The Emergent Church and the Gospel the Religious Right

The Last Word and the Word After ThatWithin the last week I have read two Brian McLaren books: Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (with Tony Campolo) and The Last Word and the Word After That (a work of ‘creative nonfiction’, a theological conversation in the — occasionally ill-fitting — garments of a novel). I was generally disappointed with both of them, for various reasons. I may give further thoughts on them in the coming weeks. However, before I do that, I thought that I would raise an issue for discussion.

As I have read McLaren I have begun to wonder whether much of what he is saying is a reaction against a form of conservative Christianity that has allowed itself to become more conservative than Christian. He is addressing a form of Christianity that has become neutered by the American political right. He would not be the first to argue that the liberal/evangelical divide as it plays out in the American Church is all too often a mere shadow of a political divide. In other words, the Church has allowed the story of American politics to become more determinative than the gospel. McLaren is arguing that there are reasons why thinking Christians might have good biblical reasons for siding with the Democrats on many issues.

McLaren is concerned about such issues as social justice and environmentalism and believes that the religious right has tended to downplay these issues. The religious right has fallen prey to escapist eschatologies and views of the Kingdom of God. They have failed to address themselves to issues of injustice within society out of fear of a mere social gospel and have neglected the environment because they believe in the imminent return of our Lord.

McLaren believes that the biblical language of justice has been domesticated by conservative Christianity. God’s righteousness is not seen as cosmic restorative justice, but as something that is primarily concerned with detached individuals. God is relatively unconcerned with placing people back in right relationship with each other, with creation and delivering the poor from oppression. He is more concerned with ensuring that certain detached individuals are rescued from this evil world and put in heaven.

McLaren believes that the portrait of hell presented by many conservative Christians is bound up with this larger problem. The conservative doctrine of hell has the tendency to marginalize the present plight of the poor, ‘by shifting the focus from their poverty on earth to their destination in heaven’ (as Markus argues in TLWATWAT). The need to seek justice on earth is downplayed, as the Church becomes preoccupied with hereafter — ‘going to heaven when you die’.

McLaren suggests (through the voices of his characters) that the language of hell can also be used as power language by conservative Christians. Human injustice is minimized and the all-important thing becomes whether you believe in Jesus in a particular way. The most important question is the fate of particular detached individuals, rather than the question of how God is going to be glorified in setting the world to rights. The threat of hell is held over the sort of (individual and personal) sins that those outside of the middle-class are more prone to commit openly, such as sexual sins and drunkenness. The doctrine of hell serves to justify smug suburbanites in a feeling of moral superiority. Their doctrine of hell, however, has little if anything to say about systemic and social sins that do not directly concern the individual and his soul.

The Gospel that rings true to McLaren is one that has much to say about issues of justice on earth. It speaks to the systemic sins that American conservativism has all too often been guilty of. It is a gospel which puts man back in right relationship with the created order. It is a gospel that forms new communities of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a gospel that is governed by a more determinative story than that of American politics.

I have deep differences with McLaren on a number of issues (many political issues among them, I would expect), but I think that he is raising important issues that need to be discussed. He is not alone in so doing. From my perspective it seems that scholars such as N.T. Wright are, among other things, removing the muzzle that many in the religious right have placed upon the gospel. The result is uncomfortable for many and may in part explain the reaction that his work has received in different quarters. When everything that you stand for has been justified in terms of a particular domesticated understanding of the gospel, it is very hard to countenance a rethink.

My chief concern is that, in rejecting the gospel of the religious right, Christians will adopt the gospel of the religious left, which is just as false-headed. I believe that the Church needs to reject the left-right political dichotomy altogether and start thinking in terms of distinctively Christian categories. Only then will the gospel begin to have freer expression.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in The Emergent Church, Theological, What I'm Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Emergent Church and the Gospel the Religious Right

  1. Trevor Acorn says:

    Very good thoughts Al. I was wondering, were DO you fall politically and has that changed as your theology has change(or matured – however you think of it)?

