Where are the Prophets in Today’s America?

As a Canadian living in Windsor, Ontario – just across the river from Detroit, Michigan – I fully recognize that I have no right to comment on American politics. Who the Americans choose as their president (and other civic leaders) is obviously a decision for U.S. citizens, whatever I may think of NAFTA and other foreign policy matters that effect Canada (and the rest of the world). Moreover, whatever wisdom discerning citizens of other countries may have, for that message to be heard, the messenger must be American! I am, however, a follower of Jesus and Christianity knows no borders; the Christian faith is not wrapped in a flag. From this perspective, I can – I hope with grace and humility – raise legitimate questions of my fellow Christians in the US, especially supporters of Donald Trump.

I confess I found it disturbing that significant numbers of Evangelical Christians supported – then Candidate – Donald Trump. They persisted in supporting him, over other Republican candidates (like Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio), even after scandals emerged that would normally sink a presidential campaign. Christian leaders (and their congregations) helped Trump win the election, despite his divisive, bombastic rhetoric. As a Christian, I find it particularly disturbing that Evangelicals continue to support Trump following his recent fiasco after the Charlottesville rally. In the aftermath, company CEOs resigned from Presidential Advisory bodies. But – it seems to me – relatively few Christian leaders within Trump’s base spoke out and emphatically condemned racism. This is truly shocking! Are we reading the same Bible? Now perhaps ministers did, either privately or to their congregations. But that is not enough! They needed to be highly visible on national TV, providing moral leadership – not flirting with political power and influence.

This echoes the role of the Old Testament prophets. They challenged the people of Israel to repent and worship the one true God, and they acted as the social conscience speaking truth to power and reminding their leaders that it is their God-given duty to exercise social justice – especially to the powerless. Evangelicals pride themselves on the former, but what about the latter? All this makes me ask, “Where are the prophets in today’s America?”

As I was reflecting on this issue, I was reminded of a cartoon in a brilliant book by Os Guinness, first published in 1983. It is still highly relevant for the Evangelical Church in America today:

Figure 1: “Christians are always more culturally short-sighted than they realize.”[1]

The cartoon pointedly shows a crusading church fighting battles against whatever are considered to be the day’s timely issues, but overlooking major fault-lines (e.g., nationalism, materialism, and racism) that are undermining its own foundations. The right wing of the church has a tendency to tout a “born again” personal commitment to Jesus Christ, but it often results in no ethical transformation. Congregants are passionately committed to Jesus for an hour on Sunday, but throughout the rest of the week their lifestyle choices and attitudes to money, sex, and power are indistinguishable from those of non-believers.[2] Hence raising children in a Christian subculture (music, education, books, movies, etc.), one that is meant to be distinctively different from that of “the world,” is clearly failing. In reality, that Christian ghetto simply parallels the world because its ideas and values have already been uncritically absorbed into the church. As the cartoon highlights: “We Christians are always more culturally short-sighted than we realize!” And as E. Stanley Jones said, “We inoculate the world with a mild form of Christianity so that it will be immune from the real thing.”[3] There is much truth to this witty remark, whether we are Christians who are politically aligned with the left or the right.

Much more could be said, but – not being American – I am not the right messenger. What is the way forward? For those of us who are not American, we can pray; prayer is more powerful than we think![4] We can pray that God’s Spirit will raise prophetic voices in the US so that God’s message for today will at least be heard. We can also pray that as we read the Bible, we will genuinely allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us. We read Scripture and, if we engage authentically with the text, it reads us. It can become a mirror into our lives resulting in genuine ethical and spiritual transformation, which itself is an ongoing work of the Spirit. This should not be seen in merely individualistic terms, but in the broader context of Christian engagement with culture.

As well as prayer, we must act as we are able. For someone like me, it may mean creating a blog post that people – especially my American friends – will see and reflect seriously upon. Friendly and meaningful dialogue can affect change. For American evangelicals, I hope it will result in a critical re-examination of the Gospels and asking again, “What would Jesus do?” today, and then act accordingly.

[1] From Guinness, Gravedigger File, 42,178.

[2] See Sider, Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.

[3] Cited in Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 90.

[4] See: Prayer in an Open World, an essay from Uncontrolling Love.

3 thoughts on “Where are the Prophets in Today’s America?”

