Post-Evangelical Skepticism Over the Impeachment Debate
December 23, 2019
When one steps on an idol, one can expect fireworks. So when Christianity Today advocated for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, the blogoshpere erupted with volcanic fury. Evangelical spokesmen and thought leaders doubled-down on all sides of the debate for and against the President. Nearly 200 pro-Trump evangelicals wrote a letter to Christianity Today in protest. The response to Galli and Christianity Today by the evangelical church is just as interesting as the political events that led to Galli’s op-ed. Here are four observations that elicit ongoing skepticism by post-evangelical Christian believers.
First is the attitude reflected in the debate. The responses to Christianity Today’s editorial filtered through the megaphone of Tweets, blogs, and Facebook posts made reasoned debate or civil disagreement an impossibility. Only rarely did anyone suggest that people of good will can disagree on the “facts” of the case against the President or whether the “facts” if agreed to warrant the political step of impeachment. Rarely did people acknowledge that impeachment is a two-step process, with the House finding reasonable cause for a trial, which the Senate then takes up. On this first step, over 500 legal scholars and 2,000 historians all agree that a further inquiry is justified.
Instead, what we witnessed was a clash of incommensurate frames couched with personal attacks of religious suspicions of heresy and impugning evil motives. There is little ability to stay calm, listen, and work the process. Instead, in the Christianity Today chapter of the controversy, Billy Graham is appealed to by both sides as the evangelical equivalent of papal authority. Graham’s family members all weighed in: Franklin in defense of the president, Tullian against, and Anne advocating a pietism above the fray. There is no statesmen-like behavior, reasonable civility, or humility reflected in the ability to listen with respect to the other side. No, it is playground rancor all the way down by both parties.
There is almost no consideration of how frames and facts work in such a contested debate. If one assumes nefarious motives of the President, if this is one’s starting frame, then all the facts are taken to support this thesis alone—even when the direct links are not established in the phone call, it is admitted that the conclusion of an “illicit demand” was based on an “assumption,” and even when the President’s own words contradict the conclusion, though only after the public revelation of the potential scandal. One’s prior attitudes toward the President determine the frame, not the facts of the case. And if the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts bounce off and the frame remains.
There is very little humility or recognition on the part of the proponents and antagonists that the facts can be read meaningfully through different frames. Instead what we witnessed was an escalated rhetoric presented with self-righteous self-assurance that speaks only to one’s own choir and reinforces one’s own frame. There is a Fox frame and an MSNBC frame and they largely speak right past each other with little self-awareness of their grounding biases. This arrogant attitude is off-putting.
Second is the way the debate is framed as a stark binary. Here unlike the real world and lived experience, one assumes a black and white perspective of reality and the people involved. Trump is all good and Schiff is all bad or vica-a-versa. Biblical Christians should be the first to admit that this is never the case. There is plenty of sin and duplicity in our own hearts and on both sides.
There is little discussion in the media about the political pattern of “plausible deniability.” Historically, if one is going to do something nefarious in politics, the political actors always creates a plausible counter-story. This means that one can never really take the facts at face value. The facts are always going to be capable of dispute, dependent on one’s frame, and thus inevitably politically contentious. So self-assured appeals to “undisputed and overwhelming” facts are themselves spin on a far different actual reality. The pundits and the media analysts want to paint reality in black and white categories when the nature of the case is various shades of grey that get murkier and murkier with the selective use of leaked facts and incomplete access to witnesses. Where is there any acknowledging of this inevitable murky reality in this partisan debate? Nowhere. To acknowledge this murkiness is to be able to recognize that well intentioned and reasonable persons may come to different conclusions. There is almost no epistemological humility present in these discussions in Congress, in the media, the evangelical church, or in the blogosphere. It is a conflict among opposing fundamentalists, each with a closed, confidence, arrogant view of reality. And this is just as true of Galli’s op-ed as it is of his detractors. This kind of framing of reality is off-putting.
Third, one must question the priority of this controversy. That impeachment has been given ultimate cosmic priority by cable political pundits and Constitutional scholars is understandable. That it has been also given the same ultimate cosmic priority by those tacitly committed to Christ and his kingdom, shows the degree to which the evangelical church has aligned itself to a political idolatry. This political priority is the heresy, not whether one is for or against Trump.
