Evangelical Fears and the Turn Toward “Coercive Christianism”: an Essay Part 3 of 3
In Part 1 of this essay, I laid out some examples of Evangelical fears, particularly in the form of their desire for a strongman-protector. I have also presented statistical evidence of significant shifts in the demographics of faith in America. In Part 2, I explored some ways in which those shifts in religious demographics are taking shape in attitudes toward same-sex relationships and abortion. The loss of influence in these areas of culture has stoked Evangelical fears. In this final part of this essay, I will explore some of the ways these Evangelical fears have begun to cause serious changes to the way Evangelicalism is approaching mission to the wider American culture—a shift away from persuasion and toward coercion.
Christianity as Sub-culture
I do not believe that same-sex relationships conform to God’s vision for humanity. I believe that every abortion involves the killing of a human being. But I am also aware that in those beliefs I represent a minority of the American people, a minority that has been shrinking in recent decades and will likely continue to do so in the years ahead. That fact makes me uncomfortable. I know that my views on those issues put me increasingly on the outside of accepted social standards in my broader community.
Being on the outside of the dominant culture where I live puts me in the same situation that most Christians have lived in throughout history and in the same situation that most Christians around the world live in today. In fact, the Christian faith came into existence, grew, and spread very much on the outside of the dominant cultures of its time and place. And yet, as I said a moment ago, my status as one whose worldview and moral commitments are increasingly at odds with the majority of my neighbors makes me uncomfortable, often anxious, sometimes timid, sometimes angry.
So, in some dim sense, I can understand the desire for a strongman-protector who will use coercive power at least shelter to the Christian community and possibly advance and enforce some aspects of the Christian social vision. But history seems to show me precious few examples of Christianity being wedded to the coercive power of government without Christianity being terribly damaged in the process.
In the opening paragraph of this series, I quote a couple of Evangelical leaders applauding Donald Trump for being “tough . . . and vicious” and for being the “meanest, toughest son of a you-know-what.” Driven by fear and outrage at their loss of cultural dominance, Evangelical leaders like these line up behind Donald Trump in the desire that he might use the coercive power of government to protect and reassert a traditional, Evangelical social vision as the dominant vision for America society.
In light of this desire for a strongman-protector in the White House, we can hardly avoid asking the question: What role does or should coercion have in service to the Christian faith? It is not hard to find examples in the history of Christianity in which coercion has been used in the name of the faith. The Crusades of the Middle Ages and European colonization during the Early Modern Period are two notable examples of coercion being used ostensibly for the purpose of expanding the kingdom of God.
Coercion vs. Conversion and Disciplemaking
Both of those examples have received extensive study, and I have neither space here nor the expertise to do an in-depth review of either of those examples. It is not too much to say, however, that when coercion came into play in both cases, at that point, conversion and disciplemaking went out. And that fact is surprising from neither a human perspective nor from a theological perspective.
The issue of coercive power does present the Church with a fork in the road forward. The Church can seek to dominate its neighbors by using coercive force to impose its will on the wider culture. Or the Church can seek to persuade its neighbors through acts of service, caring, and witness. I don’t believe it can do both of those things. By framing Donald Trump as the strongman-protector and looking to him to impose at least a truncated version of the Christian vision for society, the majority of Evangelicals have chosen the path of a coercive “Christianity.”
The Church can set as its aim the imposition of a certain external moral vision on society. Coercive quasi-governmental power can to some extent impose a particular shape on a society. And we can find examples in the New Testament of groups who sought to impose external conformity on their society. But these examples are not groups of Christians in the New Testament. The most notable example of this effort to coercively shape society is the Pharisees.
Pharisaism and the Kingdom of God
There are a number of points on which Jesus clearly wants to distinguish his vision for what he calls the “kingdom of God” from that of the Pharisees. There are two particular ways in which Jesus differentiates his vision from that of the Pharisees. Those differences are 1) Jesus’ rejection of a mere external conformity and 2) Jesus’ insistence on praütes as a defining characteristic of his followers.
Jesus objected strongly to what he saw as the essentially external nature of the Pharisees’ vision for their mission. Jesus explicitly rejects a merely external form of righteousness in Matthew 23:25, where he accuses the Pharisees of merely cleaning the outside of the cup but leaving the inside full of greed and self-indulgence, and in Matthew 23:27, where he accuses them of being like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but inside full of dead men’s bones.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presses home the same rejection of a merely external conception of righteousness. There Jesus insists that in the eyes of God there is no distinction between the external act of adultery and the internal act of lust or between the external act of murder and the internal act of hatred. For Jesus, the kingdom of God does not express itself merely in external actions but in an internal transformation of the heart.
I don’t have any difficulty understanding how a political strongman might be able to coerce the American people to outwardly conform more closely to some sort of vision of traditional Evangelical social norms. But I cannot see how a political strongman, whose principal virtues are his toughness, meanness, and viciousness, could coerce an inner transformation of the heart. The coercive political strongman could accomplish the vision of the Pharisees. He could not accomplish the vision of Jesus.
The second particularly relevant difference between the Pharisees’ approach to the kingdom of God and Jesus’ approach explicitly addresses the use of coercion in the form of his call to praütes. The Pharisees were quite open to the use of coercion and external domination. Jesus and other New Testament writers, most notably James, insist on a different attitude, what they refer to by the Greek word πραΰτης (praütes).
