Is Evangelicalism Imploding?

The Netflix documentary, The Family, demonstrates the way in which the name “Jesus” has been deployed as a Master Signifier (an empty marker holding ideology together) by one of the most prominent Christian organizations. The documentary hints at a conspiracy but what it demonstrates is the replacement of doctrine and specific teaching (the organization produces its own version of the Bible, entitled Jesus, consisting only of the Gospels) with ideology. Doug Coe, the primary force behind the Family or Fellowship, understood that the work of “Jesus” was most effectively done the “more you can make your organization invisible.” Invisibility and plasticity (a willingness to welcome everyone with power into the fellowship) has made of “prayer” and “Jesus” the all-inclusive tent which has not only included every sitting president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower (all have attended the National Prayer Breakfast) but has included operatives from Russia (e.g. Marina Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an illegal foreign agent), genocidal dictators, Muslim potentates, as well as being connected to the crushing of organized labor domestically, and an international effort to promote “family values” (an anti-gay/lesbian agenda).  

The invisible center to the Family may be the factor which the documentary misrepresents. That is, we keep watching the documentary expecting there to be some final disclosure, some secret essence, some “it” factor to the Family. As with every ideology, there is nothing at the center other than the presumption that there is some essence which escapes full disclosure. It is the function of ideology which Jeff Sharlet (the author of the books on which the documentary is based and the central voice in the film) describes but fails to name.  In his description, the organization revolves around “Jesus” as an empty center but mainly functions as an organization of political power. The agenda of the group is to connect with, among others, “financiers and industrialists, congressmen, television industry, news industry, state governments, seminaries and churches, junior executives.” Power and influence will cover a multitude of sins – most visible in the organization’s endorsement (anointing) of Donald Trump. As the group previously demonstrated with Mark Sanford (the governor and congressman who went missing for 6 days and later admitted he was with his girlfriend) once the group decides God has chosen you, most anything goes (Sanford was persuaded by the Family not to resign and is now considering a run for president).

The film, like the Trump presidency, is a demonstration of the manner in which conservative American Christianity coalesces around an absence. Evangelicalism, with its focus on future heavenly rewards, imputed or theoretical righteousness, penal substitution, and faith devoid of works, presents the perfect empty vessel. The ethics of the meek and lowly Jesus is as disconnected from the Family’s pursuit of power as sexual purity is from Jimmy Swaggart or nonviolence from Jerry Falwell Jr. or identity with the poor from Joel Osteen.  A religion with an empty center reveals its structuring principle by what it pursues. Power, sex, money, represent the object of desire (objet petit a or the impossible object of desire), which indicates ideology reigns in place of the anti-ideology of the faith of Christ; which is not to say those in the Family understand ideology anymore than Jimmy can understand illicit sexual desire, or Jerry can understand violence and power, or Joel can understand love of money.

The Family, like the evangelicalism from which it springs, reproduces forms of idolatrous religion because it is of the same mold (nothing is made an absolute something). The presumption of a fundamental antagonism (whether between foreigners and citizens, liberals and conservatives, heterosexuals and homosexuals) means definition by opposition or by what it is not. The Family, as with evangelicalism, takes as one of its primary tenets the opposition to illicit sexual pleasure (gay/lesbian sex). Think here of Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and the endless line of hell fire preachers condemning the lurid sex of the sinners – a sex that clearly structures their own desire. The gay/lesbian is representative of the intolerable sin in evangelicalism – the unobtainable object structuring desire. The Family has journeyed over land and sea (Mt. 23:15) to promote their anti-gay agenda in Romania and Africa.  

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, focused on condemning homosexuality in his preaching while having a homosexual affair. When confronted with the inconsistency by Larry King, Haggard explained that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous I knew Jesus had come for me.”[1] In this understanding, belief is one step removed from identity. The faith of Christ makes no room for desire (a way of life which takes account of embodiment) while allowing desire to implicitly structure the religion. In this sense, Donald Trump is the ideal representative of evangelicalism in that he puts on full display the transgressive pleasures his followers can vicariously enjoy. A brief but telling scene in the documentary has Pat Robertson smiling with delight as he describes the sexual exploits of “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump.

