Empty lecture hall

Racism & Patriarchy: Two Strands of the Same Authoritarian Theology

There’s a lot of overlap among evangelicals who dismiss social justice (or “wokeness”) as Marxist, those who embrace patriarchy, and those whose theology borrows heavily from the thinking of men who claim biblical support for chattel slavery and segregation. 

The overlap isn’t coincidental: all of these commitments flow from an authoritarian outlook that organizes people into a divinely ordained hierarchy, based largely on innate physical characteristics, and conceives of morality as a matter of obedience to one’s natural superiors. They all hold that God has designed some people to exercise authority, and God has designed others to practice submission to authority. Moral order is achieved when we inhabit our God-ordained place in the hierarchy; and apart from that hierarchy, there is no morality.

According to this paradigm, there’s no inconsistency in holding a church gathering that violates public health mandates, and then invoking Romans 13 to admonish those who protest U.S. immigration policy or the rate at which our government kills and imprisons African Americans. The men who embrace this conception of morality don’t even seem to understand the tension: by all appearances, they believe that Romans 13 is addressed to those for whom God has ordained submission—the disenfranchised and dispossessed—not those in authority, like themselves. In their view, laws and public policies that crystalize inequity are evidence of God’s design rather than a consequence of human depravity: systemic inequality is an expression of moral truth rather than a transgression against it.

Authoritarian theologian John W. Duggar reasons explicitly along these lines in his 1954 essay, God’s Answer to Segregation, in which he purports to offer a biblical rationale for racial segregation. The year he published God’s Answer to Segregation, Duggar co-founded the Baptist Missionary Alliance Theological Seminary (BMATS), where he served as professor, President (1973–83), and President Emeritus (1983–98). The library at BMATS, completed in 1981, bears his name.

[TRIGGER WARNING]

According to Duggar, “All races in the nation should have opportunity for education, for better living conditions, and for citizenship; but in this life they can never be equal in every respect any more than a man and a woman can be equal. God made man for his place and woman for hers. He did not intend for them to change places. If you took all the men and made them housekeepers and took all the women and made them all bread-winners, there would be confusion in this world. God let each of us be born in the sphere of His choosing. …we do not see stars trying to be the sun, or the moon trying to be a star. Everything in God’s universe has its place. … All humans differ. None are equal. The races are not equal.”

Duggar (1954), God’s Answer to Segregation

Duggar continues, “By certain aptitudes instilled in the various colored races God has fitted each for the purpose he intended for them. … God permitted the spread of the white race over the earth, for the Gentiles were to predominate in the spread of the Gospel. They were to be more faithful as missionaries of the Gospel Truth than Semites or Hamites. … The white race has an aptitude for exploration, colonization, and scientific progress. Migration of this race to other lands has necessitated the improvement of means of transportation.” Further, Duggar claims, “Descendants of Ham are human beings… However, their place is clearly that of inferiority… God gave them talents to serve others, and there is no race that can compete with them in that field. With proper training they become of great benefit to humanity. They should be educated and should have rights of citizenship, but all the laws and decrees of man can never lift them out of their physical, social, and mental inferiority. They are doomed to that by the decree of Almighty God.” Duggar concludes that, “From the facts presented herein, surely no one could deny that God sanctions segregation of the races by physical separation. …the answer was practically given in the raising of the question, for God speaks plainly.”

I don’t mean to suggest that fondness for patriarchy is identical to racism, or that all patriarchists are racists—rather that the push for gendered hierarchy and the push for racial hierarchy are animated by the same authoritarian impulse. Moreover, once we’ve embraced the authoritarian’s premise that God has designed some people for dominion and others for submission, the line between gender-based subjugation and race-based subjugation is morally arbitrary. The patriarchist might tell himself that he has Scripture to support his position while the racist does not. But as we’ve just demonstrated, the racist can match the patriarchist for biblical proof-texts, in both quantity and purported clarity.

Racists and patriarchists within evangelicalism don’t merely share an ideology, they fish in the same streams. BMATS, the seminary Duggar co-founded the year he published “God’s Answer to Segregation,” is among the sponsors of an upcoming conference in Denton, TX: “Wokeness and the Gospel”. Speakers include a number of renowned patriarchists, including one newly minted Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council, known for his Duggar-like confidence in the clarity of biblical proof-texts that commend human subjugation. Another of the conference’s sponsors is The Master’s Seminary, whose figurehead once had the temerity to suggest that an eminent female Bible teacher should “Go home,” only to demur when local health officials suggested he do the same.

