By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream
In a recent article in Christian Today, Mark Woods uses a caricature of American evangelicalism to warn British Christians about the dangers of taking unfashionable counter-cultural stands.
Woods takes as his starting point a recent survey which shows that increasing numbers of evangelicals in America think it’s harder to be a Christian than it used to be. Rather than considering the possibility that secularism might indeed have resulted in greater hostility towards Christian faith, he immediately begins speculating on the motives of American Christians who feel less comfortable in 2016. According to Woods, it is all rooted in their “right-wing conservatism”.
Woods paints a picture of nasty, hateful American evangelicals, who for decades have colluded with the establishment in cruelly denying gay and transgender rights. Evangelicals have all been campaigning for a “socially conservative, imperialist agenda” which they have confused with the Gospel. The enlightened Obama administration has now thankfully swept away all the ‘discrimination’, so evangelicals now feel “embattled victims, surrounded by the forces of godless liberalism”, according to Woods’ narrative.
Rather than hankering after ‘Christendom’, where their values were dominant in society, Christians should just accept that old ideas about morality have changed, says Woods, and find new ways to work with the grain of society rather than being “die-hard culture warriors”. As the context for sharing our faith in Jesus has not changed, he claims, if we focus on that then we won’t find it so difficult to be Christian, and society will like us more because we are not trying to impose our values on them.
In attempting to apply this to the UK, Woods takes as his authoritative text the bizarre theory propounded by sociologist Linda Woodhead, that the Church of England is in decline because of the ‘dominance’ of evangelical churches which “find their identity in opposition to society”. If a church has clearly defined doctrine and looks to make disciples, it becomes inward-looking and “detached from wider social currents”. By contrast, argues Woodhead, the Church of England should be “embedded in society” and support “everyday rituals and habits of ordinary people”.
Woods seems to realize at the end of his piece that this approach, if unqualified, could simply mean the church acts to bless whatever people want to do, and so counsels discernment. He gives no guidance as to how the church might know when to oppose something in society and when to embrace it or not comment, except to suggest that the church should avoid ‘right wing conservatism’. He accuses evangelicals in America of being wedded to this socio-political philosophy, but completely fails to see that he has aligned his Christian views with another, perhaps much more dominant left-leaning liberalism.
In short, the argument used by Woods and many like him can be summarized as follows: “it’s so embarrassing to potentially be associated with the American Christian right, that we Christians in England must distance ourselves from any socially conservative views”. This attitude sets up an easy ‘straw man’ target and encourages Christians to define themselves as belonging to a group in opposition to those horrible ‘other’ people, rather than thinking through each issue theologically. It distorts the facts, suggesting for example that evangelicals in America (or in the UK) opposed to, say abortion and same sex marriage, are always politically right wing on all issues, and want to control moral values through political influence. Its sets up a false binary opposition between morally conservative Christians who want to be against society, and easy-going, loving ones who want to engage with it – whereas in fact some of the best examples of engagement in practical compassionate social action in Britain and around the world is to be found in theologically orthodox, evangelical parishes.
The trend of attacking the ‘American Christian right’ from the safety of a British armchair as a way of demonising orthodox biblical views is lazy and manipulative rhetoric which has taken hold in many sections of the church, and many ordinary Christians are left confused and intimidated. For example, they might read in their bibles the regular warnings about sexual immorality, but when they raise it with others they are slapped down with screeches of “Westboro Baptist Church”, and so decide to follow the crowd in signalling their concern about more acceptable issues such as modern slavery. They share on social media a story about someone dismissed from employment for wearing a cross or offering to pray with a client, and they are immediately attacked on all sides for having a ‘Christendom’ mentality.
Orthodox Anglicans looking to engage positively with the church structures face similar hostile thinking all the time. It might be at a Deanery meeting to talk about mission: a member stands up to suggest an agreed doctrinal basis for sharing faith in Christ, and this is refused by other speakers, who say that such an idea is divisive and exclusive. It might be at an interview for a ministerial post, where a candidate is told that articulating conservative views on ethics would make them unsuitable as a leader ‘for the whole church’.
Those with a revisionist interpretation of discipleship are not going to face a steep and narrow way, and so obviously will find being a Christian easier than those who bring themselves and their culture under the searching scrutiny of Scripture. Those who see the key to successful church life in avoiding expressing an opinion which might upset the dominant elite, or better still, in expressing this group’s opinions couched in Christian jargon, will have their reward in full. Meanwhile those who genuinely walk with Christ in speaking truth and living lives of love will expect opposition, but they do not identify uncritically with ‘right’ or ‘left’, play the games of power or indulge in the self-pity of victimhood.