Fear, Power, Nostalgia: Are These Sentiments Driving Evangelicalism Today?

Oct 28th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

1 John 2:15-16: Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”  [ESV]

Hebrews 3:13:  “But exhort one another every day . . . that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”  [ESV]

The church of Jesus Christ is living in an age of turmoil.  How we respond to this turmoil is indicative of our faith and our view of God.  Often, we as Christians give the appearance of loving the world and the things of the world, the reason I began this Perspective with a quote from 1 John 2.  Furthermore, we often give in to the quest for power and allow the “deceitfulness of sin” to shape our decisions and goals for this life—the reason I quoted from Hebrews 3.  Indeed, John Fea, history professor at Messiah College, writes that “For too long, white evangelical Christians have engaged in public life through a strategy defined by the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and a nostalgic longing for a national past that may have never existed in the first place.”

In this Perspective, I will explore the sentiments of fear, power and nostalgia, which seem rather strikingly to be driving many American evangelicals today.

  • First, Daniel Schrock, pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Wheaton Illinois writes that “What is historically novel, however, is the way that social media companies have monetized hysteria.  Click means money.  And few things monopolize social media feeds like large-scale crises . . . Cable news channels work hard to keep at least one of your eyes on their relentless reporting of scandal and calamity—that is, with a few commercial breaks along the way.”  In addition, they “harness your apprehensions with raging diatribes that pass themselves off as political and social commentary.  The politicians themselves tap the power of this foreboding and build their platforms atop handwringing neuroses.  We live amid a cadre of forces that traffic in our angst and anger.”

It is for this reason that the words of Jesus are so instructive.  He warns us in Matthew 6:25-34, against anxiety and fear by re-ordering our priorities:  “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”  Furthermore, as He delivers His great Olivet Discourse using Day of the LORD language about the end of the age, He commands, “See to it that you are not alarmed.”  As Schrock argues, this is a tall order “especially when we consider that in our fallenness we bear an innate aptitude for alarmism.  Implementing Jesus’ admonition requires self-discipline and self-awareness.”

What are the prerogatives of the church in times of upheaval and crisis?  One, undoubtedly, is the discipline of tranquility of spirit.  “Fearmongering and vitriol will do nothing to set us apart from the world, even if they are induced by our support of otherwise righteous causes . . . The peace [of God] does not come from our own resources.  It comes to us through the preaching of the Word . . . Christian calm is downstream from the means of grace.  So what is the principal thing that the church must do in times of crisis?  . . . The chief prerogative of the church amid crisis is to preach the gospel, which heralds a peace that transcends and subjugates the fretful concerns of this passing age . . . Jesus does not envision His church’s turning the tide of crisis of this passing age by means of frenzied political and social activism.  He envisions it’s doing so by preaching the gospel.  It is the driving force that impels the movement of time to the appointed hour when the whole of creation will finally be set free from its bondage of decay (Romans 8:19-23).”  Massaging a slogan from World War II in England (“keep clam and carry on”), Christians would do well to live by this slogan:  “Keep calm and preach on.”

  • Second, is the sentiment of power. I repeat a few paragraphs from a Perspective I wrote in August:  “I must also embrace the key axiom that I am a fallen creature, and that my dependence on God, as His child because of my faith in His Son, is more important than anything else in life.  It is even important when I engage in the various aspects of my citizenship role in this democratic-republic.  But, as historian Robert McKenzie argues, this understanding faced an early and serious challenge in a political movement that we’d recognize today—the Jacksonian populism of the 1820s and well into the 20th century, the idea that “the people” were, in fact, righteous enough to rule. “You see echoes today in the constant refrain from the Trumpist right that ‘we the people’ represent the ‘real America,’ the virtuous core that can save the nation from what they see as a decadent left.”  This very concept was, and is, destructive to its core. The sense of virtue creates a sense of righteous entitlement. In Christian America, the belief that “we” are good leads to the conviction that the churches will suffer, our nation will suffer and our families will suffer unless “we” run things. It closes our hearts and minds to contrary voices and opposing ideas.”  As French concludes, “And what’s the new right’s response to its theory of the left’s use of power? Fight fire with fire. Take over institutions. They tried to cancel us? Cancel them. They bullied us? Bully them . . . This is a fundamentally top-down model of culture change, and it’s not entirely off. Leaders can have a profound cultural impact, and we have seen that when institutions are captured by a monoculture, they can grow intolerant. There has, in fact, been too much bullying in elite American institutions.”

For that reason, I find French’s comments about original sin so compelling:  “Under this understanding of Scripture, we are all our own greatest enemy—Christians as fully as those who do not share our beliefs. We do not, either as individuals or as a religious movement, possess an inherent virtue that should entitle any of us to rule. We shun the will to power because we rightly fear our own sin, and we protect the liberty of others because we do not possess all wisdom and we need to hear their ideas.  Of course that is not to say that external voices and ideas can have no negative effect in our lives. We might be our own greatest enemy, but we’re not our only enemy. But if we are deeply flawed, then that realization has to profoundly impact how we approach politics. It has to temper our confidence that we either can control or should control the public square.  This proper skepticism about human virtue pervades the Constitution. At every turn, the power of government is hemmed in. Each branch checks the other. The people check the government, and the government checks the people. The Bill of Rights attempts to safeguard our most fundamental human rights from government overreach or the tyranny of the mob. No faction can be trusted with unchecked authority.”

In the current evangelical quest for political power, I find Michelle Goldberg’s distinction between movements that seek converts and movements that hunt heretics quite helpful.  Evangelicals falling in line with their political heroes do not seek converts to their cause; they pursue as heretics those who disagree with them, even if they are fellow Christians.  For that reason, French suggests that we as Christians recognize our “existential humility,” one that  acknowledges the limits of our own wisdom and virtue. “Existential humility renders liberty a necessity, not merely to safeguard our own beliefs but also to safeguard our access to other ideas and arguments that might help expose our own mistakes and shortcomings.  Who is wrong? I am wrong. We are wrong. Until the church can give that answer, its political idealism will meet a tragic and destructive end. The attempt to control others will not preserve our virtue, and it risks inflicting our own failures on the nation we seek to save.”

  • Finally, a closing comment on the sentiment of nostalgia.  This sentiment is perhaps captured most poignantly in the current political  slogan, “Make America Great Again.”  The operative phrase in the slogan is of course “great again.”  But what does that mean? Fea writes “For white Americans, making America great again invokes nostalgia for days gone by.  America was great when the economy was booming, or when the culture was less coarse, or when the nuclear family looked like the Cleaver family on Leave It to Beaver, or when public school children prayed and read the Bible at the start of each day.  But when African Americans look back they see the oppression of slavery, the burning crosses, the lynched bodies, the poll taxes and literacy tests, the separate but unequal schools, the ‘colored only’ water fountains, and the backs of buses” (p. 155)

As Christians, we must be careful when we approach history from the vantage point of nostalgia.  Indeed, King Solomon warns us in Ecclesiastes 7:10, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”  Black evangelical Christians have a very different view of the “good old days” than white evangelical Christians.  Humility and love for one another must dictate our understanding of the past—not nostalgia.

See Daniel Schrock in Tabletalk (September 2023), pp.68-69; David French, “Who Truly Threatens the Church?” in the New York Times (9 July 2023); John Fea, The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump; and Glenn R. Kreider in Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 2021), pp. 507-509.

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