(For his part, the current President of BMATS, Charley Holmes, said that McArthur’s admonition to “Go home” didn’t go far enough (Baptist Trumpet, Nov. 13, 2019). I’m not aware of any statement from Holmes or BMATS regarding Duggar’s racism.)

Whether it’s organized by race or gender, authoritarian theologians baptize their preferred social hierarchy in biblical proof-texts that they alone have the authority to interpret and deem sufficiently clear to bind the conscience of all believers. The conservative evangelical conscience will remain fragmented as long as we attempt to derive morality from a curated collection of biblical proof-texts, tailored by men in power to justify the established order.

Modernity, Evangelicalism and Moral Relativism

The reason that so many conservative evangelicals these days appear to be moral relativists is that they *are* moral relativists. They would deny this, of course. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Here’s why. 

They’ve bought into the premise that all statements are either fact or opinion: facts are objective and verifiable; and everything else is opinion—subjective and unverifiable. In other words, they’ve bought into full-fledged modernism. From there, the secular path to moral relativism places all moral statements in the “opinion” category. On this view, morality is subjective—dependent on cultural context, historical background and the like.

Conservative evangelicals recoil from this approach, as they should. So instead, they place morality in the “fact” category, claiming that moral truth is objective and empirically verifiable. And how is moral truth empirically verified? The Bible, of course. Problem solved. This is tempting, for two reasons. First, Scripture is entirely true; and much of that truth pertains to morality.

Second, apart from special revelation, it’s difficult to imagine where we might go to find empirical verification of moral truth—you can’t *see* moral properties. But perspicuity of the Gospel notwithstanding, Scripture is complex. A surface level reading of this or that proof-text might be used to justify all manner of wickedness—and it has, from slavery and Holy War to the subjugation of women and segregation. So if we look to Scripture for empirical verification of moral truth, whose understanding of Scripture is definitive? Do we trust the guy who says that Scripture condones chattel slavery, or the guy who says that Scripture commands us to seek justice for the oppressed? 

An alarming number of evangelicals have chosen to trust the discernment of ambitious men who offer Biblical proof-texts bathed in who-is-my-neighbor hermeneutics: political realism and moral relativism with a veneer of objective truth. Thus, e.g., conservative Southern Baptists claim to embrace objective morality based in Scripture, within a theological framework that has engendered totally contrary beliefs over time on such issues of moral salience as slavery, Jim Crow and racial segregation. The arc of that moral evolution wasn’t drawn by objective truth or the Word of God, neither of which is subject to change. Whether through armed conflict or threat of taxation, many in the evangelical fold had to be forced into the embrace of moral progress. How is it that people so dedicated to moral truth are so often among the last to acknowledge the moral outrages of an unjust social order? And if moral truth is unchanging, why are evangelicals constantly amending their moral convictions from one decade to the next? Because it’s a mistake to search for moral truth among empirical facts—that’s not the solution to the ‘fact-opinion’ dilemma.

There’s a third category that isn’t fact or opinion: namely, objective truth that isn’t empirically verifiable. That’s where we find objective morality. How do we arrive at knowledge of truth that isn’t empirically verifiable? Reason—rational cognition—without which Scripture is too easily twisted into a patchwork of self-serving proof-texts, tailored to the interests of men whose principal concern is amplifying their own power. 

We’ve got to stop proof-texting. And we’ve got to stop listening to the kinds of theologians and pastors who pretend to have an easy answer for every social or political problem that arises in the course of human affairs. Manifestly, such men do not have the answers: if they did, they wouldn’t have occasion to contradict themselves with every shift of the wind; and they wouldn’t have turned two generations of evangelicals into self-seeking moral relativists. 

Racism, Misogyny and Abuse: Why the SBC Keeps Getting it Wrong

Co-authored with Susan Codone

“When Southern Baptists established the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859, the prevailing orthodoxy of its white clergy included commitment to the legitimacy of slavery.”

-Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of SBTS

https://sbts-wordpress-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/sbts/uploads/2018/12/Racism-and-the-Legacy-of-Slavery-Report-v4.pdf

The phrase ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ is doing a lot of rhetorical work here: ‘orthodoxy’ evokes the safe harbor of official sanction, while ‘prevailing’ conjures a sense of resignation to the inertia of established norms. Yet the question must be asked: as of 1859, how prevalent was the view that the institution of slavery was morally legitimate? Across the West? No. America’s N. Atlantic peers abolished slavery in the 1840s. Among Americans? No—Civil War was two years away. Among Protestants? No.

