With the 500 year anniversary of the reformation having just passed and the beginning of the Christmas season upon us, my Sunday School class was discussing what evangelicals had gained (or recovered) and what we have lost with the reformation. A woman in the class asked about a recent article she had read and whether it was the sort of thing we were discussing. I had not seen the article, so I asked her to email a link, and said I would read it and get back to her.
The article was about the Boston Declaration and the simple answer to her question is no, it was not what we are talking about, although Susan Thistlethwaite, the author of the article and a participant in the event, describes it as,
In a dramatic press conference at Boston’s famous Old South Church, where many dressed in sackcloth and ashes to call for repentance and change in Christianity in the United States, the presenters were clear that white American Evangelicalism is in a crisis, a crisis of its own making. It has abandoned the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pretty strong words, even more so since I consider myself an evangelical. Yet, as I read on, I very quickly discovered that they were not really talking about me, nor even Evangelicalism in general. In the end the article was much more instructive about the people making the declaration and their mindset than anything in evangelicalism.
I have a lot of problems with the Boston Declaration, but they can generally be summed up into two main objections. The first is that it is not really a religious declaration, but a political statement dressed up in religious language. When you break it all down, it is not an abandoning of the Gospel, but a rejection of their political agenda, that they find objectionable.
For example, the Boston Declaration has an entire section on what they condemn, and it is basically a pretty standard left wing agenda. The very first item they list is, “We reject the false ideology of empire building and the myth of racial laziness and substance abuse that harms the people of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the US territories.” Really? I have been a Christian for nearly 40 years, and have heard a lot of evangelical sermons on a lot of Sunday mornings and I have never heard a sermon that even addressed “the people of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the US territories,” much less supported any sort of oppression there, except possibly to support relief efforts following a natural disaster. Yet this is the first item in their list.
Now, as many of my past articles have made clear, I am very politically active and write on politics frequently. I do not object to theologians making political statements. I object to theologians claiming you either accept their view of politics or you are abandoning the Gospel. To me this violates the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain. I believe the command is an injunction not to use God to justify your own opinions. To say that God demands we care for the poor, is fine. To say, therefore, I believe we should support a particular government programs or policy, is fine. To say that God demands we support a particular government program or policy, and to do otherwise is to abandon the Gospel, crosses the line.
As a conservative evangelical, I do not look at my brothers and sisters on the political left as somehow less Christian, or not following the teachings of Christ. I see them as politically wrong. If I were to do a detailed refutation of the Boston Declaration, however, it would be almost completely political in nature. Thus, while they are supposedly calling me to return to “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” the areas where I am supposedly deficient are political not theological. I have the right concerns and beliefs, I am just not doing things politically the way they think I should.
The second major problem I have is the lack of truth in the statement. Let me be clear here, I am not accusing the signers of lying. What I am saying is that the situation described in the document bears very little relation to the truth. I am sure they believe what they write, which is why I do not believe they are lying, but much of what they attribute to evangelicalism simply is not true.
Their condemnations are painted with a very board brush. For example, they take individual actions of some, which I believe they are very correct to condemn, and then attribute those to all evangelicals. This is, at its core, bigotry. In addition, like most prejudices, things tend to be very simple and black and white, with little room for contributing factors that do not fit the stereotypes. Thus, as Thistlethwaite writes,
When we have torch carrying right-wing radicals marching around in Charlottesville, Virginia yelling ‘blood and soil!’ and ‘Jews will not replace us!’ it is time to confront this kind of Nazism with the historical courage of those who confronted the Nazis in the 1930s in Germany.
I agree, and do condemn such things. What I am puzzled about is how Thistlethwaite gets from those “radicals” to evangelicals as a whole?
Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams, another participant at the event, said,
These are sinister times, but they are not new. As a black person educated in Evangelical Christian institutions, I am familiar with a Christianity that has a history of ignoring my being, and providing theological justification for my non-being.
True, to their great shame, many southern churches and institutions did fit his description, but the abolitionist movement did not, so his description again attributes to all, something that was only true of some.
Yet, then he added that it was, “new in my lifetime to have such an over embrace of it.” Really? Where in modern evangelicalism is there even a renewal of the despicable teachings of southern churches on race, much less it being now worse than ever. One will probably find such vile teachings in some sections of fundamentalism, but I believe it would be wrong to paint fundamentalism with such a broad brush, much less evangelicalism.
In summary, I find the Boston Declaration fails in its goal, described in article as a “call for repentance and change in Christianity.” After all, as they put it, “We are outraged by the current trends in Evangelicalism and other expressions of Christianity driven by white supremacy, often enacted through white privilege and the normalizing of oppression.” Such language is hardly likely to encourage much dialogue with evangelicals who see no resemblance between their actual beliefs and the false characterizations of them in the Boston Declaration and among its supporters.
Ultimately, the Boston Declaration is more virtue signaling than anything else. In the end they are proclaiming how good they are by what they denounce. In the process they viciously malign many of their brothers and sisters. Frankly, in many respects, the Boston Declaration is just another form of the bigotry, prejudice and oppressing they decry. Perhaps they should read Matthew 7:5.
Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Engineer, teacher, Christian apologist, and author of Preserving Democracy, What is Wrong with Social Justice?, A Short Critique of Climate Change, Christianity and Secularism, and Evidence for the Bible.