A new book has hit the shelves this week, entitled Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith, much to the elation of the conservative evangelical community, as well as, assuming my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, the conservative social network in Washington, DC. It is written by Chelsen Vicari, a 27 year-old self-described Millennial evangelical, who additionally serves as the Director of Evangelical Action at the Institute of Religion and Democracy. Since I am a Millennial who unapologetically identifies as politically conservative and whose religious paradigm is largely shaped by evangelical categories, I decided to buy the book on Kindle. Her essential purpose is to outline the central tenets and tactics of what has been deemed the Christian Left, evaluate them in light of Christian orthodoxy, and advise evangelical parents of Millennials on the best ways to combat this. And indeed, I admire Vicari for undertaking this project, given that Millennial religious affiliation is decreasing, that Millennials are largely liberal on social issues, and that the Evangelical left is an influential faction. I’m also glad someone has written a book on this topic because in my everyday life I’ve encountered quite a number of people, both in person and via social media, who were raised in conservative evangelical homes who appear to have abandoned multiple important Christian doctrines and social ethics, including the importance of preaching the message of the Cross, opposition to abortion, the Christian sexual ethos (and not just on homosexuality), and uncritical support for various left-winged socio-economic initiatives in the name of compassion, among others. However, while Vicari provides an excellent overview of the notions propagated by this movement as well as of the individuals in the center of it, I must confess that I was disappointed by two major components: firstly, her lack of critique of the highly right-winged Baby Boomer-dominated conservative evangelicalism replete with emotionalism and individualism, in which most of these liberal Millennial evangelicals were raised, that has in fact served as the foundation of the antics of Millennial evangelicals; secondly, her conclusion regarding how to address this issue, while certainly commendable for advocating loving patience as well as a searching of the Scriptures, omits numerous crucial instruments that have aided Christians for centuries in face of hostile cultures, including strong, beyond-face-value exigesis of Scripture, the Christian philosophical tradition, and Church history.
Vicari’s essential thesis is that the left has taken advantage of two pervasive and often overlapping mentalities within evangelicalism: the Couch Potato (the belief that Jesus primarily desires us to be humbly silent and socially neutral) and Cafeteria Christianity (compartmentalizing our personal faith with our public lives), such as through the prevalent “COEXIST” bumper sticker that spells using various symbols from different religions, and seek to silence what she terms “Convictional Christians” through accusations of bigotry and a lack of love. She subsequently lauds the work of the past three decades of James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Tim and Beverly Lahaye, and numerous other figures of the evangelical Christian Right as commendable. She implores fellow evangelicals to stand strong in the midst of an increasingly hostile popular and academic culture. She then concludes the introductory portion of the book with a recollection of her own college years spent in the Christian Left, with significant exposure to Brian McLaren. She notes (correctly) that much of the ideology of the Christian Left is centered around actions in the community and buzzwords such as “tolerance, nonconforming, and liberated”. On the other hand, Vicari notes that discussion of sexual morality, the reality of sin, or the afterlife was largely nonexistent. She further notes that they pitch themselves as apolitical and uncontroversial, preferring to focus on “justice” without acknowledging their own often rigidly anti-capitalist, anti-nationalist, sexually revolutionary message. She outlines other important figures in the movement including Tony Campolo, Tony Jones, Lynn Hybels, Rachel Held Evans, Jim Wallis, Richard Cizik, Jay Bakker, Jennifer Crumpton, Shane Claiborne, and Carl Medearis.