It wasn’t even the prevailing orthodoxy of Baptists living in North America: that’s why the SBC was founded. The fact is, slavery was widely regarded as morally legitimate within the SBC because the SBC was instituted for people who regarded slavery as morally legitimate. And this prevailing view rose to the status of religious orthodoxy—right belief—in the same way that wickedness typically seduces the church: moral pronouncements handed down by self-assured men in high places—men whose preoccupation with what is right according to the established order prevents them from questioning the righteousness of the established order.

Such men will answer for much on the day of reckoning, but they will not answer for you and me. In the words of C.S. Lewis, there is no judge between gods and men: we each must give our own account. The standard against which our faith and practice will be measured is truth. We’ll find no refuge in the prevailing orthodoxies of our time.

The danger of religious fundamentalism is that it blinds its adherents to this distinction between prevailing orthodoxy and objective truth. That’s why fundamentalists can see no difference between rejecting God’s Word and rejecting what they say about God’s Word. And that’s why fundamentalists in the SBC are so resistant to institutional reform: once we look beyond what’s good according to the established order and inquire into the goodness of the established order, moral authority shifts away from ambitious men and toward the truth itself.

Men at organizations like the Conservative Baptist Network, FoundersMin and the CBMW all advance orthodoxies that conform to their personal and political interests. But do their agendas conform to moral truth? The SBC’s prevailing orthodoxies have been characterized by racism, misogyny and a refusal to acknowledge the moral salience of institutions—despite overwhelming evidence that wicked men cannot simply be relied upon to refrain from doing wicked things. For example:

Centuries of injustice have produced a divergence in the lived experience of Americans from different racial backgrounds—between those who read the book of Exodus and see their ancestors among the people of Israel, and those who should see their ancestors among the Egyptians. Yet the SBC’s prevailing orthodoxy holds that differences in experience are irrelevant to our grasp of truth. Thus civil rights leaders in the ‘60s and ‘70s were dismissed by white Southern Baptists as liberals and Marxists, as are those calling for systemic justice in 2020.

According to the SBC’s prevailing orthodoxy in the 1850s, although people of African and European descent were created equally in the image of God, the latter were entitled to strip the former of their autonomy and ownership of their labor capacity. Today, according to the prevailing orthodoxy of some in the SBC, women are created equal to men; but the principal occupation for which they are so created is unpaid domestic service to their husbands and children.

According to the prevailing orthodoxy of the 1850s, the fact that rape was endemic to the institution of slavery was an indication that, at most, slave owners should be admonished to refrain from raping slaves—not that the institution of slavery was iniquitous. Unlike slavery, church autonomy is a morally neutral convention. But according to the prevailing orthodoxy of our time, church autonomy is so sacred that preserving it takes precedence over institutional oversight designed to prevent serial sexual predation.

Sexual predation is framed as an issue of individual conduct, rather than an institutional failure to hold predators and their enablers to account. Those calling for systemic reform are dismissed as leftists, Marxists and feminists, just like civil rights leaders before them. Thus the prevailing orthodoxies of our day have enabled unchecked sexual abuse within the SBC—long term, unfettered movement of sexual predators from one SBC church to the next. Prevention efforts are lackluster, while protections for predators are robust.

All of these evils, from slavery and racism to misogyny and serial predation, are variations on a theme: abuse of power, engendered by prevailing orthodoxies that render systemic injustice invisible to those whose moral horizons are tethered to individual piety.

Justice As Integrity

Every word that public evangelicals uttered in the 90s about the importance of integrity in leadership now serves as an indictment of their own unfitness to lead. But more important than the rank hypocrisy of public evangelicals is the matter of how we arrived at a place where, outside of one or two causes that cost us nothing to promote, many Christians don’t even pretend to integrate their faith with their politics. In fact, such is the disarray of the evangelical political conscience, it may be helpful to comment on what integrity means and why it matters.

As individuals, we all occupy a variety of social roles—e.g., spouse, parent, colleague, citizen, etc. I have integrity when I approach each of these social roles in a way that’s consistent with how I approach the others. When I have integrity, all the different parts of my life fit together—they are integrated—around a single coherent identity. By contrast, I lack integrity when I inhabit one social role in a way that is inconsistent with who I am (or pretend to be) in some other social role.

