For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:7
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 1 John 4:18
Fear. We all have it. It lives deep in our human DNA and has enabled our survival as a species. It’s what tells you to run from danger, what makes you nervous of heights, what causes your spine to tingle when someone or something is not right.
In a fight or flight moment, fear is a wonderful thing. In helping us avoid dangerous situations, it is common sense. But as a guiding force — for the important decisions of life, for a career or a marriage, for any relationship, for parenting, for faith — fear is a crap motivation. It’s no way to run a railroad. In the short term, you may get your children, spouse, employees, coworkers, parishioners, yourself to behave or believe in a certain way, but in the longer term, fear runs out. It sows seeds of resentment, rebellion, moral compromise, cutthroat competition, jealousy, even hate and violence. It makes the fearful vulnerable to manipulation and deception. History is full of demagogues who have exploited human fear to maximum advantage and for tragic destruction. Fear and its exploitation has fueled every genocide, every war, every atrocity, every violation of human rights in human history. Slavery, racism, sexism, exploitation, discrimination. All products of fear.
Fear is our natural, biological human instinct. To preserve and protect ourselves and our own at all costs. To fight to the death in all cases. To behave selfishly, tribally. To disregard the needs of others in order to pursue our own. That is human nature, or to use biblical terms, the sinful nature, original sin, or the spirit of the flesh.
Jesus came to overturn that, to show another way. To introduce love and grace as a guiding force to replace fear. To show us we are so much more than our biology, and we can relate to each other in higher ways. To demonstrate the social and spiritual power of unselfishness, of empathy, of trusting God and serving others. The Gospel of Christ ignited a spiritual revolution, inviting us to build faith on the love of God and others, not abject fear of hell or shame. But the same ideas applied in secular contexts have allowed us to build civilized societies, where we can live in peace with people who are different from us. To build societies where our common commitment to our collective thriving — our love of each other — is the tie that binds, not the fear of punishment from authoritarian government. To build institutions to preserve and protect the rights of the many from the power of the few. To build families where loving relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, not fear of retribution or physical domination or economic powerlessness, form the basis of their functioning.
What’s been happening in American Christianity over the last few decades — culminating in the current moment, which is truly a crisis point for the church — is that fear has subverted the Gospel. And I will concede, it’s not a baseless fear. Christianity is losing adherents and its social and cultural power. What have been considered Christian morals for the family, sexuality, gender are no longer the norm. In some cases, they are derided and mocked and ostracized. A strict interpretation of the Bible, which has been the bedrock of the major strain of American Christianity for the last century at least, is at odds in many cases with scientific discovery and expert opinion. Within the church itself, many Christians are questioning long-held beliefs and positions.
All of this is scary. I understand, even if I am no longer the type of Christian who is afraid of “the world” and am in fact what many Christians fear, a liberalized, in their view “compromised,” Christian. But I remember what it’s like to feel outnumbered and embattled as a Christian. I was a PhD student in a liberal arts field at the height of my evangelicalism. I had to read books that offended me. I held opinions that were not acceptable to my peers. I got into a lot of arguments. I felt mocked at times. I felt fear. But then it turned out what was inside of me was much more dangerous than anything out there. As I started to deal with my own pain and dysfunction, and opened that up to others, these “enemies” of sorts became dear friends. They actually helped me with it and helped me through it. They loved me, and I loved them. And they began opening up to me. And it turned out we had much more in common than we thought.
But my personal story is not the point here. My point is I can empathize with the fear evangelicals feel. But in my view, that fear has overtaken faith over time. It has developed into a persecution complex, an exaggerated feeling that their very existence as Christians in America is threatened. It has developed into an increasingly isolated sub-culture, hunkered down, defensive, and convinced of its own righteousness vs. the total depravity of the outside world. And it has latched on unquestioningly to a political party. It has handed the GOP a blank check in exchange for a kind of protection. That blank check has been tragically cashed in, the amount beyond what the church can afford, by a dangerous demagogue, purely out for himself. He has made white Christians complicit in the destruction of the very system that has allowed them to thrive for over two centuries.
This has gone way beyond reluctant voting. That’s how it started, Christians holding their noses and casting their ballots. Now, there are “Jesus Saves” signs among those held by a violent mob who assaulted the Capitol to try to subvert the results of a free and fair election. There are Bible verses on the Twitter profiles of White House officials who spew lies every day. There are countless Facebook posts filled with malicious disinformation shared amongst church members. There is complete disinterest in, or even outright hostility to, fact and truth among people called to be light.
It has come to the point where many white Christians seem to no longer believe in democracy. Certainly many, many are supporting a fundamentally undemocratic political movement. This is the ultimate fear. This is not trusting to the point where you insist on power by whatever means necessary. This is theocracy, it is authoritarianism. And it has never, ever worked to the benefit of Christianity, not even once in over two thousand years. It has resulted in destruction, death, violence, corruption, and ultimately secularization. American Christians should support our democratic system because it has allowed not only humanity in general, but American Christianity specifically to thrive relative to others. If you destroy the democratic framework for the benefit of your own group, you no longer have any assurance of protection in the future. Someday, another group will control the system you have made, and you really will be at their mercy. You won’t have any protection under the law because you will have destroyed the rule of law.
Believe me, if you continue down this path, the fate of American Christianity will be far, far worse than a Christian baker having to make a gay wedding cake or having to share a public toilet with a transgender person. The damage is already severe, for you have lost all moral authority. That is a fact. You can say that’s not fair and try to excuse your actions, but the result is the same, whether you think it’s just or not.
So please, in this moment, STOP, repent, turn around. And look inward. Remove the log in your own eye. If you want any hope of influencing this culture, you must deal with yourselves first. You must look at your fear, you must grapple with the doubt it masks. You must look at your history, too, and face the fact that people calling themselves Christians have often been spectacularly, horribly wrong, and in fact they have used their self-righteousness to excuse some of the worst atrocities in human history. You must root out your own sinful nature, which is eating you from within. You must begin to listen, care, love, open yourselves up instead of closing yourselves off. You must disarm. And, yes, it may change you, and yes, that will be scary. Believe me, I know. But it must be done, for the survival of the American church.
Ultimately the question comes down to — Do you trust God or not? Because God will NEVER ask you to empower evil or resort to force. I’ve seen various absurd arguments out there about Trump being a Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar, evil men whom God used for good. But the Jews of the Old Testament were powerless victims, captives. They didn’t have the vote or any other form of power. They had no say. YOU do. YOU in fact elected this man. YOU have sustained him. YOU own him. YOU are still excusing him. It’s time to do the right thing, to kick him to the curb, kick this entire fear-based religion to the curb, and have some actual faith.
I concede that I am not the appropriate messenger for this message. I am not a theologian or biblical scholar. I no longer fit the evangelical definition of an “orthodox” Christian. But there are others who do, who are in agreement with me. Tim Keller, Beth Moore, Russell Moore, David French, Michael Gerson, and my former pastors Mike Park, Duke Kwon, Glenn Hoburg. Follow them, listen to them. Shun anyone who preaches a cheap, bastardized, fear-based Gospel, one that justifies evil and lies for some “Christian” end and settles for paltry political power. There is no Christ in that. That is anti-Christ. I may not be a “model Christian,” as if there is such a thing, but I know that for sure.