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Sociology as Theology: The Deconstruction of Power in (Post)Evangelical Scholarship



In the past few years, numerous Christian scholars have produced books garnering national attention. Kristen Kobes Du Mez was interviewed on NPR about her book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation and was featured in a story for The Washington Post. Beth Allison Barr, the author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, was likewise the subject of an NPR interview and a New Yorker article. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States earned a treatment in Time magazine. Robert Jones’s White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity was discussed in The New York Times and the author himself is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic. This list could be expanded to include Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism, Willie James Jennings’s After Whiteness, Sechrest et al’s Can ‘White’ People Be Saved? and Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism.

These books share numerous common features: all of them were written by professing Christian scholars with advanced degrees from prestigious universities, all of them address hot-button issues in contemporary culture, and all of them reach conclusions that resonate with left-of-center perspectives. However, for the purposes of this article, I’ll expand on one other commonality: they all share a dangerous approach to theology via the disciplines of sociology and history. Even if we agree with their conclusions, we should recognize that they are sowing the seeds of a deconstruction that goes far deeper than race, gender, and politics.


The Structure of Their Arguments


The books listed above share a similar rhetorical structure.


Step 1: The author identifies a problem, either in history or in contemporary politics. This problem involves power dynamics of one kind or another: white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism, etc. In most cases, the historical events described by the authors are indeed horrific and call attention to our nation’s lamentable failure to live up to biblical standards of justice. In contemporary times, sexual abuse scandals, patriotic celebrations in the middle of worship services, and cringe-worthy displays of so-called “biblical masculinity” should also give us pause.


Step 2: The author argues that Christians either actively endorsed or were complicit in these widespread acts of injustice. Again, many of these accusations are true. Entire denominations split over the issue of slavery. At a time when church attendance was far more widespread than today, the government was engaging in the forced displacement of Native Americans, and white professing Christians were engaging in acts of racial terrorism (i.e. lynching).


Step 3: The author concludes that Christian lament and even explicit, public repudiation of past injustices are not enough. Hundreds of years of participation in white supremacy, patriarchy, and nationalism have warped “white evangelical theology” such that it needs to be fundamentally reimagined.


To many evangelicals, especially among the younger generation, this argument strikes a chord. What are we to make of it?


Broad Categories


To begin with, careful readers will realize how broadly some of the key terms in these discussions are being defined (or redefined). For example, in Du Mez’s and Barr’s books, Christian “patriarchy” does not narrowly refer to some specific conceptualization of gender roles that assumes men should rule over women. Instead, it refers to any conceptualization of gender roles that is not fully egalitarian. Rousas Rushdoony, who “disapproved of women’s suffrage and of women speaking in public,” is listed as a supporter of the patriarchy.[1] But so are the Promise Keepers, who promoted “servant leadership [through] obligation, sacrifice, and service,”[2] alongside the signatories of the Danvers Statement, the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, and the entire Southern Baptist Convention.[3] Barr is even more explicit, criticizing Russell Moore for teaching that “women should not submit to men in general . . . but wives should submit to their husbands.”[4] Barr insists that his framework still places “power in the hands of men and [takes] power away from women” and therefore constitutes oppressive Christian patriarchy.[5]


Similarly, Tisby, Jones, and Butler assume that racism is not merely racial prejudice, but is a system of oppression that includes laws which produce “a disparate impact on people of different races.”[6] Jones laments that the phrase “white supremacy . . . evokes white sheets and burning crosses” when it ought to refer more broadly to “the way a society organizes itself, and what and whom it chooses to value.”[7] Moreover, the idea that racism is static and easily recognized is naïve. According to Tisby, “racism changes over time . . . racism never goes away; it just adapts.”[8] Thus, an eighteenth-century Christian who endorsed chattel slavery and the curse of Ham is complicit in racism. But so is a twenty-first-century Christian who “[responds] to black lives matter with the phrase all lives matter.”[9]


“Christian nationalism” receives the same treatment in Whitehead and Perry’s book, and to a lesser extent in Jones’s and Butler’s. On the one hand, “Christian nationalism” is defined as “Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation.”[10] On the other hand, it is expressed in the affirmation of statements like “The federal government should advocate Christian values” and “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”[11] Indeed, Whitehead and Perry’s operationalization of “Christian nationalism” is so broad that they find Black Americans are more supportive of Christian nationalism than any other racial group[12] and that twenty-one percent of Jews are supportive of Christian nationalism.[13]


The use of overly broad and sometimes nebulous definitions is crucial for the next step in the argument, which is the push to “deconstruct” oppressive theology.



