Christianity and Politics: If A=B and B=C, then A=C. Or does it?

If I remember 8th-grade math correctly, and if I am hearing some of my fellow evangelicals clearly, either they or I have transgressed a basic principle of math. I’m pretty sure they are the ones who goofed about a basic issue, our worldview.

What I mean is that, as a people, we are a priori committed to one worldview that we attempt to draw out from the Bible. Other faith groups in the world have other sources of truth, some authoritative (the Koran), some not so much (Hindu Scriptures), some in-between (Oprah); they develop their worldview from these sources.

What happens when a Christian unconsciously synthesizes worldviews?

Let’s start with one case and move on to that math issue.

Case 1: Ayn Rand

I will pick on Rand first. It may be because of some lingering bitterness in my heart, because I made myself finish The Fountainhead, and later on that novel about the train, a book that drove me to distraction. I also read some of her many essays.

Ayn Rand called herself a capitalist and has been a huge influence on American libertarians and conservatives in the 21st century. She is also on record as saying: “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”[1] And she was an atheist and anti-Christian, since she believed that belief in God was irrational.

This is why I was surprised when, a few years back, it seemed like a lot of evangelical Christians were walking around with dogeared copies of her Atlas Shrugged. At that time, some went on record saying, “It’s either Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ, but you can’t have both.” Others countered that one must be discerning about all truth claims. Both of these points have their use, but in Rand’s case, we must begin with the fact that that there is a severe disconnect between Rand’s “Objectivism” and Christianity of any denomination; not everyone will agree with me.

Ayn Rand was not the Devil, nor was everything Rand said in error; no fallible human being can hope to achieve total wrongness! My point is that some Christians have proceeded as follows:

  • Christianity is completely pro-capitalism (I won’t bother to unpack this one, I’m just reporting)
  • Rand too is pro-capitalism, in her own way
  • Therefore, a Christian should be an Objectivist; or an admirer of Objectivism; or a Christian should accept Objectivism, but only up to the point where the Bible clearly filters out its tenets.

But in fact, we human beings are not as analytical and logical as we would like to believe, and that means the above transaction almost certainly happens below the surface of conscious thought. That is, few Christians decide to make that leap; they make it with little deliberate thought.

I suggest that this is an abuse of the transitive property of numbers, which runs thus: if A=B and B=C, then A=C. A simple illustration is: If A (2 x 2) is equal to B (3 + 1), and if B is equal to C (16 ÷ 4), then A = B = C means that A = C (2 x 2 = 16 ÷ 4).

Insights that from come non-Bible systems are of course valid. This is because all human thinking reflects the image of God, albeit with plenty of distortion. But we as Christians use the Bible to establish a worldview, since none of the small elements of our belief system can be understood without the overarching narrative of Scripture. For example, Gandhi taught non-violent resistance, and in great part he took his thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount. But while we might appreciate what he taught, we must also state that Gandhi could not truly understand how or why the meek will inherit the earth, and for that reason his Non-Violent Resistance must not be confused with its lookalike in Matthew 5.

We are not told to start with a non-Bible system and then use the Bible only to remove non-Bible elements. This is the pool filter view of the Bible. It will end up with some other group or political party setting the main agenda and the church following along unless it is something clearly objectionable. (This is what, in my opinion, happened in 2003, when leading evangelicals signed the Land Letter, urging the invasion of Iraq; the Bush administration – the tail – wagged the people of God – the dog. Although my opposition to the war was also based on the few data that were available at the time, hindsight has shown me right: the war resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, devastated the Iraqi Christian church, and destabilized an entire region.)

Case 2: Jordan Peterson

Dr. Jordan Peterson has become something of a Prophet Elijah for conservatives and politically conservative evangelicals. He was a Harvard professor. He is intellectual, incredibly well-informed, sharp, articulate, witty. His views are highly nuanced, but he is perceived to be anti-postmodernist, anti-feminist, anti-political correctness. He writes about the Bible, but as myth, not in any evangelical fashion.

What else? He is not a Christian, not even a theist, believes that to be a Christian is to try to imitate Christ and fight evil in the world. His philosophy is in part based on Jungian psychology and the Eastern idea of yin yang, that male is logic, female is chaos. His major tome was Maps of Meaning, but right now he has a bestselling self-help book: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

How might one misapply (misunderstand), the transitive principle? By saying, I am a conservative Christian; Jordan Peterson resonates with me; therefore, I will be a follower of Peterson and all his works, including an appreciation of his Eastern and Jungian philosophy.