This Greek word does not, in my view, have a fully satisfactory English equivalent. Traditionally, praütes is rendered into English as “meekness.” The most famous example of this word in the New Testament is in the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:5, typically translated as, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” There can be no doubt that disciples of Jesus Christ are called to praütes. But the meaning of that calling is deep and complex and multi-layered. I hope to explore it much more fully in a separate essay sometime. For now, I want to highlight one particularly important aspect of biblical praütes.
The English word, “meekness,” typically strikes the American ear with a decidedly negative tone. It conjures up ideas of docility, passivity, and the willingness to be dominated by others. It is certainly true that the notion of mutual submission, as found, for example, in Ephesians 5:21, is certainly an important element in biblical praütes.
I do not, however, believe it would be correct to understand biblical praütes as a willingness to be dominated by others. Rather, I see as a core element of biblical praütes the renunciation of the desire to dominate others. To have a character that embodies praütes means carrying oneself in such a way as never to seek to impose one’s will on others.
In James 3:13-14, James calls his readers to live in such a way as to embody “the praütes of wisdom.” In these verses, James contrasts praütes with “bitter jealousy” and “selfish rivalry or ambition.” Both of these traits that James offers as being contrary to praütes are relational in nature. “Bitter jealousy” names an attitude that resentfully desires to have what another has and thus to deprive them of it. “Selfish rivalry/ambition” speaks of the desire to defeat or overcome one’s rivals. It is an ambitious spirit that wants to be the “winner” and to make one’s rival the “loser.” The ambitious spirit desires to dominate the field.
The contrast that James gives us in these verses highlights the non-domineering nature of the life of praütes, which itself is to characterize the Christian life. Earlier in his letter, James clearly has the concept of praütes in mind when he writes, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20 ESV) The anger that so closely accompanies “bitter jealousy” and “selfish ambition” is, in James’s view, not a fit instrument for the accomplishment of the purposes of God in the world. The accomplishment of that goal requires praütes.
The embrace of the strongman-protector and the aspiration toward imposing some version of a “Christian” social order on an unwilling population is at its heart an abandonment of the New Testament call to praütes and a replacing of it by a sort of coercive “Christainism.”
In earlier drafts of this essay, I used the phrase “coercive Christianity.” But Jesus, Paul, James, and Peter all insist that praütes is a core identifying characteristic of Christian discipleship and the mission of the Gospel. A movement that clings to coercion cannot claim the label “Christianity.” It may bear some of the external trappings of the Christian faith, but the aspiration to coercively impose one’s will on others is antithetical to praütes and so deprives one of claim to the label “Christian.” It is not Christianity; it is a sort of “Christianism.”
Let me be clear that I do not mean to doubt the genuineness of anyone’s faith or salvation. But I do mean to deny the title “Christianity” to any endeavor that holds the imposition of coercive power as being crucial to its success. As I said earlier, when coercion enters, conversion and disciplemaking must of necessity depart. Coercion and persuasion are incompatible.
Coercive power is what a strongman political leader has to offer. It is, as I’ve noted, plainly what Evangelical leaders who tout the importance of toughness, meanness, and viciousness want. In light of what we see in the statistics from the surveys reviewed above, a turn toward a coercive way of engaging the culture by at least some Evangelicals may not be especially surprising. Persuasion is hard work and offers no certainty of outcome. Coercion will not produce disciples of Jesus, but it might produce the illusion of some sort of external conformity.
The Coercive Turn and the Future of Christian Witness in America
Conformity of this sort will never be more than an illusion. As I have written elsewhere, without a serious and effective investment in persuasion, abortion will always be legal and available in the United States. Likewise, the large majority of Americans, including a large proportion of American Christians, believe that same-sex relationships should be accepted in American society. That state of affairs is not amenable to change through coercive action.
The task of witness and persuasion is hard work. Its success rests in the hands of God. Many Christians seem to have lost patience with this work. The progressivism of the mainline churches has capitulated to and become little more than chaplain to the secular progressivism of the political Left. Much of traditional Evangelicalism has capitulated to and become little more than chaplain to the nationalism of the political Right. Both in their own ways rely on a coercive vision of cultural engagement. Biblical Christianity calls the followers of Jesus not to a “middle way” but to an entirely other way—the way of witness and persuasion, the way of disciplemaking, the way of praütes, the way of love. Anne Snyder, in an essay I sited earlier, issues just this call to the people of God, “If you want entree to a hurting if skeptical world, care for it, don’t try to rule it.”
There will certainly be a longer-term cost to the turn toward coercion. Those who experience the brunt of coercive action from Christians will almost certainly be very resistant to subsequent efforts to evangelize them. Coercion will likely prove to be the poison that kills Christian witness in America for generations to come. Ironically, the coercive turn by today’s Evangelical leaders will surely produce vigorous growth of the “nones” in America in the years and decades ahead.
©2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
See Parts 1 & 2 of this essay:
Evangelical Fears and the Turn Toward Coercive “Christianism”: an Essay Part 1
Evangelical Fears and the Turn Toward Coercive “Christianism”: an Essay Part 2