The Worst President Ever

A president with wrong ideas is not a good president. But a president with wrong motivations would be the worst president imaginable.

Too often we think of politicians and rulers as fundamentally different types of people than the rest of us. It’s an understandable misconception, given that our ruling class is overwhelmingly technocratic and elite. From trust funds to the Ivy League, the existential gap between taxpayers and the leaders they get to choose from seems infinite.

But powerful humans beings are still human beings. That means they experience the same temptations, doubts, frustrations, and ambitions that their electorate experiences. If you want to understand the most powerful, influential people in the world, the best way to start is to try to understand the people working in the cubicle across from you, or sitting in the pew behind you, or taking notes on the other side of the classroom.

Every adult understands intuitively the difference between the wrong kind of person and a person who is just wrong. We practice this intuition every day on spouses, coworkers, children, law enforcement, etc. How many parents have pled for understanding from exasperated teachers with the words, “They’re not a bad kid”? Or how many of us have tried to get out of the speeding ticket by insisting that we had no idea the change in zone limit, or the speedometer has been messing up? Nobody in the right mind says, “You have to understand, my child is just an especially wicked and stubborn kid,” or, “Honestly, officer, I love speeding and breaking the law. Can’t you empathize with my loves?” In the contexts that come to us every day, we practice the difference between the wrong motivation and the wrong application.

What bewilders me about this election is the amount of people I’m running into who willingly concede that their candidate of choice may be the wrong kind of person. There’s a maddening air of willing indifference when it comes to motivations and basic moral orientation. And these same people are likely thrashing another politician, on the other side of the aisle, for being “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” in their policies or worldview. It’s almost as if there’s a huge group of voters in my social sphere who think the wrong kind of president is better than a wrong president.

But surely this is asinine. It’s a delusion that can only be maintained by divorcing entirely a person from their actions. If a candidate who seeks office consistently demonstrates morally contemptible behavior, a self-seeking narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty and manipulation, how is it at all possible that his or her leadership will not reflect that? How is it possible to be the wrong kind of person but the right kind of leader?

Surely this is not the logic we would apply to even our babysitters. It’s one thing for a sitter to cluelessly give the children sugary sweets right before bedtime. That’s a mistake, but it’s a mistake that can be cured through correction. But it’s another thing entirely for a sitter to plop down on the sofa, immerse herself in her phone, and let the children do whatever they want so long as she does nothing she finds inconvenient. The first babysitter needs instruction and perhaps some common sense. The second babysitter needs a moral intervention.

Parents get this distinction. Why don’t voters? Why are so many people in my Facebook feed convinced that character is negotiable if we’re talking about getting the job done? Why are so many evangelicals farming out their convictions about integrity for the sake of keeping the score between Left and Right even? When did we convince ourselves that the wrong kind of person can be the right kind of president?

A president with bad beliefs is a dangerous thing. But a bad person is even worse than bad beliefs. If this is true on Monday morning in the office, or on Saturday night during date night, it’s so much more true in November.

Sitting Athwart History

Timothy George’s profile of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and its senior pastor, Mark Dever, is a joy to read. It was a joy for me personally because my wife and I are members of a church in Louisville that owes much to Dever and Capitol Hill. My pastor, Greg Gilbert, studied under Dever, and Third Avenue Baptist bears much resemblance to the vision that Dever has cast in his “9 Marks” ministry.

I was raised in very traditional Southern Baptist churches. These churches, I am told, thrived during the middle of the last century. I have to rely on the testimony of others for that information, because by the time I was old enough to notice, many of the churches I saw—including the ones I attended—were losing members yearly, becoming more insular and less evangelistic, and were often more enthralled by their internal politics than by the doctrines of Christianity. I spent my teenage years in an evangelical culture that desperately wanted to regain relevance. Thus, much of the preaching, teaching, singing, and “discipleship” that I heard was crafted carefully in the image of the “seeker-friendly” movement, which sought to make the experience of church palatable to Gen Xers and millennials who demanded entertainment and variety.

