In Chapter 7 of Before You Lose Your Faith, contributor Samuel James tackles the thorny problem of the evangelical culture wars. As usual, this book goes about its task in the most bees-headed way imaginable: by telling evangelicals to keep their hyper-politicized culture wars. No, they just need to make sure to act as pious as humanly possible while they’re doing it.

This book, y’all. Seriously.

(Related posts: Do pro-lifers just not love their mothers?; Why culture warriors always flunk the Greatest Commandment; Love in the time of culture wars. From introduction: Arils and sarcotesta. The 2020 pomegranate paper.)

(This post first appeared on Patreon on 11/29/2022. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron! Thank you.)

Everyone, meet Samuel James, our culture warrior of the moment

Knowing as we do the hardline, right-wing folks behind Before You Lose Your Faith, The Gospel Coalition (TGC), I’m sure nobody expected any chapter to instruct evangelical doubters to let go of the evangelical culture wars. And this one sure doesn’t.

Its writer, Samuel James, has quite the bio blurb in the book. According to it, he’s the associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books, the editor of something called Letter & Liturgy, and—aha, there it is!—a contributing editor for TGC itself.

Looking beyond the book’s blurbs, I notice he’s written a book for the hardline Calvinist group 9Marks that Crossway is publishing in February 2023: Does It Matter What I Believe? I’m guessing he thinks the answer is a solid, resounding YES. Indeed, its blurb on the publisher’s site reads:

By understanding biblical truths, believers have the tools to understand God, interpret Scripture, and live godly lives. [. . .]

Samuel James addresses how doctrine influences every area of life for the believer. Many individuals know that their beliefs matter in certain areas of life, such as politics, but don’t always understand how key biblical principles like the Trinity, ecclesiology, and the atonement should shape their everyday lives.

So he’s yet another dreary entry in the “as the night the day” evangelicals who believe that once someone understands and accepts the correct doctrines and theology, then the correct behaviors will flow from them as a by-product. Preston Sprinkle made this same mistake.

As for Letter & Liturgy, it was a WordPress blog that he shut down shortly before Before You Lose Your Faith hit bookstores. He moved across to Substack, renaming his enterprise Digital Liturgies. In fact, he adapted his chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith into a post there. If you want to follow along with today’s examination, you can!

Interestingly, at one point I archived and bookmarked a 2018 post from Letter & Liturgy. It tackles the question of evangelicals’ massive sex abuse scandal and its ferociously-defended doctrine of complementarianism (sexism the Jesus way). I mentioned the post briefly in 2020 in relation to the Willow Creek sex abuse scandal.

Before You Lose Your Faith won’t be telling doubters that the culture wars are wrong or anything

In Chapter 7 of Before You Lose Your Faith, Samuel James tries his hardest to reframe the evangelical culture wars as something that simply flows from people who believe exactly the correct doctrines. But if people believe the wrong things, then the way they conduct the culture wars won’t be quite right. That’s when other people start having an issue with evangelicals. Gosh, if evangelicals only conducted the culture wars with the correct pious, preening, super-sanctimonious attitude that James clearly believes is the correct one to have, then, James asserts, nobody’d have a problem with them. And they’d win their fights way more often.

He titled his chapter with a quote that really caught my eye. I’d seen it before.

Politics: Just Servant, Tyrannical Master

He repeats this assertion in the body of the chapter itself as well.

Long ago, I saw a strikingly similar quote in one of the Little House on the Prairie books. I’m pretty sure it came out of These Happy Golden Years. It’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first English essay, and it ends like this:

Ambition is a good servant but a bad master. So long as we control our ambition, it is good, but if there is danger of our being ruled by it, then I would say in the words of Shakespeare, “Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition. By that sin fell the angels.”

Laura scored a solid 100 on the essay, incidentally. That last bit refers to the tail end of Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 2. Interestingly, Wolsey says that to Cromwell after he’s lost King Henry’s favor. He doesn’t second-guess his ambition until he’s truly lost everything, including his life. Similarly, evangelicals won’t be able to recognize the damage they’ve done to themselves until they have well and truly lost any hope of dominating America.

Remembering Laura’s essay put my mind in a whirl, if you hadn’t guessed!

Because what else are the culture wars but an expression of evangelicals’ control-hungry ambition?

