Does the Liberty University Wing of the GOP Appeal to the Masses?

While asking a political question, Jonathan Merritt’s latest column in The Week provides insight into how group leaders keep in-group members in line. Merritt was slated to speak at a Liberty University function (his alma mater), but was disinvited by the president of the school, Jerry Falwell, Jr. because “We’re just uncomfortable with some of the things you’ve been writing.”
Using the stick is a part of the tactics, promising a return to good graces if one comes around is the carrot. According to Merritt, Falwell, Jr. then said:

“You don’t seem to remember who your friends are,” Falwell lamented. “So we’ll continue to keep an eye on you and if things change on your end, we’ll reevaluate.”

I have had several of those kind of conversations over the years. The power players have been both liberals and conservatives. Group dynamics don’t seem to know party loyalties.
In this case, Merritt uses this story to pursue what promises to be a significant story line of the 2016 election. Can the cluster of religious right positions held by Ted Cruz and featured by Liberty University earlier this week appeal to the rest of the country?
Merritt seems skeptical and I agree with him.
Merritt frames the matter this way:

The question that is yet to be answered is whether their kind of conservatism — the Liberty University kind — is too rigid, radical, and Tea Party-friendly for most Americans, including moderate conservatives and centrists like me.

I am aware that not all people who teach at Liberty University are as far right as the administration appears to be. Liberty is often known for the work of the Liberty Counsel and the law school once headed by Mat Staver. As I just pointed out, Liberty law school associate dean Matt Barber wants the Christian right candidates to cut a back room deal to choose the Christian candidate for president.
In any case, I am not excited about a theocrat as a representative of the GOP, and I suspect most of the electorate won’t buy it either.
Correction: The original post identified Mat Staver as current head of the Liberty University School of Law and implied that Matt Barber was with the Liberty Counsel. Staver completed his tenure as Dean of the law school in 2014 and Barber is not with Liberty Counsel. I regret the errors and thank Mat Staver for pointing them out.

Is Hobby Lobby a Christian Company?

According to Jonathan Merritt, there is reason to question Hobby Lobby’s claim to be a Christian company. Writing in The Week, Merritt takes H0bby Lobby to task for buying much of their cheap craft merch from China, a nation with an abysmal human rights record.
Merritt asserts in his conclusion:

If you want to call your business “Christian,” by all means, go right ahead. But those who live by the label must die by it as well. You cannot call your business “Christian” when arguing before the Supreme Court, and then set aside Christian values when you’re placing a bulk order for cheap wind chimes.
Every time you buy a decorative platter from Hobby Lobby with a Bible verse stamped across it, you have funded the company’s fight against the HHS contraception mandate. But you’re also sending a chunk of change to a country that forces people to abort their children, flouts basic standards of workplace dignity, and denies more than a billion people the right to worship.

To his credit, Merritt invited Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention to provide an alternative point of view on Merritt’s page. Moore sharply disagrees:

The Greens cannot control the decisions made by the Chinese government. They can, however, direct their own actions. And, as Americans, they can participate in a democratic republic in which the people are ultimately accountable for the decisions of their government. Buying products from companies that operate in a country that aborts children is not the same as being forced by the United States government to purchase directly insurance that does the same.
Someone with a conscientious objection to the death penalty isn’t implicated in capital punishment because she buys oranges from Florida, where capital punishment is practiced. She would reasonably, though, protest if she were forced to sell lethal drugs to the state for that purpose or if she were compelled to pull the switch on the electric chair.

This topic is interesting to me. Avoiding the exploitation of workers is a Christian value but I am wondering how any company can avoid this kind of situation. Merritt’s point is that Hobby Lobby should be held to a higher standard if the owners of the company insist on the using the label Christian.
I have reservations about any company using the label Christian, in the same way as I wonder what Christian music is or about other uses of Christian to modify something other than a disciple of Jesus. Merritt’s essay makes the topic more practical and relevant to the business choices companies make. Does it matter whether or not a company does business with a Chinese company or a company in a nation which respects human rights?
Again, Merritt cut himself and jumped in the shark tank. Hope he survives this one.
 

Troubles in the Calvinist Revival Tent

Jonathan Merritt cut himself and jumped in the shark tank with this article on troubles in the Calvinist revival.
You need to read the whole thing but in the mean time, here is a taste:

To be sure, neo-calvinists don’t shy away from controversy and aren’t reticent to critique those outside of the movement. (One might refer to some Calvinist’s blistering responses to Donald Miller’s announcement that he doesn’t attend church.) Yet these same leaders are often resistant, delayed, and then tempered with their critiques of other Calvinists who seem to stray.
An illuminating example of this might be the recent glut of Mark Driscoll controversies—from sexist comments to charges of plagiarism to proof that he bought his way onto the New York Times bestsellers list using ministry monies. Leaders in the movement were effectively mum until a select few broke the silence of late. The first accusations of Driscoll plagiarizing were revealed on November 21st, but the first truly critical response posted by neo-Calvinist mega-blog, The Gospel Coalition, trickles out on December 18th. One might compare this with the response to Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” that was in full bloom before the YouTube trailer finished buffering.
Even those who were brave enough to critique Driscoll were mostly moderate. And several Calvinists told me off-the-record that many who offered full-throated criticisms of Driscoll—like Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary—have been relegated to the margins as a result.

This is an intriguing admission. I wonder if Trueman knows he is under the bus. Makes me glad that I don’t belong to many clubs anymore.
 

