There’s a tussle going on in some evangelical circles, or Presbyterian ones, over reviews of book with a provocative title Jesus V Evangelicals, written by a well-known Christian academic, Constantine Campbell, who has taught at Moore College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School – the Moore College of America.
Campbell critiques US evangelicalism, especially as being enthralled by Donald Trump, and as narrow and judgemental. “Confidence in political influence has been a major misstep of American Christians, and of white evangelicals in particular. In an effort to impose Christian values on the wider society through political means, evangelicalism has become politicized to the extent that its spiritual nature has been distorted. The politicization of evangelicalism has damaged the credibility of the evangelical church. Historian Thomas Kidd comments, “White evangelicals’ uncritical fealty to the GOP is real, and that fealty has done so much damage to the movement that it is uncertain whether the term evangelical can be rescued from its political and racial connotations.”
Campbell, Constantine R.. Jesus v. Evangelicals (p. 15). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
A scathing review of the book has been published in AP, the official Presbyterian magazine in Australia, by Mark Powell.
Powell, a Moore graduate, Presbyterian minister who contributes to The Spectator Australia, Canberra Declaration and Caldron Pool, all of which would be fairly called politically conservative publications – and the latter two as Christian conservative voices .
It is fair to say that Powell is extremely dismissive of Constantine Campbell’s book. He has not read it on its own terms, but has applied his own criteria. Campbell says, for example, “The focus of this book is American evangelicalism, but it is not limited to it. The issues raised here are relevant to all evangelicals wherever they live.”
Campbell, Constantine R.. Jesus v. Evangelicals (p. 2). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
But Powell says in his review: “Further, Campbell is negligent in not acknowledging the impact of evangelical institutions such as Sydney Missionary and Bible College—Australia’s oldest non-denominational Bible College—and especially the ministry of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES) in which Campbell himself has been previously involved.
“The only evangelicals whom Campbell acknowledges ‘attempt to pursue a spirit of Christian unity’ are Together for the Gospel (T4G) and the Gospel Coalition (TGC). But he quickly dismisses them saying, ‘But these coalitions tend to develop their own cultures and tribal characteristics that may just tilt toward creating new bigger tribes.’”
Powell suggests that Campbell abandons the conservative Christian view on sexuality. “Of even greater concern, Campbell claims that evangelicals misunderstand Romans 1:18-32 since it is a ‘symptom, not a cause, and the passage does not address individuals and their choices.’But this only further confuses the issue. Homosexual practice is clearly a judgment from God. And as such, it’s something to be repented of and confessed.”
But Campbell – to this reader – is not arguing against the evangelical theological position that homosexual sex is sinful. Instead, his argument is that strident political opposition to same-sex marriage was a mistake. “Political engagement is not wrong, but it is not a silver bullet to cultural transformation and renewal. Americans will live Christianly if they think Christianly, and that will happen only if their hearts are transformed by Christ. Laws do not transform hearts. Even less so political parties. For all its investment of capital, energy, and cultural disruption, evangelical political power has not led to a widespread turn to biblical values in America. If anything, through an overreliance on political power as the solution, evangelicalism has undermined its potential to bless society.”
Campbell, Constantine R.. Jesus v. Evangelicals (pp. 15-16). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
He takes a similar position to author John Dickson who wrote that a better Christian response to situations like the marriage debate was for Christians to be good losers. “Think of the way some have conducted themselves in the gay marriage debate. To be clear: I firmly hold the classical Christian view of sex and marriage. I’m on the record defending it in public. But sometimes I fear we leave ourselves open to the appearance of being a legislative bully, of coming across as though we have a greater right to be heard and heeded than anyone else.”
Here’s the context of the Campbell passage that Powell quoted “A third common argument against evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in evangelical misunderstandings of Romans 1:18–32 and how that passage is used. This passage views homosexuality as an outworking of a fractured knowledge of God. But homosexuality is a symptom, not a cause, and the passage does not address individuals and their choices. Instead, it paints a picture of societies and cultures as they move farther away from God, and whose trajectory is largely set.”
Campbell criticises the Sydney Anglican Diocese for funding the “no” case in the marriage postal survey. Here’s how Powell treats that point. “Campbell shifts continents at this point and turns his sights on his home country of Australia. He is especially critical of what he calls the Anglican Diocese of Sydney’s ‘blunder’ in donating one million dollars to the same-sex marriage ‘No’ campaign in 2016. However, it quickly becomes clear that this is because Campbell himself believes homosexuals should have been afforded the right to marry all along. As Campbell argues, “Christians can no more claim that marriage belongs to us than we can claim to own the sun”. Further, according to Campbell: ‘As long as two consenting adults are involved, why do evangelicals care if they choose to be together and call that marriage? There is no parallel in this case to abortion, a matter in which innocent lives are at stake and require protection.’”
