A Tale of Two Christians

Today we are going to look at a tale of two Christians.  The contrast between the two is, I think, very illuminating and instructive as to where we are and what is valued in American Christianity nowadays.

Both are public figures, very public and very outspoken in their Christian commitments.  Both are professional athletes who excelled in their sport, though neither is actively playing now.  Both are active in philanthropy and in giving back to their respective communities.  Both have drawn massive amounts of public and media attention, though for different reasons.  Both were known for kneeling publicly at key moments in their games, though for different reasons (more on this later).  That is where the similarities end.

One is revered in American Christianity; the other is reviled.  One knelt publicly as an act of private prayer; the other as an act of public protest.

I think you can see where this is going.  One is Tim Tebow; the other is Colin Kaepernick.

Tim Tebow is the darling of American Christianity and especially American evangelicalism.  Evangelical young women want him; evangelical young men want to be him.  Tebow was a standout at Florida where he played on two national championship teams in three years; he went on to a not-quite-so-distinguished NFL career and is now playing minor league baseball.  Tebow is best known for his Bible verse eye black, his longstanding involvement with his father’s missions organization, and his outspoken commitments to pro-life and sexual purity until marriage.  His signature move, kneeling down in private prayer after a big score, is called “Tebowing”.  These things resonate in many parts of American evangelicalism.

Colin Kaepernick is the villain of American Christianity and especially American evangelicalism.  His name attracts a volume of disdain equal only to that of Satan himself.  It is impossible to speak sufficiently evil of him; the more evil you speak of him, the closer you are to God.  Kaepernick had been a standout at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.  But in 2016 he began to kneel during the performance of the national anthem, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in protest of police violence against black people.  This attracted a boatload of vitriol; fans posted videos of burning his jersey, he was voted the most disliked player in the NFL, and he even received death threats.  He was blamed for a drop in NFL TV ratings due to fans boycotting because of his protests (NFL ratings were declining long before he started protesting but that’s beside the point).  And when he was cut by the 49ers, denunciation and ridicule among evangelicals was fast and furious.  God opposes the proud, they said.  Look how the mighty have fallen.

If you’re looking for proof that civil religion is back, here it is.  Think about it.  Civil religion has a creed:  the Pledge of Allegiance.  It has a Bible:  the Constitution.  It has a Cross:  the American flag.  It has a Savior:  The American military.  It has a hymn:  the national anthem.  All these things are idols before which all must bow.  Refuse to do so–no matter what your reasons–and you are eternally accursed; your condemnation was written about from the dawn of time.  Colin Kaepernick ran afoul of this dictum and has brought the denunciation of all of American evangelicalism upon himself.

Yet even more than this, the contrast between Tebow and Kaepernick reveals a bifurcation in American Christianity.  There are two distinct variations; each looks with distrust and disdain upon the other.  One is committed to personal salvation and private devotion; the other is committed to public activism and social/political transformation.  One is vehemently opposed to private sins like abortion and gay marriage; the other is equally vehement in its denunciation of public sins like racial discrimination.

The truth is, we need both.  Public activism is fruitless unless it is motivated by a spiritual root and a vital connection with the living God; private devotion is equally useless unless it results in a life of care and concern for others.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it, we should be “awed to heaven, rooted in earth”, able to “join the angels in praise, and keep our feet in time and place”.  We need the reality of a vital connection to God while recognizing that people are the heart of God’s care and concern and how one treats other people matters immensely to God.

Compare this with the American civil religion which is all over the place in American evangelicalism and which doesn’t give a shit how you treat other people as long as you stand when the national anthem is being played.

Another Look: Charles Featherstone on Civil Religion

With our recent discussion of the American civil religion that is rife in evangelicalism, especially at this time of year, I wanted to return to a couple of posts Charles Featherstone has written on the subject of American civil religion that I have linked previously.

