Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Timely Re-post: Mark Sanford and the failure of pop culture evangelicalism

[NOTE: This article was originally posted on June 30, 2009. In light of recent events, I think it is appropriate to re-post it at this time.]

Pop culture mythology portrays "evangelical Christians," lumped together under the umbrella of the "Religious Right," as a potent--even dangerous--force in American politics. In reality, however, the "evangelicalism" so often maligned by the pop culture is largely a product of that culture itself. From the outmoded escapist fantasies of "rapture ready" dispensationalism to the trendy fads of the "Emergent Church," the similarities between pop culture evangelicalism and genuine Christianity are few and far between.

A stinging indictment against one of the major shortcomings of pop culture evangelicalism is the sorry episode involving South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. As Lloyd Fonvielle sees it, Sanford's "culture" failed him.
Sanford's case feels more complex, and interesting. He's clearly still in love with his Argentinian bombshell, if by love we mean the pussy-fever associated with a new and transgressive sexual relationship. Some failing in the right-wing Christian culture he inhabits seems to have left him unprepared to deal with the power of that fever -- you get a sense he was blindsided by it, and is still reeling from the blow.

Perhaps there is something about the rhetoric of his culture that minimizes the exaltation of sexual love, relating it too exclusively to law and duty, downplaying its delirious joy, leaving the members of that culture defenseless when the real thing emerges or re-emerges in their lives.

When it comes to adultery, I'm agin' it -- I don't see it as a "pecadillo" but as a profound, existentially crippling moral failing . . . yet at the same time less about the sex involved than about a violation of trust that can almost literally rip the heart out of a partner. No amount of personal pleasure or fulfillment can justify it, but you need to have a healthy appreciation of just how much personal pleasure and fulfillment it can deliver to know what you're up against when it presents itself.

I don't think Mark Sanford had a clue. In his e-mails to his mistress he sounds like a lovesick and somewhat bewildered teenager. How did he get to the age of 49 in that condition of emotional immaturity?
The particular "failing in the right wing Christian culture" here is a view of sin as merely the violation of a moral law ("God's law," to use one of Sanford's favorite terms) with little or no emphasis on the larger problem of depravity being the natural state of the fallen human condition. This is an essentially Pelagian view which reduces repentance to little more than saying, "I'm sorry and I'll try to do better next time." There is no need for divine grace, just a more earnest human effort to try harder to stay out of trouble. But trouble will always find you if you rely on your own strength, rather than on the grace of God alone, which awakens true repentance and a radical change of heart and mind.

Pop culture evangelicalism is hardly the monolithic monster so foolishly feared by the cultural left. Its minimalist expression of the faith will never transform even one individual, much less an entire culture.