The Rise of Global Christianity (Part 2)

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The Rise of Global Christianity (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 may be read here.

What is the relevance of all of the above for Seventh-day Adventists? There are several possible ways of answering this question.

Foremost among such responses is that American Adventists and Catholics closely share an important corporate identity marker that is somewhat unusual in the religious world for large ecclesiastically united religious groups that are prospering overall, which is noteworthy as Adventism emerges into a major world religious identity. “In 2014, for the 10th year in a row, more than 1 million people became Adventists, hitting a record 18.1 million members. Adventism is now the fifth-largest Christian communion worldwide, after Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and the Assemblies of God.”[1]

American Adventist and American Catholic individual members are equally divided on their secular socio-political worldview identification or leaning. (It must be emphasized that most Adventists, as do most Christians, claim an independence from politics; nevertheless, even in articles where such independence is claimed, it is not difficult to identify leanings.) American Adventist and Catholic members are split roughly 50/50 (this is a broad but accurate enough generalization) between favoring Republican and Democrat policies and emphases over the past 10 years.

In fact, of all major American religious (denominational) identities that are not in significant decline, only Adventism and Catholicism have been able to weather the storm while maintaining such socio-political polarization. Despite individual members divided equally in their leanings to the Right or Left, Adventism and Catholicism have been able to maintain a relatively strong ecclesial identity and growth in America.[2]

The only other American religious identities doing anywhere near as well as Adventism and Catholicism have succumbed to the pressures of embracing only one socio-political identity, either the Right or the Left. Even major ecumenical movements must embrace only one or the other, with conservative churches coalescing together, and liberal churches doing the same. Of course, this means that Catholics are uniquely well positioned to adapt to either Right- or Left-leaning ecumenical movements.

Although no precise numbers exist for American Catholics or American Adventists and their socio-political leanings, as one sample survey indicates (alongside my own observations during the past 15 years at the diverse Adventist school of Andrews University), Adventists vote roughly in line with the general population,[3] including following the population’s widespread stereotypes. (If you weren’t an Adventist, how you would vote depends simply on the rest of your demographic background. If you match the profile of a Republican or Democrat, respectively, chances are high that’s how you’ll vote as an Adventist).

To be clear, being or becoming an Adventist apparently makes no difference in how you see the socio-political world. Adventist theology does not create a unified American Adventist socio-cultural-economic-political worldview; rather, our increasing diversity has left us fragmented in an ever-morepolarized secular political climate. This is a curious phenomenon, and sadly, one that keeps many Adventists intellectually divided at the socio-economic level of our worldview, if not also on some theological issues, as inevitably they eventually interrelate. (It must be noted here that some theological conservatives are politically Leftist, although few theological liberals lean politically Right. In this regard, Steven H. Shiffrin, a non-Adventist, says, “There is no easy correlation between theology and [one’s] political position,”[4] even if statistics reveal interesting patterns and trends).

The above situation is one of the more complex reasons for the present polarization and fragmentation of American Adventism theologically; we have developed no systematic way of connecting how our theology informs our overall worldview at the level of socio-economic engagement and theory. This is not necessarily, in itself, a bad thing. Adventists were frequently cautioned to avoid “political questions” by Ellen White.[5] Yet, it also raises the question of how carefully Adventists actually think about the relationship between theology, philosophy, and society. Are we thinkers, or mere reflectors, of other people’s ideas? If we are not meant, as Adventists, to have a socio-economic worldview, then there must be reasons for this that we have not yet formally explored. Thus far, it appears we are reflectors, not thinkers, succumbing to the influence of whichever news sources we prefer.

As noted above, however, we are not alone in our fragmentation. The above division holds true for self-identifying American Catholics, who have also, interestingly, always supported the winner of the past several U.S. Presidential elections, no matter the Party he represented (except in 2000, when Catholics supported the popular majority vote winner Al Gore, but George W. Bush still won a second term owing to the electoral college), from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (first term), to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The Catholics know, and make, a winner. As George Neumayr observed, “Barack Obama rose to power not in spite of the Catholic Church but in part because of it.”[6]

Importantly, on this note, although American Catholic leaders have had a “conservative-Republican” stereotype by most American Adventists over the past few decades because of two hot-button “culture war” issues, gay marriage and abortion, which aligned well enough with Pope Benedict XVI’s agenda, the current Pope, Francis, is much more left-leaning, and has also been hailed as above such culture wars, a Pope who can bring Catholics together, from more Left-leaning and Right-leaning Catholic perspectives. Pope Francis has followed through on this initiative, becoming the first modern Pope to explicitly downplay the political importance of culture war issues like gay marriage and abortion, while yet still maintaining theological orthodoxy. Such moves have gained him tremendous popularity after just two years as the Pontiff.

