Anthony Bradley vs. evangelical tribalism

Religion | Have you made your political ideology your hermeneutic, cherry-picked Bible verses, and created an enemies list of those who don’t see it your way?
by Anthony Bradley
Posted 8/30/14, 10:03 am

Hundreds of jokes and New Yorker cartoons have newly deceased persons standing before “Saint Peter” and giving fanciful reasons why they should be allowed in to heaven. The Westminster Confession of Faith has a good answer: Salvation comes from “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” I’d say, “Let me in because of the blood of Jesus.”

If I were depending, though, on a covenant of works, I’d tell Saint Peter, “Because I hired Anthony Bradley to be a professor at The King’s College.” That would be foolish, because despite the goodness of that act, I’d soon find myself in a cartoon with flames leaping up among pitchforked devils, and next to me a man complaining that he was misplaced because he had received a decent-sized obituary in The New York Times. (That really was a New Yorker cartoon.) 

Still, that’s something I’m proud of, because Anthony is a great teacher who dives into serious subjects with a sense of humor. He’s also bold in pointing out evangelical inconsistencies and absurdities. Some of the three-point shots he tosses up are bricks, but more swish through the net. Today we feature one of Anthony’s Acton Institute PowerBlog posts from last week followed by some back and forth between him and a reader. We’re republishing it with permission of the Acton Institute. —Marvin Olasky

Ideological tribalism: How evangelicals go about social ethics

I recently had an exchange with a Duke Divinity School student regarding many of things I’ve written at the Acton Institute over the past 12 years. The student said this about me:

“When it comes to speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable in our society, there is perhaps no public theological voice more eager than that of Anthony Bradley’s. His body of work is a textbook in blaming the victim and reducing problems to pathology.”

Not only had the student actually not read most of the things that I have written but the comment exposes something that Jonathan Haidt explains well that I’ve talked about before: ideological “tribalism.”

Evangelicals generally develop perspectives on justice down tribal ideological and political lines because they normatively do not source the Christian social thought tradition when constructing perspectives on justice. It turns out I was simply being critiqued by a card-carrying, bona fide political progressive who is also Christian. In this light, I was not surprised by the content of the critique. I do not hold the same presuppositions about creation, the implications of the fall, natural law, human dignity, the role of the state, the authority of Scripture, and so on, as progressives do, so naturally progressives are going to see calls to personal moral virtue and challenges to the patriarchy, soft bigotry, and historic tendency for coercive government to make things worse off for those on margins through the welfare state as “speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable.”

The exchange provides a clear example of how evangelicals, ignorant of the Christian social thought tradition, go about the business of addressing social issues. It goes something like this:

Step 1: For a variety of well-intentioned reasons, choose a preferred political ideology you believe is the right one and will adequately address the differentiated problems in society. As David Koyzis explains, it could be libertarianism, socialism, nationalism, conservatism, progressivism, or democracy.

Step 2: Read your preferred political ideology into the Bible in such a way that it becomes a tool for interpreting and applying the Bible to social issues. That is, your political ideology becomes your hermeneutic for “biblical” views on justice.

Step 3: Cherry-pick Bible verses (often taken out of context) and repackage them to make the case that your preferred, tribal, political ideology is indeed “biblical,” “follows the teaching of Jesus,” is “Christian,” and so on. Here the goal is to prove that God must obviously be on your tribe’s side.

Step 4: Now that you have baptized your political ideology by pouring on a random assortment of Bible verses, you are ready to declare your ideological tribe and those who agree with you “right.” As a result, any other tribe that does not read the Bible through your ideological lens is not only wrong, they also are the enemy and a threat to the church and the world.

Step 5: Issue a call for all other Christians to embrace your tribal ideology. Now that your tribe is “right” you are free in the blogosphere, for example, to declare all of those who are “not like us”—that is, not in our tribe—to be “wrong.” Those in the other tribe (i.e., the enemy tribe) need to change their views so that they can more closely adhere to what your tribe believes the Bible teaches and, therefore, advance to the right side of Truth. Your tribe’s truth.

Those are the basic steps in evangelical tribalism when applying theology to social issues, and many millennials in recent years have freely adopted this approach. One of the best examples of a polarizing tribal progressive millennial is Rachel Held Evans. Anytime she writes anything critiquing “conservative” evangelicals it is because to her people like Owen Strachan do not embrace the presuppositions and methods of progressive Christianity and poorly represent Christianity. For reasons that are puzzling to many, Evans wants men like John Piper and Al Mohler, to join her tribe’s ideological progressivism. Progressive leaders like Jim Wallis want the same.

Again, both conservative and progressive evangelicals can live tribally. For example, from the conservative world, someone like Gary North will proof text free-market economics as the Bible’s economic system, and progressives like Jim Wallis will proof text the Bible to support the Democratic Party’s ideological platform invoking his concern for “the least of these.”

In the Protestant ideological tennis match, progressive evangelical Christians and mainline Protestant liberals do have this in common: They both believe that Christians who embrace the inerrancy, infallibility, and final authority of the Bible are the wrong kinds of Christians. But there is a key difference between them. Protestant liberals are open and honest about their theological and methodological presuppositions. Mainline Protestants, for example, will tell you that they are liberals and do not believe the Bible to be the final authority, reject atonement theology, and so on. But progressive evangelicals tend not to be so forthright, it seems. Progressives present themselves as being objective representatives of the teachings of Jesus, as historic-yet-advanced evangelicals. Progressive evangelicals, like their liberal mainline cousins, have simply traded off, in many cases, the tools in the Christian social thought tradition for the analytical tools of the social sciences and the humanities (critical race theory, feminist theory, etc.). For progressive evangelicals, the social sciences are authoritative and are often above critique.

