Painting of Babylon captivity, circa 1920.

Painting of Babylon captivity, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of Gebhard Fugel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) From the moment they set foot on North American soil, the Puritans who came to the continent viewed their “errand into the wilderness” through a biblical lens, seeing themselves as modern-day Israelites building a New Jerusalem in the New World.

But today, the culture war descendants of those Puritans are feeling increasingly alienated and even persecuted in the society they once claimed as their own. They’re shifting to another favorite image from Scripture — that of the Babylonian exile, preparing, as the ancient Judeans did, to preserve their faith in a hostile world.

“We live in a time of exile. At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs,” Carl Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, wrote in the latest edition of the conservative journal First Things.

Rampant secularism and widespread acceptance of sexual mores once deemed taboo, Trueman said, mean that “the Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.”

Trueman was so convinced of that reality that he didn’t argue whether internal exile was an option. Instead, he wondered which form of Christianity was best equipped to survive this inevitable relocation.

His answer, perhaps not surprisingly, was that his own Reformed Protestantism was superior. That prompted a number of well-known Christian commentators to weigh in and champion their particular denomination.

Rod Dreher at The American Conservative argued that his own Eastern Orthodox tradition was best suited to survive the “internal exile.” That, in turn, prompted a post by Baylor University humanities professor (and Anglican) Alan Jacobs, who also dinged Trueman for encouraging sectarian “braggadocio.” Jacobs and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (a convert to Catholicism) then went back and forth on Twitter, and so it continued.

Leaving aside the confessional competition, the very premise of the exile narrative might be surprising to those who see Christian conservatives as driving, not leaving, the nation’s political dynamics.

For liberals, the religious right is pushing the U.S. back to a cultural and religious Dark Age. For conservatives, on the other hand, the religious right holds the promise of restoring American society to a Golden Age that has been tarnished by years of mainly Democratic malfeasance.

But there is another strain of culturally conservative Christianity that views the political path to renewal as putting, as the psalm says, too much trust in princes. In fact, Christians in that tradition see (and many political scientists agree) that the electoral and cultural trends on issues like gay marriage are moving inexorably against their values. And they don’t put much faith in the Republican Party to save them.

Hence the comparisons of American Christians today to ancient Israelites who were sent into exile in the sixth century B.C. by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, after his armies sacked Jerusalem. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,”  the psalmist records.

A photograph taken during the time of the Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial show, left to right, George Washington Rappleyea, Howard Gale Byrd, and Charles Francis Potter in July, 1925.

A photograph taken during the time of the Tennessee v. John T. Scopes trial shows, left to right, George Washington Rappleyea, Howard Gale Byrd, and Charles Francis Potter in July 1925. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In the U.S., there is some precedent for this sort of withdrawal: after the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, when creationists won a court case but lost the larger argument, fundamentalist Christians were so aggrieved by the backlash against them that they retreated into their own Bible Belt enclaves for decades.

It was only in the 1970s that these believers — largely white, Southern evangelicals — re-emerged (ironically under the banner of Jimmy Carter, at least at first). Using the bully pulpit of the Moral Majority and later the Christian Coalition, they sought to reclaim their stake in American culture, largely through Republican politics.

But those campaigns always left some Christians uneasy. Such altar-and-throne alliances risk compromising the church, the critics said, and they have brought no clear victories.

As far back as 1981, moral philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s book “After Virtue” argued that the idea of inevitable societal improvement is an illusion. Amid the ruins of civilization, he said, believers must adapt the model of St. Benedict, the sixth-century founder of Western monasticism, and reconstitute themselves into small, intentional communities of faith largely removed from the surrounding culture. Dreher calls this the “Benedict Option.”

Now, that idea seems to be gaining a wider hearing, albeit with various interpretations.

Writing in First Things earlier this year, cultural critic Peter Leithart said that what he called “Christian America” is indeed over and “it’s past time to issue a death certificate.” But he cautioned traditional Christians not to “slink back to our churches.” Instead, he said they should try to recreate a civic Christian culture at the local level to foster what he called “micro-Christendoms.”

Yet others see all this talk as indulging in what Alan Noble called the “Evangelical Persecution Complex.” Writing this month in The Atlantic, Noble, an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, defined that complex as the temptation “to interpret personal experiences and news events as signs of oppression, which are ostensibly validations of our commitment to Christ.”

