Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, which is perhaps the largest evangelical seminary in the nation and surely one of the most influential, recently spoke to a gathering of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College on the crisis of American evangelicalism. The speech amounts to a cri de coeur in line with a similar recent eruption from Michael Gerson, the famous George W. Bush speechwriter and columnist for the Washington Post.
Gerson’s long form piece in The Atlantic prosecutes a rather trenchant criticism of historical and contemporary evangelicalism and says it is an essentially reactive political movement that sees itself as besieged and lacking self-confidence. Labberton launches a similar critique from the left of Gerson and asserts that American evangelicals are power hungry oppressors who have compromised themselves deeply in the name of gaining political power.
The spirit and substance of Labberton’s remarks are not too dissimilar from the views of Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and many on the evangelical left who say that the way of Jesus means giving up power and, conversely, siding with the powerless and dispossessed. The church should not seek to implement policies nor engage in politics because the church rejects the power game for a completely different game. Labberton declares, “But winning power was the goal of Judas, not Jesus. A Faustian pact between evangelicals and power—even when claimed on behalf of the kingdom—cannot be entered in the name of Jesus Christ without betraying the abdication of power inherent in the incarnation.”
Get the point? Christians are not supposed to exercise power because Jesus did not exercise power. A strange statement when read in light of other passages in the gospels that declare Jesus is going to return to judge the living and the dead. One would imagine executing judgment on the nations will require some effort and power.
On what ground does Labberton offer this argument? Well, no ground. He quotes Romans 1:16 and Philippians 2:5-8 as proof texts that Christians should dispense with the zero-sum game of power politics altogether. Of course, these passages make no such claim, and Labberton merely presses them into service for his argument that Christians should abandon politics.
The long history of Christian reflection on such matters does not share Labberton’s confidence that “God so loved the world” means the rejection of power and worldly politics. His laments would sound like lingering pietist evangelicalism, except Labberton does have much to say about all sorts of issues concerning politics and justice in race, economics, and foreign policy.
The problem with evangelicals, Labberton tells us, is that their history is one of compromise with power that must be repented of. On issues of race, evangelicals are merely the willing toadies of white supremacists, or worse, the active persecutors. No evidence is offered, just bald assertion: “Our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story.” Here we are treated to the standard progressive claim that “people of color” live under a constant assault from racism and that “white evangelical racism” and their “racist gospel” are responsible. Is the story really that simple?
On both the issues of nationalism and economic justice, evangelicals are also presented as anti-gospel. Evangelicals are national jingoists and supply-side defenders, which, Labberton tells us, is not what Jesus would approve of. In a confused passage, Labberton muses, “The people of God are to follow an enemy-loving God, as exemplified by the life of Jesus. This is part of the call to our new and peculiar life. This is not meant to dictate national foreign policy, but to hold the people of God to a more severe and demanding standard, calling on our conscience when it comes to foreign policy in relation to the citizens of foreign, militarized, even violent states who are equally loved by God.” Can the bible tell us anything about how to engage in international politics? Apparently not, but, then again, yes.
What is so perplexing about this Jeremiad is that it presents the Christian gospel as wholly opposed to political conservatism and completely aligned with political progressivism, but offers no argument for it. It is mostly just assertion, assumption, and pontification with only a light sprinkling of scriptural texts. Without using power somehow, how does the Christianity that is espoused in this denunciation interact with politics?
As a scholar who specifically focuses on the history of politics and religion, I found myself completely confused as to how he gets from point A to point B. He takes a couple verses and then makes bold political claims without connecting the dots. For instance, I did not know that Jesus’ views on foreign policy and taxes could be gleaned from a few scriptural citations. In the past, medieval theologians argued endlessly over the jurisdiction of papal power and its relationship to royal power. Luther and Calvin each developed variations on the Augustinian two cities. Liberal protestants at the turn of the twentieth century developed a coherent social gospel theology to guide them in their pursuits. Labberton, in contrast, seems to be guided almost completely by the pieties of contemporary progressives. Christians have developed different political programs based on theology and the reading of scripture, but the work must be done rather than assumed.
For someone who claims not to advocate for the political left, Labberton picks a very telling list of crises points: power, race, economics, and nationalism. Noticeably absent from his list are issues that most concern evangelicals and the reasons why some, not all, ostensibly voted for Trump: religious liberty and related issues, family and marriage, supreme court and other judicial appointments, abortion, etc. Turns out the crisis points are not crisis points at all but political differences dressed up in the garb of hyperbole. Politicization of Christianity is a temptation and a threat to evangelicalism, but instead of offering a better way, we’re presented a political platform with a shallow theological justification.
Perhaps most perplexing about this call to repentance is that it comes from the president of an evangelical seminary. Studied preachers, which apparently Labberton is, usually build a come-to-Jesus moment into their sermons. In this case, however, instead of coming to Jesus we are supposed to embrace a contemporary progressive social agenda. This does not strike me as good news.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Chris Tomlin performs in Johnson City, TN. By David Joyce, via Flickr.