Struggling to Understand…Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I’m struggling, and I’ve been struggling for the past several years, to understand that amorphous creature known as American Evangelicalism. Slowly, however, I’m beginning to come to some tentative conclusions.
I thought in the past that it was mainly a social or cultural movement, very much rooted in the conservative religious revival that took place in the late 1960s and the 1970s. In those days, however, politics was largely eschewed. At best, evangelicals of that period merely desired to have their voice heard on certain issues such as prayer in school. Something different is happening today. Rather than being one voice among many in a pluralistic society, many of today’s evangelicals would like to impose their “biblical worldview” on society at large. Moreover, while they speak of a “culture war” it is not. Rather than cultural, it has become profoundly political, and only overlaid with the thinnest of veneers of Christian faith. Indeed, it has in many ways, become the “folk religion” of America.
Folk religion, however, can seem very real.
When I first visited rural Mexico many years ago, I was amazed at how often I would come across small homemade shrines at a crossroad or at the edge of a small village. Often it would be a simple cross or a crucifix. Sometimes it would be a crude statue of Mary or a local saint. Often, it would be some other figure or symbol that seemed to hearken back to a pre-Christian past. Around the small shrine one would find “offerings” that had been left. A peso note under a stone, a pack of cigarettes or a St. Christopher medal draped on the figure or cross. When I asked the Roman Catholic priest I was traveling with what these shrines were all about, he replied that it wasn’t really an expression of Roman Catholicism with its structure of theology and liturgy, it was simply folk religion. It was a blend of Catholicism, legend, myth and societal attitudes, a classic example of religious and cultural syncretism. More than that, this folk religion was personal and transactional. There was no hierarchy of either people or virtues. It didn’t matter if you were a good mother raising your children, or if you were a drug dealer who had killed someone the day before; you could leave your offering and make a request. You didn’t have to show up in church. There was no real theology involved. There were no demands upon your conduct.
Now, American Evangelicalism does not express itself in roadside shrines. It does, however, express itself in other ways that, at least in my thinking, likewise have very little to do with historic Christianity and seem to have more to do with folk religion. Most of these expressions come out of a somewhat narrow definition of what constitutes a “biblical worldview”. This worldview appears to encompass, among other things, American exceptionalism, opposition to environmentalism, support of gun rights, opposition to immigration, support of gender hierarchy in the home and the church, opposition to public assistance for the poor, support of school privatization, and much more. Of course, I believe that all of these issues are worthy of debate. Yet, I also believe that men and women of good faith may land on opposite sides of such issues and still hold to a “biblical worldview” because, in the end, these issues are political, not biblical or theological, although all have biblical and theological implications. It is about obtaining power to enact an agenda and it has little, or nothing to do with historic Christianity and that is, in fact, syncretistic in nature. It is, I am coming to believe, a particular form of folk religion rooted in power and politics.
I cannot help but reflect on the early Church and how they viewed their place in society. From the second century we have this:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws in their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum up all in one word–what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.
During our current crisis, like you, I have witnessed the pastors who have refused to close down their church services and, thereby, have endangered not only their congregants but the community at large. Among the anti-lockdown protestors I have seen men dressed in tactical gear with AR-15s, some holding signs quoting verses of Scripture. All across social media, like you, I have witnessed those fostering conspiracy theories of one world government, vaccinations, etc., and have seen their anger and vitriol when challenged. While I treasure my own evangelical roots, this has caused me to question and ask “is this Church, or is it just folk religion”. I have no doubt that even among these there are people of faith and good will. I also believe, however, that it is a misguided faith increasingly divorced from the Gospel and the faith once delivered to the saints. As I wrote above, I’m still struggling to understand.