In The Christian Century, the flagship magazine of liberal mainline Protestantism, Lutheran pastor Benjamin Dueholm also weighed in, echoing Noble’s criticism and calling the exile idea “a dubious and highly troubling premise” because it “trivializes” the experience of real exile, such as Christians and religious minorities who are suffering today in actual Babylon, or what we call Iraq.

A Chaldean Catholic woman holds a rosary during a mass at Saint Joseph's Chaldean Catholic Church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan on June 27, 2014. Many Iraqi Christians have fled to Erbil from other parts of the country because of violence from Muslim extremists.

A Chaldean Catholic woman holds a rosary during a Mass at Saint Joseph’s Chaldean Catholic Church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan on June 27, 2014. Many Iraqi Christians have fled to Erbil from other parts of the country because of violence from Muslim extremists. Photo by ryanrodrickbeiler.com

“Nothing in the experience of white American Christianity bears the slightest resemblance (to that), and it is unlikely that anything will any time soon,” said Dueholm, associate pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Ill. “We still enjoy a kind of wealth, prestige, institutional heft, political clout, and legal protection that would stupefy Jesus of Nazareth.”

Responding to Dreher in The American Conservative, Samuel Goldman also took issue with the “Benedict Option,” writing that the story of the Babylonian captivity offers another alternative to withdrawal — what he calls the “Jeremiah Option.”

The prophet Jeremiah, Goldman says, counseled the exiled Judeans to unpack their bags, set down roots and “to live in partnership with Babylon” while maintaining their Jewishness and seeking holiness. Goldman calls it “engagement without assimilation,” a more optimistic but pragmatic approach to difficult circumstances.

Dreher welcomed Goldman’s critique but insisted that in his view “the trend lines of Jewish and Christian belief in modern America make Benedict your man, not Jeremiah.”

How will this all play out? These could simply be the interesting but ultimately parochial musings of a few religious intellectuals. Or they could articulate a genuine sense of dislocation among tens of millions of American believers.

That alienation could lead them to internal exile and away from the national mobilization that has fueled our political debates for a generation. That would be a milestone in our nation’s history.

Then again, the Babylonian captivity didn’t last forever, and after 70 years the Jews returned to Israel, transformed, and in some ways stronger than ever.

KRE/AMB END GIBSON

32 Comments

  1. David Gibson, Excellent article.

    “largely white, Southern evangelicals — re-emerged (ironically under the banner of Jimmy Carter, at least at first). Using the bully pulpit of the Moral Majority and later the Christian Coalition, they sought to reclaim their stake in American culture, largely through Republican politics.”

    Yes.

    And now, Jimmy Carter REGRETS
    his own participation in this religious nonsense.
    Like an Ex-Christian who can’t bring himself to admit he is “Atheist”:

    “God appears to hate women…I just can’t believe in that God.
    But the Bible supports it.”
    - JIMMY CARTER

    “That is why I had to leave
    the Southern Baptist Church. Yes” 

    - JIMMY CARTER
    (March 25, 2014)

    Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter is coming to his senses MUCH TOO LATE!

    Evangelical Politics will be the legacy of Jimmy Carter:
    Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, George Bush, Creationists, Hobby Lobby, etc.
    They destroy our laws first
    And ask questions later!

    It is a nightmare.
    Ask these questions about Jesus now. Don’t wait like Jimmy Carter did.
    We’ll all be better off
    once this degrading, dangerous, abject nonsense of religion
    is abandoned.

  2. “Yet others see all this talk as indulging in what Alan Noble called the ‘Evangelical Persecution Complex.’ ”

    In the South, this ‘evangelical persecution complex’ is nothing new; we know it as the Religion of the Lost Cause (http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/lost-cause-religion).

    • Exactamundo. And far from signaling a “retreat” or “withdrawal” from either the political or the cultural sphere, this myth of origins enables conservative Christians to renegotiate their power in a way that enables to them to maintain their sense of innocence. The dream of being restored to the glorious position they believe they so richly deserve is never truly surrendered; they just adopt themselves to a new moment in the script and tell themselves God will do the rest.

