American Protestant evangelism has become, once again, a subject of intense scrutiny and discussion. A spate of articles has come to my attention in just the past week; no doubt, more will follow. The one comment which most impressed me Alan Blinder reported in the 12 April issue of the New York Times. In “For Alabama Christians, Governor Bentley’s Downfall Is a Bitter Blow,” he attempts to explain why evangelicals, despite disappointment caused by the failings of those whom they trust and support, do not abandon them and arm them against others like them in the future. The answer includes, but extends beyond, the willingness to forgive sinners who talk the talk of repentance. Blinder writes:
“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians [at Auburn University]. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”
This explanation by an ordained Baptist minister should be a reminder that not all evangelists are alike. So when I write below of groups in unqualified terms, remember that I know that there are exceptions, but also remember that they prove the rule.
How extraordinary it is that the fundamental concerns of evangelicals are not the essentials of their faith, but church-congregation-held hateful feelings toward certain groups or individuals, and certain cultural, social, or political positions. Most Protestants believe that the fundamental value of Christianity is love. Yet many evangelicals who think themselves pious Christians hate according to their beliefs. The question must be whether such an apparent inconsistency means that evangelicals are hypocrites.
The answer may be found in the earliest and still living creeds of Christianity. Both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds state the essentials of faith, which worshippers recite on Sundays. Both begin and end in miracles, Jesus’ birth and death, celebrated at Christmas and Easter. Neither has a middle; neither says anything about his life—preachings or practices—or about religious feelings or moral principles. In the creeds, between Jesus’ birth and death is a vacuum. In their statements of faith without regard to works, the creeds are suitably proto-Protestant.
Both creeds have great advantages for spreading Christianity: they are short, simple, and virtually culture-free. When addressed to people in culturally diverse societies far from the Holy Land, the creeds overcame local religions with a message, not about morals, but about miracles, many similar to their religious myths. The creeds thereby avoided impediments to conversion and conviction from advocating a moral message which might be attractive in one society might be repulsive in another.
But both creeds also have the great disadvantage of defining nothing about Christian belief or conduct for living as Christians in this world and in this life. They prescribe or proscribe nothing except faith in the miracles and their theological meanings. In their middle is a hollowness, which institutions or individuals fill according to preference. Most Protestants believe that love—human, divine, both—is fundamental to Christian belief and conduct. So they supplement the vacuum with love, which they believe to be the central moral message of Jesus and Paul, the message of the former more about loving one another, of the latter more about loving God or Jesus. Ah, love: it conquers all, it means all things to all people, it means different things to different people, it is little or no guidance at all.
Evangelists supplement the vacuum differently, with specific positions which their denomination or congregation accepts or rejects as appropriate in their community and deems right in Christian lives. Evangelical groups label positions on cultural, social, or political issues as Christian or not; regard them as fundamental to right Christian living, and advocate and act accordingly. So they support charities and the State of Israel, and hate people and hate positions which their groups have decided on other than Christian grounds are un- or anti-Christian.
Unlike most Protestants, evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the Bible in matters of historical truth and moral guidance. However, they have no Biblical texts to support their hostility to liberals and Obama or opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage. Only by interpreting the text, not as literalists, but as activists, can evangelists stretch a ruling awarding compensation for the damage of an accidentally induced miscarriage, to cover abortions. And only by accepting “abomination,” a mistranslation of the Hebrew word in Leviticus “toevah,” meaning an unacceptable cultic practice of non-Jews, like eating pork or shellfish, can they justify opposition to and outrage at same-sex marriage, and ignore recent moral and religious thinking about love and marriage.
A charge of using double, shifting, or self-serving standards of interpretation in such cases is one thing; a charge of hypocrisy in making fundamental to Christianity hate-felt positions on these and other modern issues is another. Traditional Protestants put one filling between the bread-of-miracles sandwich slices; evangelicals put another. Since the foundational creeds of the Christian faith say nothing about emotions or morals, only about beliefs essential to individual salvation, traditionalist Protestants and evangelicals have different tastes in Christianity, not different faiths; not one true, the other false. With its creeds but without a code of conduct, Christianity asserts that, for God, all things are possible; and, for Jesus, all things are permissible. Since Jesus’ love for each true believer in these creeds is unconditional, Jesus forgives anything and everything. Thus, the believer’s motives and conduct—hate and love, and the actions which they motivate—are irrelevant to his or her salvation. So, however one lives one life, if faith alone justifies, salvation is likely if one truly believes in the creedal essentials of faith.
To those doubtful of, disillusioned by, or departed from Christianity, Protestantism, traditional or evangelical, provides contradictory possibilities, not consistent principles and practices, for living a meaningful religious life. Celebrating Christmas and Easter is not enough; Protestantism must be more than the sum of its major holidays.