Owning up to our flaws

There’s a problem with the simplistic worldview that American evangelicalism has spawned.

By Mark Wingfield

“The devil made me do it.”

Years ago, the comedian Flip Wilson made a name for himself with a ’70s-era shtick in which this was his sassy answer to every misdeed his character committed. For folks of my generation and older, this catchphrase became comically pervasive. It was funny because it was patently absurd.

Sadly, in the heart of the Bible Belt today, this mentality has pervaded evangelical Christian culture in a way that isn’t so funny. What once was a comedian’s punch line has become a worldview — only slightly more nuanced.

How often have you heard, or maybe said, something like this: “Satan just wants to sow discord among us,” or “The Evil One is seeking to cause conflict.”

These phrases are the evangelical equivalent of an infamous Washington staple: “Mistakes were made.” That famous line once was dubbed by William Schneider of the New York Times as the “past exonerative tense,” a non-apology apology, a way of acknowledging mistakes without accepting or placing blame.

With all due respect to Satan’s evil intent, what this mentality skirts over is the fact that the powers of darkness typically work through real people. Mistakes are made by real people. Discord is sown by real people. Evil actions are perpetrated by real people, sometimes well-intentioned Christian people.

The kind of supersized piety perpetuated by modern “God-speak” glosses over much of reality. It is so much easier to blame the generic evil intent of Satan than to take responsibility for the mistakes we make ourselves.

And that is a problem with the simplistic worldview that American evangelicalism has spawned. By painting the world as inherently evil and Christians as inherently good, we set ourselves apart from rational accountability.

The world is a more nuanced place than much Christian theology today can acknowledge, and we as humans also are more nuanced than we might care to admit. We are made in the image of God, and yet good and evil war within us. This struggle, which truly is of biblical proportions, cannot be summed up in bumper-sticker theology, which is the mainstay of too much shallow Christian teaching.

Churches and church leaders water down the teachings of Jesus when they guide Christians to see the world in such simplistic terms — unless the devil made them do it.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.