The format of the bestseller “The Screwtape Letters” is unique, to say the least. In this painfully clever book, a senior demon named Screwtape offers guidance to a young tempter — his nephew Wormwood — on the art of steering a human soul into the land of “Our Father Below.”
Now, the purpose of this think piece is not Christian apologetics.
Instead, it is to consider one of Screwtape’s most famous observations and what it has to do with — brace yourself — Donald Trump, modern evangelicals and The New York Times.
Yes, this is linked to that much-discussed Times feature that ran with this headline: “ ‘God Is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out.” How did this piece come to be?
With just days left before the midterm elections — two years after President Trump won the White House with a record share of white, evangelical support — we asked young evangelicals to tell The Times about the relationship between their faith and their politics.
Nearly 1,500 readers replied, from every state but Alaska and Vermont. Hundreds wrote long essays about their families and communities. They go to prominent megachurches as well as small Southern Baptist, nondenominational and even mainline Protestant congregations. Some said they have left evangelicalism altogether.
Yes, 1,500 young evangelicals is an impressive number. At the same time, as several digital correspondents told me, it’s amazing the degree to which the voices in this unscientific survey that ended up in print — in the world’s most powerful newspaper — sound exactly like you would expect young evangelical Times readers to sound.
Please read the Times piece for yourself.
Then turn to this friendly commentary about this Times feature written by one of America’s most outspoken #NeverTrump evangelical scribes — religious-liberty expert David French, a Harvard Law School graduate who writes for National Review.
But before we get there, please think about this snippet from Letter 25 by master Screwtape, a letter with tremendous relevance for Trumpian evangelicals of all ages as well as the leaders of the growing evangelical left:
The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. …
Thus, many Christians are being tempted today to blur the line between Christianity And Trump and, in lots of cases, the defense of centuries of Christian teachings on subjects such as marriage, sexuality and the sanctity of human life. These three subjects have political implications, in this day and age, but they are first and foremost — for traditional Christians (and believers in some other faiths, such as Islam) — matters of doctrine.
We have many other subjects competing — on the left and right — for “Christianity And” status, these days. Environment? The Republican Party itself? The defense of American-style political life around the world? The list goes on and on.
That leads me to this material from the French essay, in which he notes that as he read the passages from young Times evangelicals:
… I immediately noticed the familiar questions so many young Evangelicals face: Should I be Evangelical? If so, how?
So, for example, the first highlighted person, a young woman named Alexandria Beightol, says that she was “pulled out of Smith College” when she told her parents she was “rethinking the legitimacy of anti-gay theology.”
This is another way of saying that she is rethinking orthodox, biblical Christianity. It’s not that ideas like the definition of marriage are, say, more important from a political standpoint than immigration policy or police misconduct. It’s that rejecting the theology of Christian sexual teaching involves rejecting the authority of scripture, and that has massive implications for the church well beyond politics.
In other words, Beightol is considering whether to be Evangelical.
Yes, of course, the Bible also has strong passages relevant to debates about social justice, the environment, refugees, etc. French would agree with that and some of those issues come up in the Times piece — as they should.
The question, again, is whether many young Times evangelicals should take seriously the possibility that they are no longer evangelicals or, in many cases, traditional Christians.
This is not, however, a question that many journalists are going to ask.
They should. The answers could be good — in terms of statistics — for some liberal Christian flocks that are not tied to ancient forms of Christian faith and doctrine. Here is French again:
In reality, “young Evangelicals” may not ultimately be Evangelicals at all. They might more accurately be defined as young people from an Evangelical background who are growing in their own faith. And as they grow, they often face the twin temptations their parents faced: the temptation of faith and the temptation of tribe.
Each generation of young Christians has to face the reality that biblical teaching conflicts decisively with contemporary secular morality. That conflict is often especially acute in the area of sexual morality. Moreover, the price of social acceptance is often theological compromise. Yes, people in good faith reach contrary positions on the authority and meaning of individual scriptures, but one would have to be willfully blind to deny the persistent pressure toward “inclusivity” and the irrebuttable presumption of moral superiority inherent to secular progressive ethics.
That is the temptation of faith. The temptation of tribe is different. It’s the temptation to find a “place” in contemporary American culture outside of the church.
Tribe? Ah, that is where many young people will collide with the new (and old) tribal identities found on left and right (and Twitter). We live in a very, very tribal age.
Read it all, journalists of all ages. Should these young Times evangelicals try to change traditional Christianity or be candid and flee into other sanctuaries?
That’s a big news story either way.