I didn’t fully realize what was going on until I arrived at Third Avenue. Then it became ridiculously obvious. For the sake of those accustomed to the secular liturgies of American culture, evangelicalism had tried to make the local church recognizable; but instead, it had made it invisible. Intellectual and spiritual formation of members was being neutered by the efforts to make church fun.

George describes how Dever pulled Capitol Hill away from this trend:

…[Dever] began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past.

This describes perfectly my experience at Third Avenue. These churches are counter-cultural, not only in the content of their gospel but in the character of their pedagogy. And yes, pedagogy is the right word, because for churches like Third Avenue and Capitol Hill, the worship culture of the church is designed not merely to amuse or entertain, but to teach. The teaching doesn’t just begin and end with the sermon. The whole mode of worship is one that demands—and trains—intellectual and emotional maturity. Times of silence invoke the kinds of reflection and meditation that a smartphone culture often finds impossible. Old hymns with archaic but theologically rich vocabulary remind singers of big truths that require old words, not just mantras that could be found in any young adult novel. At any given point in the service there is a sense that members aren’t just spectating or even just participating in an event, but that they are learning in both word and desire.

This is the personal formation that has been lost in the noise of much evangelical church culture. It’s a loss that may carry a higher price tag than we ever thought. Could it even be that our current political crisis—and a crisis it is—is due at least part to the fact that millions of self-identified “evangelicals” are in churches that keep their attention but don’t teach them much? I’m not even talking mainly about the failure of churches to explicate a Christian view of political engagement, though that is certainly part of the problem. I’m talking mainly about the millions of people who name themselves members of evangelical churches, and yet find that reality TV lewdness and Twitter demagoguing are “speaking their language.” Instead of trying to jockey over whether they are actually “evangelical,” it might be better to acknowledge the possibility that many churches have failed to teach their members a better language.

Imagine a member of a entertainment-oriented church. He attends once per week, faithfully but passively. He absorbs many contemporary worship songs, some of which seem inspired by the Psalms but many of which seem inspired by Hallmark. Though he doesn’t consciously register it, the language and ritual he hears in church overlaps with that of commercialism. Everything about the church service is “accessible” to him as an average, working class American Christian. Everything feels new, and interesting, and immediately useful (or would if he could remember it after lunch). The hour he spends on Sunday morning feels like time well spent, mainly because it wasn’t much time and because there’s little cognitive dissonance between life in the church and life in the world.

Can this kind of spiritual formation provide any ballast in the wake of economic hardship, cultural alienation or political anger? Not at all. For those who aren’t being actively formed to think deeper thoughts, the rhetorical power of talk radio and social media demagogues is too invigorating and too empowering. Much of our American political rhetoric is pure showmanship, training the audience to respond as quickly as possible, as emotively as possible, to the world around them. Outrage, mockery, and hysteria feel so real, and when a moral imagination has not been trained to want something more, there’s no defense against them. If the moral imaginations of evangelicals aren’t being formed in church, where will they be formed?

The local church’s mandate of discipleship is a mandate for maturity. If evangelicalism has failed in the voting booth, perhaps that is because it is failing in the pews. Perhaps evangelical church culture cannot be satisfied with “relevance.” Perhaps what it really needs is transcendence, to risk sounding out of date and out of place if it means thinking big thoughts about big questions. This isn’t a call for civics lessons from the pulpit. It’s a call for the recovery of the Christian tradition that stood up to Roman emperors for the cause of religious freedom, and stood up to kings and presidents for the end of vicious slave trades. It’s a call for the church to be more than accessible—to be formative, to meet people where they are in order to raise them up.

There is a God-appointed time for Christians to come together, with unity in diversity, and learn to look at the world the way God sees it. That time is the gathering of the local church. Before evangelicals can stand athwart history, we need to sit athwart it first.

Evangelicals and Toxic Masculinity

One of the worst trends in our culture today is the dominance of identity politics. Now by “identity politics” I am not trying to signal an oncoming conservative diatribe about social progressivism and liberal politicians. The identity politics I have in mind are everywhere–on the right, on the left, down the middle, and even in the margins. American discourse, whether political, religious, or otherwise, is riddled with tribalism and virtue signaling on the one hand, and cynicism and paranoia on the other. The result is that it’s becoming rare to see two opposite sides of an ideological spectrum actually learn something from one another.

