The former Lt. Governor of Maryland and eldest child of the late Senator Robert Kennedy argues in her new book that today’s evangelicals have forsaken historic Protestantisms’ commitment to the New Testament’s teaching on charity and social justice and “have instead tightly focused their outrage on issues of sex and private conduct.” She asserts that evangelicals have “all but abandoned the belief that we have a shared responsibility to ease the burdens of the poor and less fortunate.” She charges the religious right with “a total neglect of communal responsibility.”
“When it comes to the hard stuff,” writes Ms. Townsend, “the stuff that demands that all of us give of ourselves to better the lives of those around us, the right-wing preachers are nowhere to be found. It’s as if they believe that Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and cared for the poor just so we don’t have to.”
The facts do not support these assertions, and Ms. Townsend knows it. Having alleged the total abandonment of the poor by the religious right she then says,
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no question that evangelical churches have helped millions of Americans turn their lives around and endure the inevitable tragedies of life. I’ve seen the incredible role churches play in the lives of many of my friends. Privately, evangelical churches have been an extraordinary force for good. But the rise of right-wing evangelicalism and the force it has exerted in electing more conservative politicians has served to undermine the sense of national unity and collective responsibility that has mattered so much throughout American history.
Does it seem to you that Ms. Townsend is plagued with a case of doublespeak? Not when you read carefully the distinction she is attempting to make. While she agrees that “right-wing evangelicals” have done a fairly decent job of serving the social needs of people through private programs, what she is arguing is that evangelicals have failed to support public social welfare programs controlled by the federal government. In working to elect “more conservative politicians” evangelicals are guilty of removing the responsibility for social welfare from the government and placing it back where it properly belongs: on individuals, families, churches and synagogues, and private charities. What evangelicals accomplish in private for social and charitable causes doesn’t count with Ms. Townsend, because the support isn’t channeled through government agencies. And it’s interesting, isn’t it: while Ms. Townsend chastises conservative evangelicals for allegedly abandoning Jesus’ teaching on charity and social justice, she asks them to violate Jesus’ instructions on not doing your charitable work “to be seen by men,” i.e., in public (Matthew 6:1-4).
The fundamental point Ms. Townsend is attempting to make in her book is that today’s evangelicals are not being faithful to the historic Protestant vision of America as a nation primarily committed to social welfare. She identifies “three specific Protestant beliefs” which form the basis of her argument that today’s churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have failed America’s faithful by abandoning a historic commitment to social justice: 1) The legitimacy of protest rooted in the first Pilgrim and Puritan settlements in New England; 2) The spiritual equality of all individuals as identified by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield; and 3) the notion that, as the creation of God, we have the potential to perfect ourselves, and ultimately society, a principle she says is a direct outgrowth of the theology of Jonathan Edwards coming through the writings of men like Ralph Waldo Emerson. All three of these points display a gross ignorance of 18th Century theology and history. Because her premise (that Protestants have historically been committed to social justice rather than to moral issues) is based on a misreading of history and theology it crumbles beneath the weight of historic and theological evidence to the contrary.
She cites John Winthrop’s famous sermon in 1630 on board the Arbella in route to the New World, the same sermon from which Ronald Reagan famously derives his America as a “shining city on a hill” metaphor, to make the point that the intent of those who came here originally was to establish a nation with a “sense of national unity and collective responsibility” (known in common terms as socialism). While Winthrop’s sermon certainly focuses on the themes of our mutual responsibility for caring for one another, Ms. Townsend lifts those themes from their context and applies them politically to the nation when Winthrop was clearly applying them to Christians as individuals united together by their common faith in Christ:
First of all, true Christians are of one body in Christ (1 Cor. 12). Ye are the body of Christ and members of their part. All the parts of this body being thus united are made so contiguous in a special relation as they must needs partake of each other’s strength and infirmity; joy and sorrow, weal and woe. If one member suffers, all suffer with it, if one be in honor, all rejoice with it.
From this famous sermon Ms. Townsend derives historic support for the civil rights movement, suggesting that what Dr. Martin Luther King was doing in the 1950s and 1960s was an extension of this historic Protestant commitment to protest.
The Puritan movement, in many ways for the first time in history, created a model for collective organization, activity, and opposition, and reform.