But, as we have seen Campbell is raising a subtle and different question – of whether Christians have the right to define marriage for everyone else. He introduces this part of the argument by saying “The most prevalent argument among evangelicalism’s critics is that marriage does not belong to Christians exclusively. Who are we to insist on what is and is not marriage? While it is true that marriage does not belong to Christians, that’s not how most Christians view it. …
“I agree that God is the creator of marriage and that he intended it for our common good. But this also means it is a gift of creation for all people—like the sun. In this sense, Christians can no more claim that marriage belongs to us than we can claim to own the sun. If that’s true, then why do Christians insist on defining the rules of marriage for everyone else? The second argument against evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage follows from the first. As long as two consenting adults are involved, why do evangelicals care if they choose to be together and call that marriage?”
Campbell, Constantine R.. Jesus v. Evangelicals (p. 40). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Campbell is challenging the idea that political campaigns to uphold God’s laws are always a good strategy. In a mostly non-Christian society, will we convince the general public? At an Australian Christian Lobby rally in the lead-up to the marriage postal survey, a prominent conservative Christian said to me, “The problem is that we have no arguments that will convince non-Christians.” He was right.
Here are a couple of alternative theories about why Powell is so dismissive of Campbell’s book.
One – put forward by some reviewers of Campbell’s review is that Powell has been reckless or is a bad reader.
But another, which I lean towards, is that Powell thinks that Campbell’s argument is so poor that he must be moving out of evangelicalism, so what’s required is a reminder of the truth – for example, that is that homosexual sex is a sin.
We’ll leave the question of whether their denominational magazine should carry the Powell review to the Presbyterians. There are likewise questions about book reviewing etiquette. And whether Christians are too scathing in how they write about each other.
But there is a genuine disagreement that goes beyond reading or misreading Campbell’s book.
The tussle over Campbell’s book is the latest instalment of a multi-round boxing match. Is there a set of political ideas, a list of correct opinions about politics that evangelical Christians should stick to?
Here’s some position that some politically conservative evangelicals may support:
• Strong campaigns on homosexuality and transgender issues.
• The $1m donation to the “no” same-sex campaign.
• Opposition to Covid rules that prevented churches from meeting temporarily
• Vaccination rules that made the jab compulsory for police and other front-line staff were wrong and affected staff who lost their jobs deserve compensation.
• Israel Folau posting his “Hell Awaits You” Twitter meme.
• Schools should be able to tell students to wear uniforms for their birth gender.
• No to the Indigenous voice
• No expansion of Australia’s refugee intake.
• Prayers in Parliament
• Voluntary Scripture/Bible lessons in Public Schools
• Drag queen story time in libraries should be banned
Some readers of this piece may support all of the above, some, or only a few. The question is whether a mark of being an evangelical Christian is support of all of this or a similar list. Or can there be a spread of evangelical opinion about politics?
If we were Americans, the list could be reduced to one question, do we support Trump or not.
Is there only one set of evangelical positions? Are we as narrow as that? To take the question of prayers in parliament – some will argue they are an important reminder of the nation’s (supposed) Christian heritage, while others think that Parliamentary prayers only encourage the cynical view that it does not matter if prayer is prayed by believers or unbelievers as it is only a symbol of the past. Christians can hold either view in good conscience.
If we ask the question in the US manner and give the answer that over eighty per cent of evangelicals support Trump, we ignore one very significant group of evangelicals, Black evangelicals.
In fact, the oft-quoted high polling percentages of evangelicals supporting Trump are of white evangelicals only. Black Christians are regarded as a separate group in most polls. So even in the US, where the identification of evangelicals with conservative politics has caused Constantine Campbell to write his book, somewhat in despair, the “evangelicals are conservative” line is exaggerated in many polls.
On the other hand, up to a third of the US Trump supporters who claim the label “evangelical” do not have orthodox evangelical beliefs, such as the divinity of Jesus.
But here in Australia, where “evangelical” still means a religious, not a political movement, the brouhaha over the book Jesus v Evangelicals reveals an evangelical v evangelical moment.
Are we to be welded to a set of political positions? The controversy over Jesus v Evangelicals indicates that many Australian evangelicals simply do not want that (Campbell’s position), but others hanker after a clear set of political stances for evangelicals (Powell’s position.)
However, the Aussie evangelical tribe does not vote overwhelmingly for one particular political party. Evangelical voters lean towards the coalition, but a very solid chunk vote for Labor. And then there are the smaller parties. Australian evangelicals are not united on politics. Is this a feature or a bug? Reader, What do you think?