The second section of Distortion devotes individual chapters to various socio-political issues that are frequently pet issues for the Christian Left and also often major points of contention between them and the Religious Right. These include many Millennials’ endorsement of same-sex marriage and often even outright rejecting evangelical teaching of homosexuality as immoral; a strong commitment to the concept of “social justice” which typically includes stronger social welfare programs, federal educational initiatives, strong action on climate change, lenient immigration policies, and often affirmative action; “Jesus feminism” which asserts that Christian teaching has often oppressed women and strongly advocates for widespread action to contraception (and sometimes abortion), and at times even outright claims that Christian opposition to all heterosexual relations outside monogamous marriage is misogynistic; the tendency to believe in a “right to choose” even if that person personally has a moral opposition to abortion and to claim that evangelicals are obsessed with abortion and should focus on other issues; a tendency to doubly dodge the issues of domestic religious liberty by pointing to international Christian persecution as much worse, and international Christian persecution by excusing it with international rage over American foreign policy and accusing its highlighters of not caring about the suffering of other religions; and general support for the Palestinian cause over the Israeli cause based on the assumption that Israel is unjust towards them.
The third and final section of the book implores evangelical Millennials to remain strong in the face of increased hostility, and to maintain a balance of truth and love, a la the epistles of John, remembering that Jesus Himself gained all sorts of haters, but stuck to His message of truth regardless. Finally, she interviews various conservative Millennial evangelicals, who collectively assert the importance of churches instilling strong Christian cultural values in their youth, and also encourage young people to study the Bible and discern what is the best way for them to involved.
As a member of the evangelical wing of the Anglican communion, I was elated to see the premise of the book: an American Christian twenty-something highlighting the problems of the “progressive Christian” movement, particularly since she identifies as a former insider to the movement. Unfortunately, as I stated in the beginning, there were two glaring weaknesses in her approach, the first being that she doesn’t seem to recognize the problem of ahistorical ecclesiology runs just as rampant in the conservative wing of evangelicalism as it does in the progressive one. For example, in the beginning of her first chapter, she writes, “Peek behind the curtain of some ‘hip’ or ‘progressive’ evangelical churches, past the savvy technology and secular music, and you will find more than just a contemporary worship service. You’ll find faith leaders encouraging young evangelicals to trade in their Christian convictions for a gospel filled with compromise. They’re slowly attempting to give evangelicalism an ‘update’-and the change is not for the good.” The apparent implication of this is that evangelicals with progressive social and theological views are the primary culprits of this, when the reality is that there is no shortage of conservative evangelicals who make it “all about me”. Perhaps the most notorious of these are Joel and Victoria Osteen, co-pastors of a large megachurch in Texas. Here is something they recently said, essentially implying that worship is about you, and not the Lord your God. Yet it should be noted that they maintain conservative positions on basic theology, and on social issues.
Vicari additionally states, “Within these evangelical institutions, and even in some sanctuaries, truth has been made relative. Scripture verses that reference anything considered offensive are skipped over, and God’s supremacy is diminished in order to market the Church to as wide an audience as possible.” What she, again, doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that the dominant form of conservative evangelicalism created this climate. Growing up in the midst of the white, middle to upper middle class evangelical subculture, there were plenty of our own Biblical issues that were swept under the rug, including but not limited to, the strong if not downright strident messages about oppression of the poor in powerful nations found in the Prophets, the Sermon on the Mount’s message decisively in favor of the oppressed and opposed to the abuse of violent state authority, as well as both Jesus’ and the Apostles’ teachings against divorce, which is beyond rampant in our culture (Note: I am not suggesting Vicari doesn’t care about these issues, only that she doesn’t seem to get that in certain ways, Millennial evangelical liberals are going the way they have BECAUSE of conservative evangelical culture, no in spite of it.).
And another one: “The Millennial generation’s susceptibility to ‘feel-good’ doctrine is playing a big part in America’s moral decline. Millennials’ religious practices depend largely on how the actions make us and others feel, whether the activities are biblical or not. For example, we only attend churches that leave us feeling good about our lifestyle choices, even if those choices conflict with God’s clear commandments. We dismiss old hymns that focus on God’s transforming salvation, love, and mercy and opt for ‘Jesus is your boyfriend’ songs.” Again, there is no question that Millennials are often very susceptible to this, but what about the Baby Boomers, the age group that is in charge at most churches now, and was very influential when we were growing up? In fact, aging expert Vern Bengston has remarked, “Boomers were the first generation to clearly differentiate between spirituality and religion. They said spiritual practice is not equal to going to church. They are the first to associate spirituality with an emotion, an intense feeling of connection with God.”
