OUR PROTESTANT PROBLEM? | While certain media outlets still like to titter about “evangelical” support for Donald Trump, we now have fine-grained analysis that shows a more complicated reality. Those “evangelicals” who are enthusiastic about Trump share something in common with him: they are INOs, “in name onlys.” That Trump is a RINO seems beyond dispute; and that his evangelical supporters are EINOs has been widely documented.
Though they self-identify as evangelical, they hardly ever attend worship or participate in the faith practices that would inoculate believers to Trump’s xenophobia, misogyny, and irresponsible braggadocio. It would be hard to “live with” these Trump traits if you actually heard the Bible week after week, guided by the “curriculum” that is the lectionary, regularly confronted by God’s concern for widows, orphans, and yes, aliens and strangers. If you kneel in confession each week, it’s hard to tolerate the I’m-never-wrong hubris of the Trump PR machine. Self-proclaimed labels mean almost nothing. It’s practice that matters.
But this itself is a puzzling phenomenon: the rise of nominal evangelicalism. How could a stream of Christianity associated with “born again” fervour, evangelistic earnestness, and strict moral observance become merely an identity—a name one wears like a logo on a T-shirt?
The answer to that question is much older than this election cycle. Indeed, it’s almost as old as Protestantism itself. We do well to recall a bit of that history.
The Protestant Reformation was not only concerned about the doctrine of salvation; the Reformers were also critical of superstitious habits that had crept into late medieval Christianity, turning the sacraments into a kind of magic. Thus part of their reform movement was a renewed emphasis on the preaching of the Word, even though Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin still wedded this to a sacramental understanding of worship and the church. But others inherited this as a narrow fixation on doctrine, beliefs, and ideas, such that Protestant Christianity became a head-centred rendition of the faith. The gospel was flattened to something you believe, and “believing” came to be seen as intellectual assent to propositions.
In A Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes this as a process of excarnation. In contrast to the message of incarnation—of God becoming embodied—at the heart of the New Testament, the story of modern Protestantism has been one of excarnation and disembodiment. This was Christianity reduced to a “message” for brains-on-a-stick.
While never intended as such, you can see how this thinning out of Christianity from an embodied, sacramental way of life to a mere set of beliefs can then slide into a mere identity, sort of a badge of belief one wears to claim affiliation with a team. This isn’t profession of faith or following Jesus; it is more like signalling your preferred brand. Of course, not everyone who wears a Chicago Bears jersey is a member of the team.
It also explains why you can say one thing and love something else altogether. Survey questions from Barna and Pew tend to ask, “What do you believe?” We have yet to come up with a survey that measures what we love. But our loves and longings aren’t shaped by messages deposited into our intellectual receptacles. You can’t think your way to holiness. That’s why those EINOs who never attend worship or give themselves over to formative spiritual disciplines are in fact formed and shaped by the secular liturgies that give rise to Trumpian vices.
And in fact, this isn’t only a Protestant problem: the Massachusetts primaries suggested that CINOs (Catholics in name only) also fell prey to the Trump temptation. In the late modern world, we’re all Protestants of a sort.
You’ll also find lots of CINOs on the left who happily, even proudly, demur from the social teaching of Rome.
Talking-head Christianity isn’t enough to counter the deformative power of secular liturgies. Mere identification with a message does not centre you in Christ. You can’t put out a fire in the belly by trucking water to the head. The disordered passions of Trumpism or revolutionary progressivism will only be supplanted by the habits of love, compassion, gentleness, and patience. And that takes practice.
As I’ve suggested in You Are What You Love, that’s why more and more Protestants and evangelicals are looking to pre-Reformation resources for living out their faith (just like, it turns out, the early Reformers themselves). They are rediscovering ancient spiritual disciplines and embodied liturgies. They are turning back the habits of excarnation and embracing incarnational, habit-forming practices. They are realizing that evangelical Protestantism stands in need of reform, and the way to its renewal looks almost medieval.
MEMORY AND PLACE | Memory, Proust taught us, is triggered by the sensory—a smell, a song, a slant of light that throws us back to a teenaged summer day on the beach or the autumnal chill of a hospital room. For Proust it was the soppy scent of his petite madeleine, dipped in tea like eucharistic intinction, that brought his childhood rushing back. His nose took him home across time.
Is it less Proustian if I say a recent trip to the dump did the same thing for me? This lacks the charm of little Marcel’s teacup, but it carries all the charge of memory and place. As I drove along the bumpy curves of Butterworth Street to the outskirts of town, past gypsum mines and eroded, ancient sand dunes, the familiar smells of spring took me, not elsewhere, but right here—to this place as, finally, my place.