The opposite of integrity is disintegration—an identity that’s fragmented. My identity is fragmented when I move through the various social roles that I occupy without any real sense of the self that inhabits each role, or how those roles inform the narrative of my life. 

Like an individual, a political community that lacks integrity is fragmented. As a society, we have integrity when we share a sense of concern for what each of us deserves and what we owe to each other—which is to say, a shared concern for justice. (The alternative to justice as a shared point of integration would be an ideology based in some feature identity—such as race, ethnicity or religion. But we tend to reject, e.g., white nationalism as racist, Christian nationalism as idolatrous, and so on.) A shared concern for justice furnishes us with a common goal for civic life, by reference to which it makes sense to debate and seek consensus around moral questions like what our laws ought to be and how our resources should be allocated.

By contrast, when we lack a shared horizon for deciding questions about what people deserve, our society is merely a collection of interest groups that assert their political will without regard for what we owe to each other. And herein lies the source of much white evangelical hypocrisy in the political sphere.

Decades ago, a few self-appointed spokesmen decided that God’s blessed rage for justice is best articulated by a Church that seeks to make America the sort of place where upper-middleclass Christians can await the eschaton in relative comfort. Yet we proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who insisted over and over again that our devotion to him is measured by our regard for the interests of those most vulnerable to injustice: the orphan, the immigrant and the dispossessed. So our conduct in the political arena serves as a public refutation of our witness. Unbelievers read the Bible, too; and they can see that we’re not living out the values we claim to espouse. It’s evident that we’re not truly pro-life or pro-family. The tax policies that we favor reveal what we value: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Instead of advocating for economic policies that are conducive to raising a family, we prefer policies that allow us to keep as much of our paycheck as possible.

It’s important for Christian institutions to retract racist sentiments and establish scholarship funds. But mostly in the way a painkiller is important—it silences the pain momentarily even though it does nothing to heal the underlying infirmity. Evangelicalism’s fractured identity cannot be patched up by attending to symptoms. Evangelicalism won’t have integrity while there are yet unrebuked seminary faculty who’ve made a cottage industry of opposing godly calls for justice, with speeches that are contrary to the sweep of Christian theology and transparently ignorant of Western intellectual history.

Our identity will remain fractured until we set aside our own interests in the interest of justice. And until then, who we vote for matters a lot less than the fact that we’re voting for entirely the wrong reasons.

A Man and His Inheritance (When Clarifications Fail)

There’s been a lot of equivocating from woke-truthers in the last few days, to the effect that: “Well, systemic injustice might be a real thing (at least historically). But CRT though.”

Rather than pick apart all their hedging, I’m just going to offer a detailed example of systemic injustice and consider it in light of Scripture.

In 1934, the U.S. Government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to oversee a mortgage insurance program that facilitated homeownership for millions of Americans. But the FHA only insured mortgages in neighborhoods that systematically excluded people of color.

So white Americans were given an opportunity to accrue equity in real estate with the help of the FHA—a program that was subsidized by all taxpayers, including those of color, who were effectively barred from owning desirable real estate. In other words, the U.S. Government systematically transferred wealth from people of color (in the form of taxpayer subsidies for the FHA mortgage program), to white Americans (in the form of home equity, mortgage interest tax deductions and so on).

The primary consequence of this FHA policy was, of course, segregated neighborhoods. And given that school districting proceeds on the basis of residential location, a secondary consequence of the policy was racially segregated public schools across the country. (Which is why, in the era of school desegregation, black students had to ride buses to the other side of town in order to attend schools that had previously been restricted to students from exclusively white neighborhoods.)

A tertiary effect of the FHA policy was to ensure that public schools zoned for white students received better funding than those zoned for black students: By making it easier for banks to lend to potential buyers in white neighborhoods, the FHA policy increased demand for homes in those neighborhoods, driving up property values and thus the property taxes from which public schools derive much of their funding.

Meanwhile, property values of minority homeowners were diminished by a broader zoning regime that diverted everything from bars, night clubs and factories to toxic waste facilities and other environmental hazards away from white neighborhoods. And all these effects of residential segregation conspired to facilitate a system of racially disparate policing and incarceration that has been well documented.

Racially discriminatory zoning was outlawed in 1968; and racial discrimination in mortgage lending was outlawed in 1977. But by that time, the cost of real estate was prohibitive for all but high income-earners and those whose families already had access to home equity. From 1973–80, the value of the average American home increased by 43 percent. For those who didn’t already own homes, who relinquished more and more of their lifetime income with each month’s rent, spiking real estate prices moved homeownership further from reach.