Vicari’s chapter on the issue of homosexuality is well-written. It elaborates on the relevant Scriptural passages in Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, I Corinthians, I Timothy, as well as the words of Christ Himself regarding his endorsement of the notion that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”. She gets a bit of a KO when she writes, “By dismissing the Genesis marriage model, the evangelical Left is also dismissing Jesus Christ. While teaching in Judea, Jesus affirmed God’s divine establishment of marriage after He was approached by Pharisees.” She is careful to demonstrate that they are not simply words to be read and spewed, but instead have overarching frameworks in mind. She cites the example of pastor Andy Stanley’s dodging of the issue as demonstrative of evangelicalism’s increased dodging of the issue. She also prudently uses social science and appeals for consistency, wisely noting that “The church stopped defending marriage when fast-and-loose, no-fault divorces became fashionable in the church. We did so when adultery, premarital sex, and cohabitation were no longer condemned from the pulpit. We let go of the family unit when dads walked out on their families and left fifteen million US children fatherless.” She also makes sure to cite studies in social science discussing the overall performance of children in same-sex households and specifically their academic performance. Finally, the chapter was excellent in that it acknowledges the emotional abuse often endured by gays in the conservative evangelical community, noting that “We cannot ignore the outrageous suicide rate of teenagers who are attracted to the same sex.” Additionally, Vicari notes, “The church must provide a safe place for these teens. When the church offers no talks, no hugs, no assurances, no truth, and only ejection and condemnation, we cause devastating pain.”
The chapter on social justice I found less impressive. Towards the beginning Vicari writes, “Too often ‘social justice’ is the sheepskin socialism wears to make inroads into evangelicalism.” I cringed a bit when I read this, as I felt it reeked of a common conservative tactic I’ve observed of trying to discredit all economic policy proposals intended to help the poor by utilizing the emotivistic power associate with the word “socialist.” She criticizes Shane Claiborne for his blanket opposition to capitalism, which is a reasonable critique to be had, as well as Carol Keehan of Sojourners for essentially saying that obstructing Obamacare signifies lack of compassion for the poor. And she also rightly points out that there were problems with the oversimplified rhetoric by the blogger Benjamin Corey. She outlines a genuine problem wherein social justice rhetoric at Christian colleges has come to overshadow and in some cases completely overtake any sense of Christian theological instruction, which my own experience at a Christian college, while not that severe, did witness moments of this. However, I find her proposed “solutions” to be overly simplistic. She quotes Jerry Falwell, Jr. who said, “Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor’s hand it give it to the poor….if we all did as Jesus did when he helped the poor, we wouldn’t need the government.” While a call for widespread evangelical compassion among evangelicals is important, it does not address the issue of injustice at the system level, which individual compassion cannot completely solve. For instance, growing up as a conservative evangelical, I can testify to the fact that while abortion and homosexuality were discussed without fail, almost never did we address the very serious issues of increasing income inequality or the abysmal state of our healthcare system. Vicari unfortunately makes no mention of this, and does not develop a sophisticated Christian theology of justice. A close reading of the Prophets, for example, lends support to the notion that what is being decried is the abuse of the poor by those in power, and that the Prophets were advocating systemic reform. While the left no doubt brings excesses to this, systemic alterations for the benefit of society’s marginal ized is very much a Christian cause, as it was very much advocated by the early church fathers. Finally, it seemed to me that Vicari is concerned that social justice rhetoric has watered down Christianity to nothing more than a social gospel movement and as such she risks throwing out the baby with the bath water. It is important for Christians to be grounded in what I would term a “fusion theology” in which both spiritual conversion and socio-economic transformation are considered essential components of the Christian faith. The Anglican theologian John Stott was a superb example of this. He was resolutely orthodox on the essential theological issues, unapologetically conservative on issues of sexuality and across-the-board sanctity of life, but also a passionate advocate of justice at the economic level, and virulently opposed to exploitation, and also recognized the importance of being good stewards of God’s creation.