It struck me how familiar this trek had become. I love how this rural enclave lies so close to the edge of the concrete jungle of our city. We’d made it through another winter and, yet again, I was driving to what now felt like our dump, our yard-waste drop off. And I realized just how long it takes to be at home, and how liberating it can be to answer a call to stay, to be liberated from pursuing the next best thing and embrace a place.
In that moment I realized something about the renewal of social architecture: this work depends on a remnant of people who stay put, who inhabit a place long enough to know where the leaks and fissures and cracks are, but also know where to find the secret gardens. It takes a lot of unplanned encounters to get to know your neighbours. It takes season after season to know how city hall actually works. There is a kind of know-how you absorb in a place that can’t be fast-tracked no matter how many websites you access. And that sort of familiarity comes with its own heartbreak and joy.
This intersection of memory, place, and magic is powerfully portrayed in Helen Macdonald’s enchanting memoir, H is for Hawk. Training a goshawk named Mabel during a season of grief, Helen revisits the fenlands of Cambridgeshire with new attention, inhabiting places that were her father’s old haunts when he was a boy, and who haunts her there now. The hawk’s adventures become her own way of staying put.
And now I’m giving Mabel her head, and letting her fly where she wants, I’ve discovered something wonderful: She is building a landscape of magical places too. She makes detours to check particular spots in case the rabbit or the pheasant that was there last week might be there again. It is wild superstition, it is an instinctive heuristic of the hunting mind, and it works. She is learning a particular way of navigating the world, and her map is coincident with mine. Memory and love and magic. What happened over the years of my expeditions as a child was a slow transformation of my landscape over time into what naturalists call a local patch, glowing with memory and meaning. Mabel is doing the same. She is making the hill her own. Mine. Ours.
There are no hawks or pheasants here in the yard-waste dump. Just the familiar scents of chipped pine, damp leaves, and grass clippings. But they are, this spring, the aroma of home.
GRATEFUL FOR DEBTS | In Wendell Berry’s short story “It Wasn’t Me,” we meet Elton Penn. Fiercely independent, prideful, and hardscrabble, Elton wants the freedom of self-sufficiency. “I want to make it on my own,” he says to Port William lawyer Wheeler Catlett. “I don’t want a soul to thank.”
“Too late,” Wheeler thinks but doesn’t say. His grin hints at Berry’s own bemusement at such penchants for independence. “That he knows the futility of that particular program does not prevent him from liking it.” Wheeler understands the allure: pride is as old as the Garden. He just knows its impossibility. As he points out to Elton: “You’re a man indebted to a dead man. So am I.” This is the human condition.
“Well, how did I get in it?” Elton asks, chagrined and resistant. Being born, is the reply. Or as the philosopher Martin Heidegger liked to say: we’re thrown into it. Or as Wheeler puts it, you find yourself here by a kind of election: “The way you got in it, I guess, was by being chosen. The way you stay in it is by choice.” To be human is to wake up and find yourself in a web of debts. Freedom isn’t cutting the ropes; freedom is gratitude for what you’re given.
I was thinking about this scene recently while working, yet again, on our hundred-year-old house. A century home always has something that needs attention. And yet the craftsmanship of such buildings has an endurance that is uncanny. We’re walking on floor joists that couldn’t have anticipated the Great War.
Since our home is in a designated historic district, we live under particular restrictions about what we can do to the house. Resentful of this constriction of homeowner “freedom,” some developers have tried to overturn historic-district legislation in the state capitol (unsuccessfully, it looks like). But we don’t experience these requirements as burdens. We feel like this house chose us. We’ve been elected as its stewards. We are heirs of the craftsmen whose good work still shines in stained glass and brick and quarter-sawn oak. We’re grateful for these debts and owe these makers our best work.
END OF AN ERA | As it is for so many others, this is a summer of transitions in the Smith family. In the space of a couple of weeks we’ll celebrate our first college graduate and our last high school graduate. We are inching toward empty-nest-dom with fear and trembling. Which is probably why we’re not shy to say how happy it makes us that our kids come home so often. It is a special joy to find new friends in the adults you’ve managed to raise.
So all of us at Comment send our best wishes and congratulations to those students as they walk through these rites of passage from high school, college, grad school, law school, seminary, and more. We can’t wait to see how God is going to use you. (Maybe kind friends and family could send you the gift of lifelong learning in the form of a Comment subscription!) And warmest congratulations to the supportive networks of family and friends who have made that possible. Do yourself a favour: celebrate! We need more Calvinist parties.