Rationalizing their desire to rule over all people is just what evangelicals do

First, James positions the absolute necessity of politicization for evangelicals. He claims that his god [citation needed] created humans [citation needed] to live according to his rules [citation needed]. Politics is how they do that.

In fact, humans have a “divine mandate to take holy dominion over the universe.”

That is breathtakingly perverse. Nothing less than the god of the universe, this guy thinks, happens to have appointed humans to be the rulers of the universe! But gosh darn it, most humans won’t rule it properly at all. Namely, they won’t be using this godling’s maddeningly coy, difficult-to-understand, mutually-contradictory rulebook properly. Only evangelicals know how to interpret this godling’s will in politics. So naturally, evangelicals must get hyper-politicized so they can govern the universe the way their god wants. Hooray Team Jesus!

And the Samuel Jameses among them can’t see how any of that thinking could possibly be self-serving and completely, cringe-inducingly obvious to everyone else observing from a safe distance.

How evangelicals’ culture wars relate to deconstruction, according to Before You Lose Your Faith

Every chapter of this book has tried hard to establish rules of engagement for deconstruction. This chapter will be no stalwart exception to that rule. In this chapter, in fact, we learn that it’s totally not-okay for anyone to deconstruct over ickie politics. Period! They can think about it, but they can’t do it.

If someone were to commit that grievous offense, they would be guilty of idolatry. Yes. It’d mean they were idolizing politics over TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. They might even think that they’re rejecting evangelicals’ idolized politicization, but in truth they’re the ones who are totally idolizing here.

DARVO, man. It’s a helluva drug. They’re not idolizing. You’re idolizing. Stop idolizing!

And James comes by this opinion because he thinks that someone who does that, or who rejects the culture wars, has put politics above correct beliefs. Because correct beliefs would produce the politics as the night follows the day. But deconstructors get the sequence of beliefs-then-politics wrong, and so obviously they aren’t framing things correctly. Worse, they’re now allowing “politics to dictate faith,” which he believes because (let me check my notes) it makes him happy to believe that.

At the same time, he’s thoroughly incapable of recognizing that this is exactly what he himself has done. He’s put a lot of steps in between politics and faith, but that’s just done to further cloud his own idolatry. At most, he’s rationalized his desire to control other people.

However, I’ve seen tons of evangelicals deconstruct because they started with faith and allowed their politics to flow from that. If someone believes in love and the dignity of the human being, in the essential nature of human rights even, then the culture wars start looking like the disgusting, power-lusting, cruelty-is-the-point, cynically-engineered control-grab that they truly are.

Oh boy, another posture problem in Before You Lose Your Faith

Back when we were talking about Preston Sprinkle, we focused on one of his principal ideas: evangelicals’ supposed posture problem. He was sure that if evangelicals only phrased their bigotry and control-lust correctly and used the right smarmy, simpering demeanor when expressing it, then everyone would be totes okay with it. It was one of his worst hot takes. And you gotta know there was some really intense competition for that title! But I really think this “posture” idea goes right up there with his dishonest coffee-date idea.

What’s interesting in Before You Lose Your Faith is that James isn’t even trying to deny that evangelicals want to control the entire universe. He completely accepts and nods along with that desire. As well, he clearly believes that his hypocritical, abusive tribe of grabby jackals have figured out exactly how to correctly rule the universe in their god’s name. Of course. In his name. Not because they’d want to just for their own sake.

No, no! It’s just that humans utilize politics to arrange their societies, which means evangelicals simply must engage in politics. Can’t avoid it! If they avoided it, then the universe would go on with the wrong set of rules! And everything would go higgledy-piggledy, just like it always has throughout history in every single society that has ever refused to allow evangelical totalitarians to control their culture and laws.

Oh, wait. We have known for years that secular governments are way safer, more harmonious, and better-flourishing on every metric imaginable than any theocratic hellhole anywhere in the world—much less than any medium-to-large evangelical church. Look at their churches’ chaotic gossip mills, power jockeying, constant abuse scandals, and drama explosions, and then imagine that writ on the national scale. Basically, it’d be the Trump Administration forever and ever.

But here’s James to tell us that if evangelicals just tackle politics with the right mindset, everything will be great. Therefore, the culture wars are an invalid reason, to King Him, for deconstruction.