Perhaps one of the key figures demonstrating the inherent antagonism in evangelicalism and in the Family is Mark Siljander, whom I interviewed (here). Congressman Siljander made the mistake of identifying too closely with purported Family values, of welcoming everyone to the table. He describes his shift from fundamentalism to “common sense American values” and a growing appreciation for common ground with Muslims. The Family was always willing to meet with and associate with anyone in power – Doug Coe proved this in accompanying Siljander to meet Muammar Gaddafi. Siljander began to study the Koran and to restudy the New Testament, but while working to embrace Muslim leaders and declared “war criminals” in the Middle East, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration were fueling the war on terror. American religion had a new enemy.

 Siljander is one of those good (naïve?) souls who miss the inherent distance created in ideology between belief and practice. Overidentification with ideology exposes its absurdity. Like the soldier that identifies too closely with the rhetoric of boot camp – the ridiculous obscenity of “kill, kill, kill” repeated outside of bootcamp is exposed by one who misses the necessary irony. Like the patriot that too obscenely identifies with love of country (I once heard a Japanese minister describe the atomic blast over Hiroshima as the light sent from God – the obscene side of America as a Christian nation), Siljander exposed the limits of the Family version of the gospel by affirming it too strongly.

His realization that Muslims also follow Jesus and worship God came at an inopportune time. His work with “war criminals” or the new enemies of the American establishment during the “War on Terror” meant his efforts for peace were now “ties with terrorists.” As Ted Haggard explains to one of his gay lover victims, “You know what, Grant, you can become a man of God and you can have a little bit of fun on the side.”[2] Siljander missed the slippage of the ideology of “common sense American” religion and (through a seemingly contrived set of circumstances) ended up serving a year in jail due to the manipulations of those in power. The religion which primarily espouses power on the one hand cannot do without its enemies on the other.

Where the real-world engagement of Christ’s ethics, his challenge of the principalities and powers, his overcoming of death, is not put into place ideology is at work – enforcing the law, denying the desired illicit pleasure to others, oppressing in the name of freedom, creating identity by what it opposes. The Family simply illustrates the ideological nature of evangelicalism and perhaps is one more sign of its implosion.


[1] David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions) (p. 96). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid

Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).


[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/what-lies-beyond-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR0KPKstix_yBjp5QjfJvGAyZMzs4T4VbIDLpoiSC8xZajuZDV0dh8n9gpI

Two Possible Futures for American Christianity Exemplified by Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Christian journey, as argued below, is not simply individual but corporate so that salvation is being joined to a new society (the body of Christ) called the Church. This is not a parallel kingdom, an alternative reality, or (as in Luther’s notion of the two kingdoms) what God is doing with his left hand on earth while his right hand is busy with the spiritual realm in the heavenly kingdom. The tragedy (always subject to reversal) unfolding in the American church, attached as it may be to this two-kingdom notion, might best be recognized (and averted) when viewed in conjunction with the wartime experience of the German church, and in particular, in the lives of the two most famous German Christians. Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplify the outworking of a two kingdom theology and the alternative, respectively, portending two possible theological outcomes in the American context Continue reading “Two Possible Futures for American Christianity Exemplified by Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

Forging an Alternative Imagination: Setting Aside Evangelical Artifice for the Art of New Creation

The Forging part of Forging Ploughshares presented itself due to my work on a forge as a teenager. My academic career in high school indicated to everyone involved, but especially to my father, that heavy thinking might not suit my abilities. He contacted Kansas State Farriers College, a rather inflated title attached to a barn, farmhouse, and a mobile home/dormitory which had been started by the last full-time Army farrier upon his retirement (or so he told us). Bob Bechdolt, a larger than life character in many senses (he must have been approaching about 400 pounds and was at that point involved in a battle with the State of Kansas to have his school officially recognized) came to visit us on our small farm in Kansas and my father was convinced I should learn horse shoeing.  This would include learning to forge horse shoes (using hammer, anvil, and forge, to make approximate half circles out of strips of metal) as well as all that is involved in getting shoes on horses. So, between my junior and senior year of high school I spent many hours using a forge attempting to craft horse foot wear. The use of the forge, I came to learn, is an art unto itself[1] and so too the art of living which would produce ploughshares – representative of the peaceable Kingdom. Continue reading “Forging an Alternative Imagination: Setting Aside Evangelical Artifice for the Art of New Creation”

Escaping Law and Order Christianity: From Interpassivity to Intervention into the Law

