Usually placed at polar opposites of the political spectrum, Evangelicals and the Left aren’t actually so different from each other really.
They both want to change the world.
They both believe they have a vision for a fair, equitable world of peace and harmony.
And they both intensely dislike collaborating with anyone who disagrees with them on the slightest thing.
Both Evangelicals and the Left demand that all comers embrace their doctrine right down to the most minute detail or else face excommunication and disdain.
In other words, they are equally idealistic and puritanical. And no one can collaborate with an idealist and a purist.
Well-known and much-loved (until last week) writer and pastor, Eugene Peterson discovered this when he was eviscerated by the Evangelical community for a series of confusing and contradictory statements he made about same-sex marriage. Never mind that he’s 84 and by his own admission not up to public speaking or giving interviews. Never mind that he’s written some of the great classics of pastoral theology and paraphrased the whole Bible in his highly successful, The Message.
Because he said he was in favor of same-sex marriage in a recent interview, the wheels of expulsion began grinding. His later retraction only worsened things.
Evangelical commentator, Russell Moore, wrote an article entitled, Should We Still Read Eugene Peterson? And while Mr Moore affirmed, yes, we can still learn from someone in error like Mr Peterson, the title assumed many of his usual readers were likely to strike him off their reading lists forthwith.
But things over on the Left aren’t much different. They too demand an unwavering allegiance to every jot and tittle of their canon of belief.
Recently, transgender activist Frances Lee bemoaned the Left’s brutality at punishing anyone not as enlightened as them on their core doctrines:
There is a particularly aggressive strand of social justice activism weaving in and out of my Seattle community that has troubled me, silenced my loved ones, and turned away potential allies… There is an underlying current of fear in my activist communities, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.
Inadequately radical? That’s an unforgivable sin for the Left.
Interestingly, Frances Lee grew up Evangelical, so can see it from both sides. The article they published last week listed four ways the Evangelical church and the Left are similar:
1. They both demand purity
After outlining the heavy burden of moral purity placed on their members by the church, Lee then says the Left is no different:
The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. There’s so much wrongdoing in the world that we work to expose. And yet, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in these circles.
2. They’re both untrustworthy in power
Lee draws from the work of postcolonialist philosopher Frantz Fanon’s who explores how, when the colonized achieve freedom from their oppressors, they often reproduce and maintain the oppressive systems of colonization. They simply replace those at top with themselves (those previously at the bottom). In other words, the structure remains similarly oppressive. Lee suggests this is a danger for both Evangelicals and the Left, who don’t have a history of being trustworthy with power.
We see that today with those Evangelicals hovering in Donald Trump’s orbit, demanding their preferred Supreme Court candidates be nominated but not resisting Trump’s policies on immigration or healthcare.
Lee says, “Justice will never look like supremacy. I wish for a new societal order that does not revolve around relations of power and domination.”
3. They both use public shaming as their preferred medium of punishment
Both Evangelicals and the Left use social media to ‘out’ those within their number who have not being towing the line. And they can be equally brutal about it. The Evangelicals have lambasted former members like Rob Bell, Tony Campolo, Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker mercilessly.
Frances Lee, an activist on the Left, says they’re the same, “Scrolling through my news feed sometimes feels Iike sliding into a pew to be blasted by a fragmented, frenzied sermon.” Shame, shame, shame.
4. They both revert to fundamentalist interpretations of sacred texts
Lee says both the Evangelicals and the Left have their sacred texts to which they regularly refer, usually to make clear there is only one way to interpret them (their way) and also to keep the full experience of their respective communities just out of reach.
Have you noticed how Fundamentalist preachers are always proclaiming that there’s some fuller experience of blessing available to their congregations, one they themselves have achieved but for which the listener has to keep striving (or giving)?
Well, according to Frances Lee, the Left does the same: “In trying to liberate readers from the legitimately oppressive structures, I worry that [certain] sites… are replacing them with equally restrictive orthodoxy on the other end of the political spectrum.”
One of the sites mentioned is Everyday Feminism, which tries helpfully to point out the unconscious ways sexism creeps into our everyday language and actions, but which can at times be read like a new version of fundamentalism, forcing us to check ourselves, our every utterance and slightest action (including how far apart our legs are spread when seated in a public place).
Collaborate or DIe!
Last week noted libertarian, Noam Chomsky delivered a stinging verdict on the future fortunes of the Left in an increasingly Right-dominated world, saying “the crisis of potential extinction is overshadowing it.”
His solution? Collaborate with like-minded partners, including, wait for it, Evangelicals!
He recalled working with Evangelicals from the Midwest who directly supported the Central American Solidarity movements. He thought back to the Civil Rights movement and the involvement of white Christians from the north. He pointed out that he knew of environmentalists in the Evangelical church. Join with them. Find common ground together, he demanded.
People totally secular and Left like me (are) perfectly capable of working together with Evangelical Christians on concrete things, like helping communities protect themselves from criminal atrocities, state crimes, and so on.
Are they? Really? And are the Evangelicals really able to reach out to those who, though they might share common commitments to justice, mercy and peace, don’t share their faith in Jesus?
None of the signs look good. Which I suspect will be really bad for both the Evangelicals and the Left, who both continue to fragment into ever-increasingly puritanical factions incapable of collaboration or partnership, even on their most central common concerns.