The four most influential elected leaders of the last decade are, in no particular order, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, Donald Trump. Three of those people are gross narcissists. But as is always my contention, our elections (particularly our presidential ones) are mirrors – they tell us about the state of the nation more than anything else. Narcissism runs deep in our current culture.
Now this comes in degrees. I am not necessarily talking about pathological narcissism. The hallmarks of the narcissist are a need for attention (social media), a lack of empathy (trolls -and let’s be honest we’re all trolls at some point) and an inability to distinguish the self from external objects. This last hallmark can be seen in all sorts of phenomena, but most particularly in pandemic responses where we expect everyone else to be as afraid, or not as afraid, as we are. In general we tend to worry about ourselves and our well-being, while ignoring or diminishing anything that is bigger than that.
This observation is readily transparent in this ugly, unsavory conclusion to our current election and in the pandemic. In this transition of power we have completely lost sight of the fact that law matters more than personal loss or animus. We want what we want, even if it means tearing down the system (either violently or by ignoring the plain law) that has granted us the freedom to strive for what we want. Many locales continue to lockdown to ever greater extents when the vaccine is out. The focus; therefore, is on personal protection, not solving the problem. Rapid, efficient distribution and administration of the vaccine is the ultimate answer here, everything else is a stop-gap at best.
Identity politics is all about the self. I will not belabor it any further. We have completely lost sight of anything bigger than the self. Thus if my maxim that elections are mirrors hold, it is no wonder then that we elect narcissists.
Now, let’s talk about reckonings. A reckoning is what Ed Stetzer said in a USA Today op-ed Sunday past:
If the evangelical movement is to flourish in the coming generations, we must face (and even embrace) this reckoning. As leaders and members, we must acknowledge our failings but also understand the habits and idols that drew us to Trump in the first place.
Stetzer thinks Trump is the problem, not the symptom. The host interviewed Stetzer at length yesterday. The host had a clear, but subtle, disagreement with Stetzer based on the political divisiveness of Stetzer’s remarks. The host is absolutely right on a political level.
I have a different concern. I think Evangelicals are facing a reckoning, the question is of what nature and to what end?
Stetzer focuses on evangelical political activity and the seeming embrace of Trump. Trump was a political winner in 2016 and he advanced the political agenda supported by most Evangelicals throughout his administration – his obvious character flaws notwithstanding. That made voting for Trump a fairly easy, even if reluctant, choice. True, some Evangelicals have supported Trump in a fashion that did not fully acknowledge his obvious personal failings – that is a matter of style and communication that requires correction, but that hardly rises to the level of a “reckoning.”
Roughly a year ago, the retiring editor at Christianity Today Mark Galli, Stetzer is a contributing editor to that same magazine, wrote a blistering editorial calling into question the faith of Trump supporters. The piece was widely, and rightly, excoriated. I was among those doing so. In that response to Galli I said:
Secondly, Mr. Galli seems to be punting to the presidency as the dominating force for setting the moral tone of the nation. That is certainly not how the Founders intended the nation to operate, hence religious freedom. The church is supposed to be that dominating force. If the church is not that force, whose fault is that, Donald Trump’s or people of faith that have punted such power to politics? The church is the counter to any moral blackening that flows from the government. The church has been such with far blacker governments throughout its 2000 year history.
I am absolutely confident that if the church did its job better Donald Trump would never have been elected. But here we are.
The reckoning that Evangelicals, as the dominate Christian expression in the United States, face is not about who they support politically. Political support is a decision that has to be made in the moment based on conditions at that time. Rather, the reckoning they face surrounds their failure to maintain the church universal as an effective shaper of culture. The fact that we, as a nation, got to a point where Donald Trump was a viable candidate is the scandal that confronts Evangelicals, not that they supported Trump once we got to there.
If we are honest, evangelicalism isn’t really a “movement” anymore – it is the church. Organizations above a congregational level are either non-existent, a matter of convenience, or entirely ineffective. Nowadays, you think you can express the gospel better than the next guy, you go rent some space in a mini-mall, hang out a shingle, call yourself a church “plant” and start preaching. No submission to higher authority at all. It’s more about self-expression than preserving and preaching the gospel. Sounds vaguely narcissistic to me.
I have seen congregations torn asunder by music choices. Music is a matter of taste. That it is that divisive is about my taste and your taste, not what is best liturgically. This also strikes me as a bit narcissistic.
The evangelical movement has, for the last several decades, been defined by trying to find “relevance” to the current culture. In other words finding what people like and giving it to them. We sell “salvation” as personal fulfillment rather than as restoration into God’s created order. (Which will inevitably produce fulfillment, but only if we understand that fulfillment is byproduct, not product.)
Evangelicalism has morphed into a rather narcissistic expression of Christianity. It has followed culture rather than shaped it.
Therein lies where the reckoning needs to occur. Donald Trump is not the problem – we are.