Philip Yancey’s America

When asked about evangelical support for Donald Trump in a recent interview, prominent evangelical writer Philip Yancey replies with astonishment. How, he wonders, could Trump be an evangelical hero? But surely (hopefully?) Yancey isn’t ignorant of how race, class, and gender figure into this equation. The reality is that a much more specific subset of evangelicals consider Trump a hero, and presumably a larger subset see him merely as a temporary political ally. Philip Gorski suggests Trump support among evangelicals derives from those whose religion is a form of national identity, which Gorski calls “Christianism.” Such Christianism is often “restorationist,” as Max Perry Mueller observes, which helps to explain why evangelicals might resonate with the phrase “make America great again.”

But to me the more interesting part of Yancey’s reply was actually what followed. First, he seems to issue a warning about totalitarianism, or when the church becomes too closely intertwined with the state. This is a reference to the separation of church and state, and in this case it is likely a criticism aimed at the political phenomenon known as the “religious right” in America. But if my anecdotal experience growing up in evangelicalism is anything to go by, Yancey’s response is also a fairly common evangelical adage (though it was usually directed against mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims—i.e. religious expressions which were perceived to have some single earthly authority such as a pope). Second, Yancey refers to American society’s growing secularism. He characterizes this as an opportunity for the church to return to its earliest milieu, i.e. where the early church had no political or cultural capital in the Roman Empire and yet its accomplishments in the service of the gospel were many.  America, it seems, is destined to ever be that city on a hill.

Yet, as should be clear from the outset, the very fact that there exists something called the religious right in America belies Yancey’s claim. Yes, he might think that “true” evangelicalism should refrain from direct political involvement. This is certainly a possible position to take as an evangelical, but it is most certainly not the only view.

Consider the work of the historian Mark Noll, himself an evangelical. His comparative scholarship on evangelicalism in the United States and Canada makes it clear that when we address these issues we have to take context into account. The relationship between church and state, assuming it make sense to speak of these two entities in this way, depends as much upon the nature of the given state (and the society in which that state is embodied) as it does upon the church. In short, evangelicalism in Canada (or in Britain or in Germany) does not look exactly the same as in America. This is a fairly basic point, but it needs to be stated clearly. Noll’s work also underlines the fact that not all evangelicals share Yancey’s view of history, neither past American evangelicals nor current non-American evangelicals. Plus it’s not clear to me how one could support the contention that there is inherent danger (to what, exactly?) in close church-state relations, since for many hundreds of years, and in many places still, the church has flourished in close relationship with the state. Obviously religion and politics can make for a heady cocktail, perhaps even a poisonous one, but this isn’t an absolutely necessary outcome. Much more needs to be said, and a much clearer and more detailed analysis is required, if we’re to understand what’s at stake. One could start along this path by reading Noll.

Or consider the work of a sociologist of secularization, David Martin, also an evangelical. Martin’s scholarly work shows that the shape of secularization is context dependent, just like church-state relations. That is, secularization looks different in different societies. Secularization in Protestant Germany will not be the same as in Catholic Brazil, say. So while there may be an element of metaphorical truth in Yancey’s claim that America is becoming more like the society in which the early church flourished, again, if we’re to understand what’s at stake in the process of secularization, a good deal more needs to be said than this. One could start along this path by reading Martin.

In very simple terms, then, the kind of evangelical analysis Yancey offers doesn’t provide the means to understand the historical or social processes at play between religion, the church, and the state. Maybe that’s unsurprising. To be fair to Yancey, he was simply answering a question in an interview about Trump. Yet for all that his commonplace response is telling. Why reach for this sort of explanation?  Here all I can do is speculate. But at the very least rejecting evangelical support for Trump as a violation of “true” evangelicalism, characterizing it as something we can’t understand, may mean that we don’t actually make an effort to explain it. Perhaps that’s a way of avoiding unpleasant questions and, potentially, the even more unflattering answers that might follow. If we draw an analogy between secularization in America and the early church under Rome we are, in all likelihood, articulating a soothing wish.  In this scenario we can console ourselves with the knowledge that as America becomes less overtly Christian (whatever that means), it will once again be the ripe harvest field of which Jesus once spoke. Or, the downside is really an upside.

Clearly the resources exist for evangelicals to come to a better understanding of themselves and their age, whether those evangelicals find themselves in America, Canada, or somewhere else. Cliches may offer a convenient shorthand, but they obscure the truth in their staid effort to domesticate it.

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