“Yes, I am a Christian, just like those over there”
Standing with humble believers against the demands of a decadent culture
There are a number of ways to look at the current divisions that are emerging in traditional Protestant and evangelical circles in the United States. The old fault line between those who affirm and those who deny the reality of the supernatural—the line that marked the old liberal-fundamentalist divide of the early 20th century—is not particularly helpful, given that the most significant debates do not focus on that particular kind of issue. Rather, other buzzwords—Donald Trump, abortion, gender, sexuality, Christian nationalism, social justice, critical race theory—reflect the points of contention.
Protestants thought they owned the USA. They no longer do, and they are struggling to adapt to this new reality where they still think their voices count but how to make them count is not clear. Thus, one way to understand our divisions is as a set of conflicting responses to our new social order.
Another way, however, is to see what is happening as the exposure of a class division, long latent but now increasingly clear. It has been interesting to see the muted response in some evangelical quarters to the Dobbs decision.
Yes, the overturning of Roe did not end abortion, let alone sin, in the USA, but it was still odd that so many of the “transformationist” wing of evangelicalism did not see this particular transformation as a source for immediate rejoicing, but hemmed and hawed and qualified their response. It is hard to imagine that they would have expressed the same lukewarm sentiments when slavery was abolished, even though that action scarcely finished racism, was achieved by sinlessly perfect actions, or solved all the nation’s problems.
My speculative read on such responses (similar to my read on the #NeverTrump refusal to acknowledge some voted for Trump because they thought the alternative worse): “We are Christians. But not like those ignorant, bigoted evangelicals over there. We are thoughtful and urbane. Not ignorant and bigoted.” It’s a class thing.
It poses a challenge for us all. I would not deny that I am an “elite” myself. I trade in ideas. I teach at a college. I write books. My hands are soft through lack of doing what anything that my grandfather might have referred to as “real work.” And the challenge this poses for me is: Who are truly my brother and my sister? When the line is finally drawn, on which side will I stand? With the people who belong to my class or the people who belong to my church?
I was reminded of this recently while doing that elite thing—reading a bit of poetry. In this case it was Robert Burns’ “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” his evocation in verse of Saturday night family worship in a poor crofter’s cottage in Scotland in the 18th century. Burns himself was a godless and amoral man. But in this poem, he captures something of the simplicity of the humble Christian faith of the poor family he described. They may have been impoverished by worldly standards, but they were rich in the eyes of God; and one can almost feel Burns’s envious admiration as he writes.
When I reflect on my own Christian life, the great personal influences on me have not been the great and the good. They have been the humble and the unknown by worldly standards: the friend at school who shared the gospel with me; the elderly couple who invited me to lunch on my first Sunday at church as a new postgraduate all alone in a new city; the mentor who called that Friday when I was at my lowest ebb to tell me that he and his wife had just prayed for me and my family.
These are today’s equivalent of the people in Burns’ poem. And they are the people so often sprayed with the righteous spittle of those who see racists and homophobes and bigots in every face that dares to say “No!” to the latest imperious demands of our decadent culture. And I pray that they are the people that those of us who, yes, are elites, will stand shoulder to shoulder with in the coming years. Sometimes Christian fidelity requires one to be a traitor to one’s own class. May I say, “Yes, I am a Christian. Just like those over there.”
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