“Right worship” leads to correct political opinions, too, apparently

The end of the chapter discusses the serious issue of incorrect worship habits in Christians. He’s quite sure that if people worship his god the right way, then they’ll conduct the culture wars in the right way as well:

An evangelical church in the Bible Belt, compromising what the Bible says about justice in order to keep in step with its preferred political tribe? That’s a worship issue. A 20-something college student who rejects Jesus’s claims because she can’t imagine condemning people who want to live out their free sexual preferences and identities? That’s a worship issue. What happens when politics and faith collide reveals something fundamental about our worship.

In the absence of worshiping God as he’s revealed himself in Jesus Christ, the human heart reaches for idols.

But he never really defines what “right worship” even means, beyond it being worship that doesn’t forget that this god is, in fact, the god of the entire universe. And it is this incorrect worship that apparently leads evangelicals to believe that their political opponents “are not just wrong, but evil.”

Again, [citation needed]. Evangelical culture warriors don’t just believe that their political opponents are evil. They believe that any fellow evangelicals who differ one single half-degree from their own political ambitions are as evil as it can possibly get.

How does James propose to eliminate these millions of idolatrous evangelicals from the culture wars?

He doesn’t. And he can’t. He just wants deconstructing Christians not to take them into consideration, is all.

What happens to people who refuse to listen to King James Samuel and deconstruct over politics anyway

From here, we leap across to James’ conclusion, which is simply that deconstructing because of the culture wars is “utter madness.” Seriously.

From this angle, you can see how walking away from the person, work, and promises of Jesus Christ—because he doesn’t fit your political preferences—is utter madness.

Of course, the only reason he can call it “utter madness” is that he has laid out self-reinforcing ground rules that specifically rationalize his own desire to wage culture wars. His sharpshooter fallacy has hit its bullseye. Isn’t that amazing? It doesn’t sound like utter madness at all to me to leave for that reason. (Or any other reason, but bear with me here.)

If someone deconstructs anyway, James has a stern warning for them in the form of another fallacy: an argument from consequences:

Abandoning Christ won’t make your politics more tolerant and sophisticated. What it will do, in all likelihood, is surrender you to the whims of a secular outrage and cancel culture that is ruthless and unforgiving. It’ll leave you without a moral foundation. Worst of all, it’ll rob you of the only hope steady enough to survive deep suffering, unmet expectations, shattered dreams, powerful enemies, and broken trust.

That’s one hell of a mighty [citation needed] tag, right there. He only thinks this because he’s indoctrinated that way. Those who walk away from evangelicalism generally find the exact opposite waiting for them: a much stronger moral foundation and an incredible surge of hope for the future. Really, he’s projecting hard here, because it’s evangelicalism that suffers from all of these flaws.

As for morals, here’s big-name evangelical William Lane Craig asking evangelicals to feel sorry for the poor widdle Israelites who had to go genocide all those other tribes. They’re the real victims here, not the people they killed!

The truth about evangelicalism, laid bare in Before You Lose Your Faith

Modern evangelicalism is a political cult that uses a bunch of Jesus window dressing and slick emotional manipulation to trick its followers into voting in certain ways. At its rotted, fetid heart, it is cruel, paranoid, spirit-crushing, retaliatory, extremist, vengeful, hypocritical, gullible, violent, and absolutely wicked beyond all reckoning. Those in the thick of the cult can’t even perceive what it’s really like till they walk away. Those who know, though, know well what I mean.

The culture wars are how evangelicalism got to this unbelievably sorry state. Some power-hungry zealots, through much conniving and scheming, warped one entire end of Christianity into the circus spectacle we behold every day in the headlines. If evangelicals are ever to heal from this damage, they must drop the culture wars entirely, apologize for them, and spend a lot of time fixing their own broken house before ever again marching into other people’s houses to order them around.

But they won’t ever do that. They’re evangelical for a reason. It’s their permission slip, their hall pass, their blank check to do the things they desperately want to do. In this case, they desperately want to control other people. That includes other people’s lives, relationships, even their bodies and their most private, most intimate behavior. They desperately want to rule the world.

