by John Ellis
Below is the introduction to a short book titled Our First Love that I’m working on. Lord willing, I will be self-publishing the book in a few weeks. If you are curious as to why I will be self-publishing it, you can read about that by clicking here – a post I published earlier today providing an update on A Godless Fundamentalist. At this time, I’m publishing the introduction with the goal of prompting interest in the book prior to its publication (hopefully) and, combined with the post linked to above, giving those who have been asking some insight into what I’ve been working on.
That being said (especially if you read the earlier post), please don’t misunderstand. Our First Love is not a cynical ploy to drum up interest in another book while building my own online profile. The subject matter is something that I have been concerned about for years and, for some time now, I have been compiling my thoughts into notes as well as relevant primary sources with the goal of eventually writing about it. Recently, via a series of text messages, a film maker friend of mine encouraged me to write the book. His concerns about American evangelicalism are similar to mine.
No doubt, Our First Love’s introduction will prompt questions from many, anger from some, and confusion in others. To that, I add the caution that what angers us often reveals idols in our heart. As far as the questions, good. I hope that the questions are deeply embedded in you enough to compel you to buy the book after I publish it. If not, that’s fine, too. Anyway, without further ado:
Introduction: The Idol of The American Dream
Like almost everyone else, I woke up on November 8, 2016 expecting Hillary Clinton to win the general election, becoming the first woman to serve the United States of America as president. On the heels of my heavy involvement in the #NeverTrump movement, I had an article ready to be published at the end of the day calling for Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) to be the 2020 Republican nominee for president. Obviously, it couldn’t be published until the results officially sent a Democrat to the White House, but apart from a quote from Senator Sasse’s office, the article had already been completed.
At the time, a friend of mine served Sasse as his Chief-of-Staff, and he had promised me a short yet official quote from the Senator’s office. As the morning wore on, I became a little impatient, wanting to insert the quote so that I could send the article to my editor, ensuring that it would be published as soon as it was possible. Responding to my email reminding my friend about the quote, he curtly responded, “I’m not going to be able to get to it today.”
His response confused me for two reasons: 1. As a general rule, my friend is characterized by generosity and gregariousness. That was the shortest, coldest interaction I had ever had with him. Something seemed off. 2. Likewise, Senator Sasse was a well-known critic of Donald Trump, and writers with far greater reach than me had already begun floating his name as the 2020 Republican nominee; the future that the GOP needed to cleanse itself of Trump.
At the time, even while Sasse continued to protest that he had no interest in the presidency, his office had been working hard to help create that ground swell. What better way to continue that than by providing an innocuous quote to be included in a Ben Sasse for President in 2020 article to be published by a mid-sized and fairly well-known conservative website? Again, my friend’s turnabout seemed off.
As the evening continued, I realized what was off. Donald Trump was on his way to being elected America’s 45th president. Senator Sasse’s office had access to returns and polling that I didn’t. My friend couldn’t take the risk of Sasse being officially connected to an article that would’ve amounted to basically a Republican coup on Trump’s presidency before the new president had even been inaugurated. Although he was vocally #NeverTrump, Senator Sasse couldn’t be seen as possibly calling for Trump to be primaried in the next election.
The article never ran.
Last week, while reading the growing tweets either praising or excoriating Ben Sasse for now offering his “qualified” support for Donald Trump in 2020, I thought back to that day. My reflection spilled over into my recent Bible reading. On that morning, I gazed at Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 16:24-26 that says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what it will profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
Reading those verses in 2019, the questions are glaring, if not rhetorical – Does mainstream so-called-conservative American evangelicalism teach and encourage Jesus’ command to deny self and pick up our cross? What’s more, did it ever? Or, rather, is American evangelicalism characterized by a love of comfort and an obsession with the defense of rights?
If I may be forgiven this seemingly non-sequitur, Joshua Harris’ deconversion story shook me up. Not because he ever played a role in my own theological journey (he didn’t), and not because I’m struggling with the same doubts that he did/is (I’m not). However, over the last few months I have been racked by serious doubts about the legitimacy of evangelicalism in America. I have found myself doubting the existence of the Church in this country.
In my head, I know that’s not true. I realize that I am mimicking the depressive doubt of Elijah. But in my heart, I wonder and I weep. From my perspective, the overwhelming evidence points to the shameful reality that, as a group, evangelicals in America worship the American Dream and not the God of the Bible. However, there’s a point where my navel-gazing cynicism meets the truth. And that point is probably closer to my doubts than the majority of self-professed evangelicals in this nation are willing to admit.
