Evangelicalism’s Devil

Homer Simpson: Oh, I’d sell my soul for a doughnut.

Devil Flanders: Well, that can be arranged.

Homer Simpson: Wuh! Flanders! You’re the Devil?

Devil Flanders: It’s always the one you least suspect. Now, many people offer to sell their souls without reflecting upon the grave ramifications . . .

Homer Simpson: Do you have a doughnut or not?

(Here’s how the diabolical doughnut deal went down.)

But I digress, though not too far from what’s cooking in hell’s kitchen.

In his fictitious transcript “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (1959), C.S. Lewis summons up that devilish namesake of The Screwtape Letters (1942) once more to deliver the keynote lecture at the banquet for the graduating class of the Tempers’ Training College. After waxing scornfully eloquent about the bland flavor of the pathetic puddles that pass for human souls presently being dragged down to hell from the Western world, Screwtape explains that there’s diabolical hope in the sheer quantity of these atrophied nobodies stocking the pantry in hell’s kitchen. And he explains how this “world with devils filled should threaten to undo us” by teaching Western civilization to do it to itself:

Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.

You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings . . . The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say, “I’m as good as you.”

The first and most obvious advantage is that you thus induce him to enthrone at the centre of his life a good, solid, resounding lie. I don’t mean merely that his statement is false in fact, that he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist measurement. I mean that he does not believe it himself. No man who says “I’m as good as you” believes it. He would not say it if he did . . . Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food . . .

Now, this useful phenomenon is in itself by no means new. Under the name of Envy it has been known to humans for thousands of years. But hitherto they always regarded it as the most odious, and also the most comical, of vices. Those who were aware of feeling it felt it with shame; those who were not gave it no quarter in others. The delightful novelty of the present situation is that you can sanction it — make it respectable and even laudable — by the incantatory use of the word democratic.

Under the influence of this incantation those who are in any or every way inferior can labour more wholeheartedly and successfully than ever before to pull down everyone else to their own level . . .

Lewis, speaking through Screwtape, then illustrates specifically how this has appeared in contemporary public education with a clairvoyant clarity that is truly terrifying for someone writing and observing in 1959. For my part, I’m compelled to consider if the incantatory invocation of the spirit of democracy has worked itself out in religion. As Screwtape concludes his speech and raises his glass to make his toast to the health of the principal and the college, he offers one last chilling observation:

. . . What is this I see? What is this delicious bouquet I inhale? Can it be? . . . I see, and smell, that even under wartime conditions the College cellar still has a few dozen of sound old vintage Pharisee . . . You know how this wine is blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce its subtle flavour. [Each] had in common their self-righteousness and an almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything the Enemy really is or commands . . . All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by “Religion” ever vanishes from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.

I can only wonder if incantatory democracy is the self-righteousness of choice for an entirely new breed of anti-pharisaical Pharisee. If a new sort of Pharisee doesn’t work, then just drop the notion. More importantly, what does the outworking of this social democracy of the lowest common denominator look like once it’s had its way in the Christian Church? Dare I suggest it looks a lot like contemporary evangelicalism?

Contemporary evangelicalism is a distinctly American phenomenon with a somewhat divergent British counterpart. Its roots run down at least into the rampant revivalism of the Second (Not So) Great Awakening. Nathan Hatch paints a pretty clear picture of it in his book The Democratization of American Christianity and even invokes the magical word in his title. Darryl Hart is no slouch on this subject either with works such as The Lost Soul of American Protestantism. And recently, I encountered similar observations in a series of posts turned free e-book called What is Evangelicalism? by Alastair Roberts.

Classical evangelicalism (i.e. medieval Protestantism) got its name from the recovery of the gospel or evangel of justification by faith alone. Contemporary evangelicalism is considerably harder to nail down in its substance and character. David Bebbington’s Quadrilateral of Biblicism, crucicentricism, conversionism, and activism was a decent attempt to find some sense of solid structure and orientation in the phenomenon, and yet, it’s honestly too firm and clear to be true. It certainly can’t be identified by a set of theological affirmations and denials. Every six-point, eight-point, ten-point statement of faith that an evangelical church or parachurch organization produces can be readily affirmed by many, if not virtually all, Christian sects. There’s nothing distinctive about such brief statements.

