The Shadow of the Fear-vangelicals

In the conservative Australian state of Queensland it was recently decided to remove any reference to a person’s height or gender on their driver’s licence. That’s actually no big deal to those of us from other states where height and gender hasn’t been included on our licences. But among the ultra-conservative evangelicals in that state it was cause for moral outrage.

One local morals crusader called it all a “cruel lie” and posted this anxiety-inducing click baity news headline:

She wrote: “Truth no longer matters in Qld. Only YOUR truth. Which may or may not actually be truth. But everyone is expected to nod politely and go along with it.”

The ensuing comments were really something to behold.

“The reality-denying madness of the sexual revolutionaries is now at fever-pitch.”

“Shocking to behold…”

“…crazy…”

“… godless lunacy.”

“… the whole world has gone completely mad.”

Did you get that? The whole world has gone completely mad because the only state in Australia to include height and gender on driver’s licences has decided to remove them.

Other comments were Islamophobic: “So what do they put as ID for a muslim woman wearing a burqa?”

And homophobic: “What is so hypocritical, is the push by the new state religion of ‘gayism’, to remove the relevance of a persons sex/gender in regards to marriage and parenting…”

And anti-science: “So evolution can be taught in Schools because it’s a scientific theory but the biological fact of your sex is not allowed to be defined?”

And outright irrational: “My dogs are both desexed therefore gender negative. I guess they don’t exist. Pleased I didn’t waste time and money having them registered with council.”

Some called for political dissent. Others called for prayer and fasting. And one dear soul typed, “Come Lord Jesus, come”.  I presume that meant, Come and put an end to this intolerable godlessness facing the church.

All because references to gender were being removed from driver’s licences.

Can you believe it?

It confirms much of what author Skye Jethani calls “fear-vangelicalism”. The way he defines it, “A fear-vangelical is someone who is primarily animated by fear rather than faith in the evangel (gospel) which is what historically has marked an evangelical.”

He bemoans the shift in certain ore of the evangelical tradition toward high anxiety and suggests that within that tradition there are “fear-vangelicals” who take one of two roads when confronted with social or cultural change: fight or flight. The fight impulse takes them down the political path, while the flight impulse leads to the pious path.  He illustrates it with this diagram:

As you can see, the fight impulse leads you to attack your “enemies”, to dehumanize them and humiliate them. This is pretty standard on social media and perfectly describes the response to the driver’s licence issue mentioned above. Simply demonise the Queensland government, the LGBTQI+ community, Muslims, the Left, etc etc.

Then you “weaponize” the Bible. That means you spit out Bible verses, irrespective of context, to reinforce your position and discredit your opponents.

As Skye Jethani points out, it’s all about trying to assert control over a world that for some people feels out of control. For these people, even a simple thing like removing references to gender from your driver’s licence is enough to tip you over the edge. But as Jethani also points out, control is the opposite of faith. It is fear in action.

I saw another example of this fight impulse among some evangelicals recently when a friend shared a clip of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jnr boasting about carrying his gun into the chapel service of the school and urging his students to get a conceal carry permit so “we can go out there and end those Muslims before they walk in and kill…”

That’s fear in action.

A Muslim friend had sent the Falwell link to my friend, asking him to explain it. He couldn’t. All he could say was “This is not Jesus – preachers of hate come in all kinds of religions.”

Hate is one way to describe it. Some of the comments on that thread about the Queensland driver’s licence sound hateful as well. But I’m inclined to agree with Jethani. It smells more like fear. And maybe grief about a world in which Christians no longer dominate the moral landscape.

As you can see on Skye Jethani’s diagram, while the flight impulse is less frightening, it is no less motivated by fear. Those evangelicals taking this route seek to withdraw from society, to hunker down and wait out the current cultural storm, whether it’s the seemingly short-lived Benedict Option espoused by Rod Dreher, or the more popular megachurch version.

But doesn’t the Bible tell us that perfect love drives out all fear? What happened to the evangelical tradition, a movement that was noted for its robust engagement in the world, to turn a significant section of it into such a fearful bunch?

In his Atlantic piece on evangelicalism, Michael Gerson asked, “How did evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory?” He interrogates that question around the support for Donald Trump by some prominent evangelicals, but overall it is an interesting piece on the unravelling of the whole evangelical brand.

Gerson quotes Tim Keller as saying, ”‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite’.”

But before you caricature Jethani’s approach as progressive or liberal or some such, he is a self-confessed conservative. He has voted Republican, is pro-life, holds to the traditional Christian teaching on marriage, supports immigration reform, the careful vetting of refugee immigrants, and border security, and doesn’t believe Jesus Christ and Allah are the same deity. He writes, 

“Merely holding conservative views does not make someone a fear-vangelical. If that were the case, I’d have to be counted among them… The question is, how do you primarily view the “other”…as a threat to your safety or as a person worthy of your love?”

