Michael Key

Evangelicals and the Idolization of Power

Michael Key
Evangelicals and the Idolization of Power

Evangelicalism: A Diagnosis

Evangelicals have been exposed. Not necessarily as frauds or hypocrites, although those labels are unfortunately accurate all too frequently. No, a different revelation has been coming to light over the last few decades, one that I think is much more severe: Evangelicals suffer from a serious case of being (or wanting to be) like everyone else.

I imagine some might balk at this assertion. With brows contemptuously furrowed, you’re thinking, “Being like everyone else? Really? That’s what’s wrong with evangelicalism? I’ll tell you what’s wrong...” The charge of hypocrisy and inauthenticity seem like the stronger crime, and in your mind, that sentence has already been pronounced. Perhaps as a non-evangelical, you are even a little disgusted that I would dare compare the likes of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. or First Baptist Church of Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress with you. They are so out of touch with mainstream, progressive values, which you find to be supported by common sense, and so religiously and politically narrow-minded that such a comparison at the very least irritates you and, at most, outright infuriates.

My evangelical brothers and sisters (for I count myself in this camp) will be responding differently to my charge against us (or many of us). Some will be considering all the ways in which they are specifically “in the world but not of the world” — to use the cliche evangelical phrase based on Jesus’ prayer in John 17:14-16. Abortion, gender issues, sexual morality, rule of law — these issues and others define your stand against “the world.” Rightly, we believe that God sets the standard for what is right and wrong, not society, and we hold tightly to the Word of God, which provides the only firm foundation for our lives, against the ever-changing values of our age. The diagnosis that we suffer from a serious case of being like everyone else, then, does not quite make sense.

Both groups here are thinking too shallowly. While evangelicals have indeed capitulated to worldly values in a variety of ways (an article for another day perhaps), they have remained steadfast in many other ways. The problem is not necessarily with getting certain issues wrong but with attempting to respond to issues wrongly. We have been attempting to establish the kingdom of God using the primary tool or weapon of the kingdom of Man.

In this way, evangelicals have been acting like everyone else, and the results have been corrosive, spoiling.

A Quick History

Former speechwriter and policy advisor under George W. Bush — and a self-proclaimed evangelical — Michael Gerson has helped to trace this slow, syncretic movement of evangelicalism. The horrors of the Civil War, the breakdown of the moral and social landscape following intense industrialization and urbanization, the critiques of higher biblical criticism, and the growth Darwinism all helped to break early evangelicalism of its public, reforming voice, which was especially evident in the abolition movement. In response, it now whispered an overly simplistic literalism, largely devoid of an intellectual foundation, that shrank from public life — all the while bemoaning the moral decay into which the country was sinking.

But, Gerson notes, in the wake of H.L. Mencken’s public ridicule of evangelicals in the Scopes “monkey trial,” which further damaged their desire to engage in public life, evangelicals began slowly to construct a subculture around a variety of parachurch institutions. At their rise (or is it resurrection?), however, they were confronted by the rise of the sexual revolution. Met with such a force, how would evangelicalism respond?

Having shrunk from public discourse and essentially cut itself off from its past, evangelicalism did not have a theological resource from which to draw its public voice. Seeing itself as an attacked, belittled minority, it became reactive instead of proactive. The self-perception of evangelicals turned from the pioneer of justice to the bullied playground kid.

A Kingdom of Power

That bullied playground kid, stronger and more influential than he realized, started to become more like the bully, finding the source of his strength in self-assertion and political prowess. Evangelicalism found power, like everyone else, to be a pragmatic solution for re-establishing its voice in the public realm.

Men like Roy Moore, Jeff Sessions, Brett Kavanaugh, and Donald Trump — men whose values and actions often blatantly conflict with Christian ethics — have found support among many evangelicals because they speak “evangelese.” The reactive, anti-establishment rhetoric that they spout runs deeply in evangelical blood, and these men are fluent. And because they support a few key issues that evangelicals find to be essentially biblical (especially, abortion), they must be family.

But they are essentially sourced by what Saint Augustin calls “self-love reaching the point of contempt for God” (City of God, 14.28). The ruling principle is self-assertion, dominance, power. But as Augustine noted centuries ago, this is the result of the Fall. When Adam and Eve chose to thwart God’s authority for their own, their mandate to have dominion in the world (Gen 1:28) became corrupted.

This pollution of our creational mandate has become manifest not only in support of “strong men” but in rather uncritical support of violent power. To critique military spending and action or gun control laws is tantamount to heresy. These tools of domination are seen as establishing and securing life, liberty, and freedom — the essential values of the City of God.

World history has been marked ever since the Fall by an endless cycle of persons or people seeking domination and being dominated, often by the sword. That is not the City of God but essentially the City of Man. That is the city in which evangelicalism has been making a home. In doing so, we are runaways.

Returning Home

Returning home to the City of God means following the same path Jesus followed. In case you have forgotten, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. That way is characterized not by self-assertion but self-denial. Not by domination and violence but by submitting and serving. The Gospel of Mark displays this especially clearly.

Three times Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man must be betrayed, suffer, die, and be resurrected (8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). Peter finds this assertion so outrageous that he rebukes Jesus. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus adamantly exclaims. Peter’s rebuke is quite literally satanic.

“Be bold, Jesus!” Peter implies. “You are the Christ, the one who will save Israel from her oppressors! Take up arms; don’t passively set them down!”

In the Garden of Gethsemane as the soldiers reach to take Jesus away, Peter reveals the same mindset. Grabbing his sword, he slashes at the high priest’s servant, severing his ear grotesquely from his head. The words of Jesus recorded in Mark 10:42-45 must have never taken root in Peter.

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus establishes and rules his kingdom through self-sacrifice on behalf of many, through giving himself even to the point of humiliation and death on a cross. The greatest love, Scripture tells us, is this other-regarding love, and that is the foundation of the City of God.

Evangelicals must differ from the world, even in our politics, and refrain from continuing the sinful cycle of power grabs and aggression. This will take enlarging our imagination outside the limited purview of worldly political discourse and reminding ourselves that “some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7). The pre-exilic Israelites were constantly tempted to turn to Egypt, their previous oppressor and perceived counter-power, for salvation from Assyria (Isaiah 31). They couldn’t seem to recognize that a third option existed: trust in the Lord.

Trusting in him requires trusting that the Way is indeed the Truth and the Life, the only path to the Father. Trusting in him requires trusting that the means he set for establishing his kingdom — namely, self-giving love — is more effective than the more “realistic” approaches, which attempt to commandeer earthly power for heavenly use. Trusting in him requires taking our cue not from King Saul or Nebuchadnezzar but from King Jesus.

Power makes a poor spouse. It is never satisfied and breeds only struggle after struggle as world history demonstrably proves. The evangelical love affair with power (and those who seduce us with power) needs to die. Our home is with Christ. With him, we find that we do not need to be reactive, perceiving ourselves as the belittled and bullied. We do not need biting, reviling words and questionable politics to save the unborn or reestablish the covenant of marriage. Empowered by the Spirit to follow the cross of Christ, we can be other-regarding, loving pioneers of justice once more.

Having earned degrees from Southern Methodist University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Michael attempts to pass on what he has learned by teaching world and church history and apologetics. If he had to read theology and classic fiction for the rest of his life, though, he wouldn’t be sad about it. Michael loves his beautiful wife, Micaela.