Last week, President Donald Trump hosted a White House reception for 100 Evangelical leaders, including such figures as Paula White, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Darrell Scott, Robert Jeffress, Eric Metaxas, Ralph Reed, and Tony Perkins.
The president was lavish in his praise for those leaders who had supported his presidency. And he was equally lavish in his self-praise:
“We’re here this evening to celebrate America’s heritage of faith, family, and freedom. As you know, in recent years, the government tried to undermine religious freedom. But the attacks on communities of faith are over. … The support you’ve given me has been incredible. But I really don’t feel guilty because I have given you a lot back, just about everything I promised. And as one of our great pastors just said, ‘Actually, you’ve given us much more, sir, than you promised.’ And I think that’s true, in many respects.”
It seems the Evangelical leaders present thought it was true too.
During the dinner, Florida pastor and Trump’s “closest spiritual adviser” Paula White presented the president with a Bible, “signed by over a hundred Christians, Evangelicals that love you, pray for you,” and inscribed with the following message:
“First Lady and President, you are in our prayers always. Thank you for your courageous and bold stand for religious liberty, and for your timeless service to all Americans. We appreciate the price that you have paid to walk in the high calling. History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.”
But the president wanted more than a nice inscription in a Bible he probably won’t read. He wanted a quid pro quo. In private remarks caught on tape he is heard saying,
“I just ask you to go out and make sure all you people vote. Because if they don’t we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time because then it just gets to be one election — you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”
Michael Horton, writing for Christianity Today was aghast:
“…the church does not preach the gospel at the pleasure of any administration or decline to preach it at another administration’s displeasure. We preach at Christ’s pleasure. And we don’t make his policies but communicate them. It’s not when we’re fed to lions that we lose everything; it’s when we preach another gospel.”
As I read these reports I was left wishing Bishop Lesslie Newbigin was still alive. I started wondering what he would have said if he’d been invited to that White House dinner.
Calling Out the Folly of Courting Political Patrons
Back in the 80s, as the Moral Majority was gaining ascendancy, Newbigin wrote the following:
“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, … it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. … It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known and experienced.”
That’s classic late-period Newbigin. After a lifetime of service as a missionary bishop in India, he retired to the UK, only to discover the church flirting with two deathly options: (a) withdrawal to the margins as a kind of charitable organization, or (b) attempts to co-opt the political process to enforce Christian forms of morality on others. He rejected both.
He believed the local church was the hope of humanity. But not as some esoteric religious community at the edges of society:
“The kingship of God, present in Jesus, concerns the whole of human life in its public as well as its private aspects. There is no basis in scripture for the withdrawal of the public aspect of human life from that obedience which the disciple owes to the Lord. The question therefore is not: ‘What grounds can be shown for Christian involvement in public life?’ It is: ‘What grounds can be shown for the proposal to withdraw from the rule of Christ in the public aspects of our human living?’ The answer is: ‘None’.”
He believed the church should lean in to society. It should critique culture and address politics, but in a new way.
Christopher Wright says of Newbigin, “[his] approach is to seek to affirm everything we can in culture and critique/discern the marks of sin, selfishness and idolatry we find in culture.”
If I’ve read him accurately, I think there’s (at least) four things he might have said if the invitation to the White House had appeared in his mailbox:
1. We need to recover an eschatology that recognises that our political or religious activity cannot establish the kingdom of God.
It is Christ who will usher in the kingdom, not our political wheelings and dealings. And an unshakable trust in Christ’s return frees us from the anxiety that the wrong president will destroy everything. As Michael Horton writes, “Anyone who believes, much less preaches, that evangelical Christians are ‘one election away from losing everything’ in November has forgotten how to sing the psalmist’s warning, ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save’ (Ps. 146:3).”
2. We need to rediscover the freedom of the Christian life, based in the grace of Jesus;
Newbigin’s fear was that the moralizing crusades of Mary Whitehouse in the UK and Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell in the US, would lead the church into legalism, fear and social control. He believed such legalism wouldn’t have any effect on Western society.
Instead, he wanted churches to mobilize themselves in a mission of offering to a dying culture what he called a new “fiduciary framework”, an interpretive vision, akin to the great intuitive patterns of scientific theory or movements in art, within which society and culture could be shaped afresh. Such a framework, he said, should be grounded in the teaching and example of Jesus.
Christians need to believe “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36). We need to have no fear of losing elections, of Democrats or Marxists or feminists or anyone else we’re being encouraged to fear. Remember, Christ has come that we may have life, and have it to the full (Jn 10:10), and our living of such a full and free life demonstrates the beauty of our message.
3. We must ‘declericalize’ the church and rediscover the importance of so-called lay leaders.
This is important. The assumption being made at that White House reception seems to have been that clerics can deliver the desired outcome by striking deals with their preferred political leaders. But Newbigin disclaimed any intention of setting up a “nostalgic haven”.
His vision was that the church should raise up godly Christians to infiltrate every aspect of society, to dialogue constructively, and work for a kind of Augustinian conversion of our culture. That’s something clergy alone can’t deliver. It requires missional artists, business people, economists, health professionals, teachers, lawyers, and, yes, politicians, to move beyond Marxism and old-style capitalism and to wrestle with the problems confronting modern life: the tackling of world poverty, the shaping of new patterns of work and society, the reconciliation of liberty with authority or control, the healing of the great divides between individualism and community, the left and right, the secular and spiritual.
When one clergyman heard this he accused Newbigin of attempting to eliminate the clergy, to which the bishop replied, “No such thing! I’m trying to eliminate the laity.”
He wanted to ordain everyone to their secular duty as the work of God.
4. We must never abandon the belief that mission must proceed from a dynamic, worshipping community of faith and not merely from innovation or new methods and techniques.
The mission of God’s people is not to secure the White House. It’s to alert others to the universal reign of God through Christ. And the best hermeneutic of the gospel is a community of women and men who truly believe it and live by it.