  3. Excellent Article, which of course, raises more questions than it answers. What reinforces the article (ironically) is that all the comments to this point are hostile. Is it any wonder that Christians who hold to traditional values feel both embattled and imperiled. Of course, if present ‘progressive’ trends continue, the oppression so readily scoffed at here will become a distinct reality. The only cure from a conservative Christian’s point of view would be a period of repentance, revival and reformation. This I think is unlikely, much to the joy of the enemies of Christ. But God is not mocked. In the narratives of the Old Testament, repentance only came after God removed His blessing and protection from the people of Israel. Of course, most people will continue to revile and curse God for their sufferings, unwilling to recognize their rebellion against Him. A remnant will remain true despite persecution and oppression, and another remnant will be converted by the testimony of the saints. There never was a ‘golden’ age in the american past. And I don’t expect that progressives can ever understand what the Puritans were aiming for, frail and imperfect as they were. What some don’t seem to see, is that Christians who have remained faithful to the traditional view of the bible have not moved from their position to some imagined place on the ‘extreme Right,’ but that the cultural has been steadily moving since the mid-1950′s or earlier to the extreme Left. This is viewed as ‘Progressivism.’ It is the natural consequence that comes to any culture, none endures forever. It will be natural for Christians to become increasingly marginalized in our society; any enclaves established will be under ready assault; tolerance will shrivel like dry grass in the midday sun. ‘Rational’ people will become increasingly irrational in their disdain and hatred for Christianity. But as Christians (And I speak to Christians) we will have to continue to place our hopes in a better world beyond this one. That day of reckoning is not yet come, but it is coming.

    • “And I don’t expect that progressives can ever understand what the Puritans were aiming for, frail and imperfect as they were”

      A theocratic government. How hard is that to understand? The same thing many Christian Conservatives try to work towards. Thanks to their nonsense we had the exile of Roger Williams and the of the Rhode Island Colony. One of the first places set up in the Americas to be a refuge for people of ALL faiths fleeing persecution.

      Our religious freedoms owe their existence to people reacting against views of those who felt their religious belief overrode the considerations of anyone else. Like conservative Christians today. Hence the disdain the “religious right” has towards things such as the Establishment Cause and free exercise of religion (when the religion is not their own).

      There is no way Christian conservatives can claim with a straight face that they were ever persecuted, deliberately marginalized or discriminated against. If anything they were always the ones doing such acts. The worst of which is reserved for Christians who differ from their reactionary views. Being told to curb obnoxious behavior and treat others with at least a modicum of respect is hardly persecution.

  4. Preparing for a Babylonian exile? If the Jews had been prepared, there would never have BEEN an exile! The Jews were CAPTURED as punishment for not heeding the warnings of God’s prophets and repenting for their idolatrous ways! In effect, you have hit the nail on the head: Christians are being punished for not listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. What our country needs is the power and fire of the Holy Ghost instead of our political action prompted by the talking heads! Karl Rove can’t save us any better than Barak Hussein Obama! Just as in the Babylonian exile, it was only the remnant, the Daniel and the three, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo, that stood for God, so will it be in this age. Only the Kingdom can save us now, I suggest you all pursue the KINGDOM.

  5. A loss of control over others, and a loss of deference and privilege, do not constitute an “exile.” They are not “persecution.” And it doesn’t mean Christians cannot be part of “the public square” (whatever that might be). Time for these guys just to grow up and get over their Christian martyr complex already.

  6. I worry that somehow the American Church has squandered its rich inheritance. Scripture is clear, “Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I do like comments from Diogenes above.

  7. Really I can’t see why some American Christians should be so afraid of secularisation. The United States is less secularised than other English-speaking countries. Are Christians fleeing from Canada, New Zealand and Australia to escape rampant secularisation? Of course not! Life goes on as normal in these countries, all of which have freedom of religion.

    Yes, an increasing number of people have walked away from religious belief, but this has not led to the persecution of Christians in traditionally Christian countries.

    • @Michael Glass,

      “Yes, an increasing number of people have walked away from religious belief, but this has not led to the persecution of Christians in traditionally Christian countries.”

      Secularism is bringing the healthier civilization that religion never could.

      But it is under threat. America desperately needs practical politicians
      with smart, practical solutions to our problems – not more republican theocrats.

      The incoherent Pat Robertson Republican Fox News Theocracy
      must start to fade away.

    • Re: “Yes, an increasing number of people have walked away from religious belief, but this has not led to the persecution of Christians in traditionally Christian countries.”

      I agree; however, a lot of Christians just don’t see it that way. The difference, of course, depends upon how one defines “persecution.” Many Christians believe themselves to be entitled to control others, if not all of society and/or the entire country, based solely on the fact that they believe themselves entitled to that power. Anyone who tells them their beliefs don’t entitle them to control others, they view as thwarting their “freedom of religion.” And they view it as a personal attack. Thus, now that they’ve lost the privilege they once had as “Christians,” they interpret it as “persecution” or “exile” or whatever.

