In-Sight: The Third Temptation

I do not usually post something on both Fscebook and Oboedire.  This is an exception.


“The Third Temptation”

I cut my teeth as a new Christian on Evangelicalism.  I developed my faith within Evangelicalism.  I lived into my sixties ministering in various ways as an Evangelical.  Today, I have abandoned the word.  I have left the camp.  Some in that camp have interpreted my leaving it with leaving the faith because to them, Evangelicalism and Christianity are virtually synonymous.  But that has never been true, and it is not true in my case either. [1] 


But they are correct in one facet of their observation:  I am no longer an Evangelical as it has come to be identified (hijacked) by Christian fundamentalists today. [2]  The Evangelicalism that I moved with for so long has radically changed, contorting it into a shape that in key respects looks very little like Jesus.  Evangelicalism today, at least as it is represented by its main leaders in North America, has become Christian populism.  That is what I have left behind.


I was reminded of this recently when a friend told me about a new book written by Ben Howe, entitled ‘The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values.’  It is a penetrating and provocative book, written by one who still identifies himself as conservative, but now believes that American Christian conservativism is too often working at cross purposes with the Gospel, and doing so in unChristlike ways.  


Howe is by no means the only person to feel this way.  He is just one of the latest Christians to have the courage to say that Christian populism is an emperor who has no clothes on.  Nearly ten years ago in the same month (March 2019) two distinguished scholars (George Marsden and Mark Noll) published detailed, scholarly accounts showing how evangelicalism was being coopted by fundamentalism. [3]  


Marsden clearly showed that the two things were distinct movements in American church history, but that fundamentalism was blending them into one.  Noll chronicled the same thing, going on to say that evangelicalism’s takeover by fundamentalists resulted in a loss of looking at the world in a Christian way, but rather in ways that combined political and theological thinking into a calculated obscurantism that ended up making the Moral Majority movement quite immoral. [4]


I read Marsden and Noll in 2010, with an eye-opening effect.  So, it is no surprise that Howe’s book has reopened thoughts and feelings that have been swirling in me for more than a decade. From a deep place in me, that is simultaneously painful  and liberating, I ask myself, “What happened?  How did Evangelicalism become what it is today?”


For me, the answer is seen through the lens of one word: power.  Evangelicals “got the power” in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the wheels on the Evangelical/Fundamentalist combo bus began to turn, going round-and-round on a journey with increasing speed that brings it to where it is today.


And as I think about this yet again, a memory comes into the picture.  I was befriended and guided by Ed Robb, Jr. in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Ed called himself (as others did then) a “neo-Evangelical” because he did not want the revived Evangelicalism to be equated with fundamentalism.  On one occasion, I was in a group with Ed, when someone asked him, “What is your greatest concern about the new Evangelicals?”  He replied, “What will happen to us when we have the power.” [5]


So….there it is, no matter who says it, or when.  Power.  Evangelicals have yielded to the third temptation: “I will give you the kingdoms of the world and their glory, if you bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:8-9).  It can happen to anyone, and over the centuries it has happened to all sorts and stripes of Christians.  We happen to be living in a time when it is happening in the evangelical/fundamentalist combo of Christian populism.


Walter Brueggemann further awakened me to this several years ago as he exposed the evils of imperialism. And along with others (e.g. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, William Barber II, Wilda Gaffney, Christena Cleveland, Joan Chittister, Elaine Heath, John Dear, Mirabai Starr, Cheryl Anderson, and Richard Rohr) I have come to see the unholy mixture of religion and politics that doles out power and privilege to any who go along with it.  Christian populism is a major benefactor. [6]


When religious leaders put power as the ultimate value, anything can happen after that.  Once religious leaders equate “the kingdoms of this world” with the Kingdom of God, no one is safe except those who hunker down in the civic/ecclesial fortresses, ascribing near-messianic status to designated people in the state and the church.  Once power takes over, “the cause” becomes everything, and winning over the identified “others” is the goal—a victory justified as a sign of righteous indignation, with resisters and critics consigned to lesser levels of alleged unrighteousness.


There are many casualties.  Much damage is done inside the Church.  But  even more is done outside it, as ordinary folks walk out of the Church or walk on without ever going inside–able in either case to tell the differences between it and Christ.


We are always  harmed by people who yield to the third temptation.  Power.   Thankfully, Jesus resisted it, and he calls us to resist it too.



[1] I use the word “ camp” intentionally, because in the history of Christianity, the Evangelical tradition has been the Word-centered stream in the larger Christian river, a good stream unlike what the word ‘Evangelical’ has come to stand for today.  Richard Foster has written well about the good Evangelical stream in Christian history, along with five others that he calls the six great traditions of the Christian faith: the contemplative tradition, the holiness tradition, the charismatic tradition, the social justice tradition, and the incarnational tradition.  His book is entitled, ‘Streams of Living Water’ (HarperOne, 1998).


[2] Truth be told, I am less taken with any labels, for there is no single adjective put before the word ‘Christian’ that fully describes my faith.  Eugene Peterson and I visited about this years ago.  He shared his sense that adjectival descriptors of Christianity weaken it.  He said he had come to the place of simply saying, “I am a Christian” and letting it go at that.  I feel the same today.


[3] George Marsden, ‘Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism’ (Eerdmans, 2010) and Mark Noll, ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 2010).


[4] My awakening to what was happening to Evangelicalism (with a lot still to be unearthed in ciming years), came at roughly the same time Phylis Tickle, Brian McLaren, and others (quickly labeled by the fundamentalists as having lost their faith, in ways I later came to be labeled) were declaring that a “great emergence” (also called by other names) was growing on the earth—that God was doing a new thing.  Marsden and Knoll opened my eyes.  Tickle and McLaren showed me what to look at.  But I stayed in the camp for four more years.


[5] I have wondered a thousand times where Ed would locate himself today in the swirling mess we find ourselves in, and I offer no predictions.  But of this much I am sure: Ed would see clearly how Evangelicalism has “drunk the Kool-Aid” in its rise to power in North America. He saw the peril of power long before many did, and in ways some still refuse to see.


[6] To these newer people, I add longer-standing influences like Sts. Francis and Clare, Catherine of Sienna,  John Wesley, Harriet Tubman, E. Stanley Jones, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and John Lewis—to name a few.




About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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