Breaking Boundaries, Healing Climates

Hollowell’s Boundaries is a poetic exercise in psycho-spiritual healing. While the word boundary connotes the existence of two separate entities or domains, a glance through the collection reveals that our poet is determined to joyfully collapse that perennial, deeply Eurocentric dichotomy between humans and the natural world. It is a pesky dichotomy that has proven more resilient than nature itself. While the earth burns, melts, floods, and overheats, its human inhabitants continue to ignore both its finitude and its fragility.

Hollowell knows that there are deeper, more abysmal boundaries in need of urgent breaking: the boundary between the spiritual and the material, between what is inside and what is outside. Most crucially, it is the boundary between language and experience that seems particularly responsible for propping up the tendency to abstract ourselves from nature. Quoting Robert MacFarlane, we are reminded that “language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment, for language does not just register experience, it produces it.”

But we do not need the wisdom of sages to confirm that, it fact, there’s an interdependency between what we experience and the beliefs we contrive to make sense of, and even control, that experience. Hollowell completely dispenses with the knowledge-versus-perception debate, resisting altogether “the delirium of naming.” For the poet, knowledge extracted from its concrete, experiential origins is impoverished, even suspect. The alleged division between touch and truth is the real fiction. We are told that “shadows have more to tell than unbroken light,” and if we want to learn to see differently, we must give up conventional notions about what we think shadows are. If we are to transform our posture toward the environment from one of objectification to one of profound appreciation, we must respect its power to speak to our senses.

When poetry is not defending itself against the many misconceptions mainstream society ascribes to it—that it is sentimental, impotent, lacking any quantifiable purpose—it permits us to engage in an unique form of meaning making in which we perceive and express simultaneously, circumventing our executive mind’s rational filters. Boundaries is, unsurprisingly, a bold advocacy of the poetic sensibility, because while the earth needs eco-friendly laws and scientifically-informed policies and intelligent legislative initiatives to protect it from further abuse, these things are only effective insofar as they are accompanied by a fundamental renewal in perspective. If the rainwater doesn’t wash our imaginations, all ecological progress will only ever be incremental. 

Hollowell is aware that the obliteration of boundaries between humankind and their ecological environments must come second to the destruction of psychological, conceptual, and linguistic boundaries that exist a priori in our minds. Boundaries asks us to consider how poetry can facilitate this process of becoming (re)attached, (re)connected, and even coextensive with our surroundings. It contains a dual defense of the natural world and the capacity for poetry to remedy the alienation we have been made to endure with respect to our relationship to the earth.

Hollowell has written a deeply imagistic and sensorial collection. We feel “god shifting under the soil” and our “moss-riddled” clothes. It is visual elegance and total immersion—there’s a palatable lack of similes and even metaphors since it is not comparison or precise communication that Hollowell is after. We’re also reminded that this “green world” is intrinsically divine, that it is suffused by “a theology all moving on the tips of the wind’s fingers.” Boundaries routinely inverts many of the foundational assumptions of traditional Christian theology: if the material is mundane, Hollowell decrees that mere water is “reverence revealed.” Hollowell flouts the conventions of grammar to create striking, painterly visuals whose sharp juxtapositions successfully conjure the natural world:

Blackberry vines smother bleached broken fence

To think of poetry as an environment,

festooned with berries sweet sour filled with pips that scour

as a space of imitation,

gummed flowering bright along a fallen log stripped down

is to learn to read 

While the breaking of the boundary between humans and nature is the main theme in this collection, it also serves as an overarching metaphor for the breaking of boundaries between words and images, words and their worlds. The task of ecological refamilarization is the task of learning to comprehend the poet’s peculiar epistemology of conceptual collapse; only by this collapse can humans become creatures rooted in Earth’s existential ground.

L.A. Johnson’s Little Climates likewise illustrates that knowledge—in particular, self-knowledge—can come from one’s engulfment, both physical and psychological, in the environment. Little Climates uses a kind of reverse bathos: profundity bursts onto each poetic scene only after the reader becomes acclimated to more ordinary “climates”—the kitchen, the yard, the bedroom. Little Climates asks us to envision sacredness in the the seemingly unremarkable experiences of our daily life and consider them as climates unto themselves, “mircoclimates” that contain their own complex ecosystems. As in Hollowell’s Boundaries, “re-wonderment” can inspire novel experiences and new understandings of the self, of others, and of nature. 

In “Epistemology,” objects in the kitchen—the icebox cake, the porch, the kettle—precipitate a moment of self-revelation that sharply contrasts the (perported) mundanity of its domestic context. “I never had quiet times in the kitchen / making an icebox cake” the poem opens, and by the end, the speaker’s initial restlessness sparks her eventual self-revelation: 

Stranger, if only things had been

a little different, I could be

old-fashioned in my happiness,

blushing and easy to love. 

While Johnson is certainly playing with the semantic options available in the word climate, she also relies on its commonplace definition to meditate on nature. It’s not just that the word “climate” provides a metaphor for any kind of environment: the environment the poet finds herself in is often an ecological one (“Night Passage,” Solstice,” and “Auroras”). We are dealing with literal climates as much as we are conceptual climates. If Boundaries is about our collective reintegration into the environment, Little Climates traces the individual’s quest to put words to her total immersion in the land. The voice that speaks in this chapbook is a voice deeply inflected by rain, branches, wildflowers, and foxes. 

This enmeshment is most evident in “Self-Portrait as Norway Spruce,” a poem in which the categorical distinction between tree and human is completely collapsed:

I had been quiet once and for a long time:

turned by needles inward with discretion, 

tolerated both birds and wild radishes. 