Josh Harris seems emblematic of the feet of cracked clay upon which American evangelicalism stands. A faith focused on betterment in the here and now and a love of celebrity. I’ve read enough of his books to be aware that I’m conflating several disparate things, but in my mind the unveiling of Harris’ unrepentant heart parallels the rottenness that lies at the core of many professing Christians’ worldview. And this self-serving worldview, which is the antithesis of Jesus’ command to “take up [our] cross,” has been nakedly exposed for the entire world to see by the elevation and even worship of President Donald Trump by professing Christians in this country.
To be sure, Trump isn’t the problem. Trump is the symptom, possibly even the final symptom before American evangelicalism is revealed to be a corpse.
As a group, American evangelicals are obsessed with rights. Quick to defend their rights with little to no thought about how that defense affects their gospel witness in the community. Committed to clinging to those rights, at all cost, even at the cost of serving fellow Image Bearers. Refusing to even entertain certain questions and concepts because the buzz words don’t pair well with conservative political tribalism and threaten their way of life – their comfort and seat at the table of power. All those, and more, reveal that the idols that reign supreme in their heart and life are comfort, a rose-colored view of the past, power, culture, and entertainment. Combined, they serve to reveal a single idol – the American Dream.
Donald Trump is the savior that has promised to preserve that idol. Righteousness is not a concern. Self-sacrifice in the service of others is not a concern. I am the concern. What I believe I’m owed is the concern. How I define comfort and security is the concern. My Western culture is the concern. And the nauseatingly racist tagline “Make America Great Again” is the most succinct expression of this idolatry.
Like all other human kingdoms, this country’s past and present have been characterized by wickedness, oppression, and idolatry. Using a Biblical rubric, America has never been great. America has never been a Christian nation. And that’s because the United States has been governed and shaped by fallen humans. The USA is not the Kingdom of God and it never will be.
Yet, to our great shame, many professing Christians in this country fight tooth and nail to defend the belief that America was founded as a Christian nation. This idol causes many professing Christians in this country to fight harder to preserve their rights than they fight for the souls of their lost and dying friends and family members. Across this country, churches prioritize comfort, ease, and the American way of life above the gospel of Jesus Christ. Daring to even suggest that Christians are called to serve the oppressed brings a chorus of pejoratives and denunciations (with the exception of the fight against abortion). Followers of Jesus have been demonized online by other supposed followers of Jesus for calling Christians in America to lay down their comfort and ease in the service of the least among us.
And so, as their idol has been threatened over the last few years, professing Christians have increasingly turned to an unrepentant, wicked man as their savior who made his fortune oppressing the “least of these” while flaunting his rebellion to God’s sexual ethics. An anti-Christ who is on record as saying that he has nothing of which to repent before God. On an almost daily basis, a man who causes professing Christians to make a mockery of Ephesians 5:1-5 as they defend uncharitable and deceitful words and actions that serve this kingdom and not the Kingdom above.
As we barrel into another contentious presidential election, the circling of the wagons by professing Christians around the American Dream is reaching an even higher pitched fervor than in 2016.
Shamefully, many professing Christians are in the process of openly trading their soul for the American Dream (if they haven’t already done so). The pot of porridge tastes good, after all. And that porridge has been stewing since Constantine married the city of Rome with the City of God. With times of notable exceptions, for much of the history of Christendom in the West, professing Christians have not needed to take up their cross and deny themselves. Power, comfort, culture, and rights have been become the birthright of Western Christendom. I’m afraid that much of what is called the Church in America is a false religion and the logical yet blasphemous conclusion of the marriage of Christianity with the culture and state.
There is a silver-lining, though. For like God quietly scolded Elijah, His people do exist in this nation. As the trappings of cultural acceptance and power that has been the accepted birthright of American evangelicalism fall away, the chaff will be separated from the wheat. Followers of Jesus do deny themselves. They do pick up their cross. And that’s only possible by the power of Christ’s Spirit. The silver-lining is that it appears that like much of the rest of the world, God’s people in this country will soon be revealed by their willingness to quietly and humbly bow their backs to oppression while going about the business of their King, the one they pledge their allegiance to.
Like all silver-linings, though, this one exists in a dark cloud. The following chapters will attempt to lift that cloud from over the eyes of God’s people and help us see that we may be clinging to idols that turn our affections away from our Savior and King. Chapter one will undo the myth that the United States has ever been a Christian nation. Because of that myth, societal power is an expectation for many American evangelicals, which is the topic of chapter two. In chapter three, the twin idols of comfort and security will be examined. Chapter four will deal with the idol of culture followed by chapter five which takes on the idol of entertainment.
This is a topic that is fraught with landmines. By God’s grace, my words in this book will be honest yet characterized by humility and charity. I struggle with the idol of the American Dream, too. My natural inclination is not to deny myself and pick up my cross. If anything, instead of Our First Love this book should be titled My First Love.
Soli Deo Gloria