The actions of some prominent evangelical feminists are properly criticized, most notably Rachel Held Evans’ decision to go a year following literally everything said in the Bible about women, to the letter. This is, of course, rather preposterous given that it’s been widely established in Christianity for quite some time that there is a difference between cermemonial and moral laws, the former of which no longer apply to men or women. However, yet again, it seems to me that Vicari ignores the fact that Held Evans’ approach is a natural outgrowth of the face-value biblical literalism so pervasive in conservative evangelicalism, such that people will inevitably ask the question, “Why this verse but not that verse?” Rachel Held Evans certainly does nothing to alleviate this bibliological chaos, but she is, again, a natural outgrowth of it.
Her chapter urging action against abortion is a mixed bag. While Vicari wisely mentions Psalm 139 as a demonstration of God’s care for His children prior to their being born, noting that, “Doesn’t it bring tears to your eyes to read that even while in utero, our “soul knows very well” our Creator? Likewise, it sends shivers up my spine to think about how God knew the soul of every precious boy and girl among the 55,772,015 babies victimized by abortion. For some progressive Christians, and many secular citizens, the soul of the unborn is not the most significant criteria for measuring the value of a life. Of more importance, it seems, are whether a parent has adequate material possessions, whether having children is convenient, and whether a child is wanted.” Indeed. And she also points out the industry of abortion by properly calling out Planned Parenthood for the fact that abortion is such a substantial part of their revenue. Unfortunately, Vicari blunders by employing the line from Horton Hears a Who, “a person’s a person no matter how small” in spite of it being very doubtful that Dr. Seuss was referring to abortion, and his widow being opposed to this analogy, and the fact that he was left-winged. And her critique of Planned Parenthood, while largely sound, also claims Planned Parenthood’s widespread abortion services are part of the eugenic schemes of founder Margaret Sanger, when the truth is she was strongly opposed to abortion. And while she wisely points to a CDC study demonstrating that only 13% of teen pregnancies result from poor access to contraceptives, I wish she would further discuss the issue of many women feeling economically inadequate. While Vicari does provide excellent coverage of the adoption option, I wish there were more extensive discussion of how to help women who choose to keep the baby. She does mention the importance of the Church in providing services, but sometimes the church’s resources are insufficient, and some government assistance may be beneficial, as a necessary evil. I will stop short of endorsing such a notion, but it merits discussion. Even Paul Ryan has said that pro-lifers must broaden the scope of the issues they advocate.
In contrast, Vicari’s chapter on fighting religious persecution is stellar. She wisely notes that, “False claims that religious persecution is just a ploy to rally uber-conservative Tea Party patriots are causing young evangelicals to discount the serious consequences of inaction. Young evangelicals are not seeing this First Amendment issue for what it is-a matter that affects everyone’s ability to hold to their own belief system-because pundits on the religious Left are using misrepresentations of Jesus to convince them there is no credible threat to religious liberty.” Spot on. While what we face here is nothing compared to Christians around the world, using that as a basis to ignore religious liberty domestically would be a relative privation fallacy. She also is smart to cite a bipartisan petition support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Arizona. On the foreign front, she cites numerous examples of Christians persecuted, and wisely notes that often, confirmed by my own experience, the Christian Left only cites international persecution to distract from domestic religious liberty issues, but then does not discuss it otherwise. She mentions Brian McLaren’s reasons given, but subsequently points to a strong refutation of this. The Christian Left has indeed been depressingly silent on the issue.
