October 6, 2020

The only thing worse than an immoral alley cat President? An evangelical one!

When the comments section in The Times of London about the latest craziness (Trump having COVID) contains this thread …

… you know we’re in for interesting times. An evangelical Christian is worse than an amoral, “do whatever it takes” President.

Not a good look“! Hmm.

And that’s in The Times, which generally weeds out the trolls and crazies. But there’s clearly a profound ignorance about the average evangelical, an ignorance fuelled by celebrity and political evangelicalism in the US in particular.

We all take care these days when we read newspaper articles and venture to the comments below the article. Generally the higher quality of the paper, the higher the quality of the debate.

So the rule of thumb is that you want to surface from reading the comments feeling the need for a shower, then avoid the tabloid papers, and those on the extreme ends of politics.

I pay for subscriptions to a variety of online journals across the political spectrum. If you say you are someone who is willing to listen to all sides of a debate, then putting your money where your mouth is in this, The Subscription Age, is the only way you will convince me.

So it was interesting to see that thread in The Times, and realise that if the nation were ruled by someone who is an evangelical Christian (whatever that means today) it would result in something that’s right up there with Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Clearly being a self-confessed womaniser, with a potty mouth is bad. But a man who has publicly said he doesn’t do “alone time” with other women (whatever your thoughts on that), is somehow worse? Interesting times indeed!

Of course there’s a lot of political and cultural baggage with the idea of “evangelical” in the United States, but it shows the shift culturally that we’re making.

And I love that “there’s nothing wrong with being a Christian, but an evangelical Christian is not a good look“, comment. Phew, glad to know there’s nothing wrong with being a Christian! For a moment there I thought it might be something worth reporting to the authorities.

I guess the intent is to signal that we don’t like our Christians too “hot”, and since we don’t care for them too “cold”, we kinda want them “just right”.

Or perhaps as another Scholar has put it “lukewarm”. That sounds like a winner.

Now perhaps, given the physical location of The Times, and its propensity to deal with UK news first, most of the comments are from the UK, where public religion has fallen off the radar quicker than just about anywhere.

Secularism is the order of the day there, and not even the thinking person’s secularism of France. England and Scotland in particular are both marked by a general disinterest or lack of awareness about anything to do with Christianity, particularly within the white population. So most likely not a US comment.

But it’s interesting too, that the reflex here in Australia is the same, and evangelicals are pretty thin on the ground. When late last year I ended up in a conversation on the long Friday night flight home from Sydney to Perth, the young bloke’s first question after he asked what I did for a living was “You’re not one of those evangelicals, are you?”

I mean, what do you say other than “I get travel sickness pretty bad, so you might want to turn the other way.”

Of course there’s an inconsistency to all of this, isn’t there? Particularly when one of the United States’ most pre-eminent scientists, Francis Collins, who was the director of the Human Genome Project, and heads up that country’s National Institutes of Health, is also a very public evangelical Christian.

Francis Collins

Collins was recently awarded the Templeton Prize, which goes to the figure in public who best offers:

… insights that science brings to the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s purpose and place within it.”

Collins acceptance address soared with lofty words and ideals of a better, more tolerant and loving community. Ideas grounded not in abstract philosophy, or post-religious rationalism, but on the basis of his earthy and well-investigated faith. In our world in which we are increasingly hostile towards the other tribe and in which we are seeking leaders who will push our agendas, he observed:

… it’s too easy to put the burden on the leaders alone. It’s really up to all of us, through our individual actions, to define what kind of world we want to live in, and then seek to live that way. That means refusing to accept polarization – in fact, working actively to reach across the gaps.

You can read the full text of his speech here. It’s a worthy read. And Barak Obama, the man who appointed him to his national role, delivered a warm and moving eulogy to Collins via a pre-recorded video on the night.

Yet it’s interesting that the combination of evangelical and scientist is considered newsworthy. Evn The Economist couldn’t help displaying its own bias by using that fact as a headline:

Evangelical Christian. Terrible for a President, but brilliant for one of the world’s leading scientists oversaw the completion of one of the greatest scientific achievements of recent decades, and who has been in charge of the US health system? It’s complicated! It all depends what you mean by “evangelical” and how to unpack it.

And, ultimately, it will depend on those small conversations, on the plane (if we ever get to fly again seated next to someone!), in the shops, around the coffee table. Those will be the telling moments.

I’m not naive enough to think we can out-smile a hostile secularism that sees any hot religious faith as a challenge to its hegemony, especially around the area of post-Christian sexual ethics.

I believe the time is coming when many a public square role will be deemed off-limits to evangelicals, even the likes of Francis Collins, sad to say. But we’re not there just yet, so keep doing good while you can! Ensure that we are such worthy people that people reject and despise us, despite what we are like, not because of it. That would be Daniel-in-Babylon. Haters gonna hate, but make them work for it!

Collins became good friends with the late, great celebrity atheist Christopher Hitchens, so he knows all about a hostile reception for his faith. But he concluded his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize with these words:

Blessed are the depolarizers, for harmony can show us a better way. 

Think about that next time you go to write in the comments section of The Times, or whatever your newspaper of choice is (or perhaps even Facebook!).

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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