The Bowe Bergdahl affair(I’ve been watching Sherlock Holmes) raises once again the question of the nature and character of evangelical Christianity. Christianity Today published an interview with the former pastor of Bob and Jani Bergdahl, Phil Proctor, who has also remained a friend of the Bergdahl over the years. As an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor he is within what is firm conservative theological territory, even “fundamentalist”. I’m puzzled by the pastors sense of surprise and disappointment, by the response of conservative Christians and evangelicals, to Bob Bergdahl giving praise to God in Arabic and to the deal that lead to Bowe’s release. I too find it unchristian, but I find Proctor’s surprise as puzzling as that World Vision was so poorly prepared for the backlash around their change in policy around same-sex marriage. The politics of the Religious Right are uncompromising and founded upon the blurring of the values of the Gospel with other cultural and nationalistic agenda.
A couple of months ago I read David Fitch’s book End of Evangelicalism? One way to paraphrase and summarize Fitche’s book is to say that Evangelicalism has entangled itself in a politic that contradicts it’s central values and that of the Gospel. Fitch argues for a politic more in keeping with the true nature of Evangelicalism. I have a number of questions for Fitch around his presentation and argument (in a forthcoming post), but one observation pertains directly to the reactions we are seeing to Bowe Bergdahl and his father’s use of an Arabic blessing and praise to God. In order to save Evangelicalism from itself Fitch locates its false politic in relatively recent politics of the Religious Right, yet it seems to me that much of that politic is simply the form of Christianity (before the Fundamentalist/Modernist split) in the United States, which functioned to give religious legitimacy and general underpinning of the Manifest Destiny of the United States of America.
The Religious Right has taken what at one point would have been a form of patriotism (with the perquisite of having Protestant Christian religious trappings and language) and turned it into a basic part of the Christian faith. For many Evangelicals the defense and insistence upon the U.S. being a Christian nation is a matter of dogmatic adherence equal to other more traditional fundamentals. Evangelical Christians who are up in arms about an AWOL soldier (son of Christian parents), possible deserter, and the Arabic words of praise to God are those who have imbibed these American doctrines as essential to being a Christian.
The Phil Proctor is trying to appeal to Gospel values failing to see that his coreligionists no longer see a distinction between being good patriots and following Jesus Christ and being part of the Body of Christ. The cultural war between secular and religious right versions of American exceptionalism have brought about a conflation of nationalism with Christian faith.
In the end my surprise is that we can’t see how Christianity in America has always functioned to compromise the Gospel and the reality of the Body of Christ, through its attempts to legitimize the U.S.A. This politic has always been there, it’s just that at one time one would simply be labeled as unpatriotic if one put being a follower of Jesus before being a citizen of the United States of America, and generally no one cared as long as we weren’t at war, and you weren’t too vocal about it. Mostly, the sense that Gospel was something other than being a good American citizen was opinion held in immigrant pietistic contexts like the one I grew up in or in other sectarian places in the American landscape ie. among Mennonites, the Brethren and Quakers, or through allegiance to a foreign power the Pope or other radical Christians.
In the reactions from certain sectors of Evangelical Christianity to the Bowe Bergdahl affair we are seeing a form of Christianity with deep roots in the History of the United States, A Christianity that at one time was the dominant form of Christianity and an account of which one can find in Martin E. Marty‘s work Righteous Empire. It is American Christianity in which the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ are co-opeted and made subservient to a nationalism and patriotism. The Religious Right and Conservative Christian insistence that this is a Christian nation is simply one iteration of this compromising of the Gospel in the service of nationalism. It is fundamentally a denial of the universality and catholicity of the Church the Body of Christ.
I believe that those who wish to counter this politic must do more than reclaim an Evangelicalism, we must reclaim a robust understanding of the Catholicity of the Body of Christ, and affirm that Baptism has changed our citizenship. Any form of Christianity that attempts to conflate allegiance to Christ and a nation or nation-state denies the reality of Baptism and of the Church. It is the fruit of the conflation of allegiance that we are seeing in the reaction of some evangelicals to the Bowe Bergdahl affair. It is very American and we should not be surprised.