Two sorts of evangelicals: those who want religious freedom, and those who want to control society

Marvin Olasky

Sometimes. a good journalist finds just the right Christian to ask about us. Susan Davis of the US National Public Radio (NPR) was trying to decode what is happening with conservative Christians in the wake of the US Congress electing Mike Johnson, an evangelical Christian, to be speaker of the House of Representatives. 

The US Speaker is more powerful than the speaker in our parliament, as he or she can control what comes up for a vote.

“There’s no way to understand the Republican Party and the forces involved in the 2024 election without understanding the fracturing within the evangelical movement that is unfolding in real-time, says Marvin Olasky.” Susan Davis wrote. Olasky, the long-time editor of the conservative Christian World magazine, understands both the Christian scene and the Republican party environment, having been the key player behind the “conservative compassion” stance of the George W Bush White House.

“Olasky described it to NPR this way: ‘Within the evangelical faith right now there is a wing that wants to live in a “Holy Land theme park” which is governed by strict biblical law, and those who want to live in a “Liberty theme park” which embraces pluralism, other faiths and the tenets of democracy.

“’I like this country, and I like the democratic process. And then there are other folks. And again, this is a civil war almost within Christianity who say, no, we want to achieve these ends, and we’ll do it by any means necessary,’ he said. ‘I have to say that compassionate conservatism is out of business these days, and in a sense, cruel conservatism is ascendant.’

Reflecting on the interview, Olasky wrote of his response: “What might I offer? Maybe a step back from the immediate controversies over aid to Israel/Ukraine and domestic spending. Maybe some longer-term perspective about ends and means. I like the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a central Protestant document from the 1640s: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ The answer is ‘to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’ That’s also a good question to ask about nations: ‘What is America’s chief end?’

“Conservative Christians have been and are divided on that. Some believe that to glorify God, we should attempt to make America a modern version of ancient Israel, a holiness theme park with (officially) zero tolerance for wrongdoing. They say we should follow the laws laid out from Exodus to Deuteronomy and have severe penalties for disobedience. Theologian Rousas Rushdoony made the comprehensive argument for this in The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973), and a half-century later, politicians like Lauren Boebert offer slimmed versions.”

He gave two reasons why the “holiness theme park” idea is wrong:
• The Old Testament is a history of failure to be holy. The law did not make Israel a model nation, a new Eden. Or, as Olasky puts it, even a semi-Eden.
• While the Israel of the OT spent time in exile, Christians have always lived in an exile. “Whenever those professing faith in Christ stop trying to persuade and start displaying faith in power, the results are poor,” says Olasky, pointing to Cromwell’s England and Czarist (and Putin’s) Russia.

Those who want Christians to seize power appeal to “ninth innings thinking.” Olasky gives this example: “Eric Metaxas tweeted on Thursday, “More and more I see our corrupt unfit ‘leaders’ like Biden and [Homeland Security Secretary] Mayorkas et al. the way the French Revolutionaries saw Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.” That’s ninth innings thinking – the idea that, like the last minutes of the baseball game, we are about to run out of time before Western civilisation collapses. 

But Susan Davis might need clarification about how Christians line up. She correctly identifies the Pentecostal “New Apostolic Reformation’ as a home of dominionist thinking – although Rushdoony, who Olasky referenced, was reformed rather than Pentecostal. Dominionists seriously think Christians should seize power.

The NAR ideas about power are often expressed as the Seven Mountain Mandate – that Christians should seize influence in the realms of family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government.

America has dominionists who believe that “by any means necessary,” which explains why some Christians invaded the capitol in the dying days of the Trump presidency. The Seven Mountain advocates in Australia are much milder, they seek to influence, not to gain outright power. We are, after all, a nation of realists. Our Pentecostals are Australian, not American, despite occasionally being dazzled.

Susan Davis places Mike Johnson, the new speaker, alongside a pastor called Dutch Sheets, but they are two very different types of Christians.

Sheets is described as having an apostolic and prophetic ministry dependent on an extreme Pentecostal theology. Johnson is a Southern Baptist – a determinedly non-Pentecostal denomination. They both belong to the right-hand half of the Republican party and supported Trump.  

But Southern Baptists will tend to fall in Olasky’s “Liberty Theme park.” 

Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Justin  Poythress critiqued the seven-mountain approach.  “Though our faith may be increasingly marginalised and devalued in the West, losing cultural battles with grace, dignity, and love can persuasively display Christ’s cruciform beauty. Conversely, there’s nothing persuasive about chasing the perks of power.

“Peter wrote his first letter to Christians facing intense persecution. It’s a treatise on how to suffer faithfully, a lost art in a world taking its cue from social media influencers.”

Christians face the temptation of seeking to recapture, for good or ill, the cultural power they had in (say) Medieval Europe. The temptation to go in that diection is fueled by some historical writings that claim. that the US declaration of independence was written by Christians and that consquently the destiny of the US is to return to those alleged roots and be a christian country.

Speaker Mike Johnson has been linked to groups which maintain that rosy coloured but inaccurate history. Warren Throckmorton a psychology professor has debunked several history books for innacurcy – leading the change against Eric Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer for example. In a recent update rhe recounts Mike johnson’s ties to another author of a misleading history book.

“For a short time during several months between 2012 and 2013, there was a reality check among right-wing advocacy organizations. In August, 2012, David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies was pulled from publication by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson. Then in May, 2013, Family Research Council V.P. Kenyn Cureton removed a video from his account which featured David Barton leading a tour of the U.S. Capitol. Cureton did this after 33 Christian historians and social scientists approached him with a summary of historical errors in the very short video. The evidence was so overwhelming that he and FRC responded appropriately — at least for a short time. 

“I thought of this episode when I saw a report from a legal group called First Liberty. Kelly Shackleford reported that they had met Mike Johnson in Statuary Hall of the Capitol and had prayer with him. The night before, David Barton had led the First Liberty group in a tour of the Capitol. In the picture below, you can see Kelly Shackleford, along with David Barton standing next to Speaker Mike Johnson.” 

Throckmorton’s account of the backstory of that event is here. That particular skirmish is part of a battle about the claims of Barton and other “Christian Nationalists” or dominionists that Thomas Jefferson was a Christian, along with just about all the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Neither is true. We would profoundly wish they had been, but they were not. Which means that the claim they wanted America to be a Christian nation is not true either.