I will not lie, I cringed reading the chapter urging support for Israel. It essentially begins with an emotional overview of the Holocaust, and subsequently laments the many enemies Israel has (which it indeed does) and essentially implies that criticism of Israel is universally un-Christian, no matter the grounds. She quotes a provocative post by extreme dispensationalist pastor John Hagee that equates the modern state of Israel with the biblical “Israel” even though the latter refers to the Jewish people as a whole, about half of which do not even reside in Israel today. She quotes the biblical passages about God’s covenant with Israel, then quotes John Hagee, who says, “Ishmael, father of Arabs, was excluded from the title deed to the land in Genesis 17. Therefore, modern-day Palestinians have no biblical mandate to own the land.” This of course completely ignores demographic realities in the region. Indeed, Vicari flat out says, “CATC chooses to focus on political and social critiques of Israel rather than on what God’s Word has sketched out for the nation.” Here again, she ignores the fact that the idea of a Jewish state largely grew out of early and mid 20th century notions of “self-determination for all peoples” and included expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. This expulsion continues to this day via settlements, and Palestinian civilians face widespread collateral damage from Israel’s military actions against the Palestinians. Now, let me make myself clear: Israel has a right to exist, and is more democratic and liberal than any other nation in the Middle East. It faces a very real threat from Hamas, who calls for its destruction. And Vicari rightly points out the Christian Left’s failure to acknowledge this. Having been on a Christian left study-abroad program in the Middle East, I can likewise attest to their one-sidedness. Unfortunately, for Vicari, this appears to be all the proof she needs that all voices of concern for the Palestinians are illegitimate, and especially should not be voiced by Christians. It frightens me that her highly literal Bible-based imploring to support Israel is not the slightest bit tempered with acknowledgement of Israel’s abuses (which of course she be viewed proportionally), and essentially is urging fellow Christians to suspend their conscience in the face of evidence of mistreatment in favor of fundamentalist-like blind obedience to an interpretation that is highly suspect, and has been challenged by reputable theologians.
Vicari’s conclusion, that Christians with traditional views must stand against the Christian Left based on a two-pillared paradigm of loving truth and boldness, is correct, although again I was disappointed by some of the means advocated of equipping young Christians. The conservative mainstream evangelical approach that has in many ways birthed this liberal mess was exemplified by an interviewee who urged those who are spiritually struggling to, “Read your Bible, saturate yourself with the truth. The world is full of lies and smooth talking, and if you don’t know how to recognize them, you will be directed whichever way the wind blows.” While I am most definitely an advocate of reading the Holy Scriptures, this approach fails to recognize, again, that the notion of each individual being solely responsible for their own Scriptural instruction. But what this evangelical approach has given rise to is an entire generation of young evangelicals who have essentially said, “If we take these verses literally, why not these others?” It has subsequently led to almost complete rejection of Scripture as authoritative.
This is why, as an Anglican, I believe church history is exceedingly important. Because the truth is that the Christian sexual ethos, as well as teaching on abortion, and the importance being involved in public life, have a strong and rich history beginning with the direct successors to the Apostles and continuing throughout the centuries. This has given us a rich faith tradition rooted in Scripture, with the understanding of Scripture being guided through the ages by God’s Church and aided by reason manifest in a rich philosophical tradition. These are aspects that I believe would aid Vicari’s arguments tremendously, but as she professes to by a member of the Assembly of God denomination, it’s understandable that she would not stress these. As such, when I read the reasoning, it often gave me the feeling of watching a football game, and seeing a receiver wide open in the endzone. However, the quarterback does not see him and throws into double coverage, reducing the chances of a touchdown.
Vicari’s premise is absolutely to be commended. We need a thoughtful critique of this movement that is indeed causing a turning from orthodoxy among Millennials, as confirmed by my own experiences at a Christian college and elsewhere. The fact that it is being done by a Millennial who formerly ascribed to this ideology is encouraging. I would urge Christians to read this, because it does provide an excellent overview of the Christian Left and its strategies, tactics, and pet issues. However, what Christians must understand is that this phenomenon is perfectly explainable in the context of the emotionalism, individualism, literalism, and stridence of the Boomer-dominated Christian right. And it doesn’t appear that Vicari grasps this.