As the West braces itself for the challenge of a muscular, jihadist Islamism woven into the fabric of our very culture and its treasured institutions, one of the hopes flitting about is that Christianity has its own force worldwide, even in the midst of traditionally Muslim areas. It’s a story often avoided in the West—as with all things Christian—but it’s very real. Latin America, Africa, and Asia have exploded with evangelical Christianity.
Is this a good thing? Certainly, for evangelical christianity it’s a good thing. What about for the cause of conservative governance, liberty, capitalism, or the more historic Christian confessions?
If history is a precedent, maybe not so much. The evangelicalism explosion may be nothing more than evidence of a mass underlying movement, a prop holding humanity in place while a greater, progressive movement takes place beneath the surface. We could call it Hegel’s apotheosis, a way of giving form to wispy religious feeling before the final stage of History, when humanity sees government (as opposed to the church) as the true embodiment of its do-gooder religiosity—”spiritual but not religious,” “deeds, not creeds,” right?—and governments everywhere become tolerant, nice, liberal, generous, and Progressive, but also godless, nihilistic, “beyond good and evil” bastions of deconstructed reality.
Don’t Play It Again, Sam
We’ve seen this movie before. Historically, evangelical movements have always devolved into universalism and then into liberal pro-government politics. It’s why Puritan New England birthed Transcendental Universalism, the Great Awakening developed into progressivism, and why the neo-evangelical movement has led to the progressive Emergent Church movement.
It goes back to evangelical theology’s tendency to abstract God from words, names, forms, and physicality, to abhor the notion that God can be “boxed in” by forms—forms in worship, certainly, but also sacramental forms and even verbal forms, like my evangelical Latin student who, when I was making a theological point based on the perfect tense of a verb, said, “God is bigger than the perfect tense.” Well, duh. But the whole point of Christianity is that while God is awesome and amazing and we-just-lift-your-name-out-of-the-cosmos-able, He choose to locate Himself through forms of flesh and blood, grammatically-bound words, and sacraments. Why? Because as the creed says, “For us men and for our salvation…was made man.” But a “deeds, not creeds” evangelicalism eschews creeds or any formal structure, and so often drifts into some bland, rarefied essence.
We might call it the natural “generification” of evangelical theology. We run across this tendency in evangelical music, where we run into a generic “God” far more than we do the Holy Trinity or Jesus Christ. If Jesus is referenced, he’s more often a spirit guide who walks and talks with me than the incarnate God of the four gospels. I’m ever amazed at the ease with which an evangelical chaplain will conduct an act of worship—a prayer or service—often purposely without any mention of the Christian God or Jesus Christ.
Like a neoplatonist ascending the chain of being from material distinctiveness to “the One,” evangelicalism ever seeks to rarefy its essence from the particulars. I’m not a Methodist, I’m just a follower of Jesus; hey, I don’t even name Jesus, I just follow love; in fact, I won’t even talk about love, but just act…until they finally end up in the Salvation Army or some “deeds not creeds” group run by Rick Warren.
That universal vibe, in turn, historically churns the do-gooder component into political movement. What sort of political movement? Liberal-progressive political movement, or what we might define as “Christian humanitarian ethics abstracted from Christ and his church.” In real terms, this means making charity, care for widows, and health care the job not of the church but of an evangelically-inspired government, the heavenly kingdom made manifest through an organic popular movement.
The First Evangelicals: Medieval Millenarianism
To understand Evangelicalism’s political component, you have to go back to twelfth-century monk Joachim of Fiore. He was the first new-age prophet, believing history could be divided up into three periods corresponding to the persons of the trinity: the Old Testament age, the age of the church, and a new age of the spirit. The age of the church—his current age—was marked by the church: its doctrines, priesthood, sacraments, and rituals. In the new age of the spirit (which he believed was beginning in his age), each Christian would have access to God in his heart, independently of sacraments, church dogma, priests, or even the church itself.
Significantly, this new age of the spirit would be marked by the return of Christ, who would then inaugurate a thousand-year reign. In this new world, war and poverty would cease. There would be no “mine or thine,” as all things were shared. The term for this particular theology is millenarianism.
After Joachim, millenarian movements arose here and there. Always they began with a prophet who believed God was speaking directly to him. Those joining him often gathered in communes, were pacifist, and were united by love and their interpretations of the Bible alone. Those that didn’t join them were stuck in the old age and its rules. Millenarianism often erupted into bloody revolution, as its agents believed God had ordained them to eradicate all symbols of the old age: private property, money, class, icons, books (except the Bible), priests, and sacraments. The more radical millenarians instituted wife-sharing.