The fact is the Puritans didn’t create this model. They merely operated under the model instituted by Jesus Christ when he founded the Church. Winthrop, again, was citing behavior toward others that was to be characteristic of those who considered themselves part of the body of Christ – the Church. Is Ms. Townsend also forgetting that it was government that Winthrop and his Puritan followers were protesting against?
To suggest, secondly, that the theology of Jonathan Edwards and the preaching of George Whitefield “established the principle of equality” is to completely misread Edwards and Whitefield. The premise that the great Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards “suggested the idea that the gates of heaven were open to all (and) each of us was a child of God and carried within us a spark of the divine” and that “within us was the power to move toward God, or to stay apart from Him,” is but one illustration of the theological and historical inaccuracies throughout the book. Ms. Townsend has Edwards confused with Norman Vincent Peale or Robert Schuller! Edwards taught the total depravity, and hence the total inability, of man to do anything to save himself. In no way did Jonathan Edwards support the notion that within man was “a spark of the divine” or that “each of us was a child of God.” Edwards believed that man’s will – his ability to choose or not to choose – was bound by a fallen and sinful nature that predisposed him to always choose his own highest good which most of the time worked in opposition to the welfare of others and ultimately to the detriment of his own soul (see Edwards’ Freedom of the Will).
And while we are on the subject of Jonathan Edwards allow me to point out another inconsistency. Ms. Townsend asserts that the present day conservative evangelical focus on the New Testament’s teaching on “sex and private conduct” as opposed to it’s teaching on “charity and social justice” is an abandonment of historic Protestantism whose primary focus was on social justice. I would simply cite Jonathan Edwards’ To The Rising Generation: Addresses Given to Children and Young Adults as but one example of numerous sermons Edwards’ delivered on the subject of “sex and private conduct.” In one of these sermons titled, The Sins of Youth Go With Them to Eternity, Edwards says:
Many young people spend their youth in sin. And some, while in their youth, fall into gross sins, yea, live in grossly wicked practices. Some while in their youth spend their time in profaneness; some spend their youth in impurity and the practice of uncleaness; they live in a continual indulgence of unclean imaginations, exercising their lusts and fomenting their thoughts. And not only so, but they are impure in their language and conversations with their companions, who are also grossly impure in their sinful practices.
How much more focus can one put on “private conduct” than by challenging a private individuals “practices,” “imaginations,” “thoughts,” and “conversations with their companions”? The Protestant tradition, especially in its Reformed variety, has always spoken to the private conduct of individuals, pointing to the adverse affects of such individual behavior on society as a whole.
Fast forward to the Twenty-First Century and Ms. Townsend’s assertion that “leaders of Protestant congregations have come to disregard the New Testament’s teachings on charity and justice and have instead tightly focused their outrage on sex and private conduct,” I wonder if she is aware of just how much the New Testament has to say relative to sex and private conduct? She chastises Cal Thomas for “reading the Scriptures rather selectively,” yet reserves for herself the right to do just that, choosing to focus her own attention (and ours) on Scriptures related to social justice while ignoring an abundance of Scriptures related to private conduct and chastity.
Finally, Ms. Townsend links Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson to make the point that American Protestants have historically held to a view that man, and ultimately society, were naturally possessed of the ability to perfect themselves. We’ve already pointed out that this is certainly not the historic position of Jonathan Edwards. The fact that Emerson believed in man’s ability to perfect himself is itself an abberation, a completely new theological construct in direct opposition to that of Jonathan Edwards, as cited above.
The real kicker, however, comes toward the end of the book when Ms. Townsend criticizes best-selling author Tim LaHaye for his lavish lifestyle made possible by the sales of Christian fiction books. She questions why Mr. LaHaye has not followed Jesus’ command to The Rich Young Ruler to “sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Throughout the book she holds up the Kennedy family as a model of religious charity, and how being a member of that family profoundly shaped her own views on social justice and charity. Have the Kennedy’s themselves given away allof their wealth?
Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Wayfails history and fails theology on so many fronts as to be innumerable. Ultimately it fails to persuade that evangelicals are unfaithful merely because they do their alms in private rather than through failed and incompetent governmental agencies.