For the first time in modern history, however, a few “Religious Right”-affiliated Catholic conservatives from Patrick Buchanan’s era are unhappy with their new Pope. Many have openly expressed their disappointment and criticisms of the Pope’s “leftist” economic sentiments. Francis appears to be far more “socialist” or “Marxist” than they are comfortable with, which has also been noted by several popular secular right-wing media commentators like Rush Limbaugh.

Indeed, some view Pope Francis as the single greatest threat to emerge that could challenge the existence of the Religious Right. When Francis removed one of the more-outspoken critics of abortion and gay marriage in America, the conservative Raymond Burke, from the Congregation for Bishops, it signaled a change in the Catholic approach to the American situation, a turn toward those that are less “heavily invested in culture wars.” [7] As such, it seems that the more popular sentiments that are winning the day point toward Pope Francis as a great unifier, able to bring together the Left and Right, here meaning Catholic and non-Catholic Republicans and Democrats, winning over an overwhelming majority (92 percent of American Catholics and 69 percent of non-Catholics),[8] and becoming Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013.

The above overall popularity is further evidenced by Pope Francis’s recent invitation to speak before the U.S. Congress in a joint session, for the first time ever, a political body where the Catholic representatives and senators are split almost 50/50, Republican and Democrat. Of course, the invitation came from current Republican House of Representatives majority leader, John Boehner, a Catholic, and was supported by Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi, also Catholic. In a time of incredible political polarization and rhetoric in our country, these two political opponents found common ground in their general approval of Pope Francis.

If there is one group that is consistently skeptical or critical of the agenda of Pope Francis, it is the Republican Tea Party, the most conservative-libertarian American group of political activists. Their outspoken opposition to Francis, however, is being drowned out in the overall euphoria of such a popular Pope capable of uniting people. It is doubtful that Francis can actually unite the Right and Left presently as some speculate, but, at least at a surface level, he does demonstrate that a single figure can be popular with some members of both sides.

Nevertheless, the depth of the divide in Catholicism is not a mere surface phenomenon. It penetrates deeply into their philosophy, particularly at the socio-economic level. American Catholics are deeply divided between economic “conservatives” and “liberals.” Some Catholic theologians hold “that the basic political division in America merely represents two iterations of [false] liberalism—the pursuit of individual autonomy in either the social/personal sphere (liberalism) or the economic realm (‘conservatism’—better designated as market liberalism).”[9] Both are, ultimately, flawed, in the view of some Catholic philosophers and theologians, who are theologically orthodox but highly critical of the Religious Right. Such Catholic theologians, such as David L. Schindler, claim that “an economic system itself already embeds, indeed is also, a theology and an anthropology and a culture,” and that his understanding of traditional American liberalism is as such a false theology that denies freedom,[10] based as it is upon the faulty Enlightenment understanding of autonomous reason and the rise of classical deterministic science that dominates the modern world.

In light of the direction that Pope Francis has taken the Catholic Church, it appears that Catholicism’s dualistic support for Republican and Democrat policies and emphases appears permanent. If anything, the Catholic Church leans to the Left, not the Right. Only on the issues of abortion, contraceptives, and homosexual marriage does the Catholic Church have any commitment to what are considered traditionally Republican positions during the era of the Religious Right.

On issues of socio-economic interest, like poverty and government involvement in wealth distribution, universal health care, and global issues like anthropogenic climate change or global warming, as well as other issues like long-ages evolution, which most Fundamentalist Right-wingers oppose, the Catholic Church has solidly placed itself behind a progressivist/liberal Democratic flag, and it is doubtful that it will change on any of these issues, as supporting them grants Catholicism greater influence over society. When it comes to economic philosophy, namely, the best way to accomplish their above agendas, American Catholics are, as noted above, deeply divided, but lean, if anything, to the Left globally, which is important because socio-economic Leftism is more conducive to totalitarian control.

Such a reality should temper concerns by some, especially in Adventist circles, that the Catholics are about to unite with those from the Religious Right, or, more particularly, the religious members of the Tea Party. Put simply, it’s just more complicated than that, and sharing this simplistic narrative repeatedly in our outreach and evangelistic materials is not helpful or useful, and does not penetrate into the much deeper and important philosophical and cultural issues at play.

Adventists should pursue the philosophical issues relating to libertarianism, which is a more complex and fruitful subject than many realize, and, overall, focus less on politics and religious-liberty issues as they are discussed within the mainstream socio-political spider web. This is not an endorsement in itself of libertarianism, but rather a suggestion that we should endeavor harder to understand it. The socio-economic issues our world faces are often more complicated than society might wish us to suppose. Stepping into the spider web of socio-politics and economics, it is too easy to become entangled, and, eventually, even prey for the spider. We must avoid such false dilemmas and situations. Rather, let us allow the central role of the gospel and personal spirituality within the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 to resound more clearly.