The example I have in mind is something of a confession. When I began reading a few years ago complaints from a leftward branch in American evangelicalism about a “toxic masculinity” in our culture, I instinctively dismissed them. I knew that many of these voices abhorred ideas I cherish, such as the complementary roles of men and women in home and church. Several of them were beyond the borders of orthodoxy when it comes to sexuality and the definition of marriage. Many of the writers I saw most concerned with toxic masculinity held doctrinal views that would disqualify them from membership in my church. So, I chalked up their critiques to a wholly dysfunctional worldview, and reminded myself that going wrong on first principles inevitably leads down untrustworthy roads (which is true).

Trouble was, I began seeing inarguable evidence that they were right. Data emerged about men, pornography, and relationships that told a terrifying story. I started reading testimonies daily of women who had been harassed and degraded, very often in the male-dominated corners of the internet. Then came a relentless series of moral failings and shocking behavior from well-known Christian men, some of whom I had counted as exemplars; reading through a sad array of “official statements,”I noticed common themes of harsh, arrogant leadership and resistance to accountability.

Each of these things, in isolation, might be chalked up to nothing more sinister than the same sinful human nature that drove Adam and Eve from the tree of life. You don’t need categories like “toxic masculinity” to understand David’s lust and Uriah’s murder. But the question that kept coming back to me was: What is the church saying about this? Specifically, what was the church saying to men, about men, for the sake of men?

I don’t believe that historic Christian doctrines about marriage or sexuality cause toxic masculinity. I do, however, believe that sin causes it, and the conclusion that I’ve come to is the conclusion that I heard years ago and ignored: The American evangelical church has a blind spot when it comes to the sinful way our culture thinks of manhood.

The point was reinforced for me as I read about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two boys responsible for the Columbine high school shooting in 1999. In a piece for The Washington Post, Michael Rosenwald observes that Harris, the mind behind the massacre, took to the internet in the months leading up to the shooting to vent his out of control, hyper-macho rage. Harris cursed everyone in his life, especially the “cool” kids at school before whom he felt weak and powerless.

“I am [expletive] armed. I feel confident, strong, more Godlike” with guns, Harris wrote.

Rosenwald cites psychologist and author Peter Langman, who observes that several mass shooters have spoken similarly about the effect of violence on their self-confidence.

Take Elliot Rodger, who called himself the “kissless virgin.”

In 2014, Rodger killed six near the University of California-Santa Barbara. Before the shooting, he wrote: “I compared myself to other teenagers and became very angry that they were able to experience all of the things I’ve desired, while I was left out of it. I never had the experience of going to a party with other teenagers, I never had my first kiss, I never held hands with a girl, I never lost my virginity.”

Then he bought a Glock.

“After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed,” he wrote. “Who’s the alpha male now, [expletive]?”

Of course, it’s easy to make mass shooters a cipher into which we pour our presuppositions about culture and human nature. But the conversation about these men and their violent quest to feel a renewed manhood is one that confessional, evangelical Christians need to be having, and one we seem to be avoiding. The fact is that when Eliot Rodger felt like a deficient man because of his singleness or unpopularity, he was thinking and feeling how the secular culture of manhood told him to. What’s at stake here for the Christian church is not just keeping men from killing. It’s countering a narrative and recalibrating moral imaginations to not see self-worth in terms of strength, desirability, or people skills. But before evangelical churches can say that authoritatively to the outside culture, they have to decide to believe it on Sunday morning.

That means that we who proclaim to believe in a calling on men to lead at home and in church have to take that belief seriously enough to make ourselves uncomfortable. Where might we find a toxic masculinity at work in evangelical culture? Could it be in the way we talk about “giftedness,” often a euphemism for particular kinds of intellectual and social talents? When we say that a man is “gifted” are we just meaning that he’s a theology geek and a voracious reader of blogs–thereby implying that what God values in a man is an academic personality?

