While the more I worked on this the more I realized that it would take a book or two to say all I want as carefully as I want, I present this second part of my last blog for what it is, my reflections to date.
In a previous post I discussed one aspect of the fallout from the recent Presidential election, namely the damage it had done to the so-called Pro-Life movement due to the latter’s tending to become (at least in its vocal extremer versions) one more political force and due to its overlooking life issues in the politicians it was supporting. Of course, there was more to it than that, but I tried to at least outline them in the previous post. In this post I want to focus on the issues the election raised for the evangelical and neo-Pentecostal movements.
First, some definitions. By the evangelical movement I mean those Christian ecclesial groups, individuals, and institutions that find their roots in the evangelical and fundamentalist movements of the mid-twentieth century. The roots of many of the parts of the movement go back far further, especially to the awakenings and advent fervor in the last decades of the nineteenth century. By the neo-Pentecostal movement I mean those Christian ecclesial groups, individuals, institutions, and ministries that are characterized not only by a practice of the “gifts of the Spirit” found in 1 Cor 12, but also by a significant stress on the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” that includes “speaking in tongues.” This definition is important, for there were charismatic practices and experiences going far back in the Christian spiritual tradition (e.g. see St John of the Cross’ Ascent of Mt Carmel) including healing-holiness movements of the end of the nineteenth century, the prayer and healing movements of the 1930’s (in mainline churches in the USA), and so forth. There were also different forms of post-neo-Pentecostal charismatic teaching and experience, such as that in the Vineyard movement (starting in the 1980’s), at least at its beginnings, in the Rufer Bewegung in Germany, in the healing ministry of Francis and Judith MacNutt and so forth. Charismatic and neo-Pentecostal are not identical, although many of the charismatics in mainline and Catholic communities can be more clearly defined as neo-Pentecostals within their various denominations.
What evangelicals and neo-Pentecostals have in common is an emphasis on crisis experience. Crisis experience can be found in John Wesley’s experience of his “heart being strangely warmed” and also in his later stress on crisis sanctification, a second work of grace. But Wesley did not use means other than preaching and prayer to induce the crisis. Neither did Jonathan Edwards in the United States in a very different theological context. Indeed, he argued that the more ecstatic experiences, while to be expected, were not sure mark of God’s revival. The first one known for his use of means, by which I mean the deliberate use of practices to induce the crisis experience, was Charles Finney in the late 1800’s. This was developed later though such mean as Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, on the one side, and in the Pentecostal movement on the other. (The Christian and Missionary Alliance was certainly concerned with conversion, spirit-filling, and sanctification, but so far as I know did not have the same emphasis on “means,” at least until cross-fertilized from later developments. Likewise the early Plymouth Brethren taught in the late 1820’s that “it is the duty of Christian men to seek the restoration of the gifts of the Spirit,” which at least suggests the possibility of a crisis experience, but did not suggest the use of means.). Thus, for many evangelicals, unless one has had the born-again experience, one is not “saved,” and for most neo-Pentecostals unless one has experienced the “baptism in the Holy Spirit (as evidenced in speaking in tongues” one is not “spirit filled.” Also, both tended to hold up high profile leaders, such as the evangelists Billy Graham and Billy Sunday and the various high profile neo-Pentecostal leaders with their healing and prophecy conferences. Finally, while the evangelical movement in particular was not at all uniform in their respect, both tended to stress apocalyptic expectations, although the influence of prophetic interpretation in the more dispensationalist mode (I knew Hal Lindsey’s early work while still a youth, for example) varied widely.
What has, then, happened in this past Presidential election? Essentially it has been the fracturing of the evangelical movement and the discrediting of the neo-Pentecostal movement. First, a number of high-profile evangelical leaders were quite open in their support of Donald Trump with some of them (e.g. Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr) using Messianic terms for him, such as “God’s anointed.” He was often compared with Cyrus in Isaiah. This was usually connected to Mr. Trump’s stance on abortion that he developed during the 2016 election cycle and his, or his party’s, opposition to LBGTQ rights. This focus on moral issues was in continuity with Jerry Falwell Sr’s Moral Majority support of previous candidates and administrations because of selective interest in certain ethical issues, although the senior Falwell did have a difference in that he has a great concern for the poor and did seem to believe in objective truth and so would quietly abandon stances that he later realized to be wrong-headed (e.g. his opposition to integration in his church and his approval of apartheid in South Africa). The modern supporters of Mr. Trump were more likely to believe in unproved conspiracy theories and in the idea that the moral concerns that others had with that administration were “false news” or part of a “media conspiracy,” i.e. there was no means of dialogue and arguing for truth. It seemed that the post-modernism in the air had seeped into the thinking of the masses.
