The setting was appropriate. Wheaton (my alma mater) was founded by abolitionist evangelicals in the mid-19th century. Its first president, Jonathan Blanchard, was an antislavery agitator and founder of radical newspapers. The college was a station on the Underground Railroad. Many Northern evangelical Christian leaders of that time were malcontents in the cause of human dignity.
Who could possibly describe the evangelical movement in those terms today? The predominant narrative of white evangelicalism is tribal rather than universal: Christians, who once set America’s moral and political terms, are under legal and cultural siege by the forces of secularism. Now they must find political allies and fight back before they are thrown to the lions.
This attitude is understandable from any group that has lost cultural standing. But it reduces evangelicalism to the status of any political interest seeking to restore its status. And it involves a certain view of power — the belief in power as political clout.
Enter the group that met at Wheaton, which included some of the most prominent pastors, theologians and writers of the evangelical world. Many are disturbed by the identification of their faith with a certain kind of white-grievance populism, which cuts them off from the best of their history, from their nonwhite neighbors, from the next generation and from predominately nonwhite global evangelicalism.
But the stated goal of the leaders who gathered at Wheaton is not to push a politicized faith in a different political direction. It is to provide an alternative evangelical narrative — a more positive model of social engagement than the anger, resentment and desperation of many Trump evangelical leaders.
People like me can point out the naivete and political self-sabotage of the president’s evangelicals. But the groundwork for a new narrative will ultimately be theological, which makes the Wheaton consultation strategically significant. Many political views and denominational traditions were represented in the room. But any thinker who takes the authority of the Bible seriously must wrestle with the meaning and implications of one idea: the kingdom of God.
Forgive me a short theology lesson, but how evangelicals understand this concept determines much about the nature of their political engagement, which determines much about the quality of American politics.
If you look at his words, Jesus did not preach a new religion. He announced the arrival of a kingdom. “The kingdom of God has come near,” he said. It is intended to be a message of dawning hope and liberation. “The spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”
This kingdom — against the messianic expectation of some of Jesus’s followers — did not involve a revolt against the Roman Empire. It is, Jesus said, “not of this world.” He said that the rule or reign of God had broken into human history in some new and different way. And the evidence is provided by people who will live by the values of this divine kingdom in the midst of every earthly kingdom. Believers are essentially called to be emissaries or ambassadors.
The nature of this kingdom determines how it is properly advanced — not law by law but life by life. You can’t advance a vision of liberation by oppressing the conscience of others. You can’t advance a vision of human dignity by dehumanizing others. You can’t advance a vision of peace with violent and demeaning language.
This involves an entirely different view of power — power for the sake of the powerless. It involves a different definition of influence — bringing a modicum of grace and justice into the world around us, including the political world.
This does not mean that evangelicals should be indifferent to their own rights and religious freedom. It does mean that an evangelicalism defined by the defense of its own rights rather than the dignity and sanctity of every life has lost its way. And there are signs — faint, early signs — that an alternative is coalescing.