      The rest of us, though, understand it for what it is: A mere loss of privilege. Nothing more and nothing less. They need to grow up already and get over it, however, they refuse to do so (one of their beliefs, you see, is that they do not need to act like mature adults … this means they think it’s OK that they stamp their feet and throw tantrums over their loss of privilege).

  8. Another misreading of scripture to think that today’s environment resembles the exile. The exile was stipulated as part of the covenant with Moses as that punishment which would come upon Israel for continued disobedience. This is what the prophets spoke and wrote about and it was a direct result of their lack of covenant faithfulness. America is not ancient Israel and we are not under the old covenant. This also fits into God’s larger story that paved the way for Jesus Christ and is not to be interpreted as a repeatable event or indicative of how God deals programmatically with individual nations. Very, very poor exegesis.

    Also, the good old days to which many refer to many not be considered the good old day by everyone. Ask the African American population if they look back fondly on the good old days. Or other immigrants. I hate to be a historical revisionists, but I think we minimize the darker parts of our history and only look at the many blessings.

  9. samuel Johnston

    There are many traditions, one of which (critical thinking) has given rise to a new creation theory of everything, based on massive evidence, and practical utility. The groups that fail to accommodate this Nineteenth Century revolution (which is still only dimly understood by those who have not studied it) will continue to join the ranks of the “exiles”, and decrease in numbers and influence.
    There are many other issues of course, but this one divides those who can be reasonable, from those who cannot. The notion of a personal God that constantly tinkers with natural phenomenon to accommodate human passions is primitive, and untenable.

  10. I’ve become, in recent years, instantly suspicious when anyone mentions “traditional values.” Because those values are not (1) of the same traditions that I recognize, and (2) harken to an imagined utopia of time that, quite frankly, was backward and oppressive for many. Such key words tend to raise my shields ever more rapidly these days.

  11. There was no golden age of Christian America. Some religionists of late have been focused on what kind of cape the Pope wears as a sign of genuine spirituality. Others have focused on “social gospel” issues for the same signs. Sadly, we don’t take the inheritance on faith but seem to always be looking for some sign that we are justified; worse, we tend to judge that by signs someone else is comparatively damned and usually in terms of “prosperity gospel”. We manage to ignore Jesus’ own words saying that if we are faithful, “the world” will turn against us … and we cling to the idea (universally disproven throughout history) that if we are faithful, God’s shield will not only give us protection in terms of our relationship with God but in terms of economic affluence and military prominence.

    Today’s American conservative movement is not one thing. Witness how we are represented in electoral races. Is it “conservative” to cling to a virtual Apartheid where White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (males) enjoy economic and political dominance? Is Michelle Bachmann’s Dominionism conservativism? Should we be nostalgic for the rule of past Russian Czars who happened to be Christian, however haltingly? There is opportunity in the current crisis of American conservativism to seek to discover the meaning of “conservative”. We can’t simply harken back to a utopic vision of some past time when we enjoyed the ability to nullify Supreme Court rulings and take the Cherokee lands by virtue of “Manifest Destiny”. Ethic cleaning days really are not a good foundation upon which to build a just society. WASP privilege is not a sign of the establishment of a new Jerusalem or a new Camelot. I would echo Vladimir Lossky in describing Tradition as “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” It isn’t a simple recipe and it certainly isn’t the inheritance of a political party.

  12. I think it is important to clarify that while there are some Christians who will feel they must go into exile, there will also be millions of Christians who will not. It is not as if the U.S. will suddenly be bereft of Christian influence. It will be, however, a Christian influence that believes in equality for women, civil marriage for LGBTQ people, a greater tolerance for differing beliefs, even differing Christian beliefs, less rigidity on the issue of abortion.

    As the article makes clear, the political influence of the more orthodox Christians comes and goes, like ocean tides along a shore line. That influence grew beginning in the 1970s and reached its peak – when? about year 2000. It is ebbing now. But tides turn again and again.

  13. “In the U.S., there is some precedent for this sort of withdrawal: after the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, when creationists won a court case but lost the larger argument, fundamentalist Christians were so aggrieved by the backlash against them that they retreated into their own Bible Belt enclaves for decades.”

    I’ve seen this said again and again and again, with never a shred of evidence.

    During that time period, if I were running for office in areas with large (white) fundamentalist populations, would being one help me? Would not being one harm me?

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