Samuel James is really talking in Before You Lose Your Faith to the evangelicals who are just entertaining a few doubts. He throws them a bone by vaguely criticizing one aspect of Republican politics—cruelty to immigrant children—and hinting that proper Jesus-ing will lead TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to be called liberal by some evangelicals and conservative by others. But he repeatedly slams liberal platforms like legal, safe abortion access, and simply insists that correct Jesus-ing will inevitably lead to the correct political opinions.

And, as usual, Before You Lose Your Faith offers a vision of evangelicals that they cannot hope to fulfill

After years of hearing evangelicals declare that their political opponents are, in fact, evil, I got a kick out of seeing Samuel James condemn that exact mindset as the result of improper Jesus-ing. Of evangelicals who call their opponents evil, he sniffs:

When you forget that God controls the universe, and that he orchestrates all of it toward final justice and goodness, you will see those who disagree with your politics are not just wrong, but evil. And your hostile reaction probably reveals that your deepest trust isn’t in the power of Christ but in the power of the ballot.

Interestingly, the online essay in Substack completely changed the nature of this paragraph after the word “evil.” (I wonder what blowback he got? I bet it was about abortion.) Either way, here’s how the online essay changes the above paragraph:

. . . but evil. Make no mistake: there are indeed evil policies. But putting your trust in a righteous political order usually manifests in an inability to tell the difference between that which is debatable and that which is unquestionable. Idols don’t encourage discernment; they insist on worship.

Unfortunately, the loudest evangelicals around these days act exactly as he describes those ensorcelled by “idolatry.” It’s really remarkable how even most evangelicals don’t look at all like the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ striving toward theocracy that James spins out of mist in this chapter.

And he still doesn’t offer any way to tell two fervent, zealous, correctly-worshiping evangelicals who’s right or wrong about what’s “debatable” and what’s “unquestionable” in any doctrine in their entire religion. I ran into that exact problem many times in college. His complete inability to perceive his own limited understanding would be funny if he weren’t pushing so hard for continued hyper-politicization.

The truth about evangelicals’ hyper-politicization: It’s dooming their dreams of theocracy

A while ago, researchers discovered that the more political a church leader got on the pulpit, the more people that leader drove away from the fold. The more success evangelicals had in controlling their area’s culture and legal system, the more people got disgusted with them and left their ranks.

It was really remarkable to see headlines speculating that evangelicals themselves were largely responsible for the rise in nonreligious people. Paul Djupe in particular is one researcher doing a lot of great work on that front.

And by the way, this rule works in reverse, as well. Mainline white churches lost a lot of church members when their leaders got involved in the Civil Rights struggle. These angry church members felt that politics of any kind did not belong in their church.

Not much has changed. Nowadays, a church leader who stumps too hard for liberal candidates may find their flocks similarly not welcoming this focus. It just seems like congregations are willing to ignore potential political differences, but once those differences become stated and clear, members who differ start looking for more welcoming churches.

But given how completely politicized evangelicals are, I’m guessing that this situation happens way more often to their churches than the reverse in mainline or even progressive churches.

The culture wars, but make them more shiny and Jesus-y

Ultimately, there’s not a way for evangelicals to make the culture wars anything but cruel and evil. Those qualities are baked into them from the ground up. They can’t be excised away, because the culture wars are an extended moral panic meant to deliver political power to evangelicals. In a very real way, they are a shield wall that cannot be broken without routing the entire army.

So they can admit no room for nuance, grace, or compassion. They must be all-or-nothing, ultimate stakes, take no prisoners, auto-da-fé spectacles to terrify anyone in the pews who is even vaguely inclined toward those gentler qualities.

Putting a varnish of Jesus simpering on top of the culture wars only makes evangelicals themselves seem even more grotesque.

Since Samuel James likes C.S. Lewis so much (good god, another one!), I thought I’d end with this quote from his hero. It applies directly to evangelicals’ control-lust:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

Evangelicals need to stop trying to be the human race’s Designated Adults. They aren’t. They can’t even govern themselves in church groups without sprouting constant scandals and abuse crises. And they can’t even follow their own rules or act like they take their own threats seriously.

If you couldn’t tell, this chapter thoroughly alarmed and disgusted me. I guess it’s a good thing that Samuel James won’t convince any great number of doubting evangelicals that they’re not allowed to deconstruct because of politics. He’s failed to establish his credibility in setting forth this rule, but then again, so has every other evangelical who ever advocated for the culture wars.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

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