Why I’m Thankful for Evangelicals and Other Religious Hard Shells

evangelical-children

Children Worshiping at the  Harvestime Church, Eau Claire, WI.  (Photo: Courtesy of Paul M. Walsh)

As many of you may know by now, I’m not conventionally religious. I’m a cultural Christian, not an orthodox one. I am both pro-choice and sympathetic to the gay plight in America. I am a Tory conservative, yes, albeit one of very maverick convictions.

I’ll confess, too, that I’ve never really been that comfortable with evangelical Christianity, even as a child raised in that faith tradition.  In many respects and despite my best efforts, I never really quite got it, and as soon as I could fly the coop as a college student, I did. And I consider myself much happier and a better integrated person because of it.

But that’s just me, and I’ll be the first to concede that many of those who have remained in their childhood faith traditions have built lives just as happy, fulfilling and vital as mine.  And as this article by Andrea Lucado, a  member one of the nation’s leading evangelical families, serves to underscore:  I should feel fortunate that many did.  And equally important, I should feel fortunate for the American Christian rainbow, both its conservative and evangelical components.

 We all should.

In America, the nation that invented religious freedom, both ends of the religious spectrum – left as well as right – serve a critical role not only in refining religious debate and dialogue but also in keeping the other side grounded and occasionally even honest with itself.

After I left the evangelical faith during my college years, I joined a mainline Protestant church and essentially never looked back.  Like many rank-and-file mainliners, I’m sympathetic to a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, at least in the early stages.  Even so, I fear a world in which pro-abortion views are considered the only respectable ones.  I fear even more a world in which those views are the only accredited ones. 

We all should.

Maintaining a high standard for life is a prerequisite for a civilized and humane society. And I think the presence of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals within the public debate better ensures that high standard will be maintained.

I’m thankful for this intellectual diversity in other ways too.   As one with somewhat liberal theological convictions,  I feel fortunate for the worldwide presence of the Catholic faith, because Catholicism forms the bedrock of Christianity’s global foundation. And I’m thankful for the presence not only of Catholicism but also other forms of orthodox Christianity in terms of how they contributed to congealed standards of ethics and morality.

Thomas Jefferson once predicted that Unitarianism would eventually out-compete all conventional forms of faith to become the predominate American faith. But without evangelical Christianity, would we even have secured a functioning American Back Country? Would Unitarianism have proven as efficacious in ridding the early settlers of all those the vices that plagued the American frontier – drinking, gambling, brawling, wife desertion and a host of other bad behaviors?

Frankly, I rather doubt it. 

The Second Great Awakening transformed the American frontier, decidedly for the better.  It provided meagerly educated farmers and artisans with a simple but congealed faith and with values that enabled them not only to settle a vast frontier but also to build and sustain a culture that has lasted for more than 200 years. 

And, yes, as Lucado argues so aptly in this piece, we need doubters within evangelical ranks, too. Doubters and skeptics keep big institutions on their proverbial toes, and megachurches and denominations are no exception this rule.

And this leads me to ask: Whatever happened to the longstanding and deeply ingrained American reverence for diversity of thought? In the digital age, I think this old American reverence for dissenting and maverick thought is needed now more than ever.

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Henry Wallace: Anti-Fascist Jeremiah?

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Henry A. Wallace, 33rd Vice President of the United States

“P*ss on my leg, but don’t tell me it’s rainin'” was the earthy language my father employed whenever he suspected someone was trying to sell him a rhetorical bill of goods.

Well, it appears the Editorial Board of the New York Times is p*ssing again on our legs – or, to employ more polite language, pulling off another editorial sham. It ran a lamentation today – column almost strikes me as a bit an understatement in this context – by Henry Scott Wallace, grandson of two-term Vice President Henry A. Wallace, the so-called “American dreamer,” who served under FDR but was ultimately sacked and replaced by Truman to run in the 1944 election.

