Rethinking My Christianity: Why I’ve Changed in the Last Year

Some people are probably wondering what happened to me. I used to be a super rightwing guy with a fundamentalist view of Scripture and life. Now, I lean center in my politics and only agree with fundamentalism in that there are narrow doctrinal positions that define Christianity. Why this change?

This process has been going on for quite a while, but I will start roughly a year ago. Last year, I was assigned to write a paper on racism and the Old Testament. Being a PhD student at the time, this meant something like reading 3000-5000 pages on the subject and then assessing the opinions in the light of Scripture. What I discovered shocked me. I found that not only did the church not only stood by silent in the racist brutality of reconstruction and Jim Crow, but in many cases racism had full support from the churches. While lynching in some cases was decried by the church, segregation was a hill that many people were going to die on.

As part of my research, I dug into the history of Bob Jones University. The sad truth shocked me again. BJU was not just part of the crowd that defended segregation. They led the crowd all the way to the Supreme Court. Further, they gave honorary degrees to Strom Thermon, George Wallace, and Lester Maddox because of their strong defense of segregation. Why is this point relevant? I realized in this study that politics and social conservatism have played a key role in fundamentalist theology. Separation was not restricted to spiritual matters, but it encompassed Southern politics in its embrace.

I realized that some of my views may be shaped more by politics than by Scripture. It got me thinking and researching deeper. I found myself reading about the origins of the anti-rock theology which I grew up with. There are many factors involved, only one of which I will enter into here. The origins of this argument were less about spiritual matters and more about politics. The strongest advocates opposed rock music and folk music because of its identification with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. MLK was lumped in with those evil commies and thus the music was placed in that same camp. The godless communists were creating this music in order to undermine America and Christianity. The main argument against R&R was that it was disrupting the order of society, which was to say that society was becoming desegregated. Only years later, after Civil Rights was enforced, did the anti-rock group turn heavily to Scripture to strengthen their arguments. This fact which was a key part of my upbringing was politically, not Scripturally, driven. This shattered every last shred of loyalty or hope that I had in fundamentalism.

I researched more. A burning question I had was why does the evangelical/fundamental church vote exclusively Republican (or nearly so). The answer lies in Nixon’s Southern Strategy. It was a campaign to win white voters to the Republican party through the manipulation of the racial-grievances brought on by recent Civil Rights legislation. This played right into the evangelical/fundamentalist narrative of social conservatism (i.e., segregation).

The sudden massive shift to the Republican party also cemented into evangelical minds the secular enlightenment tenant of small government. Reagan picked up this theme and fought for destruction of social safety nets and welfare. He popularized the idea of the “welfare queen.” He painted a picture of black women in Chicago who manipulated and lived off the system. This stereotype fed on the evangelical/fundamentalist support of segregation. The rhetoric of the Republican campaigns was so effective that you can hardly find someone today who both claims to be an evangelical/fundamentalist and who claims that the government should help the poor.

The response of the church? Well, I can tell you that I have heard many sermons on how the government should not have welfare–that is the church’s job. But then, almost in the same breath, many evangelicals will argue that the main mission of the church is not to help the poor, but spread the Gospel. Churches should not attempt social justice as a group. Rather, social justice should be done by individuals in the church. So, helping the poor is not the the government’s responsibility nor the church’s responsibility. It is up to the individual. Yet, in my life time, I have heard almost no sermons on how the individual was supposed to help people. In fact, I’ve heard more reasons why Christian individuals should not give money to the poor (because they are lazy, will waste it, etc), than I have heard on why we should help the poor. But the more I read Scripture, the more I find it necessary for the corporate body of Christ and the secular government to help the poor. It seems to me that the evangelical/fundamentalist right is more concerned with right-wing politics than following Scriptures on this point.

Thus, the disillusionment set in. What once used to be stable, now shook. What once used to be Scriptural, now revealed itself to be political. And I am left confused and unfounded. It caused me to reconsider my beliefs and to re-found my thinking. I’ve already fought through the matter of the inspiration of Scripture. I know I can trust it. So, I’ve attempted to begin their and trust that the Spirit will lead me.

I still am an evangelical, in that I hold to the key doctrines of the church, believe in a personal conversion, etc. I do not think I am a fundamentalist. Yes, there are key doctrines that one must hold to in order to be a Christian. Yes, separation is Biblical doctrine and must be practiced. These are not my problems. My problem is that fundamentalism became much more than these things. It stood its ground, not on Scripture many times, but on political ideologies. It fought for what it wanted to believe, but not what the Scripture argues. I’m not so sure I can support this by claiming this label.