  2. Elbert says:

    I think that if Alastair would finally fall in a particular political categorie indeed, he would fall right off the globe 🙂

  3. pduggie says:

    They are good thoughts. I still have trouble ramping up the biblical jeremiad for the kind of banal injustice that seems to be mentioned. I’m sure I need to read more, but selling someone into slavery for a pair of shoes is one thing, and having an advanced captialist society is another.

    I mean, take gentrification as one example. So some folks needs housing. They see some nice houses that are cheap, and by them up. That makes the houses more expensive. Now the pooer people who lived there can’t pay the property tax (I assume that’s the issue that makes the case that ‘poor people are forced out of their houses’) and so they have to move or lose their house.

    Am I willing to say that the gentrifyers are involved in systemic evil and will face the wrath of God? What can alleviate the evil of this “system”? Do the gentrifiers/the city government/who? need to set up public housing programs to take care of displaced persons? What?

    These kinds of systemic evil cases usually feel to me like the final point is that depravity has so corrupted everything that even redeemed christians can’t go about their day to day life without being satanists at the same time.

    I’ll also note that there are libertarian/conservative ‘solutions’ to the root issues in gentrification problems that nobody ever considers (like getting rid of property tax, which requires you to have an income to pay it, but except for farms and commercial real estate, isn’t laid on a revenue generating thing).

    I’ll also note that its the conservatives in the US (Scalia, Thomas, Rhenquist, etc) who oppose such systemic evils as ‘takings’ of private property to give it to other private owners who will generate more tax revenue (a ‘public’ purpose)

  4. Trevor Acorn says:


    Those libertarian/conservative solutions to gentrification aren’t really solutions. They simple fix one problem while creating another. The heart of the problem with gentrification and other land ownership injustices is that community created value accrues to private individuals. Getting rid of property tax (which is primarily levied on buildings and improvements – not the land itself) DOES remove the economic force which drives out the poor but also makes affordable housing as a whole in the region even more scarce. Creating more problems. Why? Because property taxes have the end result of lowering building values. Getting rid of those forces will raise the price of buildings in the region. This is good news for those with property and buildings but bad news for the poor and for later generations who will soon be trying to buy a house for the first time.

    So, what’s the remedy? It’s simpler than you would think.

    You mention the evils of eminent domain at the end of your post. I agree that it’s wrong, but is it any less wrong than legally protecting those who accrue community created value into their own private hands? (the reverse of eminent domain) See
    Eminent Domain is an evil to fix an evil. It’s the thief stealing from the thief.

  5. pduggie says:

    So is that a *christian* solution? Jesus died to pay the cost of our sin and injustice, and calls us to follow him bearing our crosses.

    And we can fix an injustice by tweaking some property tax?

  6. pduggie says:

    I’m also not sure how youre using ‘community created value’ in questions of gentrification. Gentrification happens when communities fail to create much value, making their properties attractive to people with more money.

  7. garver says:

    I suspect “community created value” might refer to things like established patterns of community, personal connection, rootedness, etc. Gentrification tends to disrupt those things.

    And often it’s not a particular community’s fault that it “failed to create much value.” The people may be relatively poor and keeping up their homes and properties as best as they can and find themselves happy with that. They simply don’t have access to the kind of capital it would take to say, turn their block of row houses into ritzy condos.

    One can argue, of course, that community members do end up being monetarily compensated for their loss as the neighborhood gentrifies and they sell off their properties at a profit. But given the strictures in terms of the rising cost of property taxes, upkeep, shopping, and so on in a gentrifying community, moving away often isn’t so much a matter of choice as it is a necessity and thus the compensation received is incommensurate with the value of the loss.

    Not that I have a neat solution. But I see that there’s a problem.

    Of course, with regard to the McLaren stuff, I find it difficult to compare the “evils” of promiscuity or drunkenness with the that of gentrification. There’s a “directness” in the former that is lacking in the latter.

    One can make the point, however, that there are a number of sins that take typically middle-class forms (including greed, various idolatries, failure to give to the church, sorts of wastefulness, abuse of prescription drugs, lack of contentment, teenage shenanigans, etc.) that American evangelicalism’s complicity with conservative politics tends to sweep under the rug and legitimize over against the sins of others.