Henry Scott Wallace lauds his grandfather as a prophet decades ahead of his time. He cites a paper written by his long-deceased grandfather that painted a vivid picture of a future privileged leader who uses the seductive language of “super nationalism” to dupe millions and to ascend to power. And this figure, the younger Wallace contends, bears an uncanny resemblance to our current president, Donald J. Trump.

Yet, here’s the part that the younger Wallace and the New York Times conveniently leave out: Vice President Wallace maintained ties to Soviet Russia that arguably put Trump’s alleged Russian connections to shame. Indeed, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly warned FDR that Wallace had strong connections not only with reputed Hollywood communists but also with Soviet operatives in Russia.

Moreover, historian John L. Gladdis discovered that Wallace regularly reported to the Kremlin from 1945 to 1946, while he was serving in the Truman administration. As the Progressive Party presidential candidate in 1948, he deliberately sabotaged an effort by the Truman administration to redress Soviet-American relations. Truman had previously fired Wallace following an address at Madison Square Garden in which he berated the Truman administration for excessive anti-communism.

Wallace’s Progressive Party was widely regarded as a community of Soviet fellow travelers. As its nominee, Wallace called for unilateral disarmament, an end to the draft, and the termination of the Marshall Plan, which many credit with saving Western Europe from encroaching Soviet Communism.

Incidentally, Wallace’s sordid history of collusion with Russia is explored in detail in an article by Conrad M. Black titled “The Real Henry Wallace,” which was featured in National Review, Jan. 17, 2013.

Honestly, I occasionally wonder about the the Editorial Board of the New York Times. Are they really this ignorant of history, or do that they just assume an appalling gullibility on the part of their readers?

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“Don’t Cry for Me, Alabama!”

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Allende Redux in Montgomery? 

Driving to breakfast early this morning, I heard on the radio that the Alabama House of Representatives would begin deliberation on the impeachment of the Goobernator, Robert Bentley, sometime next week. This report was followed by accounts of the skies over Montgomery being filled with military aircraft.

For a split second, the thought struck me that the Alabama National Guard had jumped the gun and staged an Allende-style coup against the Goobernator. I then conjured up this picture of Bentley, like the ill-fated Allende in his Presidential Palace in Santiago, holed up in the Governor’s Mansion wearing an oversized M-1 helmet, with his goobernatorial mistress at his side, bravely awaiting the end.

I could even imagine Rebecca Caldwell Mason’s last words: “Don’t cry for me, Alabama!”

Needless to say, it turns out that my imagination got the best of me:  The military aircraft were WWII-vintage air planes participating in an upcoming air show.

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Evangelicalism Sans Inerrancy?

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Andy Stanley

Andy Stanley, a megachurch Evangelical minister (and the son of Southern Baptist minister Charles Stanley) has ignited what may ultimately prove to be a firestorm in the Evangelical faith by contending that Christians, at least, the vast majority of those in his faith tradition, place too much emphasis on the Bible.

While it’s impossible to parse an individual’s motivations, Stanley apparently is well aware of the effects that 200-year-old biblical scholarship have played in eroding ordinary layperson’s belief in the infallibility of scripture — inerrancy, as the Evangelicals typically describe it.

Stanley still maintains that scripture establishes an incontrovertible argument in support of Christ’s literal resurrection.  Beyond this, though, he departs from the longstanding Evangelical argument that the Bible serves as the inerrant, infallible and sole rule of faith.

A Scriptural House of Cards

Stanley is one of several Evangelical leaders who acknowledge that increasing numbers of Christians who grew up in the faith no longer accept biblical inerrancy and that this is leading to an acute theological crisis within the church.   He even goes so far to characterize inerrancy as a house of cards that invariably collapses when thoughtful Evangelicals encounter historic or scientific details in the Bible that prove inaccurate or contradictory.

In recent weeks, I and the other members of our United Methodist Sunday School class have viewed a series of Stanley’s sermons on this topic. Needless to say, most of us find this emerging debate with Evangelical circles quite fascinating.