Where does this leave me politically? I’m not sure. After reading this so far you’ve probably thought I would say I’m politically left. That is not the case. I am still, as many consider, politically right. Abortion is a huge issue to me that I will not overlook. Life is sacred and this has been the position of the church since its beginnings. Fiscal responsibility is huge too because God demands that we be honest and careful with out money. However, I also believe the the government should take care of the poor via welfare. I am alive and well today because of these social nets. I think that federalism can be used properly. I trust government guidelines on things like COVID19. There are many corrupt people in government, and I don’t trust them very much. But then again, there are also many corrupt people that walk next to me in the streets and I don’t trust them either. I support whichever group seems to be following the Scriptures better.

I am still on a journey. I honestly don’t feel proud of where I’m at. I just feel sad. I haven’t settled on where I feel comfortable. Somethings I hold now I probably will recant. Other things, I still will maintain. But this one thing I am trying to do: I want to base my life on what the Scripture says and not my politics.

7 thoughts on “Rethinking My Christianity: Why I’ve Changed in the Last Year

  1. Hey Nate. Thanks for your candor in sharing your concerns in these areas. What you’ve related here is, I think, a fairly common experience among seminary students. I did my undergrad and master’s at an institution that was, in many ways, more “gung ho” fundamentalist than BJU, and I too came away with some disillusionment. I started doctoral work at a seminary that was “fundamental in doctrine and evangelical in practice” (as one prof put it), so I was, at the time, relieved to be out from under all the restrictions. As time went on, however, I began to realize that though there were many things about my more hardcore fundamentalist background that I could no longer endorse, there was also a lot more wisdom in the old guidelines and standards of my past than I was initially willing to acknowledge.

    Certainly, I think that there’s little question that there are many forces outside the Bible that shape the fundamentalist culture that we experience today. If we take music, for instance, perhaps there’s some truth to the idea that fundamentalists have, in many cases, been driven more by cultural concerns than by Scripture. At the same time, I wonder if it might be overly simplistic to attribute fundamentalist music standards exclusively to reactions against MLK and the Civil Rights movement. Even if you take the supposedly clean “oldies but goodies” of the 50s and 60s, it won’t take you long to find veiled (or not so veiled!) references to illicit sex. And of course, the popular music scene has surely worsened, not improved, since then. I don’t doubt that we’ve often gone overboard (e.g., backward masking, or the practice of trying to find hidden messages in rock songs when played backwards), but it’s difficult to deny that rock music has more often than not been associated with rebellion (i.e., “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll”).

    Of course, I agree that there are elements of BJU’s past that are unsavory, to say the least. I have a particular sensitivity on this issue since I’m married to a Chinese wife. Even as recently as 25 years ago, my marriage would have been forbidden on campus. Frankly, it is inexcusable, and the university could/should have done better, as Dr. Stephen Jones readily acknowledged. At the same time, however, I think there’s a principle in play: chew the hay, and spit out the briars. Bob Jones Sr.’s advocacy of segregation, bad as it was, pales in comparison to Martin Luther’s shocking statements about the Jews. And yet all of our churches are immeasurably indebted to Luther’s stand for justification by faith alone. Even some of the hardcore, anti-Reformed churches who would claim to disown Luther can’t really avoid his influence (without, of course, slipping into heretical views of soteriology). BJU was wrong about segregation, but that doesn’t mean that everything the institution did during those years was bad. In fact, the university did accomplish a great deal of good for the cause of Christ, just as you and I today can make significant contributions to the kingdom despite our sin.

    I definitely applaud you for your willingness to go back to Scripture and not to uncritically accept everything about fundamentalist culture. And I applaud your willingness to research into these things. I would simply caution that there is more than one way to look at things. George Marsden can definitely give you one perspective on fundamentalist history and culture, but Rolland McCune will give you another. I probably wouldn’t agree with everything that either one of them would say, but it’s worth giving them a fair hearing, at the very least. And like me, you’re a husband and a father. As your kids grow older, you might very well find yourself more drawn to fundamentalist no-nos than you would have ever thought possible before.

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    1. I appreciate your comments. I’m not sure where to go, since they are quite a lot. Simplistic answers here? Yes. I don’t have everything thoroughly researched and documented. I don’t have the time. I will say that I am definitely not fundamentalist because I’ve found to much wrong with it… wether or not they like it, fundamentalism is really pharisaical. I’m not saying all people are wicked and bad in fundamentalism. But I’m not sure it’s the best version of Christianity.
      I’ve read McCune, but not Marsdan. I’ve read Marsdan’s disciple Mark Noll. I’ll have to say that he is right on most of his critiques of fundamentalism. McCune I found less convincing. I’m definitely more drawn to the taboos of fundamentalism, and have no scriptural reasons to object.

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      1. Hey Nate!

        I found this to be a very interesting post. A conclusion that I think you may have come to is that no broad label is really a good label. There are so many issues with every labeled group of Christianity that it is probably better to define ourselves by what we believe more than who we are associated with.

        A question I have is what is your view of those that remain within the fundamentalist camp?

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      2. Well, if that’s where your convictions lie, then God bless you. I may have some spirited debates with you, but no Ill will. Check out my subsequent posts on this subject

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