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‘Broken Churches, Broken Nation’: Yes, Pastor Jeffress, words do ‘mean something’

Bill Leonard“Politicians, secular and religious journals, pamphleteers, men in all classes of society, freely lay the blame of this Rebellion, in great measure, or wholly, at the door of the Church; charging the ministry, more especially, with having caused it. This is a very prevalent sentiment, if we may judge from what has been said and written. There is undoubtedly justice or injustice in the charge, according to the direction given to it.”

That striking diagnosis was written by Presbyterian minister and seminary professor Robert Livingston Stanton in an 1864 volume entitled The Church and the Rebellion. More than 120 years later, the late historian C.C. Goen used Stanton’s words to introduce his book Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the Civil War (1985).

“Today’s rhetoric of ‘civil war’ or ‘coup’ . . . is unconscionable, whoever utilizes it.”

This week I returned to Goen’s book in light of the latest headline-grabbing comments by Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas. In denouncing Democratic efforts toward impeachment of President Donald Trump, Jeffress declared, “If the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office, I’m afraid it will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.” Trump promptly retweeted those remarks, adding his own “(which they will never be)” after Jeffress’s dependent clause.

Criticism of both preacher and president was fast and furious. U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran, noted his own experience with civil war and labeled the Jeffress/Trump comment “beyond repugnant.” Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky cited progressive Dallas clergy, including Wilshire Baptist pastor George Mason who related Jeffress’s comments to the influence of premillennial apocalypticism, and Robert Hunt of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology who described the statement not “as an instigation of violence, but as a justification for it.”

“This decline of ecclesiastical and moral influence, left and right, contributes significantly to the ever-deepening divisions within American Christianity.”

Jeffress denied that he was “calling for a civil war,” suggesting anyone who thought so was “lying.” He concluded, correctly, that “either words mean something, or they don’t.”

Yes, Pastor Jeffress, words do mean something. And words also have a history.

While the probability of a full-blown civil war is (for now) statistically slim, connecting Trump’s impeachment to America’s most ferocious internecine conflict involves the language of violence, whether intended or not. Words “mean something” in a nation armed to the teeth, with a president who asserts that “the Democrats are coming to get your guns,” and Jeffress’s own insistence that Democrats worship “the pagan god of the Old Testament, Moloch, who allowed for child sacrifice.”

Who knows how some will interpret such rhetoric?

Given current societal violence personified by, but not limited to, mass shooters and shootings, one could argue that we are already engaged in an uncivil war waged not against the military but against children, worshippers and Walmart shoppers. If words really do “mean something,” then the rhetoric of “civil war,” “treason” or “coup” used by president, pastor or any of us is not only divisive but dangerous. It can pull both state and church into a reprise of the long, sordid history of religio-political conflicts that moved from disagreement to denunciation to violence – and always with dire outcomes.

“Prophetic moral leadership from pulpit and pew means rejecting the language of violence and seeking the grace simply to be civil.”

Goen’s Broken Churches, Broken Nation documents the ways in which ideological/theological divisions in American churches gave permission to – indeed enabled – a national schism carried out regionally and violently. Goen wrote that “one significant factor in the disuniting of the United States, largely unexplored in the massive outpouring of publications about the Civil War and its antecedents, was the division of America’s popular churches into sectional factions several years before the political break.”

For Goen, “the divided churches painfully exposed the deep moral chasm” between populations and regions that literally split the country asunder. He cites an article from The Presbyterian Herald (Louisville, 1860) with words hauntingly applicable to 2019 America:

“The very worst omen of the times is the fact that the religious [population] of the country stand apart to so great an extent in this hour of trial. Most of the Churches have split on the very rock upon which the State is foundering. In fact, their divisions have prepared the way and laid the political foundations for the political divisions which now exist.”

While the context of their times and ours differ significantly, Goen’s description offers a striking parallel. While full-blown civil war seems highly unlikely whether Donald Trump stays or goes from the presidency, we should not fail to recognize the armed conflict that already encompasses our culture. And that the prominence, impact and moral authority of 21st-century churches is much less apparent than in the antebellum era.

This decline of ecclesiastical and moral influence, left and right, contributes significantly to the ever-deepening rifts within American Christianity. Today’s rhetoric of “civil war” or “coup” is often symptomatic of religious and political breakdowns long present in American life. But such rhetoric is unconscionable, whoever utilizes it.

The intensity of the present moment challenges America’s churches to reexamine their calling, identity and actions – with haste. In short, we need a new reformation. Yes, “the church is always reforming,” but especially when the times get out of hand. In that light, churches in America might consider the following steps:

Beware of fundamentalism in its multiple forms – right, left or center. By fundamentalism, I mean the demand that one theology, ideology, doctrine, politic and moral code possessed by one subgroup is the whole truth, and that those who disagree are not simply wrong but worthless in belief and personhood.

Confront and work to remove violent behavior and rhetoric in our society, in our churches and in ourselves.

Take caution when using selective biblical proof texts to undergird political views. If necessary, begin with the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.

Forego thinly-veiled references to, or reckless predictions of, another civil war – at least until we deal more effectively with the yet unhealed wounds from the last one.

In the community where I live, a number of Wake Forest University faculty and staff whose studies or offices relate to issues of race, gender and sexuality have in recent weeks received vitriolic, anonymous emails promoting white supremacy while denigrating and implicitly threatening their work. Temple Emmanuel, the local Jewish synagogue, has been the target of similar efforts to intimidate and frighten.

The ripples of that earlier Civil War can all too quickly become tidal waves.

Goen concludes by noting that antebellum Protestant clergy “intoxicated by their success among unchurched masses” let “institutional maintenance . . . take precedence over prophetic moral leadership.” Perhaps today’s Protestants, largely unsuccessful among the unchurched and with fewer institutions to maintain, should now grab for all the reformation we can get. As a starting point, prophetic moral leadership from pulpit and pew means rejecting the language of violence and seeking the grace simply to be civil.