by Elle Berry | 30 May 2021 |
I’ve followed this person on Instagram for a while. She’s not someone I know personally, but she posts about her faith and her mental health, and I’ve sometimes thought that if I met her I think she’s someone I would want to be friends with.
A few weeks ago she recommended a show I should watch. I went to Google and typed in the name of this show, which happens to be a Christian show. What I thought was a trailer came up. I hit play, but within a few moments I realized it wasn’t a trailer, but the director providing some commentary about the work. He started to explain the funding of the project, and how it’d been crowd-sourced, and then flashed some images of news organizations that were endorsing it—all of them politically conservative news sites.
I didn’t watch any more. I closed the window and did not return.
While this reaction may not be ideal, it is honest. Deep hostility and breathtaking grief arise in me when I think about what has happened in the American church.
I’ve written before about how hard church is for me. I’ve talked about how it’s hard because I’m an introvert. I’ve also talked about how women’s ordination is a particular grievance to me in the Adventist church, and how I believe it implicates other structural problems in the church that I cannot minimize or ignore. These are all true.
But there is also this tender place I guard like a wound—too complicated to be a mere gadfly, too traumatic to make light of. It is something I haven’t previously addressed, perhaps because it is a wound too fresh. This oversight may feel large, but it’s also intentional.
I’m talking about religion and politics.
These are not topics of polite conversation, probably because when convictions run hot it can too easily become a way to lose friends. I write about it now only because it feels important.
As I closed the video of this Christian show, the thought that came to my mind was “Politics in America has tainted everything good.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when I could have watched the show. Yes, like much Christian art there would have likely been some comical and groan-worthy aspects. But it wouldn’t have been political endorsements that steered me away.
“Christian” has become synonymous, especially here in the United States, with the Evangelical movement.
Most Christians in the world aren’t Evangelicals; there is a rich and global population included in this cloud of witnesses to which we belong. But increasingly the Evangelical movement has grown and infiltrated almost every branch of the Christian church.
As a basic definition of Evangelical belief, LifeWay Research offered these four statements:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Most of these statements align with, in varying degrees, standard Protestant beliefs. What is perhaps less understood is how these beliefs have come to be understood in churches.
For instance take biblical authority. Among Evangelicals it generally means biblical inerrancy. As Matthew Quartey notes, “It is only recently—1970s and early 1980s — that entire Christian denominations have advocated for this position, a phenomenon that peaked with the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.”
LifeWay’s four-part definition isn’t what Evangelicals are known for these days. With biblical inerrancy widely accepted, the scaffolding for statements like “the Bible is clear” are easily established. Then, like dust-bunnies trailing behind a Roomba, Evangelicalism drags a whac-a-mole chorus line of biblical text-picking fundamentalisms. This uncomprehensive list of “biblical” items includes things like gender-based complementarianism (the idea that women were created as subordinate to men), LGBTQ exclusion, anti-abortion, capitalism as the only Biblical economic model, limited government, “cultural superiority” (most commonly manifest as some variety of European/white cultural dominance), justification for torturing terrorists, genocide, the death penalty—oh, and of course, various presentations of purity rules (pertaining mostly to sex and women’s modesty and behavior.)
Not all Evangelicals support all of these. Even so, as concerns about cultural relevance have grown, many Evangelical leaders have aligned themselves with political power in order to accomplish all of these things. Which means the movement has become unapologetically associated with political conservatism in the United States. Where perhaps there once was room for nuance in a Biblical interpretation, that room no longer exists, as nuance doesn’t poll well in elections nor does it provide a platform for a political “moral” majority.
While securing political power shouldn’t dominate theological decision making, it has done so for many church leaders in the United states. Take, for instance, abortion; a topic historically approached by Protestants as a medical decision, with acceptance of a woman’s autonomy before God. This is no longer the case: abortion is now a hard party line, and from a theological perspective one can hardly broach the subject without the threat of excommunication.
Politically, this means that many who say they follow Jesus find themselves voting a party line based on such fundamental interpretations that reflect that notion that “the Bible is clear” in regard to abortion or socialism or feminism or gender or whatever the topic of the day might be.
The Bible is clear, so the church is clear, and therefore the vote is clear. Should one disagree with any of these “clear” determinations—or more importantly should one find their personal convictions deviate from a party platform—it matters not.
Those who think about this for a moment may identify some problems: namely, that the Bible is in fact nuanced. It’s beautiful, geriatric, complicated, cultivated by human care, and sometimes contradictory.
