Orthodoxy by any means necessary

June 12th, 2019

In the political and ideological conflicts among Protestants, we find our denominations pushed into two camps: progressive (or liberal) and orthodox (or conservative or traditional). One belief the polarized camps seem to share is that the center or middle is diminishing. Elimination of the center — “you are either for me or against me” — is the aim of any political movement that polarizes the masses and sways adherents to “their” side. Unfortunately some Christian leaders feel the urgency to emulate typical political movements.

While I once claimed the phrase “orthodox Christian” for myself, I am reluctant in this season because of how correct thinking has been claimed and coopted as a rallying slogan instead of a Christian foundation. I have observed up close and from afar the strategies and tactics of some who claim the orthodox authority, as well as those who organize ideas and coalitions among progressive leadership. In particular, the Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD) has rallied their influence with purpose and significant funding. You can read their official statements and some of their history here.

“Founded in 1981, the IRD has been a voice for transparency, for renewal, and for Christian orthodoxy.” One of the founders of the IRD, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, acknowledged that the IRD is more than an orthodox caucus, when he posed these questions:

"So these are some of the questions as to where we are now, that if you were an observer from outside this community of discourse that is IRD, I think they are some of the questions people would ask. You know, is it part simply of the Religious Right? What is distinctive about it? Is it really concerned for Christian unity? Or simply for continuing denominational separatism within a pattern of cooperation along certain conservative trajectories, et cetera? And what’s the Catholic-Protestant dynamic that’s going on there? And how do we think about that?"

— Father Richard John Neuhaus, addressing the IRD board outside Washington, D.C. in October 2005

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009). Photo: First Things via RNS

As Neuhaus attempts to answer these questions, you think: this is a brilliant, calculated, political-influence machine, justifying itself as a champion of Christian ethics. But then over the past 15 years the tone changed and comes across with a slap. The current president of the IRD, Mark Tooley, is a former CIA analyst, patriot, and attends a United Methodist congregation. His newsletters read like a Christian “voters guide” and often come across with invective. The intrigue and allegations would make for great copy in a spy novel if the target shooting wasn’t so disheartening and if the IRD weren’t so effective with their mission and goals: they have helped our denominations divide.

Some of the progressive groups and caucuses have partisan donors as well, but my mailbox and email boxes rarely receive anything from these groups. As we’ve learned from journalists who cover politics, when you want to know what drives an effective political cause, follow the money. According to past Form 990s the IRD is financed by donations (at various times) from the Scaife Foundations (which funds right-wing organizations, including anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic causes), the Bradley Foundation (which funds “American exceptionalism”) , the Olin Foundation (which funded right-wing think tanks, including the Federalist Society), and Fieldstead and Company (donations coming through Howard and Roberta Ahmanson). These are very conservative political causes, though the Ahmansons have distanced themselves from President Donald Trump. Birds of a feather flock together, but alarms go off throughout church history when someone plants one foot in Christian orthodoxy and the other foot in political partisanship and domination. The gospel is very clear about serving two masters.

Most sociologists and evangelical thought leaders recognize that conservative evangelicals are in crisis, which became obvious due to overwhelming support among white evangelicals for Donald Trump. The editor for Christianity Today, Mark Galli, analyzes it in “The Heart of the Evangelical Crisis”:

"Fuller Theological Seminary president Mark Labberton summarized the crisis of evangelicalism at a national gathering of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College in 2018. He called it 'political dealing,' and he castigated evangelicals for grasping at political power, for racism, for nationalism, and for lack of concern for the poor."

Under the influence of organizations such as the IRD, conservative evangelicals are no longer defined by a theological system, that is, by a system of (orthodox) beliefs and practices. Rather conservative evangelicals are now defined as a political identity, yearning for diminishing political power in diversifying American cities and towns. Thus Howard Ahmanson, for example, is rethinking what his money is reaping.

"'The Republican Party is a white-ethnic party. And I don’t want to be identified with that,' Ahmanson told me recently. He dislikes that white evangelicals are largely supportive of Donald Trump — 'Whatever this is, it’s not the gospel,' he said — and has stopped giving to groups such as the Family Research Council, an influential advocate for socially conservative causes in Washington."

— Emma Green, The Atlantic, “Evangelical Mega-Donors are Rethinking Money in Politics,” January 2, 2019.

Another type of political maneuvering compromises the biblical gospel and divides Christians with assertions of orthodoxy. The late Tom Oden, an evangelical theology professor at Drew University, directly influenced IRD strategy with his final book, The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy, by claiming that Christian patristic orthodoxy originated in Africa, and that votes from African Methodists can be leveraged to prevent the spread of progressive biblical interpretation of Scripture.

I am not the only one disenchanted with such unholy alliances between partisan politics and the Christian faith. We live in an American climate extremely preoccupied with self and winning at all costs. Admitting fault or offering apologies are frowned upon as a sign of weakness. If our goal attains what we believe is true and right, much suspect behavior can be justified. We find this principle at work with the IRD: a noble cause to preserve their views in the beginning that adopts the wily ways of partisan politics until the leaders substitute their rhetoric for grace and truth.

An orthodox Christian simply cannot abide a defense of the gospel that abandons the means of grace. Why? Because we see at best through a glass, darkly, or as the CEB puts it, we “see a reflection in a mirror.” As much as we study the Scriptures together and open our minds and ears in conferencing to hear what God might be saying to us until the perfect comes, we know the truth partially. Partisan politicking and rhetoric are not wired to win that way. That’s why the greatest Christian teaching is love. God is love.

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