Ideas do not sort themselves into neat categories. They are sticky, and one idea leads to another in a sort of hand-over-hand progression. And brain studies in the last few years have shown that the human being is capable of holding onto blatantly contradictory ideas,  swear up and down that their thinking is consistent, and never notice their mistake.

I have no doubt that Peterson has good ideas! The trap is to say, if he has some good ideas, then his ideas are good. A = B = C! Nevertheless, setting up a non-Christian as our Culture Warrior is never a good idea, it eventually turns around and bites us.

Case 3: Paula White and her evangelical friends

[NOTE: A reader of this post asked how come I give three examples of evangelicals being taken captive by conservative ideology, but none from the left. It is true, that it appears that in these last years, these decades, it is conservative political ideology that is having the greatest impact on the shape of the North American gospel. It will strike us today almost as a fairy tale that, earlier in my life, the most notable Christian in American government, Senator Mark Hatfield, was accused of being taken in by the Left, since he was pro-environment and opposed the war in Vietnam. Well – if anyone today comes up with a good example of a wholesale sliding to the left by our principle evangelical leaders, because of their unhealthy identification with some person or group, by all means, tell me and I might add it in! Btw, I do not regard the late Chic-Fil-A gaff as equal in gravity to the ones I here give.]

The evangelical world got a bit of a shock at the arrival of Paula White’s new book, Something Greater: Finding Triumph Over Tragedy. It is a journal of her personal faith journey.

And no, I have not read it, but I have read other material by Paula White and have a good working knowledge on her teaching in general. She one of America’s most prominent preachers of the Prosperity Gospel (unkindly nicknamed Name It and Claim It). This doctrine teaches that people have the power to create their own reality by speaking out loud in faith whatever it is they want. And the dark side is that, if you are not healed, blessed, prospered, then you don’t have the faith that Paula does. Normally, the Prosperity Gospel includes giving to the preacher’s ministry, as evidence that you really do believe.[2]

The shock came in October 2019 when several captains of the evangelical industry suddenly endorsed her book! These are leaders who, if pressed, would normally be expected to condemn Prosperity Theology, outright and without reservation. They have fallen into a trap: If A (Franklin Graham, Jack Graham, Falwell, Greg Laurie, and Jeffress) = B (Paula White, Donald Trump) in their political beliefs, and C (Paula White) writes bestselling false teaching, then A ought to back C.

And so:

  • Famous Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress he would “give it to anyone looking for hope!”
  • Southern Baptist pastor Jack Graham declared, “It is powerful. I highly recommend it!”
  • Jerry Falwell, Jr.: “Paula’s life is an encouragement to so many and I’m sure this book will encourage you” adding “Here is a link to pre-order at a discounted rate.” No faint praise there!
  • Franklin Graham’s language was less fervent, but still, his special communication went out to his 2 million followers: “you might want to check it out.”
  • Greg Laurie too endorsed it, although he stipulated that he and White had differing theological views (in 2014 he stated that prosperity theology had “hijacked” the Bible, which seems drastic enough). I do not know how he can justify backing White’s message, given that she is a known high apostle of Prosperity.

This happened in 2019, which is disheartening when compared to roughly similar events in 2012; matters seem to have gone downhill in short order. In 2012, evangelicals as a bloc backed Mitt Romney for president, despite the uncomfortable fact that he was a Mormon. His backers included the aforementioned Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Robert Jeffress. (In the primaries, by the way, I was a backer of Jon Huntsman, also a Mormon; all things being equal, I do not bat an eyelash at voting for a Mormon or people of other faiths). But evangelical leaders in 2012 did not make the mistake of announcing, “I am politically in agreement with Romney; Romney is a Mormon; therefore, we should either accept Mormonism or – as is the real danger – tone down our negative opinions about Mormonism.”[3]

In 2019, there was no such reluctance among these highly prominent evangelical leaders, even though many – myself included – would locate the Prosperity Gospel as far removed from the the historical Christian faith as Mormonism is.