Additionally, political parties, and politicians, make poor messiahs. Loyalty tests that tie moral justification and community acceptance to a political platform, while minimizing other biblical messages, will in doing so create a dissonance that many cannot abide. That said, it shouldn’t be surprising that around 39% of those raised evangelical Christian are no longer identifying as such by adulthood. As Christian ethicist David Gushee notes, “What we are seeing is not just rebellion against parents or normal ebb and flow. We are witnessing conscientious objection.” Sadly, many church leaders, rather than view this mass exodus as a mark of integrity, instead see it as yet more confirmation that evil is rampant, consoling themselves with the half-baked idea that those people were never “true believers.”
Adventists neither claim Evangelicals as their tribe, nor do Evangelicals claim us. Furthermore, Adventist have yet to fall neatly into a party voting bloc, as most Evangelicals do. In fact, historically, Adventist stood firmly against mingling church and state… so we’re good, right?
What I have found over the last few years, as I voice my own concerns, is that the concerns voiced by my post-Evangelical friends are almost indistinguishable from the concerns of my Adventist friends. Or, to put it another way, the dissonance leading people to leave Evangelicalism is familiar to, and resonating with, those leaving Adventism. D.G. Hart has noted “It is curious that the evangelical movement in the United States is so oppressive that it can claim even those who do not want to belong to it”—a critique I am finding to be strikingly true.
I believe one can trace Evangelical infiltration into the Adventist church. While several examples come to mind, one that I did not realize until recently has to do with biblical inerrancy. In After Evangelicalism Gushee writes, “Traditions that had never used the language of inerrancy to describe the Bible now felt the need to write one of fundamentalism’s core tenets into their faith statement.”
Which naturally led me to investigate if this was true for Adventists. I didn’t need to look far. In fact, much like their Evangelical counterpoints who assimilated such statements into the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the General Conference session, under the guidance of Neal Wilson, moved from 22 to 27 Fundamental beliefs in 1980—and yes, one of those statements included an infallibility statement.
The timing of the statement could not be more on the nose. And while many Adventist theologians may not have taken it to heart, that there is such a fundamental belief makes it easy for people in local churches to absorb the dominant Christian culture. This is likely one reason why those raised Adventist can relate so strongly to post-Evangelical writers such as the late author Rachel Held Evans.
Biblical inerrancy is only one way that Adventism has “updated” its language to mirror the wider American church. Women’s ordination, creation, and abortion are all issues that have been narrowed into more fundamentalist definitions in recent years. And while perhaps Adventism was always ripe for such fundamentalism to take root, the church less and less seems to counter Evangelical ideas.
Meanwhile, I am having related conversations with my Adventist-raised friends—many no longer in the church. One tells me, “I feel strange identifying as an Adventist these days.” Another says, “I still believe in God, but I don’t want to be aligned with Christians.”
As I struggled to write this article, I realized there was one thing they all agreed on: that I was attempting to voice something they hadn’t been able to articulate, and that I should try to do so.
The Republican party is splitting right now. A loyalty test is being presented: that to be a real Republican one must support the former president. Evangelicals, too, have also advanced a loyalty test: to be Christian one must be Republican.
Though, as Gushee says, the Bible cannot be said to produce a single coherent political vision, it continues to be tried. The Bible has been used to bolster theocracies, royalists, authoritarians, fascists, ethno-nationalists, colonialists, Christian democrats, revolutionaries, libertarians, socialists, and yes… white, evangelical Republicans.
Which leads us to the present situation in the United States, and the fact that the social implications of being Christian are being confabulated with a political party (and by extension that party’s leaders.) While Adventists are not as politically associated yet as are other Evangelicals, Adventists have increasingly aligned with Evangelical dogmas, and these ideas are having consequences. The painful truth is that many are leaving—or at least hovering in the door—not because they’ve lost faith in God, but because they feel dissonance with, and betrayal by, the church.
This is my trauma, too. It flares unexpectedly. I can’t even watch a movie clip without rage or grief riding shotgun. The church remains full of people I love, yet the institution presses onward in a direction I cannot follow. This leaves me feeling neither safe in the church nor at home in the world. I want to leave you with some gloriously hopeful thought, yet I find myself in a season of lament. The only thing I can really offer is solidarity for those who, like me, find themselves caught in the liminal space, and for those still seeking the God who is near to the broken-hearted.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.