And these decades of dispossession reverberate in the lives of our brothers and sisters of color, whose parents and grandparents were robbed of the opportunity to amass and transfer what would have been their inheritance: Even now, young African Americans are ten times more likely than young white Americans to live in poor neighborhoods (66 percent compared to 6 percent). Less than 10 percent of white families have lived in poor neighborhoods for 2 or more consecutive generations, compared to half of all African American families (48 percent). The median white household has about $134K in wealth, whereas the median black household has about $11K.

Woke-truthers eagerly observe that we must live with the natural and logical consequences of our sin. They are less eager to acknowledge that people of color have long been living with the natural and logical consequences of sins committed against their fathers and grandfathers.

Marxism and CRT are irrelevant here: the fear of God is sufficient for discerning the wickedness of a system that perpetuates disparities in wealth, income and opportunity that originate in explicitly racist laws—i.e., systemic injustice. Here the woke-truthers reply that this is all very regrettable and they are, *just to be absolutely clear, lest the reader misunderstand* categorically opposed to racial discrimination in all its forms. They just think that government intervention isn’t the remedy.

So woke-truthers aren’t anti-justice—they’re just anti-big government. But this attempt at clarification makes them appear more confused than ever. These woke-truthers have spent the last decade promoting a “traditional” ideal of nuclear family with a single breadwinner and his homemaking wife. Yet this ideal was “traditional” only for a narrow subset of Americans, and only for a couple of decades in the mid-twentieth century, and the whole scheme was subsidized by *the largest government redistribution of wealth in U.S. history*, the crown jewel of which was the FHA.

So either they don’t favor small government, or they don’t mean what they say about their ideal of family, or they’ve once again allowed their enthusiasm to outrun their expertise and they simply fail to grasp the contradiction. And personal hypocrisy aside, extolling the virtues of small government and free enterprise once you’ve benefitted from a massive, government-sponsored redistribution of wealth is a bit like cheating your way through the first half of a basketball game, and then—with your unfair lead firmly in hand—insisting that the second half be a healthy competition governed by strict principles of fair play. This is the epitome of injustice; and it is precisely that air of entitlement that has invited the left’s most strident criticisms.

Self-appointed spokesmen of the white evangelical church have no one to thank but themselves for the fragmentation of our political community. Instead of calling God’s people to do justice, they have been among the most reliable patrons of injustice.

Good people, this is what the Bible is about. Absent God’s grace made manifest among us, injustice will destroy our civilization from the inside. America doesn’t need law and order. America needs citizens who will put the interest of justice above their own selfish preferences.

“But Scott,” you may say, “aren’t you just being ‘woke’?” I guess that depends on how “woke” you think God is. Here’s God, speaking through the prophet Micah (2:1–2):

 “Woe to those who devise iniquity… Because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and take them by violence, also houses, and seize them. So they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.”

That’s a divine invocation of exquisite suffering on those who maintain a social order that deprives families of the intergenerational wealth afforded by real property.

And here’s what God says to the woke-truthers of Micah’s day, who think their religion will save them from the reckoning (3:5–12):

“Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who make my people stray; who chant ‘Peace’ while they chew with their teeth, but who prepare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths… Yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No harm can come upon us’. Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of a forest.”

It’s as if God is telling us that if we don’t do justice, some vandalism might happen—not because God condones that sort of thing, but because it’s a natural and logical consequence of an unjust social order. So don’t wink at injustice and then pray for peace.


I don’t know why these woke-truthers have suddenly decided to talk about justice. If I had to guess, I’d say they finally realized that there’s no future for them in nipping at Beth Moore’s heels and shaming the working wives and mothers who pay their seminary salaries. So they looked around for a new controversy to exploit, and “social justice” is where they landed. That’s my guess. But what I know is that these men follow a troubling pattern: bombast, followed by manipulation, followed by bullying. They begin with bold assertions that are predicated, as best I can tell, on nothing more than their own uncultivated intuitions. (Invariably, these pronouncements are attended by lurid adverbial phrases, but never any suggestion of an actual argument.) When others disagree, these men attempt to manipulate Scripture or doctrine to suit their rhetorical goals. And finally, they declare that anyone who refuses to accept their account of Scripture or doctrine is a false teacher and must therefore be excluded from the group.