As it pertains to Adventism, in particular, there are many consequences of the socio-political spider web, perhaps none more important that the extreme confusion that the younger generation is experiencing in understanding what it means to “think” and “see” both the world and the church within it as an Adventist, particularly living in America. What is the “Adventist worldview” in a wholistic sense?

It is a mistake to assume that the Great Controversy meta-narrative provides a clear, complete, or wholistic worldview, as philosophers are inclined to describe one; in other words, that it tells how to view economic matters within and outside of the church. A worldview contains more than a theological meta-narrative like the Great Controversy as it is typically discussed. A worldview addresses issues that socio-political ideologies address: matters of economics, social justice, religious liberty, foreign policy, the nature of mathematics, etc. (numbers being Plato’s ideal example inspiring his “two worlds”). The question of how all these issues and disciplines should be approached from within the Great Controversy narrative has not yet been articulated, encouraging present divisions on the above “secondary” issues.

Thus, further development and clarification of the profundity of the Great Controversy may prove helpful. If the Great Controversy were understood as a wholistic worldview, it should provide socio-political guidance (whatever form that guidance may take). Maybe it does. But more and more younger and older committed Adventists have either no definite answer to the above questions, or their answers directly conflict with one another as sympathies slide into one of the narratives presented through the mainstream media that favor the Right or the Left.

Fellow Adventist friends who are, respectively, anti-Republican or anti-Democrat, aren’t going away. We should be cognizant of the fact we’re sharing our Adventist message within the context of two competing socio-political narratives concerning the condition and direction of America. Take a polarizing issue like abortion, and you’ll find Adventists, even of varying theological persuasions, firmly planted on both sides of the question. Nevertheless, we must never become known as the Seventh-day Republican or Seventh-day Democrat Church.

Why are Adventists and Catholics uniquely capable of remaining within the prevalent tensions in the major American socio-political identities? If nothing else, this is interesting precisely because it is not the trend in other sizable socio-religious groups in America. Is this because, in some senses, both sides are necessary to see the wholistic picture, even if both are, obviously, incomplete and even flawed? Does this mean that Catholicism, as a philosophical and theological system, better understands (having a more deliberately developed systematic perspective over many centuries) the wholistic nature of reality than Adventists presently do?

Another provocative thought: The Catholics have a pope to ensure unity, despite their American socio-political confusion. We do not have a pope. Can we continue to survive the political polarization that no other Protestant group has managed to survive and thrive while maintaining the dual socio-political sympathies among our members? Adventists often discuss our currently existing theological tensions and divisions. But we are also divided at the level of our socio-political worldview. This division is in many ways more significant because it penetrates into how we do theology and implement our evangelistic programs and develop the philosophical principles undergirding our educational and organizational structures—how the church works at the human level.

Given Adventist belief that the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6 to 12, alongside Revelation 12:17 are global in nature, it is probably good that Adventists are somewhat divided on socio-political sympathies. This aids evangelizing to a world, and a country, America, that is polarized. Adventists can express honest sympathies with aspects of the Right and Left, while not partaking of their philosophies in full. We can say “I recognize” your way of thinking to anyone. Not all church denominations can do this.

To be continued. For part 1, click here. For the original full-length version, click here.

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Notes:

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/januaryfebruary/season-of-adventists-can-ben-carson-church-stay-separatist.html

[2] https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2010/12/reflections‑on‑the‑future‑of‑north‑american‑seventh‑day‑adventism.html

[3] http://www.atoday.org/article/1472/news/2012/october‑headlines/survey‑explores‑how‑ adventists‑will‑vote‑in‑the‑2012‑elections‑in‑the‑united‑states. See also John T. Gavin, William W. Ellis, and Curtis J. Vanderwaal, “Checking the Political Pulse of the University: Findings From the 2012 SDA Religion and Social Issues Survey”: https://www.andrews.edu/services/ipa/documents‑faisebasedpub/political_pulse_of_university_‑_final.pdf.

[4] Steven H. Shiffrin, “The Religious Left and Church-State Relations: A Response to Kent Greenawalt and Bernie Meyler,” in the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 19 (Summer 2010), p. 762.

[5] See, for example, Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 475–484.

[6] http://ktfnews.com/president-obamas-catholic-political-formation

[7] http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo‑way/2013/12/17/251985254/pope‑francis‑shakes‑up‑important‑congregation‑for‑shops.

[8] http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2013/12/yuletide‑gift‑for‑pope‑francis‑vast‑popularity‑among‑catholics.

[9] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/a catholic showdown-worth-watching/; http://catholiclane.com/a-catholic-third-way-pope-benedict-and-the-crisis of-global-capitalism.

[10] David L. Schindler, “‘Homelessness’ and Market Liberalism: Toward an Economic Culture of Gift and Gratitude,” in Doug Bandow and David L. Schindler, eds., Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, September 8, 2003), pp. 349, 370.

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Michael Younker is a consulting editor for The Compass Magazine. He is completing a doctoral degree in philosophical theology (2019) at Andrews University.