When they came to possess me with twine

and metal, they counted, patiently, each limb.

I never had a mother or a child—

nothing to bind me to the earth but myself.

And when I become to thin to stand,

bring me to the thieves, seal my mouth

with calla lilies, and call it a burial. 

Stylistically, the spruce tree functions as the poem’s primary conceit, allowing the speaker to conceptualized herself as a subject of nature. It is easy to interpret this poem as an exploration of life from the perspective of the spruce, compelling us to read its lines as a personification of a non-living object. As a “self-portrait,” however, it is clear the speaker has become existentially intertwined with the spruce, enlivening it with her descriptions, injecting her own animus into its being—its needles, its discs, its sapwood, now also the body of the poet.

“Self-Portrait” proposes a theory of sameness and unity between the self and the spruce that, like Hollowell’s Boundaries, questions the binary between humans and nature. Instead, we are invited to understand humans as indistinguishable from their ecological companions—at least in terms of status, but perhaps in other ways as well. In the end, we are uncertain whether the spruce is a host for the poet or if the spruce speaks a language which the poet has learned to hear, a language to which she can now relate. This collection is a testament to the invigorating influence on the psyche that the natural world can give those who view themselves as citizens first and foremost of the earth. Little Climates has no interest in discussing boundaries, because boundaries do not really exist, except perhaps as illusions we live by.

This essay originally appeared at the EcoTheo Review.


Book Review: Kingdom of Women

Kingdom of Women by Rosalie Morales Kearns

Published by Jaded Ibis Press, 2017

Paperback, 282 pages

Rosalie Morales Kearns’s Kingdom of Women is a no-holds-barred account of a fictional world in which violence against women is routine and rampant. If this premise feels familiar, it’s because gender-based violence is a matter of fact as well as fiction. But violence and sexism are not the novel’s only concerns: if the suppression of women’s autonomy and flourishing are commonplace experiences of the real world, then the task that Kingdom of Women takes up is to imagine a world for women that challenges the immutability of patriarchal reality.

In their own way, each of the characters in the novel take matters into their own hands, fighting back against the predominance and inevitability of male entitlement. In the real world, women are indoctrinated to be kind, civil, and ethically infallible, even in the face of unrelenting sexual abuse and psycho-spiritual dehumanization. In the world of the novel, however, the women directly engage in (or else seriously consider) returning the violent favor, offering men an eye for an eye. In this way, Morales Kearns creates a fictional reprieve from the daily burdens of moral propriety that women disproportionately shoulder. Morales Kearns unapologetically creates an imaginary landscape in which the novel’s female characters can explore socially unsanctioned forms of retaliation that participate in the justice logic of vengeance. But even this is designed to raise important ethical questions about the nature of justice itself, the role of forgiveness, and the challenge of moving forward in the face of discrimination and personal devastation.

Kingdom of Women is set in America in a “slightly alternate near-future” that feels at once familiar and forward reaching. Foregoing the traditional markings of hyperbole, absurdity or fantasy that characterize many dystopian novels, Morales Kearns transports the reader to a time that is not too far off from where we are now, a time when women are ordained to the priesthood or band together to form misandrist domestic terrorist groups. Although there are no known terrorist groups comprised exclusively of women seeking to visit death and destruction upon rapists and misogynist murderers, it is sensible that such a group might exist in our collective imaginary given the increasing number of sexual assault survivors that have come forward in this #MeToo era. In the novel, many women dispense with moral restraint and social propriety, which proves immensely cathartic for female readers. But, more importantly, it allows Morales Kearns to take up questions of ethics, violence, and forgiveness that the dogma of respectability politics tends to foreclose and shut off in public discourse.

“Pick a card,” Averil said, and they both smiled at the way she sounded like an inept magician showing off a new trick.

Catharine pulled one out. Two of Swords.

Tell me about it,” Averil said. “Start with the most basic, the most obvious description of what you see.”

“A woman,” she said. If Averil wanted obvious, she would give her obvious.

“Yes. What else?” 

Catharine frowned at the card. She was trained to read people’s facial expressions, body language. Shoe prints on muddy floors, dry ground, pavement. Cards had not been part of the curriculum. 

“In one hand a sword. In the other hand a sword.”

Averil nodded at the poetry of it, thought of inscriptions to war goddesses, unearthed on cuneiform tablets.

Averil Parnell–the novel’s main character–is the world’s first female Catholic priest who is equal parts priest and mystic, simultaneously straddling the mystic tradition of medieval women and the patriarchal tradition of the priesthood. Through her relationship with another central character, Catharine Beck, she becomes entangled in the struggle to maintain Erda’s political autonomy, a small city-state within the United States whose population consists mostly of women of color. Erda is obviously an anti-racist feminist utopia, a perfect contrast to the white patriarchal imperialist regime that underpins the modern American empire. Admittedly, the rise and fall of a female-only egalitarian society seems trite and overdone from a literary perspective, but Erda itself is only a symbolic foil for the state of women’s rights more broadly.

Kingdom of Women is all too aware of both the failure and unsustainable nature of such a political arrangement, and while the plot of the novel is more or less structured around Erda’s demise, its central thematic preoccupations pertain to what one does when total liberation is not possible. In other words, the narrative is aware of the implausibility of the all-woman Erdan empire, and it asks instead what can be done about this failure, particularly from a spiritual perspective. Averil longs for reclusion and retreat, the quiet life of a medieval scholar—but she becomes engulfed by an obsessive affair with a predatory man, plagued by religious visions and the intrusive politics of an ecclesial bureaucracy that consistently doubts Averil’s ability to carry out her priestly responsibilities. When her superiors learn of her love affair, she is quickly dismissed, and she is pulled into the Erdan subplot in which the fragile freedom of women is more overtly and directly dramatized. 

Written in the tradition of other feminist dystopian novels, Kingdom of Women makes an important contribution to this genre. But while this novel is comparable to many feminist works written in this vein, there are theological particularities that set Kingdom of Women apart from its secular counterparts. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is arguably the most famous and commercially successful work of this genre, but Kingdom of Women demonstrates that Christian fiction can also resist patriarchy, that to be a Christian woman isn’t to automatically be a handmaiden to gendered oppression and the institutions—religious or otherwise—that perpetuate it. Kingdom of Women reminds us that one mustn’t sacrifice religious devotion for the cause of women’s liberation, and indeed that one’s faith is a powerful force for resistance and, rather crucially, spiritual and existential healing.

Can Christian theology support women in their quest for emancipation? The novel is cleverly structured according to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, constituting a poetic plea to view the plight of women in terms parallel to the passion of Christ and the injustices he faced on earth. In this way, Kingdom of Women demonstrates that a feminist engagement with Christian themes and narrative is not a reworking or distortion of some pristine originalist Christian ideal—it is at the heart of the Christ story itself, and only with our perspective firmly attuned to the oppressed can we truly access a fuller understanding of the Christian story. Averil herself functions as a Christ-like figure, profoundly altering Catharine Beck’s sense of the divine, showing her that there is “something more to this life than this life” (p. 282). In Averil, we have a sort of feminist Christology: like Christ, she acts as a redeemer figure, and in her death, she becomes an agent of spiritual transformation, at least for one woman.

This essay originally appeared at Women In Theology.

Mere Piety: Conservatism’s Monopoly on Spirituality

It’s not entirely clear to me what conservative-leaning Christians are trying to accomplish these days. In our politically and religiously complex era, we need more from everybody than reflexive, reactionary theology that’s stubbornly wedded to a highly romanticized, stained-glass version of the pure Christian past. 

This impulse to romanticize is so strong, it seems, that orthodoxy apologists can sometimes forget the more emancipatory episodes in Christian history; perhaps they willfully ignore them. Exhibit A: the debacle regarding the crisis of authority in Protestantism and the untamed Christian woman blogger who spews cyber pseudo-knowledge from her floral-themed home office. While evangelicals gnashed their teeth over the absence of any definitive, recognizable ecclesial structure that could keep these ladies in check, that same year they happily celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, one of the most seismic, profoundly anti-authoritarian religious revolutions in Western Christian history. Neo-traditionalism’s visceral fear of its resident deviants (usually women, queer folks, and/or theological dissidents more generally) has also forced it to embrace some bizarre theological incoherencies. Exhibit B: complementarians are reopening the Nicene debate about the eternal subordination of the Son (only his role, not his essence!) 1,500 years after the matter was settled to buttress their misogynistic interpretations of certain biblical texts.

Something is not quite right. What do we make of these strange and desperate contradictions that actually undermine the tradition these folks are trying to preserve? Why are today’s conservatives so prone to enforce religious dogmas that eventually collapse on themselves?

There’s no easy answer, and plenty of very smart people have already addressed the pitfalls and ironies of neo-traditional currents in contemporary theological debate. But I’ve often wondered if the popular conservative emphasis on faith and the spiritual purity of orthodoxy is at least a partial response to theological liberalism’s tendency to downplay the intrinsic value of a spirituality-centered way of living in and viewing the world. 

The progressive Christian’s skepticism in a pure, apolitical spiritual worldview is rightly aware of place, social identity, context and power, but it’s likely that it also derives from (or is at least supported by) the broader secular, rationalist culture. The standard progressive line that the conservative neurosis to defend a purist conception of orthodoxy and the mythic One True Tradition is nothing more than a foil for an underlying commitment to prejudice is undoubtedly true, especially for those with a lot of institutional power to lose. But I’m also finding the progressive political critique a bit naive these days. What do we make of members of the Christian community at large who defend discriminatory versions of “orthodox” Christianity, often at a great cost to themselves?

It’s true that conservatism panders to our inner fears and alarmist instincts; many of its leaders are eager to remind us that our salvation or connection to God is invalid unless it bends to traditionalist theological ideals. But should we overlook the fact that for many, doing so constitutes an act of obedience and, even more crucially, devotion to God? In Western Christianity, spirituality is often enacted, evidenced, and confirmed through performances of ideology and “correct” belief—a challenge to the latter is an affront to the former.

It’s here that my chorus of protesters will say that there’s no such thing as pure spirituality, faith for faith’s sake, faith divorced from earthly politics, and so on. It’s beyond question that this position properly anchors our faith commitments within a political context that too often perpetuates social prejudice, protecting rather than challenging the status quo and the naturalness of our culture’s supremacist systems.

I think, though, that it would be unwise to refuse to consider the ways in which prejudice becomes entangled with other instincts, in particular the Christian tendency to construct knowledge from more “spiritual” and/or confessional presuppositions. The sense I get from so many in the conservative Christian community is that there’s a lot more at stake in our theological squabbles than mere politics (just like there’s also more at stake than mere orthodoxy, despite the conservative insistence to the contrary).

Perhaps, then, Christian progressivism has its own mythic commitments, namely the idea that all theology is reducible to questions of power and politics. I’m certainly not saying these questions are not omnipresent, are not always relevant to theology, or that they should be avoided, sequestered, or sidestepped. Nor I am interested in legitimizing conservatives who equate their political agenda with fidelity to the gospel. I am interested, however, in understanding the mechanisms of belief and theo-political allegiances. In addition to the power question, I suggest we consider how theological politics intersect with our internal sense of religious fidelity (even if we’re good functionalists and believe that intrinsic religiosity doesn’t truly exist), or our conception of what it means to live adequate Christian lives. 

My suspicion is that the language of religious orthodoxy preys heavily on our longing to be approved by an all-powerful God. The connection between faith and obedience is central to Christian teaching, but in the conservative universe, obedience is vigorously demanded. But, more to the point, I do not think many of us in progressive circles have given sufficient credence to the idea that people of faith are oftentimes possessed by a “holy longing,” to use a phrase from Ronald Rolheiser.

We have thoroughly problematized the existence of a pure, apolitical faith, and while “mere spirituality” has its failings and is perhaps no different conceptually than “mere orthodoxy,” I’m a bit concerned that in disputing these things, we simultaneously reproduce a secularist logic that does not allow religion and spirituality to exist as valid forms of human experience and knowing. This is likely not the situation for the majority of professing Christians, especially those in our local church communities. 

I’m also concerned that we do not accept the autonomy of personal faith and spirituality because of pesky tendencies within “historic” Christianity itself. Ironically, we may be carrying on the West’s centuries-long rationalist agenda, an agenda that converted the format of early Christian belief from story and testimony to scholasticism and propositional theology. The intellectualist bent of white androcentric theology has always made it difficult for its Christian subjects to conceive of—let alone reimagine—faith apart from the rational logos. The idea that an intuitive or affective “faith faculty” can exist autonomously from the authoritative power of theological reasoning or church-sanctioned revelation is already problematic within a Western Christian framework. Even in communities where intellectualism is shunned, there’s always an affirmation of the written creed and the statement of faith.

This is a much bigger discussion than the constraints of this blog post will allow. That said, I think we should consider how our theological commitments are bound up not only with our politics, but also with our desire to actualize our faith and please the God we worship. The specific ways we do so is, of course, reflective of our politics; there is no transcending that. But if we considered Christian politics in relation to spiritual enactment, we would be better positioned to disrupt conservatism’s monopoly on piety, simple devotion, and their exclusive affinity with traditionalism.

This essay originally appeared at Women In Theology.

Gendered Visions of The Piper Pastorate

To rage or not to rage: that is the question you always have to ask yourself when Satan strikes in the form of evangelical sexism, unimaginative biblicism, and the fresh propaganda of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which never fails to condemn Christian persons to sex-based behavioral prisons that make the regular old gender binary look as lush and liberating as the Promised Land.

It may be that rage is a more merciful form of hostility; it is certainly a more honest reaction, however infantile and unpleasant to endure. It may also be a safer form of emotional ventilation than other more elaborate methods of confrontation intended to keep others in submission. It was Anna Freud who expanded her father’s idea of intellectualization as an ego defense, claiming that the primary function of this unconscious mechanism was “the thinking over of instinctual conflict.” Britzman states that intellectualization can also function “to berate others, to punish others with moral discourse.” When Piper came out last month with his latest “biblically-based” article that argued against women holding teaching positions in seminary not because the bible outright forbids it, but because it contradicts the complementarian “pastoral vision,” full-fledged suspicion kicked in. There was some psychological mischief happening here, as the usual prohibitions denying women access to the pastorate now suddenly applied to women who aspired to teach theology. Call it concern for ideological consistency or historic Protestantism all you want, the end result is the exorcism of every contaminating she-demon from important vocational offices.

After reading that piece, there was only indifference where there might have been rage a year or two ago. It is hard to be sincere about a certain matter once your perception of it clarifies, when the grandiosity of its supposed seriousness fades to absurdity. I felt forced to question my own (and everyone else’s) intellectualizing habits, feeling that “the complementarian position is patriarchal and misogynistic” was off the mark, and too banal and impotent a rebuttal anyway. The truth is that complementarianism probably has little to do with a “high view of scripture” or a continued faithfulness to church tradition, at least not for its foremost architects and advocates. Some of them are apparently just as gender obsessed as Judith Butler, postmodernism’s evil queen who said that gender is arbitrary and entirely performative. Biblical literalism is cool and all, but have you tried devising soul-suffocating systems of gender ontology using God’s Word as your theoretical ground? When you wed this delightful pastime to your inner sense of Christian calling, it’s easy to allow your fleshly, subconscious gripes about emasculation and women’s wavering enthusiasm to incubate your progeny to transfigure into something more spiritually acceptable, so that to preach on gender improprieties is actually to carry out Heaven’s work.

Theological conservatism is typically very good at using Christian principles to shut down political struggle, and usually it’s progressives who fixate on materiality, social liberation, and the realities of human embodiment. But something about today’s complementarianism doesn’t stick to the typical conservative script. Its ethos feels fiercely political, though many find this hard to see because it still maintains a smokescreen of spiritual devotion that presents male-female relations as a matter of piety or orthodoxy rather than gender politics proper. Committment to the later would be to make the progressive’s error of using Christianity to further agendas which are not properly Christian. I really do not see why this needs to be so. I do not understand why conservatives cannot care about people’s social lives without the veil of spirituality. Regardless, complementarians need to confess their preoccupation with gender itself (especially given our contemporary context where traditional, inherited notions of gender have undergone such profound changes), not just proclaim adherence to biblical teaching or church doctrine alone.

I think we must do more than question the theological or ethical validity of complementarian teaching. We need to probe beyond the surface concern for scriptural fidelity, and ask why the constant commentary on what it means to be a godly man or woman is not viewed as an inherently political and gendered activity. And we need to ask why it is wrong or insufficient for Christians, particularly Christian men, to care about their gendered existence outside the protective intellectual walls of their religion. We should be very leery of the habitual invocation of “the biblical worldview” or “the pastoral vision” as a proxy or veneer for one’s grapplings with the reality of fluctuating gender norms, especially if it involves a loss of personal power. Theologically speaking, we need to assert our Christian right to know how such innocuous preferences like loving rugged landscapes or being passive while dating confirms Christian obedience or contributes to one’s sanctification.

And, while we’re at it, we should start understanding complementarianism as a men’s issue rather than a women’s issue, since it is mostly men who seem to instigate these gender debates about how women practice ministry. Even assuming complementarians are correct in their interpretation of certain biblical passages regarding what duties women can and cannot perform in the church or in the seminary, or what attributes of Christ each partner in a heterosexual marriage should reflect, rooting these interpretations in identity-based theologies about gender is definitely an extra-biblical project that’s being sold as biblically nonnegotiable. It’s these cultural qualities of complementarianism that are lacking an explicit scriptural basis. There’s no vision about what the modern pastorate should look like in 1 Timothy 2:12, so let’s not make it do more work than it already does.

This essay originally appeared at Women In Theology.

Give Us A King: Saul and the Ungodly Commitments of Contemporary Religious Politics

A few days ago, I decided I would read the biblical story about how Saul was chosen to become king of Israel. It seemed fitting to revisit this text because of the way that it dramatizes the tension between the political and the theological, something which has surely been at the forefront of all of our minds these days. In much of our online commentary, we tend not to exert too much mental effort thinking about politics and theology more theoretically. I’m a firm believer that story and narrative can inspire us to think in this manner, even if it does not supply us with the cogent, refined, clear-cut propositions that “standard” theory usually prefers. It may be that popular digital forums are not the ideal space to leisurely meander through the wilderness of theoretical abstractions, or perhaps it’s because abstract reflection is perceived to be at odds with the concrete goals of tangible political progress that we refrain from contemplative thinking on this topic. After all, there are real people implicated by this economic policy or that religious dogma, so how can we talk distant abstractions without risking our humanitarian credentials? But if abstract, disembodied theologizing is a political cop-out whose chief function is to ensure our escape from our messy material reality, then political theology that operates adrift any theoretical foundation is vulnerable to even the most mediocre criticisms conservatism can muster.

The conservative criticism with the most traction, it seems, is that theological progressives have little or no regard for orthodox faith, the meat and bones of theological teaching, or a true sense of Christian piety—a piety that surely leads the pure in heart to conclude that matters related to human flourishing are of secondary importance to “the gospel,” “the kingdom,” or whatever epithet is being used to signal Christian traditionalism. This logic is at least partly fuelled by the dichotomous manner in which we typically approach the political/theological debate in Western culture—it’s habit for us to talk about it using the language of opposition. And you can only really be committed to one or the other. Conservatives benefit nicely from this binary, because once it’s been set up, they need only claim they’ve defended the right side—usually it’s scripture, tradition, God-fearing womanhood, or some other “biblically” sanctioned social norm. In the end, it’s always the side which signals the authentically spiritual. Of course, the denial that one’s theology is devoid of (or perhaps transcends) politics is nothing more than wand-waving sorcery, which evidently beguiles a great number of people.

Conservative theologies often don’t expressly state their underlying political commitments; instead, their politics is covertly incorporated into a larger theological worldview which is then defended as “natural” or “biblical” or true to historic Christian witness. They are rather stealth in that way. Progressives have tended to be more up front about their politics, perhaps as a way of calling out this manoeuvre. It seems to me this latter tactic functions as a kind of corrective: better to be honest about your politics and not peddle them as some God-sanctioned revelation. More importantly, better to defend those wounded by the (theo)politics of silence, apathy, and outright discrimination than engage in endless, impractical theological debate. And so, many “social justice” Christians approach the subject of theology first from a political perspective, and then work out the theological implications from there. Maybe this is the honest and nobler move, but perhaps it is not the shrewder one. And I do believe it’s possible to think more holistically about the relationship between the political and the theological, that Christians can be theologically committed to human well-being, and that the accusatory head game of where does your real allegiance lie is counterproductive and dispensable. There’s no one better at illustrating this principle than Jesus—his religious teachings repeatedly address humanitarian and ethical care issues. Similarly, I find the biblical narrative of how Saul became Israel’s first king to be another useful resource for thinking about the relationship between theology and politics, precisely because the narrative does away with the either/or of politics and religion, presuming at every turn that they are part of mutually informing whole.

Saul enters Israel’s politically turbulent tale in 1 Samuel 8, while Samuel and the Israelite armies are fending off the Philistines. Chapter 7 very deliberately ends on a triumphant note, making clear that it is God who delivered Israel from the Philistines encroaching on their border. This makes Israel’s request for a human king in chapter 8 read that much more like a betrayal of the God who repeatedly rescues them from foreign domination. The takeaway message is thus: the request for an earthly, human king is also a rejection of Yahweh’s divine kingship. Ideally, there should be no (earthly) king in Israel at all:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (1 Sam 8:4–9, NRSV)

It’s these verses I think of when anyone argues that God has divinely appointed so-and-so to this or that political office because that’s what God wanted. The biblical record (at least in this case) makes it very clear that human political traditions run contrary to the kind of divine rulership that God desires for his people. God agrees to select a king for Israel begrudgingly, because it’s what they want. There’s a radical distinction here between the Lord’s kingship and the kingship of “other nations.” In this text, there is not that annoying conflation between divine will and the reigning political order du jour that has so plagued Western regimes, from pre-revolution France to Trump’s America. To want any kind of political figure who is not Yahweh, and who does not rule in the manner that Yahweh would, is in fact comparable to idolatry (v. 8) and reminiscent of pagan culture. Their political systems lead only to forced labor, endless war, slavery and death (vv. 10–17), experiences so endemic to every godless empire that has ever ruled this earth. Again, all these things characterizes the goyim—they have no place among a community that considers itself God’s spiritually elect.

Apparently, white evangelical Christians are so thoroughly invested in worldly political ways that they can talk about God working enthusiastically within them, endorsing this person, orchestrating that event, and so on. I know there are other places in the Bible that could be interpreted as supporting divine action in earthly politics (Romans 12 comes to mind), but perhaps we should always be mindful 1 Samuel 8, remembering God’s fundamental disdain for propping up earthly political powers. After all, God’s disappointment in Israel asking for a king did not stop him from commanding Samuel to listen to them and anoint a king. Likewise, if Trump has indeed been chosen by God, it’s because God has indulged our sinful need for human politicians that provide the illusion of strength that only God can provide; it’s our fallenness, not our fidelity, that makes us eager for political leaders who align with our socio-political values. The joke’s on Jerry Falwell Jr. and his cronies who succumbed to Trump the way the Israelites succumbed to Saul. There is no biblical theology of God’s work in human politics that does not ultimately lead back to himself.

The Lord’s objection isn’t to governance and political office as such. It’s not that Israel should have no king, but that Yahweh is the only acceptable option. It’s a simultaneous embrace of both the theological and the political—in 8:4–9, it’s the theological that should enter and transform the political, but there is no denial or diminishment of either. That God could be king of an earthly political entity (rather than an otherworldly heavenly kingdom à la Christianity) is an ancient Israelite idea that makes more sense in a pre-rational culture; it can only be fully apprehended by a Mesopotamian mentality that does not sharply divide the sacred and the mundane. But it’s an idea from which we modern believers can learn something important: it is indeed very theological to reject the corrupt business of human politics, not through political retreat, but through the spiritual transformation and renewal of the political arena. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of milk and honey, and it’s political agenda is not the voracious pursuit of power, or the preservation of a nationalist-religious ideology. It is the real and material freedom from famine, war, suffering, and captivity of every kind.

The Evangelical Vote: Myth of the 81%?

Since the U.S. presidential election, various news outlets have reported that evangelical Christians—in particular white evangelical Christians—voted for Donald Trump. During the course of the campaign, it became standard wisdom that the evangelical vote was Trump’s—a fact symbolically reinforced by the endorsements given to Trump by some of evangelicalism’s most prominent leaders, such as Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem. The main exit polls show that about 81% of white evangelicals voted Trump (see here, here and here). This is old news, but some are now contesting this percentage, offering up alternative facts and figures with attendant explanations.

Maybe it is due to a visceral aversion to conventional wisdom that some have decided to problematize the 81% statistic. Maybe it is due to a desire to defend evangelicalism from the charge coming mostly from secular media and the progressive evangelical left (my goodness, does such a thing even exist?) that white conservative evangelicalism sold its born-again soul to a proto-fascist bigot. Maybe there are valid reasons to distrust (or at least question) the methods and conclusions of election polls. Whatever their reasons, both Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition recently ran articles suggesting that when we consider the voting commitments of so-called minority groups within evangelicalism (Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans), the support for Trump among evangelicals on the whole greatly declines, and the total picture of evangelical politics is not nearly so unholy as mainstream opinion supposes. Regardless of one’s intentions in challenging conventional wisdom, doing so is guaranteed to generate curiosity and promote debate. And certainly alternative angles on this issue of the evangelical vote are beneficial for the larger conversation that we should have about race and evangelical identification. I’m sure we’ll forever be talking about why a large number of American evangelicals (whatever statistic one decides to settle upon) wanted the Donald to be their commander-in-chief.

I am particularly interested in this idea that racial/ethnic minorities must be accounted for when trying to determine what percentage of the evangelical vote we may say gave their support to Trump. I am interested because this is not so simple a thing to do: non-whites, on average, are less likely to explicitly identify as ‘evangelical’ when asked about their religious affiliation, even if they answer affirmatively to questions about doctrine and views of scripture that many would consider distinctive to the evangelical faith tradition. 1 On this basis, commentators at both CT and TGC have argued that the 81% figure is not accurate and/or representative of the evangelical vote at large. This is because it considers only white evangelicals, and not minority evangelicals who, although they do not identify as evangelicals, nevertheless should be counted among the evangelical group on the basis of their theological conformity to its core principles.

The overlap between denominational traditions is certainly something to consider when asking people to state their theological positions for the purposes of labelling and categorization. This is an especially important point when it comes to evangelicalism, because evangelical ideology often reaches across denominational divides. I am certainly not here to contest recent research that looks at evangelical identification from a theological, belief-based perspective. I do think this angle has value. But I think decisively incorporating ethnic minority respondents under the evangelical umbrella on the basis of belief alone, in order to promote a narrative that evangelicals did not support Trump wholesale when minority groups are considered, is very suspicious.



At this point I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that minority groups cannot be evangelical, or that they do not count or do not matter to evangelicalism: indeed they very much do, and it is because they matter that I write this piece at all. The ostensible purpose of subsuming “ethnic minority Christians” into the “evangelical vote” is to challenge the idea that Trump won handily among evangelicals. When these ethnic minority voters are counted as evangelicals, the 81% statistic is brought down to about 35–45%. This newly constructed 35–45% percentage—which works out to be less than half of the total evangelical vote—suggests that evangelicals were far from unanimous with respect to their support for Trump. Ironically, this very act of including minority voters in the evangelical vote—whether inclusivity is the underlying intent or not—arguably works to salvage the damaged reputation of the evangelical Religious Right.

Essentially, then, certain authors are relying on a (presumed) minority evangelical demographic to alter the percentage of Trump-supporting evangelicals; in the end, this only obscures the racism that fuelled the white evangelical vote. As Evan Derkacz of Religion Dispatches wrote, white evangelical commentators are so eager to “protect the evangelical brand” that they will claim that “real” church-attending evangelicals didn’t actually vote for Trump, and tend to conflate the white evangelical vote with the “evangelical of color” vote. I cannot help but think that this appeal to “ethnic minority evangelicals” is meant to soften the glaringly obvious racism that has become so entrenched in white evangelical politics. Even if the belief-based approach is taken, and more minorities are given the evangelical label, the new 35–45% could still be broken down according to race—and it would still be the case that white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted Trump. There is no statistical manoeuvre to whitewash that.

Evangelicals and the End of Civic Religion

I have always scratched my head at the strange and unshakable contemporary relationship between American politics and evangelical faith. To confess that I find this strange might be strange in itself. The political aspect of American evangelicalism is to some one of its distinctive features, the characteristic it might be most famous for. But every time I hear the Gaithers sing the American national anthem or watch a televangelist make simultaneous appeals to both the Bible and the US Constitution, I am perplexed at how two seemingly unrelated traditions with vastly different historical trajectories ended up becoming shorthand for one another.

Intuitively, I suspect this might be because I’m from Canada. In Canada, at least in 2016, no easily discernible connection exists between nationalistic sentiment and religious fervor. I’m unfamiliar with a Canadian equivalent to America’s “civil religion” (as some have called it), one that functions to make imperative both faith in God and faith in the state. If there were, I’d like to think I’d find this tradition strange too, though it is always harder to make out the artificiality and arbitrariness of cultural concoctions while we are situated within the culture itself. And so I can only assume that my tendency to see stark differences between Christianity and Americanism is heightened as a neighbor-to-the-north. However, the emergence of presidential nominee Donald Trump has made evangelicalism’s alliance with Republican politics more obvious than ever; he preaches American nationalism, yet in the same breath vows to protect Christianity. As a result, he has secured the support of a demographic that professes faith to be the most important criteria for their politics.1

To help make sense of this, it is helpful to understand the history of the political engagement of evangelicals and fundamentalists as a phenomenon that emerged early in the twentieth century. George Marsden has described the expressly political activities of the fundamentalist coalitions that formed after World War I to fight the forces of modernism in both the church and society. For example, William Jennings Bryan, one of the attorneys involved in the famous Scopes Trial that delivered a verdict against the teaching of evolution in public schools, can be considered a leader in early fundamentalist political efforts. Marsden notes that during this postwar era, many fundamentalist evangelists “laced their messages with political pronouncements, featuring patriotism and Prohibition and attacking Marxism, socialism, evolutionism, and Catholicism.”2 He explains, however, that in the 1930s, a shift occurred in which fundamentalists placed more emphasis on evangelism, especially after they developed a negative reputation in the aftermath of the Scopes Trial. Premillennialist and dispensational theology also gained more ground and fostered an ethos of cultural and political separation within fundamentalist communities. The eschatological framework of these theologies dictated that all social ills were evidence of God’s sovereignty and the immanent return of Christ. Thus, to combat “evil” social developments with any sort of political effort was inherently unspiritual and implicitly denied the validity of these eschatological doctrines.

But not all dispensationalists followed “separatist and apolitical conclusions,” and by the 1940s and 1950s, fundamentalism was divided into several camps, the primary two being the strict fundamentalists who demanded separation and the neo-evangelicals who disavowed it. Marsden lists a number of fundamentalists who were politically active during the 1940s, including Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and Edgar C. Bundy, “all of whom developed vigorous fundamentalist political organizations of their own.”3

Marsden’s historical survey makes it clear that the link between American politics and faith forged in the late twentieth century is not a recent invention. However, as anthropologist Susan Harding points out, the specific religious origins of the Religious Right are in the 1980s:

A cultural movement swept through many American fundamentalist communities during the 1980s. Under the leadership of the Reverend Jerry Falwell and allied preachers, millions of inerrant Bible believers broke old taboos constraining their interactions with outsiders, claimed new cultural territory, and refashioned themselves in church services, Bible studies, books and pamphlets, classrooms, families, daily life and the public arena.4

In the 1980s, fundamentalist communities reentered the public arena after some period of time clinging to socially separatist ideology, and they assimilated into the broader evangelical movement. Leading the charge, fundamentalist and evangelical leaders like Falwell and James Dobson founded political organizations loyal to Republican causes, and these organizations were instrumental in rebranding both fundamentalism and evangelicalism as politically purposeful. From there, Republican Party leaders seized the newly formed alliance to cultivate a reliable religious voting base.