  1. I am also a Canadian and know that the US leaders decisions will have an effect on Canada also.

    I am also an Evangelical Christian. The word “evangelical” derives from the Greek word that means “gospel” or “good news.”

    Most Evangelicals believe it is important to spread the good news which is the way to salvation and eternal life. Evangelical does not mean Republican or a Trump supporter. The most important thing is who will direct the US in a why that will be pleasing to God over all. I think most Evangelicals would have preferred one of the other Christian candidates but their votes were not enough to get them in the running. Trump presented a major change in the way the government would be run and had issues the Evangelicals liked, such as being against abortion and being able to talk about God more freely. They saw Hilary as going the same way as Obama. With the only choice now being Trump or Hilary the Evangelicals and others wanting a change so bad it brought the result it did.

    The thing that we find easiest to do is find fault and criticize someone else. My prayer would be, this situation will speak loudly to both parties. The people are very disappointed in the leadership over the last years and they need to be more accountable for the things they say and do. To the Evangelical, Catholic and many others it would mean keeping USA as a Christian country and not restricting God completely in schools and other places. Years ago they held church services in the White House and many Presidents were praying people, now we have gone to opposite side and put restrictions on God and prayer. Somehow the interpretation of the constitution from meaning the State could not favour Christians in the laws and privileges to mean God must be omitted. How is that working since the change!

    The statement that “Evangelicals pride themselves on the former (telling the gospel and the importance for eternity)” is very unfair. Many Evangelicals come to my mind that are living in other countries to help the very poor get water and educate the children. Martin Luther was an example of someone sacrificing for justice even when his family is threatened. I believe 1,000 of Evangelicals sacrifice their life, time, and money for justice. When they do not jump – when someone thinks they should – the tendency is to forget all the good and criticize the one thing. This is common in all areas of life.

    Now to continue is a major issue! (Not condoning Trump’s action before election or in office – just saying.) I would also like to comment on the carton on cultural shortsightedness. This is an opinion of someone that sees fault in the way evangelicals put their priorities. Raising children in a Christian subculture may not be as effective as they would like but it is an honest try to teach their children some of their core moral beliefs and other biblical teachings. I think the biggest oversight is not teaching them the rejection they will experience once in University. This includes teachers making them feel foolish and students putting a lot of peer pressure on them because not agreeing to sex before marriage, abortion is wrong, and other things not in line with Bible. I agree that Christians are blending into the Western culture and there is not enough difference to tell them apart. The hardest thing to overcome is the embarrassment of being and believing different than your friends. Non-Christians are doing a good job of rejecting the Bible and removing Christian influence. We who are further along on our faith journey need to step forward and show the love of Jesus but take a stand for the things that go against Jesus teaching.

    One last thought, Evangelicals and main-stream Christians are still human and the church is a mixture of different opinions, different stages of their journey and not one perfect person. But Jesus says Love one another. We must pray that in this situation many will learn and some good will come out of it.

    1. Very interesting comment Frank! Thanks for taking the time and thought in such a detailed response.

      Briefly: we can agree on a number of things, such as the label “Evangelical” being – alas – a catch-all; such Christians come in many nuanced flavours, and many are honorable, faithful members of the kingdom of God. And I am sure many did not vote for Trump in the primaries, and – I suspect – many still don’t support him now. We can also agree that the degree of polarization in the US is intense these days, and that is not good for any country. (I think the US political system exacerbates that polarization problem; other countries – like Canada – have more than two political parties.)

      What you may not have appreciated is that the cartoon and the references to cultural assimilation come from Os Guinness and Ronald Sider, who would firmly describe themselves as “Evangelicals”! And both live in America, and both critique the “liberal” left too. I explicitly mentioned their names as they are known to be social prophets. My point is that as Christians, whether we lean to the political left or right, we must be self-critical (i.e., be open to our own shortsightedness, rather than being ultra-defensive of our viewpoint). This is essential if the Holy Spirit is to challenge the church to change and our responses to contemporary issues. If we fail to even listen to critics from within our own “camp,” the Holy Spirit may try to use other voices from “outside” to shine a spotlight on a particular issue!

      While we will graciously disagree on other matters, we can indeed pray – confident that God is continually active, working to bring good out of evil.

      As a footnote: on the issue of the USA being a “Christian country,” you might also like to check out a book by another American evangelical pastor, Greg Boyd, entitled: The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church.

      All the best!

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