Contemporary evangelicalism is an ethos or tendency. It is (among other things) what the twin spirits of hyper-democratization and hyper-individualism have made it. It is Screwtape’s incantatory democracy worked out in the Christian Faith, and it expresses itself in its aversion to (or even militancy against) several anti-democratic features of the historic Christian Faith: historical continuity and legacy (i.e. tradition), education, specialized clergy, and institutional churches.

Anti-Traditionalism: History and tradition (that which has been handed down to us) lay claims of obligation upon us. It’s contrary to our self-determination to be beholden to such things. Creeds and confessions. Prayers and liturgies. All are impositions upon us. It’s undemocratic to be forced into a mold we didn’t choose and shape for ourselves. So the twin spirits will continually tend toward subverting the importance of history and tradition to the Christian Life and Faith.

Anti-Intellectualism: The ability to learn and teach along with success in doing so makes some people inherently more of an authority than others. This has core significance as an indispensable requirement for the right and robust handling of the Holy Scriptures. This rides along behind the anti-traditionalism, which rejects authority from the past. It’s undemocratic to promote gifts or achievements that will impose doctrinal authority upon others. So the twin spirits will continually foster a climate of intellectual laziness while tolerating some inconsequential intellectuals on the fringes. Also, individual and small-group Bible study will increasingly occur in a historical and intellectual vacuum and will be a matter of democratic dialoguing between participants.

Anti-Clericalism: This is an expanded vocational application of anti-traditionalism and anti-intellectualism. The idea of highly educated and authoritative specialists who are to be revered and obeyed is undemocratic. The twin spirits will continually collapse the divide between clergy and laity, whether by reducing the reverence of ordained office, reducing the standards of theological education and doctrinal conformity, or reducing the significance of pastoral care and discipline, while concurrently elevating the quasi-clerical standing of uncalled people who should not bear those burdens unsupported.

Anti-Ecclesiasticism: This is the assault on the church as an institution by the application of anti-traditionalism, anti-intellectualism, and anti-clericalism. A mark of the church is the institutionalization of its learned tradition in its skilled leadership. An institution asserts authority and imposes obligations upon those within it, and it’s undemocratic for being so and doing so. The twin spirits will constantly wither and atrophy the strength of the local church and weaken its capacity to discipline (nurture, admonition, reprove, and correct) members. Concurrently, parachurch lay ministries will proliferate.

Self-Identification: The recurring annoyance in attempts to clearly define contemporary evangelicalism has been the emergence of people who self-identify as evangelicals and break the boundaries of prior attempts at definition. This ends up revealing the reality that a right to self-identification and voluntary self-association and participation at any individually chosen level is itself indicative of contemporary evangelical identity. The twin spirits will continually resist any sense of obligatory or imposed identity.

That these temptations and tendencies have had their way in shaping contemporary evangelicalism into the distinct thing it has become when contrasted with so much of the historical Christian Faith is indisputable and well-known. Are these insignificant differences? No. Are they detrimental differences? Yes. Could they be worse? Yes.

Contemporary evangelicalism has taken the recoveries of medieval Protestantism and run amok with them. Freedom from the tyranny of a corrupt papacy allowed the laity access to Scripture and a restoration of the priesthood of all believers as participants in the public worship of the church. But now every contemporary evangelical is tempted to function as his own personal papacy. This is not what the Magisterial Reformers had in mind. I don’t blame this on classical confessional Protestantism.

When I began reflecting on this, I wanted to blame contemporary evangelicalism itself for being all of these terrible tendencies. But it’s not. It’s the victim of this onslaught by the diabolical duo of hyper-democratization and hyper-individualism. Contemporary evangelicals are the captives of these devilish terrorists. The added problem is that the hostages have developed Stockholm Syndrome. There’s a tendency in the saints to see these vicious defects as virtuous features of the Faith. How do we deprogram this?

To whatever extend some variety of conservative evangelicalism doesn’t live out these tendencies to the uttermost seems almost arbitrary, an artifact of any given generation realizing there’s such a thing as going too far. Such a generation has some sense of too far, because they are still in touch with the Word of God and the Spirit of God through whom God has always formed and reformed his church. But the next generation may not see it the same way. They may be even more out of touch, biblically illiterate and liturgically impoverished, and the Overton Window of acceptable evangelical identity and practice will slide further into theological liberalism and collapse.

Beware of those doughnuts of democratization that the Devil Flanders is serving in the foyer after Sunday service. The glazed goodies from hell’s bakery are very tempting.