I can’t imagine this is the sort of conduct that should be held up to seminarians as a model for pastoral care: take a firm position on something you haven’t really studied; when people disagree, tell them the Bible says so; and if they still disagree, show them the door.

No good is served when ambitious theologians speak with unearned confidence about technical matters that they haven’t studied in any disciplined way; and it is harmful when they then attempt to shoehorn their views into Scripture and present their convictions as the Word of God. If these men want to give lectures on political philosophy, I suggest they host a dinner party for likeminded friends. Or perhaps they might start a book club. These are fora in which it is appropriate for amateurs to discuss their passions. It is unbecoming of an academic to hold himself out as an expert on subjects that are far afield from his training. Beyond that, it is toxic for theologians in particular to hide extra-Biblical agendas in their presentation of Scripture.

When False Teachers Talk About False Teachers

It’s been suggested that those who promote “wokeness” or “woke theology” should be regarded as false teachers. This claim reflects a kind of theological illiteracy that needs to be exposed. I’ll start with a brief note about terminology, since it’s a source of much mischief.

Critics of “wokeness” often identify concerns about systemic injustice with Critical Race Theory (CRT). But you needn’t endorse CRT—or care anything about CRT, really—in order to be concerned about systemic justice. CRT is just one among many academic disciplines that deal with questions about systemic justice; and it is hardly the first or the most important. Roughly 2500 years before the inception of CRT, Plato discusses systemic justice in his ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’.

A millennium before Plato, God inspired Moses to establish a legal system animated by God’s hatred of institutional oppression. And God commanded his people to cherish and keep these laws in remembrance of their liberation from Egyptian oppression.

Systemic injustice is second only to idolatry among the occasions for God’s wrath in the Old Testament. And more often than not, when idolatry is at issue, the idols in question are implicated in efforts to secure wealth or power within an oppressive system.

So it’s important to understand that a commitment to systemic justice isn’t the same as fondness for CRT. And the former is a foundational moral imperative for all who fear God, whatever one thinks of the latter. Yet the wokeness truthers in conservative evangelicalism insist on conflating the two. I’m willing to assume, charitably, that this confusion derives from ignorance—of which they display much, and with remarkable boldness. But the notion that we should regard those who demand systemic justice as false teachers is more than mere error: it presents a false image of who God is and what God requires of us. And this is not to be suffered gladly.

According to Scripture, false teachers dwell in the political or religious establishment, and they misrepresent God to the people of God in order to fortify their own position of power or influence. False teachers lie about God for their own personal gain. So, in the logic of Christian theology, it doesn’t even make sense to say that those who demand systemic justice *on behalf of others* are false teachers. It’s a category mistake. Simply put, demanding justice for others isn’t what false teachers do. In fact, every single time Scripture presents God’s prophets in direct conflict with false prophets, God’s prophets are the ones demanding justice for the oppressed. Every. Single. Time.

And how do the false prophets react? First, they accuse God’s prophet of being a false teacher. Then they try to protect their own power and influence by lying about God. “Everything’s good here. God says that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.” For example, the biblical picture of false prophets bears a striking resemblance to the handful of theologians in the SBC whose dalliances with heresy have redounded to their own professional benefit.

Some proponents of ESS misrepresented the very nature of the Trinity in an effort to legitimate a niche research agenda that they were well-positioned to lead (largely because the most fertile theological minds of our era simply have no interest in advancing male headship). These men spend their days stirring up controversy, insisting that God’s people break fellowship over the secondary effects of tertiary issues that are a matter of grave importance only to men whose professional advancement depends on it. It’s clever in a strictly Machiavellian sense: find a subject that none of the really talented people in your field care about, create a journal for it, publish in your own journal, and then leverage politics and personal connections to demand that it be taken seriously. Now these men are attempting to persuade God’s people that demands for systemic justice are false teaching. “Everything’s good,” they say. “God has instructed me to assure you that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.”

I don’t know whether judgment is upon us. But if it is, it’s not for the reasons that the culture warriors warned us about: it’s because of the political conditions that the culture warriors helped create.

Don’t let false teachers tell you who the false teachers are. Look for the folks demanding justice, and join them. That’s the side you want to be on, even if you don’t agree with everything they have to say.

This is theologically illiterate: it’s not merely wrong—it’s wrong in ways that I’d expect only someone who doesn’t understand the basic logic of Christianity to be wrong.

What if America is just another empire?