Religion News Services Weighs In on Glenn Beck at Liberty University

Liberty University graduate Jonathan Merritt posted an article yesterday titled: “Glenn Beck Preaches Mormon Theology at Liberty University.” In the article Merritt provides analysis of Beck’s sermon and the Latter Day Saint references in it.
While there has been some outrage expressed by Liberty grads on Twitter, the school hasn’t responded to these expressions with the vigor it did to concerns the school was partnering with Benny Hinn. Merritt seems largely correct when he wrote:

There seems to be no outcry from students, parents, or faculty over Liberty’s invitation of Beck or of his sermon so far. Perhaps the silence is because this is business as usual for the evangelical mega-school.

After clearly identifying the Mormon theology in Beck’s sermon, Merritt concludes:

So what does all this mean?Given the school’s history, Beck’s sermon may be nothing more than Liberty doing what it has always done best: thriving amidst controversy and leading with conservative politics rather than theology. But it may also be one more sign that Mormons are becoming more mainstream in American life–even increasingly welcomed by evangelicals who would have rejected them only a few years ago.

While Merritt says this gently, I do agree that Liberty often puts conservative politics before religion. To varying degrees, one might have a hard time finding a religious institution that has not done this at one time or another. However, there has to be a line somewhere, and for my taste, Liberty crossed that line by giving Glenn Beck a platform to sermonize and in essence to proselytize their students. If Beck provided value to the educational mission of the school then I can see him speaking in classes, or at politically oriented events, etc. However, Liberty showcased him preaching what was in essence a sermon.
More broadly, there are many reasons I think Beck should not be invited to speak at an institution of higher learning. Mostly, the reasons have to do with his endorsement of the historical problems of David Barton. So much misinformation has been spread by Barton through Beck’s media empire that he is culpable for it.  Beck has been approached about the matter by those close to him and he has persisted to give Barton a platform. Barton in turn has softened and minimized the real differences between historic Christianity and the LDS doctrines. All of this disqualifies both of them in my opinion.

Jonathan Merritt Discusses Sexuality and Vulnerability in New Book

On Sunday in a blog post at Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt summarized some personal reflections on his sexuality which are detailed in his new book Jesus is Better Than You Imagined.
Merritt, also the author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars which I endorsed. In that book, Merritt raises good questions and frequently illustrates the damage done to the Gospel and to people by culture war battles over social issues. In this blog post and his new book, he makes the matter personal.

The church is at a critical juncture on sensitive matters such as these. Churches need to create safe spaces where their people can be honest about what they feel and what they’ve experienced. All of our stories belong at the table. We need to listen to each other and learn to love each other and then pick up the scriptures and ask, “What does it look like to follow Jesus with our hearts, minds, and bodies?” If I shared my story for any reason, it was this one.

Merritt describes unwanted sexual contact as a child and then struggles over his sexual identity as an adult. He doesn’t label himself with a sexual orientation label and describes a fluidity that is characteristic of some people. I appreciate that he does not peg his same-sex attraction on his childhood and in fact says that it is “dangerous” to assume a connection.
Merritt’s experience is similar to so many who are same-sex or bisexually attracted but maintain loyalty to beliefs which are incongruous with same-sex sexual behavior or relationships.  The American Psychological Association’s sexual orientation task force report calls this experience, telic congruence.
I look forward to reading his new book.

Who Are the Paleo Evangelicals?

Last week, historian Thomas Kidd described a subset of evangelicals who are reluctant Republicans. Inspired by the term paleoconservative, he calls them paleo evangelicals. These evangelicals, according to Kidd, are suspicious of American civil religion, and skeptical that much good comes from allegiance to any political party. Although conservative, paleos do not agree with the modern GOP on all issues. On balance, the GOP may be the party that gets their votes, but they are not enthusiastic that voting one’s values is the salvation of the nation.

Kidd specifically raises the differences between paleo evangelicals and the Christian nation movement led by David Barton. He writes

Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his new Founders’ Bible.

Kidd does not speculate about the size of this group but I think he is correct that such evangelicals exist. I certainly would be close to this camp. Picking up on his ideas, Bart Gingrich and Anna Williams see paleos as being more prevalent among younger people.  I hope they are correct.

One leading voice among evangelicals in the younger generation is Jonathan Merritt. His book A Faith of Our Own finds fault with the culture war and the conflation of Christianity with politics. Merritt’s experience may give insight into the making of paleos. About his peers and the church, Merritt writes

Having come of age during the first aftershock period, young people today seem especially dissatisfied. A culture-warring church is the only one they’ve experienced, and they are running away as fast as they can. (p. 77)

Merritt seems to be describing paleos when he writes:

Today’s Christians are rising up to rediscover the faith in a world that is, not a world that was. They desire to reclaim the faith from the partisan spirit so pervasive among some Christians in America…These Christians aren’t consumed with a platform or a party or a policy; they are devoted to a person who emptied Himself to rule supreme over a new kind of kingdom. (p. 86)

I hope Merritt and the others are correct about a rising group of evangelicals who reject the conflation of religion and politics and who want to reclaim the faith. To me, it is interesting to consider what it would look like for this group to become the majority within evangelical circles. Would new leaders take existing groups (e.g., Family Research Council, Focus on the Family) in a new direction? Or would these groups disband? Currently, evangelicals are known more for what evangelical para-church organizations are against than what they are for. Surely, the paleos would go in a different direction.

Although leaning toward cynicism, the following serves as the soundtrack for this post: