Column: Evangelicals Take a Stand,  But Not Where One’s Needed

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    FILE - In this March 31, 2016, file photo, gay-rights supporter Mathew "Skippy" Mauldin holds a flag during a gay rights rally outside the Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. A Republican Missouri lawmaker says he has a solution to end tense debates over same-sex marriage. Rep. T.J. Berry wants to take government out of marriage and leave it to houses of worship by classifying such legal partnerships as domestic unions. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File) ap

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    Dr. James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, right, speaks as his wife Shirley Dobson, left, looks on during a "Yes on 8" prayer event held at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008. Thousands took part in the 12-hour prayer and fasting event. The ballot initiative would ban same-sex marriage in California. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy) ap

For the Valley News
Published: 9/16/2017 9:00:33 PM
Modified: 9/16/2017 9:00:33 PM

From time to time, the confluence of current events engenders a moral outrage so overwhelming that people of conscience feel obliged to respond, to strike out against injustice or in defense of those on the margins of society. We stand in need of such a declaration today.

The last several centuries provide many precedents. By the late 18th century, Quakers began to notice, and then to agitate against, the scourge of slavery. Theirs was a lonely voice at first, but the moral force of their opposition combined with the eloquence of those who joined the chorus, eventually stirred the conscience of the nation. Finally, albeit after a bloody war, the institution of chattel slavery was abolished.

Across the Atlantic, a group of Protestant ministers, witness to the gathering storm of Nazism as well as the complicity of German Protestant churches, decided they could no longer remain silent. They gathered in May 1934 and adopted the Barmen Declaration, drafted by the venerable theologian Karl Barth, to declare their opposition to Adolf Hitler and to his ecclesiastical cheerleaders, who had anointed Hitler as a “German prophet” and who had tried to strip Christianity of all Jewish influences. One of the Barmen signatories, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, worked actively to resist Hitler, conspired to assassinate the Fuhrer and was executed in a Nazi concentration camp.

After his arrest on Good Friday, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham. Someone smuggled him a newspaper in which a group of white clergy published an open letter to the civil rights leader urging him to slow, and to scale back, his push for racial equality. King, a Baptist minister, grabbed a pen and began writing in the margins. “Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas,” King began, and he proceeded to explain why the struggle for civil rights was a moral imperative. “Injustice anywhere,” he continued, “is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The moral force of his argument led to the March on Washington a few months later and, finally, to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Other examples could be added here — Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War in Vietnam, for instance — when moral voices have been raised against evil and injustice.

Is there any moment more propitious than now? We have an administration with no moral compass on matters of ethics, justice, the environment or women’s rights, a president who suggests a moral equivalency between white supremacists and those who oppose them. Donald Trump, who has demonstrated that he cannot even fake religious literacy — “Drink my little wine ... have my little cracker” — wants to deport “Dreamers” and build a massive wall. Surely now is the time for religious leaders to take a stand, to state unequivocally that white supremacy is evil and contrary to any religious faith worthy of the name, to decry indiscriminate deportation and even, perhaps, to note that the Bible instructs us to welcome the stranger and to treat the foreigner as a neighbor.

It’s time for voices in the wilderness, for people of faith to weigh in at this moment of cultural disarray and moral decay.

But wait! It appears that someone has heeded the call.

Out of a gathering of evangelical leaders, a tradition with a distinguished (albeit distant) history of advocacy for those Jesus called “the least of these,” comes a document called the Nashville Statement. Signed by a veritable who’s who of the Religious Right — James Dobson, Tony Perkins, R. Albert Mohler Jr., Marvin Olasky, D.A. Carson, Richard Land — the statement was released just days after Trump had asserted the equivalency of white supremacists and those who marched against them in Charlottesville.

The timing couldn’t be better. What a moment to take a stand for moral decency in the face of another surge in racism and the persistent ethical indifference emanating from the White House. Surely, now more than ever, the nation needs to hear a prophetic voice, similar to the cries against slavery and the war in Vietnam.

“Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition,” the statement begins. Well, yes, I suppose that’s true. Evangelicals in the past, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, marched in the vanguard of progressive movements, including support for public education, women’s equality and the rights of workers to organize. That changed dramatically with the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s, when evangelical leaders elected to defend the tax exemptions of racially segregated schools. What followed was an abandonment of biblical principles in favor of the gospel of hard-right conservatism.

So, yes, evangelicalism has been in transition. It has veered from its own tradition of social justice. So the Nashville Statement will set things straight, will offer an emphatic and unequivocal course correction so that evangelicals can finally, after decades of moral drift, recover their prophetic voice, right?

Well, maybe not. The Nashville Statement is emphatic in its denunciations of ... (wait for it) same-sex marriage.

Huh? White supremacists, some of them with influence in the White House, are running wild, Dreamers face deportation, the Environmental Protection Agency is undoing environmental protections, the education department is unraveling protections for sexual assault victims, the president himself has flaunted his marital infidelities and boasted of his tawdry behavior toward women — and the Nashville Statement comes out with a ringing denunciation of same-sex marriage?

Not exactly a profile in courage.

These signatories — all but a very few are male — are entitled to their theology and their interpretations of scripture, pinched as those interpretations may be. (The Bible has a lot more to say about divorce than it does about homosexuality.) And I certainly don’t deny their right to issue a statement on this topic, misguided as it is. But such a declaration would have a lot more credibility if any of those signing the document had bothered to denounce the president for his false equivalency of the Charlottesville protesters.

Randall Balmer is director of the Society of Fellows and a historian of religion in North America at Dartmouth College.

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