In Republican Theology, Benjamin Lynerd explains that the civil evangelicalism of the contemporary Religious Right, which Falwell and his sympathizers helped establish, goes back even further than the 1980s. Indeed, Lynerd suggests that civil religion developed much earlier than the twentieth century or Marsden’s fundamentalists of the early twentieth century, originating “with the American Founding” itself.5 As Joseph Wuest points out in his review of Lynerd’s work, civil religion has roots in Calvinistic covenant theology, contract theology, and social contract theology.6 This does not negate Harding’s insight that the Religious Right is a relatively recent development, but it reminds us that the linkage between Christianity and American politics is a longstanding one.

In terms of the more recent manifestations of evangelical politics,7 Lynerd defines republican theology as a political-theological doctrine that “asserts the mutual dependence of individual liberty, moral virtue, and Christian faith to support a civil religion that values all three.” However, a civil religion uses faith to sanctify politics, whereas political theology makes use of theology-based ethics to advance political causes.8 His use of the phrases political-theological doctrine and civil religion is key here, because it disrupts the prevailing evangelical narrative that political engagement is about duty to one’s faith and not about politics. Although it may not be clear whether political evangelicalism is a civil religion, which is thus intrinsically political, or a theological system in which politics play a large role, Lynerd’s work foregrounds the explicit political character of right-wing evangelicalism. He reminds us that the alliance between evangelicalism and the American right is “not accidental,” taking on its current shape only in the twentieth century.9 Bearing in mind Harding’s and Marsden’s historical perspective, we might become more conscious that the religious perspective of conservative white evangelicals is historically rooted and thoroughly conditioned by the political agendas of its prominent leaders.

It seems we have come to a point in American politics where the perspectives and theologies of other Christian faith traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Pentecostal, Holiness—are either ignored or distorted under evangelicalism’s enormous visibility and public dominance. This dominance is illusory, of course, because the Christian landscape is much more varied and diverse than it may appear in the media; even the evangelical landscape is more diverse socially, ethnically, politically, and theologically than it is usually perceived to be. All of this helps to illustrate that the relationship between conservative politics and a very particular expression of evangelicalism—the theologically conservative strain that has roots in fundamentalism—is deliberately forged and, I would argue, not at all natural, given, or representative of the Christian religion as a whole.

Another troubling consequence of a homogenizing political narrative concerning Christians is that when a specific religious expression is aligned with a specific political agenda, genuine faith is obfuscated, or at the very least made to be of secondary importance. In the shadow of right-wing political religion—republican theology, as Lynerd calls it—spirituality ceases to be truly spiritual. Conservative social issues thus replace theology as the substance of religious conviction; one’s commitment to so-called family values, for example, can tell us a great deal about that person’s spiritual standing. Bizarrely, Christian evangelicals who disagree with or do not regard conservative politics and social ethics as integral to their faith might render themselves as spiritual deviants to other evangelicals.

Secularism has been no help to Christians who do not adhere to the social-issues script, and the mainstream media rarely interrogates the naturalness of Republican theology or the alliance between social conservatism and Christian faith. Because faith has no place in a secular worldview, there is no value or purpose in covering spirituality in all its theological complexity and diversity, nor is there value or purpose in rescuing authentic spirituality from the suffocating grip of political intrigue. Naturally, then, nonreligious people consider Republican-influenced evangelicalism synonymous with the entire Christian tradition.

But then Donald Trump happened. Suddenly even secularists feel compelled to enlist kinder Christians to clarify that Mr. Trump does not embody the true spirit of Christianity. Suddenly, it is very important to remind the world that Hillary Clinton is a Methodist and that religion really can be practiced in a sensible, humane manner. When it became clear that Republican evangelicals were also American citizens who had the power to determine political outcomes that would affect everyone—not just the fanatics in their own constituency—then they were treated as serious members of the social body. And it took the appearance of Trump’s candidacy for the media to decide that the way to disarm dysfunctional religion was not to denounce religion itself but rather to provide examples of individuals who were doing it right by not allowing their faith to be hijacked by politics. Hence the Washington Post ran a piece in June criticizing evangelical sellouts.

But it was Trump who first made obvious the political core of evangelical faith; it was Trump, a man who said he had no need for God’s forgiveness, who won easily with the Religious Right.10Such ironies are what make it obvious that his party has an irreligious underbelly, something GOP leaders worked hard to conceal. Because Trump’s clumsy display of basic Christianity still garnered him a large majority of the evangelical vote in the primaries—prominent leaders included—it’s now entirely reasonable to entertain the notion that Republican evangelicals care as little about faith as the secularists.

Trump has said and done terrible things; these terrible things he did and said intentionally. But I am hopeful he has unintentionally inaugurated the divorce that needs to take place between politics and religion, specifically between Republicanism and evangelicalism. This is not because I believe in their separation a priorichurch and state may choose to cooperate, but when they collude, they are no longer distinguishable, and the corruption of both seems inevitable. As Trump’s history of sexually aggressive behavior surfaces in the mainstream media, it seems that his campaign has begun to unravel. Renouncing Trump is commendable but only minimally impactful: Trump is merely an outward symbol of the deep-seated allegiance between Republicanism and evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals who oppose having their faith co-opted by right-wing politics must seize the political moment that is the 2016 presidential race by actively working to disentangle evangelical Christianity from the Republican agenda.

This essay originally appeared at The Other Journal.