    That kind of thing, however, is probably true of all cultural sub-groups to some degree or another, though a particular danger, I would think, to those in a position of relative comfort and advantage.

  8. Trevor Acorn says:

    Pduggie wrote:
    “And we can fix an injustice by tweaking some property tax?”

    Actually, yes.

    If there were a law on the books that said “Joe Bob is protected by the police to come and take $20 from every citizen on April 4th of each year”, this would clearly be an injustice. The two methods of “fixing” this injustice would be, first the obvious one, change the law to NOT allow Joe to take the money. The second less obvious solution is to levy a tax on Joe equivalent to $20 times the number of citizens and then have that money redistributed to the all the citizens.

    This is exactly what I’m advocation here as the solution to gentrification and affordable housing (two sides of the same coin). It is also a moral solution since it restores justice.

    The injustice is our system of privately owned real property (land and resources, not toys, houses, etc.) which allows community created value to accrue to private hands. The fix is to do away with private real property (read mass hysteria) or to slowly shift the taxes off of income/sales/buildings/etc. and onto land values. This “allows” Joe to steal but then taxes that stolen money from him and gives it back to the rightful owners. The economic justification for all this is a little hairy for minds like ours that are not used to thinking in these terms but if want to look it up, it called the law of rent.

    This really is an issue that requires a lot of time to think through. I encourage you to read the first article I linked above (if you haven’t all ready). It’s probably the best introduction to the land value tax.

    Here’s another article from a Christian perspective. I have some disagreements with the author but you can see how the argument might be set up.


    By “community created value” I mean the following:
    John and 5 of his friends buy 6 lots for $20,000 each and build houses on them.
    Joe buys a lot and sits on it.
    After 2 years Joe sell his lot for $40,000.

    This increase in Joe’s selling price over his buying price two years later is due to two things. The first and largest reason is that John’s friends improved the sites near Joe by building houses on them. The second reason is that population increases on the regional level probably caused all lots to increase in value generally. Both these values are created by the community. They had nothing to do with Joe’s labor and everything to do with his slyness and insight. He simply took advantage of a corrupt system and profited from it. Sure he took some risk and he deserves a portion of the profit for that but the bulk of the value was created by the community and should return to the community. Of course, the community also creates value in other things such as paintings. Should the community receive a kick back for this value as well? No, because the owner of the painting has full rights to it “as the fruit of his labor”. Land, however, is not the fruit of any one’s labor except for that of God. Therefore, any increase in value should not accrue to a private individual simply because he “claims it” as his own. Fundamentally it is not his, it belongs to all mankind as the free gift of God.


    One other note:

    Our system of property tax is ridiculous since it punishes people for fixing up their homes. Sure it gives us a good supply of affordable housing but poverty should not be something that enslaves people.

    By the way. I have much less of a problem with gentrification than I do with the affordable housing problem. When places gentrify, the poor in those neighborhoods generally are able to sell their homes at a large profit and move to other (cheaper) neighborhoods a little better off than they were. But when housing as a whole becomes too expensive the poor are out on a limb.

    A land value tax would take all land out of speculation, removing the artificial scarcity for it, and making it affordable to all those who would use it. This would increase the number of small business startups and lower the cost of housing. Land use heavy infrastructure such as parking lots, wide streets, and Wal-Marts would be converted to more efficient land uses such as light-rail, main streets, and mixed-use retail. Land would be easy to get when needed but hard to keep when unused.

  9. pduggie says:

    I agree that the community created value (CCV) as you describe is disrupted by gentrification. But the reference was to the evil, in gentrification, of CCV accruing to private individuals. Since that reference doesn’t fit what you descibed, I have a tough time figuring out what was originally meant by it.

    I also did not intend to assign blame to a poor community for not having valuable houses (though I would claim its not impossible for the people in a poor community to be at fault). I’m just questioning the chain of reasoning that sees personal accural of house value (assuming that’s what was meant) at the root of the problems of gentrification. Is the injustice here that people wish to view houses as commodities or investments?