I think some evangelicals need to look within and ask themselves that question very seriously. Do you see the “other” as a threat? Do you find yourself fearing that Democrats, the Left, the LGBTQI+ community, the government, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, etc etc, are taking over, destroying the world as you know it?

When we fall into this pattern, it’s not love that guides us, it’s fear. And soon the shadow of that fear within is projected outward onto the world, increasing our anxiety that the threat is everywhere.

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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13 thoughts on “The Shadow of the Fear-vangelicals

  1. Mike, thanks for this.

    One of my friends had posted this about the Qld licence thing, even though he is a NSW person, living in WA. And it was seen as a lefty conspiracy thing etc. I pointed out that neither his NSW or WA licence would have his gender or height. But, he turned it around and attacked me of no5 standing up for Christian standards!

    Along with the furphies of nativity scenes being banned by Facebook, that Cadbury is denying Easter, is this drivers licence thing.

    I think I am a fairly conservative Christian, but I might have got a bit less conservative as my hairs have got grayer, but I find myself reacting so negatively to these sorts of things, and feeling cranky with my Christian brothers and sisters that post this stuff on social media

  2. Please – no one tell our Queensland brethren that height and gender (and a whole lot of other personal identifying information) is already attached to their driver’s license number, such that it serves as our defacto-Australia Card for identification purposes. If that gets out we’ll have headlines and protests about it being the “Mark of the Beast”. As you were everyone.

  3. A good diagnostic article – puts into words what I feel sometimes. But beyond diagnosing the problem, how to we help our evangelical brothers and sisters who seem to be lashing out in fear?

    I must admit most of the time my only reaction is too feel scorn to those I should be thinking of as my Christian brothers and sisters…

  4. Though I still affirm orthodoxy I no longer identify as Evangelical. The hysteria and hypocrisy have become too pervasive.

  5. Yeah. Queenslanders hey. So unprogressive compared to the other states. At least they’re not quite as homophobic as NSW.

    http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-15/same-sex-marriage-results-ssm/9145636

    Look I’m a Queenslander and I am outraged. How am I supposed to be able to remember my own height and gender if I don’t have it written down somewhere!!

    1. You know this post wasn’t actually about Queensland, right?

      1. Yeah I got it. Sorry, the comment was a poor attempt at humour.

        Reminds me of neibuhrs 5 types or crouch’s 4 postures which I think are very helpful guides for engaging culture.

  6. One of the things I miss about Queensland when we moved to Victoria, was the loss of my ability to prove to my wife that I am taller than her (just). Sigh!
    As someone born and lived most of my life in Queensland, it is such a shame that the ‘Circle the wagons’ attitude is all too pervasive. Whatever happened to love overcoming fear?

  7. It seems to me that you are the one who fears that which you do not understand, Michael. Don’t you feel any responsibility to seek to understand those who see things differently than you? It is half of your country and half of mine. Do you dismiss them all as crackpots?

    1. Stan, what do you mean by ‘half of the country’? I doubt that half of Australians have this ‘fear-vangelicalism’ type thinking.

      1. I am not talking about Michael’s description of fear-vengelicals or whatever he calls them. I am talking about those concerned about the blurring of lines between genders and the implications that arise from the decisions governments are making regarding these issues held by a large segment of the population. It is lazy to dismiss this issue without understanding the larger matter and worse still to label those concerned as he does. Michael is falling short of his potential by only playing to a liberal audience. God wants more of him than that.

      2. I am not talking about Michael’s description of fear-vengelicals or whatever he calls them. I am talking about those concerned about the blurring of lines between genders and the implications that arise from the decisions governments are making regarding these issues. It is lazy to dismiss this issue without understanding the larger matter and worse still to label those concerned as he does. Michael is falling short of his potential by only playing to a liberal audience. God wants more of him than that.

        1. It’s quite presumptuous of you, Stan, to assume you know what God wants for me. You’re also over-reacting. I didn’t invent the term ‘fear-vangelicals’. Skye Jethani did, and I properly attributed it to him in my post. Also, he is a Republican-voting, pro-life, traditional-marriage guy (as I point out in the piece), so the idea that this is somehow “playing to a liberal audience” is nonsense. Do you honestly think there aren’t conservative evangelicals out there who react in the way Jethani outlines? It’s not “half the country” (I have no idea where you got that from), but it is a proportion of the evangelical community, and identifying fear as their motivation helps us both understand them and (hopefully) guide them to greater confidence in the gospel.

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