In Tibetan Buddhism the supplicant writes his prayers or mantra on a piece of paper and attaches the prayer to a prayer wheel and spinning the wheel is the equivalent of chanting the mantra or saying the prayer. The prayer wheel does the chanting or praying and one is freed up to think of other things. Slavoj Žižek compares it to the laugh track on television sit coms. It is not simply that hearing the laughter you will know this is a funny joke, but the laugh track does the laughing for you. Just as the prayer wheel prays for you, or ancient weepers could be hired to weep at the funeral for you, the laugh track relieves you of the effort of laughing. The story is told that a visitor to the house of the famous scientist, Niels Bohr, upon seeing a lucky horseshoe said to Bohr that he was surprised that such a great man would believe such nonsense. Bohr snapped back: “I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works even if one does not believe in it!” The act of hanging the horseshoe relieves one of having to directly believe – it is enough to have nailed it to the wall. This is the way religion works in Japan: if you would interrupt someone at their prayers at a shrine and ask if they believe in the religion, they would likely deny that they are in any way religious. Belief is not a necessary part of the religion as the rituals, the priests, the regular observances, relinquish one of having to directly believe. Robert Pfaller has coined the term “interpassivity” to capture the paradox of this distancing of the self from one’s own beliefs. What one does – nailing the horseshoe, spinning the prayer wheel, employing weepers or laughers – frees from direct engagement in what one is doing. There is relief from the superego injunction to obey, to believe, to enjoy, which is, of course, Paul’s picture of our orientation to the law. There is an incapacity of the “I” or will which arises in this internal distancing – “I am not able to do what I want,” Paul says. Continue reading “Escaping Law and Order Christianity: From Interpassivity to Intervention into the Law”

Is Christian Complementarianism Helping Fuel The Abuse Reflected In #Me Too?

Harvey Weinstein, Hugh Hefner, Donald Trump –  the list of prominent men who abuse women could be added to from every walk of life: comedians, athletes, political figures, and of course prominent religious figures.  Harvey’s brother describes him as an abusive bully who regularly insulted and hurt those around him.  He said he is unrepentant for his actions and is incapable of remorse.  The figure that came to mind with Bob Weinstein’s description of his brother was the administrator at the college where Faith and I worked.  His open misogyny and abuse of power will continue, as with Harvey Weinstein, because grievance and complaint were squelched by the institution.  While his forte was not private sexual assault but open cruelty and abuse, the wall of silence is the same. Continue reading “Is Christian Complementarianism Helping Fuel The Abuse Reflected In #Me Too?”

The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump

Organized acts of evil, such as those witnessed over the weekend in Charlottesville, demonstrate the unleashing of ethics turned on its head. Organized evil driven by an ideology endorsed (with a wink and a nod) by the Commander in Chief means evil serves in place of the good. This is not the lawless evil of a random act; rather it is “radical evil” in which a perverse moral law is officially endorsed.  The drive toward a pure race, the perfect socialist revolution, or making America great again, may not overtly promote genocide, mass murder, and white supremacy, but the latter is implicit in the former.  The walls must be built, the foreigners expelled, and the “inferior races” subdued in a world in which the ultimate good is a moral law constituted in the reigning ideology.  The neo-Nazis and the white supremacists are at the service of an ethic that has now been voted into place and which indeed hearkens back to an earlier era.  The American electorate has created the space, through the election of this administration, for these groups to do the dirty work of maintaining the very atmosphere which we breathe[1] – the implicit presumption of white supremacy which is at the foundation of the American idea. Continue reading “The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump”

Donald Trump and the Hollow Truth of American Evangelicalism

Billy Graham relates, to his own shame, his low point in mixing politics and religion. After seeing President Truman for the first time, the press waiting outside the White House asked him to reenact what he had done with the President. Graham obligingly knelt on the lawn, as if in prayer, for a photo op.  The tall preacher in his white suit and out sized Bible, kneeling at the behest of reporters, captures the willing eagerness of American evangelicals to gain entry into the centers of power.  Graham’s biography reveals his long and close association with Richard Nixon and his near disillusionment at the revelations of Water Gate.  Graham is shocked at the vulgarity of Nixon (revealed in the White House tapes) – someone he considered to be the best of Christians.  Graham, in spite of his disappointment with Nixon, never quit the pursuit of power through association but modeled it throughout his lifetime.  Continue reading “Donald Trump and the Hollow Truth of American Evangelicalism”