For most evangelicals, principles in the Christian social thought tradition—like natural law, solidarity, subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, personalism, and so on—do not provide the raw material for helpful discourse, because the only thing that matters is whether or not one’s tribal understanding is supported, defended, and promoted. Evangelicals are left with an ethical framework derived from individualist biblicism. Most do not even use a confession of faith as a starting point. This is classic Christian postmodern tribalism, because the goal is to prove that God is on your tribe’s side and not theirs.

In recent years it’s become apparent that conservative evangelicalism has raised a generation of millennials who have left their orthodox and traditional evangelical circles and have fully embraced ideological progressivism. They have no tradition and no tested, authoritative texts. The conservative versus progressive tribal discourse, while it may get students graduate degrees and professors tenure, is doing nothing to advance the Christian social thought tradition, nor is it providing Protestants a credible voice in the public square.

In conclusion, the Acton Institute makes its case from within the Christian social thought tradition, and these are the principles worth debating. Instead of tribalism, perhaps we should be asking, “Are we being consistent and rightly applying the tools of the Christian tradition?” Are we rightly applying subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty? A lively discourse about the right application of Christian principles within the Christian tradition is far more fruitful and interesting to me than engaging in a tribal war that tries to prove whose tribe best represents Jesus. Mainline Protestant liberals and conservatives evangelicals understand this and no longer really engage one another. Progressive evangelicals, on the other hand, believe they are above the fray but seem to be lost in their own self-deception. Progressive Christians, one might argue, are simply mainline Protestant liberals attempting to wear “evangelical” tribal clothing. It does not seem to be working, and secularists seem to enjoy declaring Christianity irrelevant by pitting conservative and progressive Christians against one another. Can we not do better than this?

Continuing the discussion

In the comments section at the Acton Institute PowerBlog, Anthony Bradley responded to a reader’s question about his post.

Trent Heille: How does your critique of this “Duke Divinity School student” amount to anything more than a “tribal” response to his alleged “tribalism?” You claim that “progressive evangelicals” have traded tools from “the Christian social tradition” (as if there was one tradition we could speak of) for the tools of the social sciences and humanities, but unless you appealed to some reason why the tools of the “the Christian social tradition” should be preferred to those of the social sciences and humanities, your critique reduces to a description of the difference between you and this student, or, to borrow your own language, a description of the difference between your “tribe” and his.

“The Christian social tradition” should always be pluralized as “traditions.” Perhaps that’s too “postmodern” of me as a “millennial,” but to ignore the diversity that characterizes the history of Christian people and their beliefs and behaviors only weakens your claim to stand in solidarity with it; you’re always already “tribal” in your understanding, as we all are.

Anthony Bradley: Hi Trent. Good questions. The truth is that we’re all tribal. The difference is that some of us are willing to put those out on the table at the outset. My mainline liberal Protestant friends are GREAT at this. Evangelicals, progressive and conservative alike, seem to struggle in this area. I’ve never denied being in the stream of economic personalism bound theologically by the Westminster Confession of Faith. That’s why I’ve been at Acton for 12 years.

Also, the Christian social thought is a reference to a particular tradition that’s expanded in recent years. I’d love for evangelicals to bring their confessions of faith to the table for a robust discussion instead defending one’s Christian tribe and attacking another.

Again, we are all tribal, so the question is this, are we willing to understand the other tribe’s presuppositions or simply posture in attack mode because defending our own tribe is all that matters. What Haidt helps us understand is progressives and conservatives want the same thing in the end, but they are more interested in talking at each other than to each other.

Also, I want to understand you here, are you saying that you don’t see any difference between Christians sourcing the Christian tradition versus Christians sourcing the social sciences as a way to make applications of Christianity to the social issues of our era?

T.H.: Thanks for the response; I’ll try to respond by answering your last question and then letting the rest stand for others to read and comment on. I do see a difference between “sourcing the Christian tradition” and “sourcing the social sciences,” and I agree with you that evangelicals have “no means by which they can determine which of the ‘traditions’ is most helpful and consistent with the priorities of the Kingdom.” In fact, I would say that I was trying to argue exactly that while then asking why we would denounce the “tribalism” of another if, like them, we too struggle to articulate why certain ways of understanding Scripture and practicing Kingdom living take priority over others for me, my church, or my corner of the evangelical world (conservative, liberal, etc.).   

A.B.: Thanks Trent, but this is real simple. Progressives, at least many of the ones commenting here, are not willing to confess that they are no less “tribal” and ideologically driven than the “conservatives” they critique. That’s one of the reasons I singled them out in the post—given the fact that the original link also is from a progressive. Progressive evangelicals are methodologically no different than conservatives, as I highlighted in the example of Gary North and Jim Wallis. A critique from a progressive evangelical is not about any clearly articulated consensus principles on social ethics in the Protestant and evangelical space. Therefore, they normally rely on baptized political ideologies, sourced largely from the social sciences, to construct their views on “Kingdom ethics.” If there are consensus principles, I would love to know what those are.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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