  10. pduggie says:

    I’d like to take one example from Joel Garvers list of middle class sins and question its relationship to the link between evangelical and conservative politics: failure to give to church.

    I’d say one conservative political position has been that public money spent on welfare for the poor is an unjust involuntary transfer of wealth. Taxes could be lower, and society more productive and benefit more effectively maxmized for all if money was not spent on state run social programs and was retained by the citizens who earned it.

    These arguments are often echoed by evangelicals on the political right. They further note that churches are responsible to care for the poor, and that the welfare rolls could be completely emptied with the resources of christian churches assuming all members of churches tithed their income, which they don’t. Every right wing Christian argument against government programs I’ve ever read has made this point. George Bush, the most favored presedent of the evangelical right in the last two decades, explictly called for churches to take over social programs as a more effective way to help the poor.

    So in what sense does the complicity of evangelicalism with conservative politics lead to middle class Christians failing to sufficiently give to churches? If there was a complicty between evangelicals and Randian Objectivism, I could buy it, but I’ve never seen it.

  11. Trevor Acorn says:


    I posted a (quite large) post last night yet I don’t see it here anymore.
    Was it edited or moderated out?
    I see that there is a lot of clarification on my part that needs to be done but I don’t have the time to rewrite everything I wrote last night. Al, if you edited it, could you send me a copy? I wasn’t so smart as to save it on my computer.

  12. Trevor Acorn says:

    Ok, now it’s there.


  13. Al says:

    Sometimes comments with a number of links are sent to be moderated first as they are generally spam.

  14. garver says:

    Well, you represent one, fairly nuanced version of conservative through.

    Conservativism also often carries an undercurrent of poor people being lazy, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, why should my money be going to help those people, etc. Taxation, however, is mandatory while giving the church isn’t. Thus within the climate created by certain sorts of conservative rhetoric, church-giving ends up suffering more readily than tax dollars.

  15. garver says:

    Um, that should be “thought,” not “through.”

  16. Trevor Acorn says:


    If you want to call it “conservative” thought, I guess you can. I don’t know too many conservatives who deny the right to the private ownership of land. That idea has more in common with communism than conservatism. On just about every other issue OTHER than land I would probably side with the libertarians. There are many great minds in this tradition including John Locke, Winston Churchill, Henry George, Mark Twain, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Jefferson (as well as a host of agrarians). The political groups I find the most camaraderie with are the geolibertarians (read Green Free-Market advocates of the classical economics type), Georgists, and the Green party of Ontario Canada.

  17. garver says:

    Sorry, I was referring to pduggie.

  18. I have a question about McLaren’s reasoning: is it possible that some conservatives have their beliefs about hell because of politics, while others have it because it is biblical/traditional teaching? The problem with the hermeneutic of suspicion (which McLaren seems to be practicing to a T) is that often is suspicious of people when it shouldn’t be. Is it fair to generalize that far, to say all conservatives believe in hell for submerged political reasons? That seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

  19. pduggie says:

    Since there are about 15 different conservative winds, and the temperature of conservativism changes daily, with astoundingly high peaks and record lows, I deny that there is a identifiable climate.

  20. Adam says:

    Was someone going to bring up what the Scriptures teach us regarding these issues? I keep hearing about “justice” and “injustice”, without reference to the only standard for justice. Conservatism, liberalism, communism, Marxism, socialism, and fascism, are all different names for autonomous philosophies.

    Mclaren’s problem is that he wants “social justice” without consulting the “Just One”. He believes that his own ideas are justified by virtue of the fact that they ‘sound’ Biblical. Of course, bringing up the fact that hundreds of passages speak about ‘such and such’ does not explain what they SAY about ‘such and such’. Unfortunately, as it appears, this is the problem of many post-theonomic reformed folk.

    God has these answers for us. We need only search. I suggest the commentaries on the Law by Gary North. I don’t agree with him on everything, but he’s done lots of very in depth work on the Pentateuch.

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