Reinventing the Wheel

Speaking as a United Methodist with strong Anglo-Catholic and via media sympathies, I think that Andy Stanley’s arguments, while valid in many notable respects and, for that matter, long overdue, ultimately may turn out to be a calamity for the Evangelical faith.

For starters, he’s essentially attempting a reinvention of the wheel.  Older faith traditions worked through scripture-related challenges long ago.  Indeed, the Catholic fathers affirmed more than a millennium ago that the episcopacy and the ancient creeds and liturgy of the church serve as sources of authority along with scripture.

And, of course, the same thing could be said about Orthodox Christianity.

For that matter, other facets of Protestantism have dealt with this issue. The basis of Luther’s theology was not scripture but rather the outcome of his Tower Experience: the realization that human beings are utterly powerless in the face of God’s sovereignty and majesty and that God’s grace, secured by the believer only through faith, supplies all.

And, of course, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who began his ministry as a High Church Anglican, articulated what later became known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  While regarding himself as a “man of one book,” Wesley believed that scripture must be interpreted with the wider context of faith, tradition and reason.

A Frontier Legacy

However, scripture — generally speaking, a literal reading of scripture — has always supplied Evangelical Christianity with its paramount source of authority.

Small wonder why: Evangelical Christianity grew out of the exigencies of the frontier experience shared among a mobile and highly, democratic-minded people who had little time for ritual and episcopacy.  Many of the residual links to historic Christianity were abandoned.  Many frontier evangelists even called for the reintroduction of so-called “New Testament” faith and the abandonment of the creeds and liturgy that had defined Christianity for centuries.

Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) doctrine filled virtually all of the void left behind by the abandonment of these older traditions.

(Of course, the deep hunger for pomp and ritual was never extinguished and was reflected in an almost perfervid frontier passion for Free Masonry and, as many of sons of prosperous frontiersmen pursued college educations, social fraternities. But that’s another story.)

Playing with Fire

This is why I think that Stanley is playing with fire.  Eliminating the Bible as the sole rule of authority within the Evangelical faith tradition could very well deal it a mortal blow.

In a very real sense, Evangelical Christianity sans biblical inerrancy is a lot like Catholicism without the Mass or a Pope.  It’s simply inconceivable.

What essentially follows post-biblical Evangelical Christianity may be something resembling Unitarianism or, at least, something firmly on the path toward Unitarianism

After all, what is there to substitute within a faith that is characterized by little else but praise songs and scripture-based preaching?

Chicago Call Redux?

A handful of thoughtful Evangelicals have seen this problem looming for decades.

Some 40 years ago, a group of Evangelical intellectuals, troubled by the intellectual and spiritual shortcomings of their faith, issued The Chicago Call — an invitation for their fellow churchman to re-embrace the historic creeds and liturgies of the ancient church.

Individual congregations struggle with these issues in their own unique ways.  I recall reading about a Pentecostal church several decades ago that abandoned its open-ended worship practices for the discipline of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, eventually affiliating with one of the Continuing Tradition Anglican churches.

With Stanley and his followers, I see this struggle only intensifying as they abandon what essentially has been the only adhesive that has held Evangelicalism together for so long.

In the end, he and other post-biblical Evangelicals may pay a heavy price.  I suspect the result will be a faith that becomes even more reliant on the factors that over the years have arguably worked to its detriment: charismatic leaders who come and go, leaving huge voids in their wake, and endless improvisation, namely the constant recycling and reordering of older practices in an unrelenting search for the new “thing” that will finally turn things around and stanch hemorrhaging numbers.

This will only leave growing numbers of disillusioned Evangelicals searching for more substantive forms of faith or leaving faith entirely.

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A Moral and Spiritual Presence

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Terry David Bryson, III

Eulogy to Terry David Bryson, III, delivered at Auburn United Methodist Church, March 19, 2017

The last picture I have of David is his walking away after we ate at Pannie George’s in south Auburn (Alabama) only three weeks ago.  Needless to say, I never expected that I would be standing before all of you today delivering a short eulogy of his life.