Many evangelical proponents in the debate assume a definitive linkage, including a cultural and spiritual overlap, between presidential politics and the kingdom of God. It is thus not surprising that young people are increasingly disconnected from and cynical about both. Disgust of Congress parallels their disgust of the church and to the degree that this linkage is assumed their disgust is warranted.
This is not to say that presidential politics doesn’t matter or presidential abuses of power should be swept under the rug. Of course, they matter, but they don’t have an ultimate cosmic priority. They don’t touch on the reality of the kingdom of God or the fact that culture is upstream from politics. This is not the main thing and Christians are especially those who should be able to put this scandal within a larger spiritual and cultural narrative. The reductionism of the kingdom of God with American presidential politics is the heresy, and the vocal evangelical outrage over the Christianity Today op-ed is only proof of this spiritual declension. This politicized priority is off-putting.
And finally, one must question the methods exhibited in this controversy, the methods of functional Nietzscheanism, or will-to-power. We are witnessing a public drama of naked power politics at every turn on both sides of Congress and the church. Political principle has been reduced to the tyranny of the majority. This tyranny moves in one direction in the House and in another in the Senate, but it is tyranny on both sides through and through depending on who has the most votes. Political principle is not even in the equation. The fact that the House has not handed over the charges to the Senate is only further proof of this warring tyranny.
Fairness, civility, prayer, and the common good are invoked only as rhetorical public relations gloss over a naked display of partisan politics. The Republican fear that the dumbing down of the standards of impeachment by the House, so that any future president will be susceptible to “impeachment lite,” is only evidence of their own lack of standards. In this arena of power politics no one can be expected to play by the Queensbury Rules. One can expect that the Republicans will act in a similar manner to the Democrats in the House when they are the majority in the Senate. There is no overarching principle of mutuality or fairness here, only the oscillating resentment of pure power. As Roger Williams warned those at the helm of the Ship of State forget they were once under the hatches. So the destructive cycle of partisanship continues and democracy becomes little more than a comforting fiction. Democracy has been reduced to a bareknuckle brawl, a culture war, and potentially a low-grade civil war.
Church leaders do not help. Instead they demonize their opponents and add spiritual warfare to the pugilistic rhetoric. Sociologist James Hunter warns, “Inasmuch as they accept and work within the framework of power politics, Christians, Jews, and humanists—those who would otherwise find Nietzschean ethics anathema—are as Nietzschean as they can be. All too often, in the name of their respective faiths.” The evangelical church’s response to this controversy only serves to make matters worse. A quick perusal of one’s Facebook account only serves to prove the point. Put simply, however bad the cultural situation or political controversies, the ethics of Jesus is never and should never be Nietzschean. The resort to Nietzschean power politics is off-putting.
So post-evangelicals, who inevitably land on both sides of this controversy, are alienated by the way this controversy is being handled within the church. A post-evangelical is not an ex-evangelical. Rather he or she is a person who has been driven to the margins by some aspects of evangelical church culture with which they cannot honestly identify. Here the problem is one of tone, framing, priority, and method. It leaves many of us well outside the pages of Christianity Today and longing for a better way forward.
So how might Christianity Today have helpfully guided this debate in its pages. First it might not assume the accuracy of the Democratic frame and the accuracy of its selective facts as a given. If this frame is true and if these facts are given, then impeachment is warranted. But to deny an alternative frame and to omit exonerating facts and then to make this the measure of biblical faithfulness seems very unfair. It makes fair discussion and reasoned disagreement impossible.
But at the same time where there is this much smoke, in the context of expected plausible deniability, a deeper inquiry is warranted. On the whole something doesn’t smell right and needs a closer second look.
Christianity Today could have helped the church think more clearly and with greater discernment about a matter of significant social timeliness. Instead, they added fuel to the fire and in no way relativized the political priority of presidential politics. Since when does it matter ultimately to God’s kingdom and redemptive history who is in the White House? And where does Christianity Today call the church into question about its willful accommodation to Nietzschean power politics? I am not of the opinion that CT should not have said something, that somehow our spiritual priorities skate above this messy political fray. No something needed to be said.
What we need and look for is more humility, more repentance, and more discernment. Instead we got more of the culture war status quo. This is not sufficient for post-evangelicals who find the entire spectacle off-putting.
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