Moral Leverage


A hallmark of the books discussed above is that they are unmistakably prescriptive. In generations past, modernist, “value-neutral” approaches to history and sociology aimed to merely describe objective facts about the past or the present. The influence of critical social theories, however, has motivated contemporary scholars not only to recognize their own biases, but to embrace an intentionally activist, “value-laden” stance toward their subject matter. As a result, books like The Making of Biblical Womanhood or White Too Long or The Color of Compromise are not merely intended to teach us about the past, but to shape our attitudes, actions, and beliefs in the present. The authors of these books move from the descriptive “is” to the normative “ought” in two ways.


First, the use of broad categories enables the authors to compress a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices into a narrow, good-bad binary using morally-loaded language. For example, once we accept the idea that male headship, no matter how qualified or nuanced, is a form of “Christian patriarchy,”[14] it will be increasingly difficult to defend. The battle is not being waged at the level of exegesis, but at the level of terminology. Similarly, if “Christian nationalism” encompasses opposition to abortion and a defense of traditional marriage, then the debate — at least at the rhetorical level — is over. Few people want to be called a “Christian nationalist.” Evangelicals may not even realize the game being played until it is too late, when they find themselves forced to defend “white supremacy,” or “Christian nationalism,” or “the patriarchy” — not because they support any of those things but because the terms have all been redefined. One is reminded of Alice’s admonition, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things,” and Humpty Dumpty’s prescient rejoinder, “The question is, which is to be master — that’s all.” When words are weapons, the one who controls the language controls the debate.


Second, all the books in this genre look “underneath” traditional evangelical justifications for complementarianism or sexual ethics or pro-life positions to expose the “real” reasons for these positions: power. What evangelicals have claimed to be the clear, biblical teaching on these issues is merely a way for them to justify their white, male, Christian privilege. Hence, we find countless statements like these:


“[E]vangelicalism is not a simply religious group at all. Rather, it is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others.”[15]


“Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.”[16]


“[T]he battle over inerrancy was in part a proxy fight over gender… Inerrancy mattered because of its connection to cultural and political issues [like abortion and same-sex marriage]. It was in their efforts to bolster patriarchal authority that Southern Baptists united with evangelicals across the nation. . . . Patriarchy was at the heart of this new sense of themselves.”[17]


If the critic is permitted to continually “see through” evangelical reasoning, arguments, and exegesis to reveal them as mere tools for protecting white male power, then disagreement is impossible. Indeed, disagreement is merely further evidence of evangelicals’ commitment to the “white supremacist patriarchy” (if they are a white male) or to their “internalized oppression” (if they are not).


The Implications


If the impossibility of disagreement is troubling, the far-reaching implications of these books’ arguments should be even more so. One might naïvely assume that their only goal is self-reflection and the narrow re-examination of particular points of doctrine. That is untrue, however, for two reasons.


First, in keeping with an intersectional framework, these books view white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, and nationalism as mutually reinforcing and interlocking systems of oppression that can’t easily be disentangled, leading to phrases like “white evangelical patriarchy” or “white Christian nationalism.” For example, Barr explicitly cites Tisby’s comments on racism to elucidate sexism: “Jemar Tisby writes ‘racism never goes away. It just adapts.’ The same is true of patriarchy. Like racism, patriarchy is a shapeshifter — conforming to each new era, looking as if it had always belonged” (Barr, MBW, p. 186). Whitehead and Perry write that Christian nationalism “glorifies the patriarchal, heterosexual family as not only God’s biblical standard, but the cornerstone of all thriving civilizations.”[18]Jones asks:


“What if . . . conceptions of marriage and family, of biblical inerrancy, or even the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus developed as they did because they were useful tools for reinforcing white dominance?”[19]


And in an incredibly revealing passage, Du Mez writes:


Within this expanding [evangelical] network, differences . . . could be smoothed over in the interest of promoting ‘watershed issues’ like complementarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement . . . . Evangelicals who offered competing visions of sexuality, gender, or the existence of hell found themselves excluded from conferences and associations, and their writings banned from popular evangelical bookstores and distribution channels.[20]


In all these passages (and many more I could cite), we find that the authors view their concerns as one part of a larger and seamless liberatory project. They are not merely aiming to challenge racism or specific interpretations of gender roles, but our understanding of marriage, sexuality, hell, inerrancy, and the gospel itself.