There’s a need in evangelical culture to rethink what we mean when we talk about biblical manhood. Hear me: I am not saying we need to rethink our fidelity to biblical doctrines about eldership or husbands and wives. What I am saying is that we need to accept the possibility that even in thoroughly orthodox circles, American evangelicalism fails to explicitly combat toxic masculinity. This means seeing single men as gifts of ministry to the church, and not just “works in progress” on the way to matrimony. It means seeing blue-collar builders, factory workers, and security guards as equally capable of dividing the Scriptures as their Macbook-toting millennial brothers. And it means being unafraid to critique violent, misogynistic mindsets in our culture, even if in doing so we find ourselves agreeing with those outside our fellowship.

Manhood is much more than a girlfriend on your arm or a letter on a varsity jacket. But it’s also much more than how many Christian conferences one can attend, and how many bookshelves adorn your walls. Before confessional Christians can speak prophetically to toxic masculinity out there, we must first be honest about it in here.

Was C.S. Lewis an Evolutionist?

Was C.S. Lewis an evolutionist? I’ve heard this charge laid against him more than once, sometimes by admirers but more often by those who would prefer us to be reading and quoting someone else.

The best way to answer this question is to look not just at one-off comments, but at Lewis’s intellectual trajectory as a whole. That’s what Douglas Wilson did when he recently addressed the question of Lewis’s beliefs.

Here’s the relevant quote from Wilson:

But remember that Lewis had been converted as an adult…in stages out of strident atheism. The longer he was a Christian, the more we can track his distance from evolution. In 1942, he published Perelandra, which he considered mythic, but his mythic treatment included a very historical Perelandrian Adam and Eve. And another good place to look is his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth,” which can be found in Christian Reflections. There Lewis says that evolution appeals to every part of him except for his reason.

Specifically to the point, over a period of years Lewis was a correspondent with a man named Bernard Acworth, a creationist who had sent Lewis his book on evolution. This excerpt comes from a letter written by Lewis to Acworth in 1951.

“I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. … The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one.”

Lewis’s intellectual trajectory here is important. Sometimes Lewis is dinged by modern, evangelical commentators for not approaching the Scripture in a more traditionally inerrantist way. There are some legitimate criticisms of Lewis there to be found, no doubt. But I think Wilson is exactly right that Lewis’s writing indicates movement towards a biblical worldview and anthropology, not away from it.

There’s more evidence. Much of Lewis’s argument in Miracles, for example, is very welcoming to the idea that God directly interferes in natural laws. It’s always seemed to me that one of the appeals of evolution is that it relieves its patron from the awkward doctrine of an omnipotent Creator actually running around in his creation doing things. This feels like an undignified and too personal view of God, as opposed to one in which God simply implements his natural principles of cause and effect in such a way that human emergence is guaranteed. I’m not sure that Lewis would have approached the topic of Miracles the way he did if he desired to preserve the philosophical foundations of theistic evolution.

There’s also a fascinating passage in The Weight of Glory in which Lewis critiques “universal evolutionism.” (evolutionary naturalism) It seems fairly clear from this passage that Lewis believed that a) the genetic history of the world is not an infinite cycle and 2) that history and cosmic teleology was not heading, as Darwinists claim, towards greater evolutionary emergence:

…universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the [chicken’s] emergence from the egg. We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak. We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings. We love to notice that the express engine of to-day is the descendant of the ‘Rocket’; we do not equally remember that the ‘Rocket’ springs not from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself—namely, a man of genius. The obviousness or naturalness which most people seem to find in the idea of emergent evolution thus seems to be a pure hallucination. (The Weight of Glory, 104-105)

None of this demonstrates that Lewis was not a theistic evolutionist. However, it does suggest that Lewis came to believe that the evolutionary view of natural history was, at best, a royal mess, and at worst, pure nonsense. It would absolutely make sense if, by the end of his life, Lewis rejected, for all practical purposes, any sort of evolutionary explanation for human beings. Again, there’s no smoking gun for that, but it would certainly fit the pattern of his later intellectual trajectory.