Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has recently come under immense pressure by prominent SBC pastors for his staunch opposition to Donald Trump. These leaders have insinuated that they will use monetary and political means to oust him from his position as a result of that stance. Despite my own disagreements with Moore and the SBC generally, I stand behind him and his refusal to approve of our president-elect unflinchingly for myriad reasons, some of which I have outlined in this post.
You don’t have to delve very far into the world of conservative Christianity to discover the ubiquity of warnings against the ever-lurking threat of liberalism. The liberal worldview, the liberal agenda, liberal theology — all of these are right at the doorstep, constantly threatening to destroy God’s work in the world by corrupting faith and culture.
Yet ironically, the liberal boogeyman is exactly what has been let into the pews by the religious right’s nearly unequivocal support for Donald Trump. The theology of Trump-supporting evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr., Mike Huckabee, and Franklin Graham is in fact nothing other than liberal theology operating under the guise of a cultural conservatism.
The problem with the religious right’s unreflective condemnation of “liberalism” over the last half-century (well, one problem) is that the overarching label of “liberal” conflates a number of quite distinct–and quite different–movements and thoughts into a monolithic and unambiguous threat. For example, the United States is a liberal democracy. “Liberal” here means that its governing structures begin with a consideration of the rights and value of the individual. This is different, though not altogether unrelated to, a liberal worldview–an understanding of the human person, God/gods, and the cosmos characterized by the subjectivity of Enlightenment individualism. Both of these are related to, yet distinguishable from, a cultural liberalism that exalts human autonomy, eschews any form of moral authority, denies the possibility of objective truth-claims, and vilifies any opposition to this worldview (it is here that a “liberal agenda” could perhaps be attributed). And all this is different still from liberal theology, a formulation of ostensibly Christian thought that determines the meaning and value of Scripture and traditional doctrine according to modern contextual sensibilities.
The refusal (or inability) to distinguish between these uses of the term “liberal” is what makes the present situation so dangerous, because it both eliminates the possibility of nuanced thought and associates the sum of Christian faith with the “conservative” sensibilities of a particular time and place. But as students of history and theology recognize, “liberal theology” is not equivalent with any one issue–it cannot be summarized by a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, nor with the acceptance of homosexual marriage, nor with a concern for social and economic equality.
Liberal theology means, rather, theology-from-below; it is a theology that begins with the convictions, sensibilities, or concerns of a particular person or people and constructs a view of God that fits and supports that worldview. It often overlaps with cultural liberalism, but is by no means synonymous with it.
The predominance of liberal theology (known in its original European form as “Classical Protestant Liberalism”) is what paved the way religiously and intellectually for not only the nationalistic fervor of World War I, but also the neo-paganism and ethno-nationalism of National Socialism, World War II, and the Holocaust.
Liberal theology presumes that we can begin elsewhere than with the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Jesus Christ as God’s revelation of himself in our understanding of who God is and what God requires of humanity. Especially in nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe (most concentratedly in Germany), liberal theology took the form of reducing Jesus to a good human teacher, or as someone with a particularly insightful awareness of God’s presence — incarnate God he could not possibly be, for this would interfere with the scientific and mechanistic view of the world that had been propounded by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Stripped of his divinity, the Jesus of Scripture and tradition could be taken or left as the situation might dictate–his wisdom could be appreciated, but was neither final nor authoritative.
If the object of Scripture was not authoritative, then, how else could Scripture be read than through the lens of the cultural moment? If the natural inclination of a traditionally Christian people was that they were culturally superior to all other nations, and were God’s chosen instrument to bring Enlightenment and knowledge to the world, how else could Scripture be read than as affirming and supporting such a notion? And if God was pro-Germany, how could Germany fail to be both righteous and successful, whatever means it had to use to establish its greatness?
We now stand at the precipice of national and ecclesial catastrophe, as the cleverly disguised liberal theology of Falwell, Huckabee, et al threatens once again to subsume the subversive gospel of Jesus Christ and his cross into a vaguely religious cultural conservatism. By manipulative fear, these very public voices for “evangelicalism” and “conservatism” have blurred the lines of culture and theology, convincing swaths of American Christians that while God reveals himself as a suffering Jewish rabbi that goes by the name “Prince of Peace,” we can ultimately know who God is and what God requires of us by appealing to the conservative American values of capitalism, national security, and religious hegemony. Christians must recognize and reject this theology-from-below, insisting on a theology-from-above; one which recognizes that we only know God as he has given himself to us by taking on human form and being put to death by the powers of the world that presume to know better than the foolishness of the cross.
In so doing, they fall far short of the message of Scripture that they claim to hold so highly: that in Jesus Christ God has become a human being, revealing both who He is and what it means to be truly human through his life of love, sacrificial death, and triumph over the grave. In place of this reality, they peddle instead the meager gospel and paltry hope of economic stability, cultural privilege, and continuation of the status quo.
Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (my two greatest theological heroes) recognized the danger that such theology-from-below posed in the early twentieth century–not only to the church, but to Germany and the rest of Europe as well. They wrote and spoke against the church’s support of National Socialism that was manifested most concretely and disastrously in the formation of the “German Christian Church”–a collective of pastors, theologians, and congregants who considered it their duty and pride to swear allegiance to the Fuhrer. Theirs and other dissenting voices were largely silenced or snuffed out by the rising tide of nationalistic furor, the result of which was the moral and spiritual corruption of an entire nation by the church’s tacit (and often active) participation in genocide.
When well-respected, intelligent, and theologically conservative voices like Russell Moore are stamped out and minimized by the powerful elite of the Southern Baptist Convention, who brazenly equate the rise of Donald Trump with the will of God, conservative Christians can no longer afford to bury their heads in the sands of naivety. It is time to recognize that the world is not black-and-white, and that liberal theology may rear its idolatrous head in the form of cultural liberalism and cultural conservatism alike. It is time to think critically about where the gospel of Jesus Christ ends and the idolatry of Americanism begins.