle of the 19th century.3 By 1961, Coptic Christians owned 51% of the Egyptian banks.
In the 1970s, some 80 percent of pharmacists and 30-40% of doctors were Copts.4 Despite facing heightened persecution since the 1950s from the Muslim Brotherhood, by making themselves essential to core government functions, Copts effectively mitigated what hostile forces could do to them. My parents told me of the sheer resiliency of my larger family at the time— who survived violent persecution from the Muslim Brotherhood while rising through the educational ranks to become doctors and pharmacists. In response to the destruction of the churches, the forced conversion of their women, and economic discrimination, Copts did not retaliate or retreat but instead made themselves invaluable to society while developing an anti-fragile network at home and abroad. This is what it means to live as an exile.
Today, Evangelicals face the possibility of living in secular dhimmitude, where the options are forced conversion to progressive ideology, total subjection and humiliation by hostile actors, or political death (i.e. cancelation). In response to this, Evangelical leaders use the language of exiles but call them to embrace humiliation. When they use exilic rhetoric, they dishonor my people and mock exiled Christian minorities who do not accept dhimmitude but seek political recognition. Would Andy Stanley tell persecuted Copts to embrace losing whatever influence they have left? Would Whitehead bemoan Coptic concern for hostility as unwarranted fear? Would Scheiss, Moore, and French tell Copts not to seek power for the good of their Church? Of course not. But they demoralize Evangelicals because Evangelicals are still at a point to organize and influence culture. If Evangelicals were truly politically lost, there wouldn’t be a need for the constant loser messaging.
If these leaders cared for the good of Evangelicals in a hostile world, then they would encourage Evangelicals to follow the example of Copts and other coordinated minorities. Instead, they are told to actively not pursue solidarity and excellence in society. At least that’s the implication from the constant refrain to resist seeking power. Power, classically understood, means responsibility and is always towards serving the common good. To tell Evangelicals to not seek power is to tell them a people who haven’t had reliable mainstream cultural power, to refuse the burden of responsibility in our moment. This loser mentality only accelerates the irrelevance of the Church for modern life. What man would want to follow a Church intent on losing? Who would want to follow a Jesus who wants us to lose?
These questions drive to the heart of why this loser mentality continues to pervade Evangelical rhetoric: a perversion of the Gospel that fetishizes weakness and servility. The fundamental justification of this narrative is that since Jesus was humiliated, so should you. First, this reasoning does not take into account the breadth of the biblical witness concerning the use of power. The Old Testament lifts up David, Hezekiah, and Josiah as models of piety, all of whom used their authority to renew their land. This fact contradicts this unshakable narrative of declining, causing Evangelical elites to functionally be Marcionites (i.e. ignore the relevance of the Old Testament). Scheiss says it’s wrong to appropriate Israelite examples (except the Exodus, of course). Andy Stanley flat-out says we should not let the OT interfere with our modern preaching. For evangelicals, they seem to shy away from more than two-thirds of the Bible. Yet Christ came to fulfill the Old Testament, not negate it, and only this background reveals the true nature of Christ’s humiliation. Paul tells us that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7). Christ humbles himself not from a place of scarcity but of abounding heavenly fellowship. And he does so to bring us into that same fellowship. His humility is a sign of God’s mercy for us in giving us a High Priest in our likeness. Christ’s journey to the cross is one of willful obedience in order to gain the Heavens and the Earth as his inheritance. The Psalmist says concerning Christ’s reign, “I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession.” (Ps 2:7-8). Christ did not come to lose. He came to win. Win in a way that displays his overflowing benevolence and generosity. “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
As Christians, we have been called to share in the inheritance of Christ. United by the Spirit to the Resurrected Christ, our true self is with Christ on high. Hence, Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). But if our true citizenship is in heaven, then we are exiles, not from our native country, but from Heaven. So Peter, in writing to encourage Christians in persecution, addresses his readers as “elect exiles” and then immediately reminds us that we have been born again to a living hope, “to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). Thus, as Christians, we have been invested with a royal dignity and authority, which we will obtain fully in the new heavens and the Earth. Paul tells us that we will judge angels (1 Cor 6:3)! How can we be losers? The opposite is true. Everything against God’s rule is destined for destruction, but we will remain. And our task in the meantime is to let a preview of this abundant life overflow into good works for our neighbor and society. The Gospel isn’t a message about losing, but the restoration of life. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10).
Finally, this authority mentality calls us to maturity. The new life given to us should translate to a renewal of the life around us. Yes, there is a waning of Christian influence in the country, but Evangelicals will remain long after the current regime of hostility. Because our victory is certain, we must have a long-term outlook on our place in the world. Resiliency in all circumstances, responsibility for the world, and commitment to excellence constitute the biblical exilic mentality. This mentality drove the success of the Copts through centuries of persecution. They knew they would survive and eventually thrive. In the midst of dhimmitude, they were still free from its demoralization, for they knew they were the inheritors of the Earth. Evangelicals must do the same. We must resist dhimmitude, knowing that our victory is certain.
Put simply, Evangelicals should embrace exile. But it looks less like accepting marginalization and more like taking intentional steps to cultivate a flourishing and essential community. We should be building intimate community to support each other, spiritually and physically. We should encourage our people to excel in all domains of culture so as to make us indispensable for modern life. What would it look like if Evangelicals pursued the same degree of excellence in academia, business, and law as they do in college football? Christian football players ground the excellence of their craft by knowing that everything they do, they do unto the Lord (Col 3:23-24). Our culture is facing a crisis of competency. Evangelicals can capitalize on this by providing competent laborers. Our culture faces historic confusion regarding gender and sexuality. Why can’t Evangelicals lead the way when studies show that highly religious, traditional women enjoy the highest quality relationships? My generation has a pervasive sense that the world will end within 10 years due to climate change, rendering everything meaningless. What better opportunity is there for Evangelicals to show a life rich with meaning is possible and accessible because of Christ? While we are in an increasingly hostile culture, its nihilism, demonstrated in its decadence, lack of creativity, and sheer indifference towards continuing humanity, renders its adherents primed to seek an alternative way of life. Our society is starved for meaning and Evangelicals are best to serve that need by sharing the overflowing life they have received from Christ in strong communities, competent workers, and inspirational visionaries. Evangelical leaders tell us that marginalization is inevitable. Our response is simply the Words of our Lord, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Image Credit: Unsplash
- “John W. Whitehead, An interview with Bat Ye’or. Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, 5 September 2005” ↩
- Zeidan, David. “The Copts—Equal, Protected, or Persecuted? The Impact of Islamization of Muslim-Christian Relations in Modern Egypt.” Islam and Christian Muslim Relations. No. 1 (1999). p.56. ↩
- Ibid. p.56. ↩
- Pennington, J. D. (3 October 1982). “The Copts in Modern Egypt”. Middle Eastern Studies. JSTOR. 18 (2): 158–179 ↩