Why do some white American evangelicals default to tyranny when it comes to masks, and not responsibility to our neighbor? Why, in these churches, is racism a spiritual issue only, not physical & systemic? Both point to the Christianity we’ve inherited.
Today, pockets of US evangelicalism label health directives as tyrannical, racism as solely spiritual, reduce abortion to a political issue, and traffic in conspiracies. Is it possible all these point to a common theological problem?
I think white evangelicals in the US have inherited what we might call a “gnostic” impulse. The word comes from the Greek gnosis which means “to know”. Philip Lee in his book Against the Protestant Gnostics said the label was used by the early Church Fathers as a sort of a dig. It meant, “those who know” or more tongue-in-cheek, “those who think they know.”
Now, gnosticism is an ancient heresy. But to treat it as a developed system contra-Christianity doesn’t fully capture it. Gnosticism is a way of thinking. When this way of thinking intersects with Christianity it comes to deny Christianity. Ancient gnostics operating within the early organized Church came to deny the physical body of Jesus, and insist in secret, conspiratorial knowledge that offered the true way to salvation.
So gnosticism emphasizes hidden & pure & personal knowledge as the key to salvation. It demphasizes the physical everywhere it can, because the physical is evil, or impure. Gnostic thinking is “pure” conceptually, and “spiritual” when it comes to the physical. So let’s key in on “pure” & “spiritual” as a way to recognize evangelical gnosticism today. We can do this by looking at how evangelicals think of ourselves, and America.
Is the myth of “Christian America” gnostic?
Today, many who claim America is a Christian country do so under the influence of a myth. It’s true that no historian can deny Christianity’s influence on the United States without being accused for psuedo-history. But let’s focus on the gnostic, pseudo-history embedded in the mythic vision of Christian America. This vision casts evangelical colonial Christianity as pure and innocent (buzzwords for gnosticism). It gave America everything good, and nothing bad.
Holding up a nostalgic, pure vision of “Christian America” is a form of gnostic thinking. It sees the image of America, together with Christianity, as pure. But history tells us there is no time in America’s past where injustice is not perpetuated, often w/ theological support. Put simply, if you want to claim America was founded as a Christian country, you need to substantiate how Christianity supported slavery. We’ll return to this.
But let’s get back to the gnostic vision of America. The myth of a Christian country, this pure, gnostic vision of America, endures. As does a gnostic conception of evangelical Christianity. It is a movement untainted, divorced from it’s historical track record.
Are Historians Filled With Malice, or Are We Evangelicals Gnostic?
Today, some try to protect US evangelicalism from “activist” historians like Kristen Kobes Du Mez or Beth Allison Barr, who are frequently misrepresented as scholars of malice, looking to “attack” evangelicalism and its track record. If we treat history as a sort of “physical” discipline dealing with facts of the past, we can see how a spiritualization of Evangelicalism is a decidedly gnostic move.
These attempts to discredit historians issue from a gnostic vision of Evangelicalism, one that is “innocent” or “pure” based on abstract doctrinal confession alone. This vision of Evangelicalism is pure, and always divorced from its physical (historical) track record. This evangelical gnostic impulse today is also surfacing in evangelical resistance to masks, discounting modern racism, trafficking political conspiracies.
Where Did The Evangelical Gnostic Impulse Come From?
So, where did this gnostic impulse come from? You’ll find gnostic thinking all throughout church history. But in the context of the United States, the evangelical Christianity inherited by predominately white evangelical Americans today was shaped by three things: the Great Awakening revivals of the 1730s, the American Revolution, and chattel slavery.
The Great Awakenings were a revival movement that swept across Britain and its American colonies in the 1730’s and 40’s. Historians locate the origins of modern evangelicalism here. These revivals shattered denominational boundaries transported from the Old World, and gave a lowest common denominator to American Christianity.
The Great Awakenings created the possibility for an evangelical ascendancy after the Revolution. But before the War, it provided a common theological world and religious experience by which the theological argument for Revolution could be made and sustained. The idea of America as righteous has its origins in Revolutionary evangelical theology. Our default resistance to tyranny is our inheritance as American Christians. (The dichotomy of good & evil on display in Revolutionary theology is decidedly Manichaean, a form of ancient gnosticism.)
Proslavery Theology Required Gnosticism
But what about slavery? If the Great Awakening brought Christ to the colonial masses (slave & free) and the Revolution marshaled this evangelical theology to legitimize revolution against British tyranny, then the final move in creating a gnostic impulse was in the theological negotiation that took place over chattel slavery.
Black enslaved evangelicals before, during, and after the Revolutionary War confronted white evangelicals with a decidedly gnostic spiritual/physical problem: “How can the Great Awakening make us spiritual brothers & sisters, and lead us to fight a Revolution to cast off tyranny, but leave us enslaved in America?” Charles Irons in his book Proslavery Christianity describes this dynamic of theological negotiation at the intersection black agency and white hegemony in great detail.
The moment white evangelicals responded to this question with a gospel that discounted the physical status of black bodies, justified by retaining spiritual concern for their souls, a gnostic impulse entered the evangelical stream in the United States. The gnostic evangelical gospel believes in the bodily resurrection of Christ, sure. But it does not expect, nor does it empower, an embodied, saving, cruciformed faith of Christ in the hearer.
The Evangelical Gnostic Impulse Endures
This gnostic impulse was strengthened by fundamentalist resistance to the 20th century social gospel, and reinforced by crusading revivalism. The white moderates who disappointed MLK Jr. in a Birmingham jail had inherited this spiritual/physical split too. The gnostic impulse, created in the 18th century, runs in evangelicalism today. It explains a great deal of the theological ethics passing as “biblical” in white US evangelicalism.
A Gnostic impulse, for example, creates an evangelical pro-life movement seeking disembodied political victories but hesitates to physically support foster care or fight poverty in one’s community. The classic physical/spiritual split is on display every time an evangelical touts “my body my choice” to resist mask mandates, while damning those who adopt the argument for abortion.
Here, the gnostic impulse allows evangelicals to argue for their own physical autonomy, while treating abortion as decidedly “spiritual”. All this inspite of the protestations of evangelicals that life begins at conception. The innocence of an unborn child is as physical as it is spiritual, and evangelicals must confront our own gnostic social ethic which leads us to a paradoxical social presence. To disrupt this gnostic impulse, evangelicals seeking to contest abortion would embrace physical means such as combatting poverty, not simply disembodied political victories.
A Gnostic impulse fuels evangelical reticence on racism as well. It’s seen as a “sin issue”, but its gnostic gospel won’t speak to redress the lasting physical, systemic consequences of a society shaped for 400 years by this construct. This reality has been labeled “Critical Race Theory” and discarded. The anti-intellectual bent among evangelicals treats history like gnostics treat the physical, with disdain.
The evangelical gnostic impulse in the US flourishes not because we deny Christ’s humanity. It flourishes because in the name of Christ we deny the humanity of our neighbor, reducing them to the spiritual in a way that not just ignores the physical, but abuses it.
If white American evangelicals define ourselves against theological liberals, who dispute or downplay the bodily resurrection of Jesus, we’ll miss how we are gnostics in our own way. We may not deny the physical body of Jesus like the ancient gnostics, but our gnostic impulse allows us to move without consequence from the physical to the spiritual, negotiating our comfort and status at the cost of our neighbor.
My wife works in houseless prevention. She heard this statement recently that sums up the problem of modern day evangelical gnosticism: “you say you care about the poor, but do you know their names?” In our information driven, institutionally structured world, we can lead a very gnostic, disembodied faith, away from the very embodied living sacrifice Christ has called us to.