Religion, Fundamentalism, Gnosticism, BLM: Part V

Fundamentalism, as I have said elsewhere, is a faith in a compact doctrine “which is unprovable but unchallengeable by facts or by argument external to that faith, and which claims a universal application.” Pastor John Piper’s recent contra-Trump article provides a good example of a fundamentalist mode of argument.

The essentials of Piper’s argument are I think adequately summarized as follows. Trump, he suggests, exhibits certain “sins mentioned in the New Testament…that destroy people,” including “unrepentant sexual immorality (porneia), unrepentant boastfulness (alazoneia), unrepentant vulgarity (aischrologia), unrepentant factiousness (dichostasiai) [and] strife-stirring (eristikos).” These sins, he continues, when exercised by a leader are “nation-corrupting” and “culture-shaping” and therefore, to support Trump would “undermine [his] calling (and the church’s mission) to stand for Christ-exalting faith and hope and love.”

If you tell me that my Uber driver is drunk, blind, or suicidal, I’ll get out of the car, but tell me that he is unchaste, arrogant, vulgar, or factious, I’ll shrug, “drive on.” Some vices or virtues are largely irrelevant to the performance of certain roles—but this way of thinking is not characteristic of fundamentalism. There, the procedure is to locate important terms (vices or virtues), and ascribe to them an absolute value, regardless of context. If a person can be successfully labeled with one of these terms, judgment is final, and little searching is done to determine precisely what the label means, or whether the label is deserved in any instance. Of late, examples of this procedure have been more vivid on the left, whose denunciations of Trump’s alleged racism, chauvinism, and fascism have become rote and tiresome, but Piper shows us how it’s done on the religious right. 

Piper seems most exercised by Trump’s “self-exaltation,” so let’s consider his treatment of this term. He gives us the Greek word alazoneia, but doesn’t take any time to explain its usage or context, and doesn’t direct us to any particular verses. As far as I can tell, this word appears only twice in the Greek New Testament, at James 4:16 and 1 John 2:16. In each case, the author is addressing small communities of Christians, and in each case he is reminding them that in view of their mortality they should have no confidence or pride in health, strength, beauty, or wealth:

James 4:13-16: Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil.

I John 2:15-17: Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

Plainly, neither of these passages has anything to do with boasting as such or in general, but even if either did, extrapolation from the ethics of a small first century community to the conduct of the president of a 21st century democratic superpower is no simple matter, and Piper simply has not done the work. What can we say? Is boasting ever appropriate? Surely during a job interview you would be permitted the “self-exaltation” of specifying your qualifications and achievements, and Trump is interviewing for the biggest job in the world. Don’t boasting and posturing have their place in negotiation, and in political exhortation? How can Piper be sure that he accurately discerns Trump’s personal character from his public statements and persona, in a word, from his persuasion? I pose these questions not in defense of Trump, but as examples of the kind of commonsensical queries that fundamentalists do not make. 

In quest of certainty (and perhaps control) fundamentalism simplifies, absolutizes, systematizes, and, ultimately, distorts. In this case it has reduced passages of melancholy beauty and hope to a curt injunction, “don’t brag,” at odds with the meaning of the text; Piper’s chief victim here is not Trump, but the Bible.

Also in this series: 

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

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