Life works that way sometimes.

David and I were what one might call fortuitous friends.  Good fortune brought us together.

I met David and Kathy roughly 5 years ago at a Sunday School class here at Auburn United Methodist Church.

And in the course of being introduced, I quickly learned that David and I had grown up at approximately the same time and place — northwest Alabama in the 1970s.

After we were introduced, David suggested that we get together for lunch, and we did. That’s one of the first things I learned about David.  He was not only a gentle soul but also one who seized on potential friendships.  He was one of those special people who viewed forging new acquaintances as an opportunity for personal insight and growth

As I’ve passed through life, it’s occurred to me that only a handful of people view life this way.  It reflects a healthy, confident, optimistic and vibrant view of life.  David was one of these people.

This extroversion, which seemed natural in David, may have been shaped and enhanced by his seminary training, but it was a remarkable trait and one of several associated with David that I’ve reflected on time and again.

And it was over the course of several of these lunches that I realized how closely connected David and I really were.

A Life Mosaic

I was as if David had always occupied an important part of my life mosaic without either of us being aware of it.

Let me pause for a minute to explain what I mean by mosaic.  By mosaic, I mean the rich, deeply nuanced collection of mental images that form a picture and that are comprised of all the sundry materials of life – happy memories, sad memories, memories of personal growth and achievement and, yes, memories of the occasional abject failure and the pain of starting over again.

If there is one enduring lesson associated with life that has been driven home to me in middle age, it is that life essentially functions as a sort of mosaic.

One thing I learned very soon about David was that he was from Tuscumbia but that most of his childhood had occurred about 15 miles down Highwy 43 in Russellville — my hometown — where he spent many summers with his Flippen family cousins on the grounds of a sprawling estate known as Shadow Lawn, where I attended Kindergarten, or swimming in the Summit neighborhood pool where I occasionally attended birthday and church parties.

It was as if I had constructed many of the elements of my lifetime mosaic without being consciously aware that he was indeed part of it.  It was as if he was just beyond my reach as I moved all those pieces into place.

And to add an extra layer of irony to all of this, we attended college at the University of North Alabama without our ever knowing each other.  As it turns out, he was a Methodist who was active in the Baptist Student Union, I was a Baptist-turned-Methodist active in the Wesley Foundation.

His best college friend, Bill Darby, and I were members of the University of North Alabama debate team and debated the British International team during their visit to campus in the spring of 1982.

The late Dwight Eisenhower once said that there are certain people in life who because of whatever reason – personal chemistry, temperament, or a shared history – are destined to be friends.

David and I were destined to be friends – not just friends but close friends.

The Shoals Area: A Unique Place

The part of Alabama where David and I come from — Northwest Alabama — as always been regarded by other Alabamians as a unique place, at least among people who are well informed about Alabama history and politics.

That is one of the amusements that David and I shared.  Northwest Alabama has always been a maverick part of the state both politically and culturally. And as students of history and politics, David and I always found that fact fascinating and we talked about it often.

Both of us were proud sons of this area, shaped by the people and their hymn-singing, guitar-playing, football-loving, bass-fishing culture.

That shared awareness became an important bond of our friendship.  David provided me with a tangible link to the region of Alabama that I will always call home — that shaped me and refined me and accounts for much of who I am.

We both left the Shoals many years ago – David to seminary at Emory and then to a career in the ministry, I to University of Alabama for graduate school and then to Auburn University for a career in the Cooperative Extension System.

But we never forgot where we came from.

Monday Lunches

After our introductory lunch, we vowed that we would meet every Monday at a different location each week.  We shared the same typical Southern boy affinities for down-home cooking and reserved as special love for Mexican food, authentic Mexican food, and frequented local taquerias where middle-aged Anglos were a rare sight.

