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Anthony Bradley vs. evangelical tribalism

Religion | Have you made your political ideology your hermeneutic, cherry-picked Bible verses, and created an enemies list of those who don’t see it your way?

Hundreds of jokes and New Yorker cartoons have newly deceased persons standing before “Saint Peter” and giving fanciful reasons why they should be allowed in to heaven. The Westminster Confession of Faith has a good answer: Salvation comes from “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” I’d say, “Let me in because of the blood of Jesus.”

If I were depending, though, on a covenant of works, I’d tell Saint Peter, “Because I hired Anthony Bradley to be a professor at The King’s College.” That would be foolish, because despite the goodness of that act, I’d soon find myself in a cartoon with flames leaping up among pitchforked devils, and next to me a man complaining that he was misplaced because he had received a decent-sized obituary in The New York Times. (That really was a New Yorker cartoon.) 

Still, that’s something I’m proud of, because Anthony is a great teacher who dives into serious subjects with a sense of humor. He’s also bold in pointing out evangelical inconsistencies and absurdities. Some of the three-point shots he tosses up are bricks, but more swish through the net. Today we feature one of Anthony’s Acton Institute PowerBlog posts from last week followed by some back and forth between him and a reader. We’re republishing it with permission of the Acton Institute. —Marvin Olasky

Ideological tribalism: How evangelicals go about social ethics

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I recently had an exchange with a Duke Divinity School student regarding many of things I’ve written at the Acton Institute over the past 12 years. The student said this about me:

“When it comes to speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable in our society, there is perhaps no public theological voice more eager than that of Anthony Bradley’s. His body of work is a textbook in blaming the victim and reducing problems to pathology.”

Not only had the student actually not read most of the things that I have written but the comment exposes something that Jonathan Haidt explains well that I’ve talked about before: ideological “tribalism.”

Evangelicals generally develop perspectives on justice down tribal ideological and political lines because they normatively do not source the Christian social thought tradition when constructing perspectives on justice. It turns out I was simply being critiqued by a card-carrying, bona fide political progressive who is also Christian. In this light, I was not surprised by the content of the critique. I do not hold the same presuppositions about creation, the implications of the fall, natural law, human dignity, the role of the state, the authority of Scripture, and so on, as progressives do, so naturally progressives are going to see calls to personal moral virtue and challenges to the patriarchy, soft bigotry, and historic tendency for coercive government to make things worse off for those on margins through the welfare state as “speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable.”

The exchange provides a clear example of how evangelicals, ignorant of the Christian social thought tradition, go about the business of addressing social issues. It goes something like this:

Step 1: For a variety of well-intentioned reasons, choose a preferred political ideology you believe is the right one and will adequately address the differentiated problems in society. As David Koyzis explains, it could be libertarianism, socialism, nationalism, conservatism, progressivism, or democracy.

Step 2: Read your preferred political ideology into the Bible in such a way that it becomes a tool for interpreting and applying the Bible to social issues. That is, your political ideology becomes your hermeneutic for “biblical” views on justice.

Step 3: Cherry-pick Bible verses (often taken out of context) and repackage them to make the case that your preferred, tribal, political ideology is indeed “biblical,” “follows the teaching of Jesus,” is “Christian,” and so on. Here the goal is to prove that God must obviously be on your tribe’s side.

Step 4: Now that you have baptized your political ideology by pouring on a random assortment of Bible verses, you are ready to declare your ideological tribe and those who agree with you “right.” As a result, any other tribe that does not read the Bible through your ideological lens is not only wrong, they also are the enemy and a threat to the church and the world.

Step 5: Issue a call for all other Christians to embrace your tribal ideology. Now that your tribe is “right” you are free in the blogosphere, for example, to declare all of those who are “not like us”—that is, not in our tribe—to be “wrong.” Those in the other tribe (i.e., the enemy tribe) need to change their views so that they can more closely adhere to what your tribe believes the Bible teaches and, therefore, advance to the right side of Truth. Your tribe’s truth.

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