Second, these authors’ “deconstructive” approach to theology is necessarily a universal acid. Even if they weren’t explicitly committed to challenging evangelical doctrine broadly, their methodological approach makes such an outcome inevitable. This erosion is, perhaps, one of my greatest fears. I worry that pastors will embrace these books thinking that their application can be confined to, say, race alone. But once a white pastor endorses the view that he — as a white male — is blinded by his own white supremacy, unable to properly understand relevant biblical principles due to his social location, and in need of the “lived experience” of oppressed minorities to guide him, how long before someone in his congregation applies the same reasoning to his beliefs about gender? Or sexuality? At some point, he will have to reverse course and (correctly) insist that although he, like all of us, has blind spots and biases that will distort his understanding of Scripture, nonetheless it is to Scripture — properly interpreted — that we must appeal as our final authority on these issues.


A Response


A conservative evangelical response to these works should include several points.


First, we should concede criticism whenever it is valid. No doubt, conservative Christians helped to prop up (and dismantle) slavery. Some conservative Christians today are insensitive, at best, when it comes to racial issues. The downfall of celebrity pastors and cover-ups of sexual abuse are appalling. Complementarian churches are not always places where women are valued, honored, and equipped for ministry. To deny these truths is not only to ignore reality, but to further convince people that the only way to take racism and sexism seriously is to embrace unbiblical ideologies.


Second, we should resist responding in kind. Recent discussion of “evangelical elites” and “#BigEva” has occasionally devolved into the kind of shallow Bulverism that I’ve just finished decrying. In other words, rather than analyzing our opponents’ arguments, we debunk them by unearthing their hidden ulterior motives: “they’re merely trying to curry favor with cultural gatekeepers,” “they’re just positioning themselves as respectable evangelicals,” etc. This approach is dangerous. How compelling will our critiques of deconstruction be when we routinely engage in deconstruction ourselves? Besides, our mantra must never be “turnabout is fair play,” but rather “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


Finally, our arguments must always be rooted in Scripture. What is notably absent from almost all these books is any attempt to defend or square their claims with the Bible or with historic Christian theology. Yet the errors of postmodernism are not refuted by returning to the conceits of modernism, nor are they answered by retreating to biblicism. The problem is not sociology or history per se, but rather the unbiblical assumptions being made by sociologists and historians. Humility is required, but so is conviction. Like all disciplines, sociology needs to fulfill a ministerial, not a magisterial, role. Science, history, psychology, and sociology can all contribute to our understanding of the world around us and even to our understanding of Scripture. But we must always return to Scripture as our final and ultimate authority. To the extent that we abandon it, we will understand not more but less about race, class, gender, sexuality, history, the world, and ourselves.


 

This essay first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon. We have reprinted here with permission. View the original article at https://cbmw.org/2021/11/21/sociology-as-theology-the-deconstruction-of-power-in-postevangelical-scholarship/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Neil Shenvi has a Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemistry from UC Berkeley and an A.B. in Chemistry from Princeton. He has published at The Gospel Coalition, Themelios, Eikon, and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought and has been interviewed by Allie Beth Stuckey, Summer Jaeger, Greg Koukl, Frank Turek, Alisa Childers, Sean McDowell, and Mike Winger. He homeschools his four children through Classical Conversations and can be found on Twitter at @NeilShenvi. His writing on critical theory from a Christian worldview perspective can be found at www.shenviapologetics.com.

 

[1] Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2020), 75.

[2] Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 153.

[3] Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 167-168.

[4] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 17.

[5] Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, 18. To be fair, Moore himself uses the label “Christian patriarchy” for his view, which he distinguishes from an oppressive “pagan patriarchy.” However, Barr’s reasoning that male headship is necessarily oppressive is the salient point.

[6] Jemar Tisby, How to Fight Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021), 4-5

[7] Robert P. Jones, White Too Long (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2020), 16.

[8] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 19. Cf. pp. 110, 154, 155, 160, 171.

[9] Tisby, Color of Compromise, 191.

[10] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 220), 145.

[11] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 8.

[12] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 41.

[13] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 42.

[14] It could be argued that “patriarchy” is the term traditionally used to describe Christian views on gender and that “complementarianism” is a recent coinage. However, this argument obscures the way in which the term “patriarchy” — in its common usage — has come to refer to something that is inherently oppressive. Thus, attempts to defend anything labelled “patriarchy” will be unavoidably understood as attempts to defend injustice.

[15] Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2021), 138.

[16] Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, 218.

[17] Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 108-109.

[18] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 152.

[19] Jones, White Too Long, 70-71.

[20] Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 204.

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