Indeed, there is one taqueria in Opelika that was so far off the Anglo-treaded track that I occasionally heard “Here come some Gringos” shouted behind the counter in Spanish when David and I entered.

But it was our weekly conversations that I valued most.  We were two aging guys who shared a deep affection and sense of gratitude for having grown up in stable, loving families and in a time and place that were reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

As someone who had spent much his childhood among cousins in my home town, David had a special fondness for stories about Russellville’s town eccentrics — all small Southern towns have their Earnest T. Basses, after all, and Russellville was no exception.

Indeed, Russellville was so rife with eccentrics that David’s contemporaries in the Russellville High School Class of 1977 devoted virtually their entire senior stunt to memorializing all these lovable eccentrics.

After regaling him with these accounts week after week, David finally extracted  a promise from me that I one day would put all of these tales into print and ultimately compile them into a locally published book.

A Special Time and Place

We talked so much about growing up in that time and place — all those memories we carried with us, that shaped us and that transformed us into the adults we became.

  • That fresh, overwhelming smell of vinyl that greeted us when we when we walked into Sound City, the old record store at the Southgate Mall in Muscle Shoals in the summer of 1976 with a $10 bill on our packets that we had earned or that our parents had given us to buy the latest hit album.
  • Eating subway sandwiches at Chicago Connection at Southgate at a time when delicatessen food, even Southern delicatessen food, was something of an acquired taste for small-town Southern boys who had grown on country-style cooking.
  • Eating hamburgers and fries with a shake at Bradford Drugs in downtown Russellville.
  • Attending Saturday summertime matinees at Roxy Theater with friends and cousins.
  • Cruising the Strip in Russellville on sweltering summer night in 1977.
  • Attending revivals in local Baptist and Methodist churches at a time when they were considered major social events advertised by local radio stations and via flyers posted in the storefront windows of every business in town.

That is one reason I valued David’s friendship so much.  He was a touchstone – a tangible connection to a time and a place that were so pivotal in the shaping of my character.

But that was not the only reason I valued David’s friendship.  Friendship is about presence.  And David was a friend who was not only physically present but also one who was present both in heart and soul.

When we first met, I was completing the last couple of years of a career that were rewarding in many respects but in other ways had become deeply frustrating. Occasionally, I shared those frustrations, and David was present not only to listen but to put those excellent counseling skills he had learned in seminary to good use.

I was ready to move on and David, after a careful assessment of my situation, supplied me with much of the courage to move on.

I can’t recount the times I got into my car feeling as if every burden had been lifted after spending an hour or so with David.

Reinforcing Life Lessons

And David has reinforced another important life lessons.

Deep friendships inevitably become an integral part of you and endure long after that person no longer is physically present.  The lessons you gain from these friendships become permanently etched into your moral and ethical fiber.

David is gone physically, but he will also always be with me and he will always be my friend.  I will always remain inspired by the high standards he set as a friend, one of my closet friends.

He was someone who was not just physically present but also someone who strove to provide a moral and spiritual presence.

As a friend he was all in. And from my vantage point, this defines the highest standard of friendship

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Intolerance, Implacable Intolerance

liberal-intoleranceOne of my oldest and closest friends, an old college fraternity brother, wrote me this morning to bemoan how intolerant liberalism has become.

He reflected on how much had changed in America in the almost two generations since college – how fewer and fewer self-professed liberals are inclined to look past political partisanship to forge the deep, lasting friendships, the sorts that we wantonly took for granted not too long ago.
A lot of thinking has been invested within the last generation or so to account for why liberalism has become so intolerant.

Some 20 years ago, after becoming reasonably competent with the emerging Worldwide Web and buying a home computer with dial-in Internet access, I became a zealous follower of the writings of Jim Kalb, a Brooklyn-based independent conservative scholar. Looking back, his writings remind me a lot of Samizdat, the dissident literature copied illicitly, often by hand, and passed throughout the Soviet Union in the 70’s and 80’s.

