The Rise and Fall of the Para-Evangelical
To be a christian in America one no longer needs to believe in God. We’ve moved past him, outgrown him, evolved; not in words, but in action.
All this of course arose from a church movement that realized it was easier to influence people by telling them what to believe instead of teaching them how to believe. Calls for “the simple gospel” reduced the complexity of the world in which we live in order to control it and manipulate it. “Faith” equated to “certitude”, and any form of questioning and wrestling with the divine was relegated to apostate behavior. Truth became a blunt instrument in the hands of the self-appointed exceptional. This is not a new idea in the realm of religion by any measure. Read the words of Jesus to a politically elite class who bedded themselves with government in order to maintain the illusion of power:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27,28)
This outer shell of faith is no longer reserved for the privileged in a system where defending our rights is more important than any conversation on communal responsibility. For four decades a thirst for power and influence married with an illusion of a christian nation convinced many evangelical leaders to raise up a generation of christians on the defense for policy at the expense of personal intimacy with the Creator. The language of faith enabled many evangelicals to avoid self-reflection and critical reasoning skills in order to maintain perspectives on God’s will and the Church’s obligation to establish christendom that are ignorant and damaging. Faith is a great place to hide when one doesn’t want to think.
Over time, the external agendas of some of the evangelical movement eclipsed the heart of evangelicalism itself: to proclaim the good news of Jesus. It became more about taking something back and setting people straight than it was about leading people into an encounter with God. And who can blame evangelicals, when they themselves haven’t been equipped for true faith, the kind guided by a real-time connection to Christ, rather than a cursory nod over the shoulder to something that once was? This is BF Skinner’s behavioral modification educational theory on steroids. The product is two generations of believers sputtering along on rumors of what God is like, lacking the tools for a truly confessional faith.
Action: Take back the country. God is on our side. Defend the faith. End scene.
Consider this the rise of the “para-evangelical”, people who on the surface continue to operate how they’ve been told a christian is to act (read:vote), but without the nagging ambivalence of a God fully revealed in Jesus that keeps our brute reactions in check with pesky scripture passages like the sermon on the mount. The outer vestiges of the “moral majority” are still intact, but the core has rotted out of the faith. Para-evangelicals continue to fight, but have lost the plot to why there was fight in the first place.
For almost half a century, political machines have been able to use further behavior conditioning with a simple formula that preys on the fearful: It’s dangerous out there (unlike it used to be), it’s Their fault (your tribe are the victims), and We are the Only Ones who can fix it. Over time, Jesus no longer needed to be the answer, for powerful men with hollow promises had taken his place. The perfunctory nods over the shoulder to acknowledge God as our source steadily became more routine. Before long, God-language in the public arena is akin to the garnish on a Thanksgiving turkey: it’s there, it’s part of the tradition, but it doesn’t seem to serve much practical purpose. When we do something because it’s what we’ve always done, it is only a matter of time before it fades into obscurity. Two sentences from Donald Trump and the evangelical vote was his.
So now we find a large portion of the populace who believe all the things they were told to believe by the offspring of Church/State adultery, lacking the awareness of the lack of God in their faith. The empire has had its way with her, and she is no longer necessary.
“Their mother has been unfaithful
and has conceived them in disgrace.
She said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
who give me my food and my water,
my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.’” (Hosea 2:5)
Yes, Americans are abandoning God. But it’s not the ones you might think. The scandal of the golden calf incident at the foot of Mount Sinai was its approximation of Yahweh-on-top-of-the-mountain, the attempt to reduce the divine to a more manageable, and ultimately more controllable, size. A nice little idol that exists merely to reinforce what we want to believe is true.
Does this kind of forensic analysis make us feel better? Rarely. But it does, God willing, give us some forward direction in coming back to the kind of people He has called us to be, in the time and place He has established us. We must begin with lament, and the call to confession that comes with it. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We must repent, come home, to God as He truly is.
I must admit, I am in conflict when it comes to my relationship with the para-evangelical. As the Holy Church, we are called to unity and compassion. I, for one, believe unity is less an objective we attain to as it is a gift from above. It is our responsibility to steward the gift well, but we can’t easily break it. Perhaps my rush to distance myself from the evangelical or para-evangelical tribes is a mode of self-preservation wherein I don’t have to stare down my own flawed beliefs and practices. Perhaps this is the challenge of unity – to transcend our standard measurements of who’s in and who’s out in order to be refined by the process of unconditional love. It may take time to resolve this discord within myself.
I have hope. I really do. Perhaps not for this country, but for the modern church. The para-evangelical devolution is the last gasp of fundamentalism lashing out at a world that is rapidly changing. This election, God willing, will be the one to finally kill off the idea that we are a christian nation and the Republican party is the christian party. I was encouraged this summer by the wide diversity of thinkers considering the various options for believers on voting day, upending conventional wisdom. We’re starting to think again, to challenge skeletal assumptions as our inheritance.
I see in my generation a significant portion of Jesus followers freed from the shackles of christendom. We are reclaiming our ability to ask questions, dig deep, and discover a divine imagination to meet the world as God’s faithful presence beyond the voting booth. The reality is, we are reaping the consequences for generational sins of those who came before, and the echoing repercussions take a long time to abate. Many have tragically left the faith entirely because they have not entered a safe space to explore the faith, find acceptance, and love transcendently. But there remains a renewed effort by many who do not feel so bound to old ways of thinking to engage a complex world with bravery and compassion.
We need to work harder to create communities of faith that do not seek to control by certitude or squash questioning, but embrace them as the process of faith. In that space, we need to give genuine direction to the journeys so many are on, lest they find themselves ambling through life without context.
We need to ask ourselves, “what is the Church directly called to do about (insert political/social issue here)?”. The era of the single-issue christian voter is coming to a close, and we need to make sure we are putting as much energy, if not more, into being God’s answer for the pain of the world as we are expecting the government to do our job for us. To sit back and expect politicians to legislate morality so we don’t have to share the good news is nothing less than idolatry.
We need to know the God Who is revealed in Jesus. We cannot exist as a faith community with such small visions of God. We need to get back into the scriptures. We need to sink our teeth into the rich Great Tradition of the Church as she has stood for two thousand years, listening to the words of our brothers and sisters who remained faithful in dire times. We need to encourage both personal and communal encounter with the Holy Spirit today, learning to hear His voice and let Him guide us and protect us as He did Israel in the desert.
We need to accept the fact that we are called to be strange, set apart, different. We cannot play games with conforming to the surrounding culture in order to make ourselves relevant. The gospel isn’t relevant; it’s Truth. And that’s better. Christian ethicist Stanley Stanley Hauerwas writes, “We want to claim the church’s ‘oddness’ as essential to its faithfulness”. When we embrace who God has crafted us to be in this place and this time, we will see His Kingdom advance in ways we couldn’t imagine.