Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The skewed priorities of American evangelicals

Evangelical leaders pray with President Donald Trump
'The Christian Right is neither Christian nor right.' This oft-quoted saying is not new, having been used to criticise American evangelicals for decades, but in light of recent events it is clear just how tragically accurate this irreverent statement really is. With white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, much of Texas underwater following the devastation of Hurricance Harvey, and the renewed threat of nuclear war from North Korea, this summer has brought its fair share of horrors. However the collective voice of American evangelicalism has chosen not to speak out on any of these crises, unless one counts a rambling statement from Texas pastor Robert Jeffress claiming that God has given Donald Trump the authority to 'take out' North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Instead, evangelical leaders have doubled down on their favourite pastime - condemning homosexuality - whilst remaining silent on the issues that matter and stubbornly refusing to condemn their increasingly erratic and cruel President.

Last week, 150 prominent figures from the evangelical world signed a 14-article document that has since become known as the Nashville Statement, a comprehensive affirmation of conservative beliefs regarding gender and sexuality. The Statement covered the usual points, condemning same-sex marriage and gender reassignment, but it also went further in its fundamentalism. Article VII appears to imply that 'practicing' LGBT people are beyond God's redemption, whilst Article X states that 'it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism' and denies that such issues are a secondary issue about which Christians can 'agree to disagree.' Among the signatories of this document are the pastor and writer John Piper, Anglican theologian JI Packer, and Focus On The Family founder James Dobson.

It beggars belief that evangelicals insist on talking about gender and sexuality in the week of Hurricane Harvey, and even some conservative Christians have criticised the timing of the Nashville Statement. Likewise, it is depressing (if utterly unsurprising) to see socially conservative voices attack LGBT rights once again whilst remaining silent when it comes to the conduct of President Trump. Indeed, several of the Statement's signatories are members of Trump's Evangelical Advisory Council, whilst many more supported and endorsed him during the presidential election. Opposition to homosexuality is a central plank of conservative evangelical belief, and whilst this is regrettable there are many good and principled people who hold such a view out of good conscience based on their interpretation of Scripture. However, when you condemn LGBT relationships whilst standing beside a serial adulterer who has boasted of his sexual exploits in the most vulgar language imaginable, you lose all moral credibility.

When these pro-Trump evangelicals attack homosexuality, it is clear that this is not a matter of principle or thoughtful Christian witness, but a bigoted last gasp from a group that is seeing its influence seep away. The culture wars are over, and they have been won by the liberals; same-sex marriage is now authorised in all fifty states, Roe v. Wade is here to stay, and an African-American has served as President whilst many more continue to serve in Congress, the Supreme Court and local and state government. That isn't to say that prejudice has disappeared - the election of Donald Trump proves that America still has a long way to go - but evangelicals know that irreversible progress has taken place on all of the hot-button issues that they care about so much. Backed into a corner and with public opinion increasingly turning against them, the Christian Right are becoming more and more shrill in the vain hope that it may help them to regain some kind of influence.

The Nashville Statement is a clear example of the prejudices of the Christian Right, but equally disturbing is the deafening silence from those same evangelical figures when it comes to more pressing concerns. When white supremacists whipped up violence in Charlottesville in a demonstration that ended up killing an innocent woman, there was no unified evangelical voice condemning these actions and the toxic racism that underpins them. When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last week, televangelist Joel Osteen shut the doors of his 17,000-seater Houston megachurch rather than taking in the displaced, and on Sunday he told victims of the storm not to wallow in a 'poor old me mentality.' And this week, with the Trump administration announcing the abolition of the Obama-era DACA scheme that allowed the children of illegal immigrants to apply for work and study permits, evangelicals seem to have little to say to those young people who now face deportation thanks to the cruelty of a President who won 80% of evangelical votes last November.

There is hope for the American Church, however, and outside of the fundamentalist churches lies a generous and inclusive Christianity which has more than stepped up to the mark on these issues and more. This hope is embodied in the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, who formed the core of the anti-racist counter-protests against the KKK and other white supremacist groups during last month's riots. It is also found in the several responses to the Nashville Statement from LGBT-affirming Christian leaders, from Nadia Bolz-Weber's 'Denver Statement' to the Christians United document which mirrored the format of the Nashville Statement but with a very different message, proclaiming the full acceptance, love and inclusion of LGBT people within the life of the Church. If American Christianity is to have a bright future it must resemble these brave voices and stand up for justice, equality and compassion, whilst rejecting the fundamentalist and morally compromised stance of the Christian Right.

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