In “The Problem of Modernity“, Featherstone’s jumping-off point is a PSA from the 1950s urging Americans to go to church because the world is in a chaotic state and in need of morally strong individuals and because church can be a place of comfort during difficult times in one’s life.  The focus here is entirely on the individual and the nation.  No mention of the Church, of God, or of Jesus Christ, except as an assumed but unimportant presence.  There is nothing distinctively Christian here as by that time Jews were full participants in the American civic faith.

In “Belonging…Or Not“, Featherstone critiques a David Brooks piece written in reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem.  Brooks’ big idea is that the national anthem is one of the rituals of the American civil religion that binds us all together as a people.  Failure to participate in this ritual undercuts the very thing which holds us together as a people.  Thus Kaepernick was basically biting off the hand that fed him because his actions undercut any sense of obligation that other Americans might have felt for him, and thus any platform by which he might have been able to agitate for social change.  Brooks’ argument fails to take into account that American civil religion is built upon exclusion of some class or other, and that for those who are excluded there is no possible repentance, sacrifice, or restoration to community.  You can say the Pledge of Allegiance, stand during the national anthem, etc. all day long, but at the end of the day you will still be excluded if the powers-that-be in American civil religion have decided that you are to be excluded.  There is nothing you can do to change this status.

In the end, American civil religion has no power to save.  It reduces us as the Church to a mere pawn of the state whose sole raison d’etre is to produce good citizens, not necessarily good Christians.  It tells an alternate story in which our story, the story of God’s plan to rescue a fallen humanity via Israel which reached its shocking and unexpected climax in the person of Jesus Christ, takes a backseat to the story of science and progress and democracy and America as a Christian nation.  It is distressing to see that civil religion has gained such a foothold in American evangelicalism, because it is causing us to forget our story, to forget who we are and whose we are.

Civil Religion Is Back

Civil religion is back.  With a vengeance.

Feast your eyes on this announcement from the website of First Baptist Dallas.  Their pastor, Robert Jeffress, has been one of American evangelicalism’s most vociferous supporters of Donald Trump.

People, this is not Christianity.  Never has been, and never will be.

I get it.  Well, I’m trying to, at any rate.  Many of you are longing for a return to what you see as a more stable, moral, and prosperous period of our history back in the mid-20th century.  You think back on those times as the “good old days”.  But there were no good old days.  There were, however, times when certain expressions of Christian culture and morality held sway in the halls of power and in the cultural imagination.  So when you say you long for the “good old days”, it’s just a thinly veiled way of saying you long for the days when we white Christian males were in charge.

Not a very Christian attitude, people.

You see, the so-called “good old days” had a seamy underbelly, and many who were not straight white Christian males experienced the full brunt of it.  Segregation was the order of the day.  The KKK was rampant.  A woman’s place was, by and large, in the home.  And all of this was considered part and parcel of the Christian message and witness.

What we had back then was a Christianity that basically wiped its ass with the very people for whom Jesus Christ came to earth and died on a Roman cross.  As long as they were not straight Christian white males.

People, our calling as Christians is to love God, love our neighbors, and even to love our enemies.  These elements are notoriously lacking in the civil religion that now holds sway in much of evangelicalism.

Our calling as Christians is not to promote the civil religion of any nation or political party, to seek power at any and all possible cost, and then to wave the flag and/or the cross in the face of any and all who hold dissenting views.  Such behaviors fly in the face of loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving our enemies.

I find it appalling that so many prominent evangelical leaders like Robert Jeffress are falling all over themselves to support this…I don’t know how to call him.  Though he is courting white evangelicals as part of his power base, it is perfectly clear that he shares nothing whatsoever in common with us except the lust for power and control.

This is not going to end well, people.

I’ve said this before and will say it again:  Think of it through the grid of “What does love require of me?”  I refuse to accept that what love requires of me is to support a candidate whose message consists entirely of sheer, unbridled hatred and anger directed against those who are not straight white Christian males.  No one can convince me otherwise.  Not even Robert Jeffress.