One of his main interests was discussing liberalism’s increasing tendency toward intolerance. And looking back over the last generation, I’m shocked at just how prophetic Kalb and similar dissident writers proved to be.

The 21st century liberal cocktail is composed of several potent ingredients. For starters, equality – equality at all costs, I should say – has become the all-consuming preoccupation of liberalism. And anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that view is somehow lacking in critical aspects of humanity.

Equally troubling is how the vast resources of the U.S. administrative state and, as it now appears, the Deep State, have been enlisted within the last generations to establish this increasingly intolerant brand of liberalism as the de facto ideology of the central state.

Perhaps this sense of awareness among liberals that they are on the cutting edge of history and that their final complete and victory is inevitable accounts, at least, partly, for their growing inclination to dehumanize anyone who does not share their enlightened opinions.

This increasing intolerance is even being extended to compliant groups, namely upscale whites. Indeed, the perfervid chest-beating among the white candidates for DNC chair underscores how pervasive this thinking has become. In the view of many of progressives, the primary duty of whites, particularly privileged ones, is to maintain submissive silence in discussions involving race, privilege or equality, especially in instances when these occur among people of color or other accredited groups. This sort of Orwellian-style intellectual submission – perhaps docility is a more apt word here – is now widely regarded as polite behavior among elite whites.

This new radical chic etiquette is especially evident in the growing contempt evinced for lower-strata whites among the higher reaches of “white privilege” – East and West Coast literati, technorati, and glitterati, college town faculty, etc. Recall one astute observer’s account of the visceral reaction among shoppers in an upscale Brooklyn organic market when “Sweet Home Alabama” was played over the sound system only a few days after the Trump electoral upset.

I’ve come to refer to this emerging cultural trend as  kulakization. Segments of American society are being singled out as a sort of recalcitrant class immune to, if not unworthy of, any sort of intervention. Think about the terms “deplorable” and “irredeemable” and all this implies.  I chose the term kulakization because this disdain bears a remarkable resemblance to the contempt the post-revolutionary Bolshevik regime evinced for Kulaks, the smallholding property owners of Czarist Russia, and other enemies of the people considered beyond contempt or, for that matter, reform.

 I suppose that is why I have vowed in my own modest way to fight these people with my modest arsenal of rhetorical weapons for as long as I can draw air through my lungs. Honestly, I’ve come to regard this people with a special animus, and I think that this animus is well deserved.

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Space Colonization: A Pandora’s Box?

mars-colonizationWe embrace human colonization of Mars and other planets partly as a form of insurance.

If earth, for whatever reason – a global pandemic, nuclear war or environmental catastrophe – is destroyed, we at least can rest assured that people inhabiting other planets will survive to carry forward the banner of human  progress.

But the question arises: How human will the descendants of these intrepid colonists really be eons from now as their genes are shaped by their planet’s unique environmental conditions?

Even the psychological effects of separation Earth-bound humans undoubtedly will be profound. It took only about a century after crossing the North Channel from Scotland to the Protestant Plantation in Ireland for the Scottish Presbyterian Convenanters to develop their own distinct Ulster (what Americans call “Scots-Irish“) identity. And we are talking of a distance between Ireland and Scotland of only 13 miles at its narrowest point.

Our attempt to become a spacefaring species will present as many challenges as opportunities to our species. Just imagine the challenge posed to humans traveling only 40 light years – in galactic terms, an very short distance – to colonize the newly discovered solar system purportedly comprised of 7 “earth-like” planets. By time they arrived, cultural and technological conditions on Earth would have changed markedly. Of course, records of these changes would be uploaded to these new colonies. But the colonists would adopt them according to their own special needs

And there is the question of how the profoundly different environmental conditions on this planets ultimately will effect humans.

Simply put: If we ever manage to seed our corner of the galaxy with Homo sapiens, we can virtually count on our galactic “empire” becoming multicultural, perhaps multi-species, and possibly even mutually hostile.

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