Hey, Evangelicals! Where’s the Laughter? Where’s the Love?
It feels easy to pick on U.S. evangelicals. Popular evangelical leaders seem to be all-in on supporting this White House. Too many churches have merged God and country, or politics and religion. Prominent voices like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Paula White, and Robert Jeffress are just a few of the leaders who galvanized the religious right while turning off almost everyone else.
The truth is that evangelicalism is incredibly diverse, and these leading individuals hardly speak for everyone. On the whole, evangelical churches accomplish a tremendous amount of good. Countless people owe their sense of purpose and even salvation to the hard work of many good men and women who volunteer, donate, teach, and serve. Evangelicals may be the most influential Christians in the United States.
But there is a downside to such position, power, and privilege. Along with the satisfaction of helping others and making a difference, a sense of entitlement and even arrogance can slowly creep in. As more people grow to believe that the evangelical way is the best way, they can unknowingly think it is the only way. And in turning to such belief, the blind spots become invisible to those who believe that their ends justify the means.
Here’s my simple premise: American evangelicalism has taken a wrong turn. While there’s no doubt about the massive good done by many evangelical churches, evangelicalism as a whole has a real problem—not just a public relations predicament. Their overall stance on many societal issues has become prudish and cruel. To the non-evangelical and especially non-Christian observer, they appear to be unmoved by human suffering. For followers of Jesus, this should be a major issue.
This piece of data illustrates what I mean: in a recent poll done by Pew Research Center, 65% of non-religious adults said that the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees. In that same poll, only 25% of white evangelicals felt that the U.S. needs to accept refugees. In other words, two-thirds of non-religious people want to help at least some refugees, but only one-fourth of white evangelicals have empathy that moves them to insist on a welcoming stance.
Take a moment to ponder those numbers. I know this issue is complicated, as there are no simple solutions to the world’s refugee crises and an overly welcoming stance often appears to invite even more immigrants. I am not blind to that reality.
When you simply read the data, however, the headlines about white evangelicalism write themselves: churches don’t want to help people in need! I would understand this stance from people who do not follow Jesus, but from Christians? Let’s say these believers support increased border security or a crackdown on law-breaking immigrants. That’s fair. But why would 75% of the country’s most influential Christ-following bloc think their country should not welcome refugees? It’s difficult to fathom.
Today’s apparent lack of benevolence by modern evangelicals is not at all difficult to grasp if you understand another kind of Christian hostility 700 years ago. At the turn of the 14th century, the Christian establishment hated a group called the Spiritual Franciscans.*
The Spiritual Franciscans (or Fraticelli) were adherents to Francis of Assisi’s (1181-1226) radical and controversial teaching. Francis’s relevant teachings boil down to three ideas. First, Jesus and his followers were poor. Second, God wants people to enjoy this life. Third, knowledge should be explored and shared.
Francis was largely celebrated during his lifetime. Not always happily, of course. He was tolerated by the church powers as a necessary nuisance because of his large following. But when a group of monks began to strictly follow Francis’s rule decades after his death, they called themselves the Little Brothers or Fraticelli. They took vows of poverty and criticized the Catholic church’s hoarding of wealth and knowledge. They were subsequently ruled as heretics by Pope Boniface VIII, and Pope John XXII even executed a number of these Spiritual Franciscans.
Why were church powers so fearful of this Franciscan sect? Francis’s followers became monks and priests in the monasteries and churches of Europe. And they brought with them forbidden traits such as laughter, desire to share knowledge, and love for the poor. Some of the Spiritual Franciscans took things too far—they sacked wealthy communities to redistribute wealth, while others practiced free love in a kind of communal, egalitarian life that broke all cultural norms. But on the whole, the Franciscans simply wanted to be honest about who Jesus and his followers were and to hold that up as a model for the church in their day.
The Catholic church back then was dominated by Thomists who had a very austere, strict view of faith. Their concern was to protect the position, power and privilege of the church. Laughter and joy were an affront to the seriousness of the church. They viewed the poor as ignorant brutes who needed to be kept in line with fear, and as people unworthy of learning the mysteries kept hidden away in the monastic libraries. The peasant’s only hope of heaven was found in strict obedience to the church.
I find no pleasure in comparing current, American evangelicalism to the Catholic church of the Middle Ages. But that sure is what it feels like. U.S. evangelicals appear to be in the grips of reawakened Thomists who want to squelch laughter and love for the poor, and who want to protect their position, power, and privilege. This attitude may sit well with their base, but it doesn’t with me or with millions of others who think the way of Jesus ought to be emulated in the flesh and not just in the spirit.
In my opinion, American evangelicals could sure use a few of these Spiritual Franciscans today.
*To pursue this subject more, try reading Umberto Eco’s famous novel, The Name of the Rose, which is set in this time period. Or study the backdrop to Dante’s epic masterpiece The Divine Comedy.