Thursday, May 19, 2016

Evangelicals and Trump: The Lack of Public Theology and the Life of the Mind

Scott Waller has a fascinating article entitled Why Many Evangelicals Support Donald Trump over at The Federalist.  Here is a key section from Waller's piece:
Herein, perhaps, lies the reason why so many evangelicals have tossed their electoral hats in with Trump: as an evangelical community, few of its leaders speak about the public importance of faith and the implications of that faith in the public square. Perhaps even fewer demonstrate through their teaching what it would look like for an evangelical to live an integrated, holistic life in which theology speaks to the matters of public import beyond the private sphere of an individual’s life.

If, as Aristotle argued, politics is an inherently moral venture, then those within the evangelical community certainly have a voice in offering insights into what a just and moral state should look like and what kinds of policies a just political order must pursue. We have to ask ourselves when was the last time we were offered such teaching from our pulpits. If the answer to that question is never or rarely, then what believers are not-so-implicitly being fed is that the Christian faith cannot speak to areas of public import. As a result, evangelical voting behavior in these electoral contests may well reflect this privatization of faith.

Exit polling data indicates that support for Trump among evangelicals is lowest with those who are most educated and express highest levels of religiosity. Thus, it is not surprising that those like Lucado would be less likely to support Trump’s candidacy. Yet why are so many who fill pews lining up behind Trump? Perhaps the fruits of this electoral conundrum are the results of seeds evangelicalism has sown for decades.

Evangelical voting behavior in these electoral contests may well reflect this privatization of faith.  If from our pulpits people rarely, if ever, hear a sermon demonstrating that the Christian faith has pertinence beyond the confines of the church walls and the private spheres of our individual lives, are we not sowing into our congregants the idea of a public-private dichotomy? Believers have mistakenly been told that while faith has much to say about an individual’s relationship with God, it does not have anything to say about the public sphere.

If the realm of politics is seen as part of this public sphere, then is it any surprise that doctrine would be seen increasingly as tangential as we make decisions about whom to elect in this realm? At the very least, should we not be encouraged to reflect upon biblical principles regarding character and leadership as we assess candidates for public office?
Five years ago in a blog post entitled Moral Formation in the Church I drew attention to the words of J. Daryl Charles which are especially pertinent in light of Waller's piece.
A number of years ago Mark Noll alerted the Christian community to "the scandal of the evangelical mind."  Evangelical ethicist J. Daryl Charles echoes these thoughts in his book Between Pacificism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition (IVP, 2005).  Although written to address the ethics of war and the Just War tradition, Charles has some introductory comments that are much broader in application for evangelical social ethics. 
"In The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism I lamented the absence of moral formation in the church's teaching and preaching and in congregational life.  My basic argument was this: there is no such thing as an evangelical social ethic or a broadly Protestant ethic, for that matter.  To be sure, we have elevated church growth to a virtual science.  We have written and sold millions upon millions of heart-warming and inspirational Christian "breakthrough" books.  We have made endless forays into the contemporary music scene.  And we are as "seeker-friendly" as any group on the face of the earth.  But when it comes to giving a reason for the hope within or presenting a rationale for Christian social ethics or offering an explanation of the church's traditional teaching on perennial ethical issues, we are all but clueless."  (pp. 10-11)
Charles goes on to offer some reasons for this lack of evangelical social ethics.
"Is it likely that the evangelicals' relative absence in the public square is due, among other things, to an underdeveloped theology of creation, humanity and culture?  Have all of these been overshadowed by a skewed eschatology?  (I have in mind our fixation with end-time scenarios--often understood as "biblical prophecy"--that hamstrings the church's ability to wrestle with the already-but-not-yet tension of the kingdom of God)."  (p. 12)
And, again, at the end of his book, Charles brings home the implications of this short-sighted eschatological viewpoint.
"If Christ is indeed returning in our lifetime, as we have been taught to fully anticipate, then it is supremely difficult--nay, nonsensical--to pursue other matters over the long term that require considerable energies, strategies, finances and personal investment.  I have in mind, for example, education or certain types of vocational careers.  With Tertullian we answer the question, What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? with a firm resolve: Well, absolutely nothing.  No wonder, then, that evangelical Protestants (for example) tend not to be found among social scientists, economists, educational theorists, political scientists, legal theorists, policy analysts, politicians (football players excepted), ethicists and so on.  Why?  Because such endeavors require a vision that takes culture seriously and views "occupying" (Jesus' word) as both a Christian mandate and a high calling.  All of these vocations require a long-term perspective, and at minimum, an interest in society."  (p. 172)
Charles' words are poignant and precise.  There is a desperate need for biblically informed and theological driven reflection on today's social issues.  The church needs to step up and provide an arena for such reflection.  Discipleship of the mind is an endeavor to be taken seriously by the evangelical church.