But, despite some 81% of self-identified evangelicals voting for Mr. Trump, there was another part of the evangelical movement that was of a different mind. First, they were concerned with different ethical issues, not to the exclusion of a concern with abortion, but with an equally great concern for other life issues. Second, they were outraged at the Messianic language being used for a flawed man with a checkered background and no known religious practice or concerns that mirrored those of Jesus for the poor, the alien, and the sick. This outrage included the use of biblical texts out of context in support of partisan politics. This was especially concerning when, in the polarized climate, the language became apocalyptic. Thus, the result has been a number of evangelical leaders and the like denouncing those supporting Mr. Trump and his allies, especially those using the stronger language. Now the split existed more quietly throughout of the Trump administration, but the election brought it to a head and tipped others into the dissenting camp. One sees this in, for example, some of the articles in Christianity Today and in the post-election statement signed by what must be the majority of the faculty of Wheaton College, both premier evangelical institutions. (I suspect that some of the others taking positions or making statements that I have seen online would prefer to remain lower profile so I will not “call them out.”) What is also notable is that while these make clear that the pro-Trump statements of the various leaders and groups “is not us” and in some cases was “idolatrous” or “blasphemous,” they are also quick to repent of their own attitudes of complicity in the past. Post-election others who were had backgrounds in or were sympathetic to the evangelical movement have made statements disassociating themselves,
Recently Barna pointed out that there are significant losses among megachurches, most of which are evangelical or neo-Pentecostal, especially among the young, with something like 30+ per cent becoming “nones.” The overall numbers of those who profess no religion in our society is something like 27% and rising. Another statistic that is a bit older is that evangelical churches are retaining only 17% of their youth. The evangelical movement has always appealed to the Bible as the single standard of truth and unity. When there is splintering, as one sees in the multiple denominations (not to mention the independent groups which are denominations unto themselves), all claiming to be “biblical,” this certainly shakes foundations for some. Many others are shaken by the perceived contradiction between the Bible and science (which is really there for some groups, but not for others – it depends on their hermeneutic). It is another divisive influence when allegiance not just to America but also to a particular political party seems to trump allegiance to other Christians. It is especially true when it is leaders that are conflicting. (I might add that one of the attractions of the Catholic Church for me was that it did not owe allegiance to any country.) Of course, as an evangelical I had long realized that hermeneutics rather than the text of the Bible itself was the deciding difference among groups. And often the decisive hermeneutic was that of the leader. I once interviewed at Liberty Baptist University (it was exploratory in order to determine whether I was right in assuming that an application would or would not be useful). One thing I was told that any theological, interpretive, or ethical issue that others in the institution differed with would be referred up the chain and ultimately the president, who was then Jerry Falwell Sr., would decide and that would be it. That, I can add from my present perspective, is an authority that the Pope does not have in the Roman Catholic Church (he does indeed proclaim truth, but it is in conjunction with the Magisterium, both present and over the history of the Church). But that vesting of authority in an individual leader and his interpretation of Scripture is not unusual (especially if the leader is the founder of the movement or church). Therefore, it is impossible to get a unified voice, much less an official unified voice, although there are various coalitions in evangelicalism that attempt that. Thus, the recent election with some declaring that Mr. Trump was “God’s anointed” and that the election was rigged and others disputing both assertions can only lead to a further fractioning of evangelism and further disillusionment of the youth (and some not so young). Since my “tribe” from my youth through my years in the Episcopal Church is evangelicalism and since it is the group in which I still have professional memberships and, more importantly, friends, this fractioning is not something about which I write gladly.
The neo-Pentecostals have related issues that is causing disillusionment. While they share with and overlap with the evangelical movement in their commitment to Scripture, they also expect or hope for a direct experience of God, specifically in the prophetic word (I focus on this, although other spiritual gifts might be included). Again, it is individual leaders who come to the fore, for while in theory any person “moving in the Spirit” could receive a prophetic word, in practice it is the certain “anointed leaders” that are listened to and who attract large groups to their meetings to hear such “anointed teaching/prophecy.” While this may at the beginning have been limited to the individual or church level, it has over the last quarter century become “strategic level spiritual warfare,” global, in which the leaders, often in small groups, prophesy over cities or nations. Some of these words are viewed as performative – they bring about what is spoken (which does happen among Old Testament prophets in some instances). Some of the leaders are viewed as Apostles. One sees this in some loose coalitions such as the New Apostolic Reformation. (The mark of much of the neo-Pentecostal movement is independence, the Protestant principle taken to its logical end. Pentecostal denominations have tended to move closer to evangelicalism in their practices and in their structures, while neo-Pentecostal communities are more often independent but, since independence is quite lonely, they often group with like-minded leaders in loose alliances such as Global Awakening or the New Apostolic Reformation. Since they are loose alliances, it is also easy to disassociate if key leaders have public failures.)