Violence was justified of course, precisely because of the theology outlined above. If God is directly communicating with me above and beyond the en-fleshed Word—which, yes, may “box” God in but at least keeps Him distinct from me and does so in a means of His choosing—then I become His hand of operation in the world. I cooperate with God as He inaugurates His kingdom in this world. I am indistinct from Him.
Here’s where the politics come in. If I believe Jesus will set up His kingdom in this world—through His elect ones even now—then I will take part in Christ’s destruction of His enemies, something standard Christian teaching says Jesus will do as judge, which happens beyond this world. And it will always be his show with us as mere spectators. The millenarian, by contrast, cooperates with the Holy Spirit to help Jesus eradicate the old and bring in the new in this world.
Throughout history, millenarianism has had these marks. A good review of it is in Norman Cohn’s “Pursuit of the Millennium” (which should be on every conservative’s bookshelf). Significant manifestations of millenarianism include the various Bohemian sects preceding the Reformation, Thomas Muntzer’s movement, the Anabaptist revolution in Munster, the Puritan movement in England, and the communitarian movements of America following the Great Awakening. One could argue that the Civil War—at least as defined in more frothy abolitionist circles—was a millenarian movement, with all the violence history shows us to expect from these. Didn’t mine eyes come to see the coming of the glory of the Lord trampling the grapes of His wrath? At least, that was the “hymn” that marked this political event.
G.W.F. Hegel, the Historical School, and Progressivism
Millenarianism fit nicely into the “historical schools” coming out of Germany through the likes of G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx. Hegel, an evangelical Pietist, embraced the Protestant Reformation as the moment in History when consciences began to be freed from the dictating authority of church dogma and practice. No longer, he believed, did History need the church as an instrument to train the world in humanitarian (i.e. Christian) values. Rather, after the Reformation, humanity could absorb these values as Jesus’ teachings become abstracted from his person and work and reduced to generic sentiments of brotherly love, peace, and humanitarianism. The church would not be needed. There would be an organic, mass movement working through government, Hegel’s God-State.
This philosophical thought, combined with the theology of the Great Awakening and its communitarianism, led to the rise of the Social Gospel, which in turn became the foundation for progressivism. Recall Herbert Croly, founder of the New Republic, was mockingly dubbed “Crolier than thou.” He was a fervent evangelical and believed that through the instrumentality of the American government a divine historical force would institute the teachings of Jesus— teachings, of course, rarefied from Jesus as a physical entity with a name, a history, or certainly a church.
When Theodore Roosevelt won the nomination for the Progressive Party, the delegates sang all sorts of popular revivalist songs. During the hymn “Follow, Follow, We Will Follow Jesus,” they replaced the word “Jesus” with “Roosevelt.” In the same spirit, Barack Obama told an audience while campaigning for president, “I am confident that we can create a kingdom right here on earth.“ Of course, if Obama or Roosevelt are co-workers with the divine, it can become confusing where Jesus ends and Obama begins. But again, once we locate God as bigger than the perfect tense, or the sacrament, or the Word, or the body of Jesus, how do we know where God begins and ends? He’s wherever you feel Him in your heart, right?
“Feel it in your heart” Christianity is evangelical Christianity, which eschews any authority save that of the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit’s personal guidance in reading it. This cannot end well when, for instance, evangelicals “feel in their hearts” that God approves of homosexuality or gay marriage, as is happening. No one reads the scriptures without an interpretative lens. Historically, the Roman Catholic magisterium, the Reformation confessions, or the Orthodox creeds provided that lens. But when the Holy Spirit gives you your own personal lens, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit has an uncanny resemblance to pop culture. So that kind of sucks as far as American evangelicalism goes.
The State of Worldwide Evangelicalism
But what of the rest of the world? Is worldwide Evangelicalism a good thing?
On one hand, it’s better than worldwide Islam for God’s sake. Given the pope’s “rapist’s defense” about the Charlie Hebdo massacre—they asked for it—we’re once again reminded what worldwide Catholicism and its liberationist, anti-capitalist theology means. On the other hand, among evangelical movements there’s always that violent millenarian streak, a liberationist ideology in its own right, which currently we see in such movements as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and other African evangelical movements.
But even if it doesn’t end up with these extremes, there’s that universalist tendency that leads to soft totalitarianism, to utopian “the world can be better if we just X” millenarianism, and to the non-ecclesiastical institution of do-gooderism, which somehow always makes my taxes go up and gives me another form to fill out.
In other words, Europe. This is wonderful as far as world politics and peace go—zombies don’t fight one another—but as far as Christianity, culture, or capitalism go, maybe not so much.