What if America is just like all the other empires? What if America’s power and wealth aren’t a mark of divine favor, but merely a byproduct of empire-building?

And what if, by mistaking the fruits of empire for God’s blessing, Christian nationalists have gotten confused about what sorts of things God favors—confused about the features of our civilization that believers should make an effort to cultivate and amplify into the future?

For example, what if it’s just a very, very bad thing that our government systematically slaughtered and dispossessed indigenous peoples and desecrated their sacred places? What if that’s just all there is to it: no manifest destiny, nothing redeeming about it—just really bad?

And what if it’s just very, very bad that a lot of America’s early wealth issued from labor that was straightforwardly stolen from people who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. What if that’s just evil, full stop?

Read the Exodus account and ask yourself where you fit into the narrative. If you’re a white American evangelical, you’re not among the Israelites—plainly, you’re with the Egyptians. And why think the American empire is any different from that of Egypt, or Babylon, or Rome?

I don’t understand what Christian nationalists are up to, theologically speaking. I just can’t imagine the early Church concerning itself with Rome’s GDP or reputation on the world stage. The greatness of the Roman Empire was perfectly irrelevant to Christ and his followers.

Of course, as an American, I might concern myself with the American economy, national security, etc. But my concern for such things will be tempered by my Christian faith; it certainly won’t be a consequence of my faith. 

The notion that Christianity stands in a special relationship to America makes about as much sense as the idea that Jesus took on flesh to make Rome great again—which is to say, it makes no sense at all: it misunderstands what Christianity is about.

So when, as Christians, we see our nation pursue policies that threaten the well-being of orphans and immigrants in our midst, we really don’t have any business asking whether these policies are good for America. That’s not our concern.

Our concern should be for the ones oppressed, regardless of whether that concern is consistent with ephemeral notions of what makes America great.

Christ has no use for the cultural nostalgia of white American churchgoers: he doesn’t much care for the films of John Wayne. Christ simply doesn’t care whether America is great, or ever was or will be again.

“Black Lives Matter” v. “All Lives Matter”

Imagine you’re in a movie theater somewhere in Nebraska.

In the middle of the movie, your phone rings. You answer your phone and proceed to have a conversation at full volume. After about a minute, the guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and says, “Dude, we’re in a movie theater.”

You could respond in any number of ways. You might say, “No, we’re in Nebraska.” But this response isn’t appropriate. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would offer this as a serious retort. For one thing, it’s possible to be both in a movie theater and in Nebraska (as you in fact are). So it’s not much of a rebuttal. For another, your fellow movie-goer has stated something obvious to you-namely that you are in a movie theater-because your conduct is that of a person who doesn’t recognize this fact or simply doesn’t care.

We state the obvious when someone’s actions are inconsistent with their having recognized the truth in question. “Dude, we’re in a movie theater” means “Dude, we’re in a movie theater: you should act like it.” Philosophers of language call this ‘conversational implicature’, which is just a fancy term for basic subtexts that competent language users naturally infer under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, when someone points out the obvious to us, we infer that we are doing something that suggests we are unaware of the obvious fact that has just been brought to our attention.

When we say, “Black lives matter,” there’s some conversational implicature at work. We live in a society that routinely functions in ways inconsistent with our having recognized that, among all lives, the lives of Black people matter. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we mean, “Black lives matter,” and you should act like it. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we are saying that institutions in our society do not function in a way that is consistent with the recognition that Black lives, specifically, matter:

When Eric Garner is suffocated to death in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it. When Freddie Gray dies of injuries sustained in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Trayvon Martin is gunned down while walking through a neighborhood and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Elijah McClain dies after being choked by police officers and injected with ketamine, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Ahmaud Arbery is gunned down in broad daylight, on video, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Breonna Taylor is shot 5 times in her own apartment by the police and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When George Floyd suffocates to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

So when, as a competent language user, you respond by saying “all lives matter,” one of two things must be the case. Either you’re not fully aware of how our public institutions treat Black citizens; or you are aware, and you’re okay with it–in which case, you are a racist.

Recommended Reading

Here are books I would recommend to those interested in questions at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, political economy, recent U.S. history, theology, evangelicalism, law and American politics.