Because of the massive backlash, some of these men have changed their minds about White’s book, which signals a further lack of integrity (If the book is that good, then why recant? Why not double-down and keep endorsing it?). Franklin Graham and Greg Laurie have rescinded their endorsements. Jeffress excused his endorsement by saying he is too busy a man to have read the book before endorsing it. (Side note: I’ve written Prefaces and book endorsements – just this week there was a book published with my endorsement on it – and I can assure everyone that, the first thing they tell you in the Book Endorsement Class is, YOU MUST READ THE BOOK FIRST!)

Those who know about the tight political connection – it is Donald Trump who brought them together – between Paula White, Franklin Graham, Jack Graham, Falwell, Greg Laurie, and Jeffress, should take to heart what has happened. For this crisis of integrity is the absolutely logical outcome of what happens when politics is placed above theology. I cannot imagine how the White Endorsement could have turned out differently than: “Since White is politically in line with them, therefore her evangelical, supposedly anti-Prosperity, political allies feel free (or obligated!) to recommend her gospel.” This is a profoundly spiritual crisis that will get worse before it gets better. How long before we take the bait and fall into her other Voodoo, that if you oppose Trump in any way, you are part of a “demonic network“? Oops, too late! Those who are oppose Trump, a prominent pastor just last month announced, are demon-possessed, and “trying to place hexes and curses on President Trump.” A statement that evangelicals would have laughed off as silly not 20 years ago.

And it’s a misuse of the transitive property:

  • If A (Franklin Graham, Jack Graham, Falwell, Greg Laurie, and Jeffress) = B (Paula White, Donald Trump) in their political beliefs,
  • And if B (Paula White) = C (Prosperity Gospel),
  • Then it must be that C (Graham, Graham, Falwell, Laurie, Jeffress) = C (Prosperity Gospel) and should, logically, endorse its message.

The math doesn’t add up, nor does the logic, and the damage to our testimony is severe.

The better response would have been for them to say, “Thanks for the invitation to promote your book, Paula White; you are a nice person; you and I agree on many things; but as you know I do not agree with your spiritual message, and therefore you must excuse myself from writing an endorsement.” Easy. Polite. And I can assure you from experience, that the generally-agreed-upon rule is: someone who is asked for a book endorsement is at perfect liberty to pull a Bartleby and say: “I would prefer not to”, with no hard feelings.

The senior tempter Screwtape in the wonderful book by C. S. Lewis knew the score. Screwtape tells his nephew that he might tempt a Christian to be a pacifist during WWII, or a patriot, or some other option; in the end what truly matters is how the Christian prioritizes his belief system:

Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘Cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war effort or of pacifism. (Screwtape Letters, ch. 7).

The temptation can be updated:

Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating cultural ideology as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard his cultural agenda as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of his cultural ideology, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of it.

No! Gospel First. Gospel Second. Gospel Third. Other commitments, way down the list.

LINKS:

“Why I left party politics, and never looked back”

And in this article I suggest that American evangelicals have bought into what I regard as the unbiblical Settlement ideology of the Israeli party Likud, whose current leader is Benjamin Netanyahu.

NOTES:

[1] Quoted in a collection of her essays, The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1971).

[2] White has denied that she teaches the prosperity gospel, although that is not surprising, given the unpopularity of the term (I know of no-one who uses the term of themself!), and given the difficulty in defining these things. Well – as I understand it, the following call to give a donation to her ministry so that God will prosper you in 2019 is TEXTBOOK Prosperity teaching. Says White: “I Prophetically Decree and Declare Deliverance & Prosperity are Yours in 2019 – This is the Year YOU Inherit YOUR Promised Land!…With obedience to this first fruits instruction and your faith – I believe your purpose, your year, your prosperity, and power will release blessing upon your entire year! Amen! And I declare the weight you have been carrying is lifted, let every yoke break off you NOW – For I decree you are about to INHERIT your Promised Land! 2019 is a year of deliverance and prosperity for you. It begins right now with the biblical principle of First Fruits.”

What is this “Principle of First Fruits”? It is, not surprisingly, to give to her ministry!! “I want to bless you this season when you give [to me, she provides a link] your very best First Fruits Offering!” This is Latin for “write Paula a check and she personally guarantees you will get it all back and much more!”

[3] Here is a brief and useful article from 2012, “Evangelical Christians Reconcile Anti-Mormonism With Romney Choice.”

“Christianity and Politics: If A=B and B=C, then A=C. Or does it?” by Gary Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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