A number of these leaders prophesied, first that Mr. Trump would win, and, when that was not supported by the ballot counts, that nevertheless Mr. Biden would never be inaugurated. (Whether or not they accepted the unsupported conspiracy theories that circulated around Mr. Trump in a sense does not matter. They declared that God had said these things would happen.) The initial setback of the election was a trial of faith. Thus, one saw two different Jericho Marches, the last just before the assault on the Capitol by a group with significant overlaps in language, use of religious symbols, personnel and the like with those that did storm the Capitol. These events, complete with shofars as in the Jericho narrative in Joshua, encircled the Capitol and the Supreme Court with marchers first calling on God to get Trump elected and then calling on God to change the outcome. In both cases there was plenty of proclaiming that Mr. Biden would not win. In other words, there were words that at least some felt were performative. There should be no surprise that, as already noted, there was some overlap between the peaceful Jericho March and those who assaulted the Capitol the next day – after all, that is what happened in Joshua. But in this case the walls did not fall. After that fiasco there were further prophesies that although the electoral votes had been counted on January 6, God would see to it that Mr. Trump was the one inaugurated on January 20.
In 1956 Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter published a classical sociological study on cognitive dissonance theory entitled When Prophecy Fails. It concerned a group that prophesied and prepared for the end of the world at a certain date and their behavior when that did not happen. Some were disillusioned and left, and some reinterpreted the prophecies and in one form or another continued. We will certainly see both of those reactions. We will not see the sanctions on false prophets of Deut 13 and 18, but we will see many people disillusioned with the prophetic movement in general and for some with Christianity as well. We have already seen at least one or two of the leaders in speaking such prophetic words resign their ministries. (For how long, one does not know.) But we will also almost certainly see a goodly number of the leaders “reinterpret” their prophecies (perhaps after a period of silence) and their followers accept the rationalizations. Power is addictive. And being in the “in group,” the group that “knows” and the group of whom God specially approves because of their “faith” is equally addictive. (For a more secular example see C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength.)
What we have definitely seen is charismatic groups that never supported such types of prophecy distancing themselves from such prophets and their communities. For instance, I have seen Vineyard leaders cite John Wimber’s teaching that one should always be tentative about prophecy, “I believe that the Lord is saying . . .” with the expectation that one is “putting it out there” so others can “discern.” (It is true that after a flirtation with the so-called Kansas City Prophets, Wimber in particular and Vineyard in general distanced itself from them, moving back to his roots.) Other charismatic movements were never tempted to get on board, for they are more contemplative in character. The word “false prophet” has certainly appeared on the internet. What is clear is that this has caused scandal to many and likely has split the already-dying neo-Pentecostal movement (there are other more humble and contemplative healing and prayer movements that some are joining – I have seen this in postings on the internet, among other places – and some will leave the faith). I feel sad for those who have had honorable lives and ministries in the movement. But at the same time, I realize that revivals of various times come and go. The next revival is not just like the previous one. Benedictines have had several revivals, as have Franciscans, but none is just like what St Francis himself or St Benedict started. They have moved on to correct abuses that have crept in by doing what God is doing in their “today,” not clinging on to the past. And as time passes, each revival movement itself needs revival. Furthermore, we need to realize that both evangelicals and neo-Pentecostals (and I know that they overlap) are actually a minority in the body of Christ.
It is painful when one sees groups and individuals that nourished one at a certain time, that one knew and loved, and that one still has connections to facture and weaken over this flirtation with power, whether political or “charismatic.” They were courted by the administration and in turn felt that they were influencing the administration. They have ended up compromised and, I believe, like viewed with suspicion by the present administration that would rightly see them not as religious, but as political. This, as Dante pointed out at the end of the Purgatorio, is what happens when the Church allies with the state. And God has his own ways of purgation of that leaven. There is a lot of pain involved also for those who were not involved in the excesses but are involved in the institutions and communities. Hopefully they will learn to abandon themselves to divine providence and in that will find peace.
This post has been too long in some ways and too brief in others. I realized while writing it that to fully explore many of its aspects one needed a large book. I have neither time nor inclination for that. That job will be done by others, I am sure, when the present situation is viewed more in retrospect. Meanwhile, I will turn back to ministry and prayer.