Justice and the Social Order by Emil Brunner

Sovereign Virtue by Ronald Dworkin
The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald

Eclipse of Reason by Max Horkheimer
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse
Redeeming America by Michael Lienesch
The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick

Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick
Radical Markets by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl
The Problems of Jurisprudence by Richard Posner
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2010) by Michael J. Sandel
Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry
God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right by Daniel K. Williams
Under God: Religion and American Politics by Garry Wills
Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills
Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher J. H. Wright

Man looking out at NYC from inside

COVID, courage and temperance

public health v. economy

The U.S. is dealing with two distinct but related crises. The first is a public health crisis: the spread of a pandemic virus. The second is an economic crisis precipitated by our efforts to mitigate the public health crisis. The public debate around these crises purports to be a debate about competing values: economics versus public health.

Some argue that the economic crisis has become so grave, with unemployment surpassing 20%, that governors should lift restrictions on businesses and accept the public health fallout as an unfortunate consequence of salvaging our economy. After all, they argue, we regularly sacrifice human life on the altar of economic gain. We don’t shut down the entire economy during flu season even though tens of thousands die from flu-related complications every year. We could reduce traffic fatalities to roughly zero if we lowered all speed limits to 15mph; but we don’t do that, either.

On the other hand, public health experts insist that resuming our economic activity now would be an unmitigated disaster. Without rigorous testing and contact tracing, the exponential spread of the virus would overwhelm our healthcare system. Hospitals would be flooded with COVID–19 patients, many of whom require intubation. Without adequate protective equipment, doctors and nurses would get sick (as many already have). Routine medical procedures like appendectomies and bypass surgeries would become increasingly difficult to manage. As local healthcare systems reach the limits of their capacity, doctors would be forced to deny treatment to those who are least likely to benefit from precious resources—gradually reducing the age at which patients are given access to ventilators and ICU beds, from 70 to 65, then 60, and so on.

dire warnings and bad science fiction

Public health experts are issuing dire warnings about the consequences of lifting social restrictions without a rigorous plan for testing and tracing. Meanwhile, some politicians and other non-experts regale the public with stories about a parallel dimension in which we all agree to put on our big-boy pants and go to work. As a cost of doing business, Grandma might be stricken with an exotic plague. These stories are pure science fiction—more precisely, bad science fiction, insofar as they are premised not on surpassing scientific consensus but completely rejecting it.

For the sake of discussion, suppose the experts are correct. (This supposition shouldn’t be too difficult to entertain—they are, after all, experts.) Within months of returning to work, there would be thousands more COVID-19 patients over the age of 60 slowly suffocating to death, without medical intervention, every single day. The death toll would grow exponentially, until either the virus runs its course—claiming somewhere between 1 and 2 million lives—or we relent and agree to start the process of social distancing all over again, at which point the number of COVID–19 deaths would continue to rise for at least a couple of weeks before receding.

Does anyone genuinely believe, even for a moment, that we would have a functioning economy in such a scenario? Of course not. It’s inconceivable. So the narrative about bravely risking our health for the sake of the economy is mere fantasy: there is no possible state of affairs in which our economy flourishes amidst the kind of devastation forecasted by experts.

the folly of “economics first”

The Chinese government learned this the hard way. They tried the “economics first” approach in Wuhan and it failed so spectacularly that COVID–19 is now a pandemic. Strangely, the most severe critics of China’s approach in Wuhan are among the loudest voices promoting the very same “economics first” strategy in the U.S. The economic lesson to be drawn from Wuhan is that the path to economic recovery runs inexorably through public health.

We will not be saved by showmanship or marketing gimmicks. The pandemic is indifferent to public opinion. And a miracle cure is not forthcoming. So, as we await the results of clinical drug trials, we need exactly what we needed a month ago and the month before that: testing and tracing. We must embrace the hard work of doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way—in a word, we need virtue.

wisdom, courage and temperance

Plato’s Republic addresses this matter at length. He divides the members of a political community into three estates: political leadership, soldiers, and everyone else. In a good republic, each of these classes exemplifies a cardinal virtue. For obvious reasons, the political class must have wisdom and warriors require courage. To the rest of us he assigns the virtue of temperance. For if the general public becomes addicted to the trappings of wealth, the wisdom of our leaders will be overtaken by the tyranny of collective appetite; and insatiable consumption will waste the courage of our soldiers on wars of conquest.

For present purposes, our political community can be usefully divided into three groups: political leadership, essential workers, and everyone else. Our lives depend on the courage of our essential workers—from doctors and nurses to deliverymen and grocery store clerks. And if we proceed with an intemperate “economics first” strategy, the courage of our medical professionals and other essential workers will be wasted on preventable waves of illness.