Christianity's New Culture War

The American evangelists who had a role in Uganda's bid to execute gays are being condemned as blasphemers by their more progressive peers. Eliza Griswold on the holy war at home.

Stephen Wandera / AP Photo

In the recent debate over American evangelicals' role in Uganda’s foundering bill to execute gay people, the bill’s most vocal opponents have proven to be fellow American evangelicals.

“As a career missionary to Africa, I fear what would happen to me on judgment day if I didn’t speak out against what is happening in Uganda right now in the name of Christ,” Aaron D. Taylor, 31, an evangelical missionary from Farmington, New Mexico, who has worked in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Nigeria, and Guinea Bissau, recently posted in his blog.

In regard to Uganda, he said, “I would expect something like this from a group like the Taliban, but from a nation with a vast majority of Christians? Who would have thought?”

Taylor and his wife Rhiannon, 33, co-founded The Great Commission Society in 2001, an evangelical organization that works to start (plant, in evangelical parlance) churches and teach foreign pastors how to reach non-believers through interpreting Bible stories. He grew up in a conservative mega-church in St. Louis; attended Christ of the Nations Bible College in Dallas; and like his parents and grandparents before him, dedicated his life to Jesus Christ at an early age.

Taylor says he believes that only through being born-again can a person reach heaven. Given his evangelical pedigree, one might assume that Taylor would be keen to promote his moral values in the African countries where he works as a missionary. Instead, Taylor says that America’s culture wars have no place in Africa—or anywhere else, for that matter.

He is part of a growing Christian movement called progressive evangelicalism, a group led by such figures as Jim Wallis, the activist and founder of Sojourners, a left-leaning evangelical publishing empire, and Richard Cizik, who resigned last year from his post at the National Association of Evangelicals following an outcry when he told Terry Gross on National Public Radio that he no longer opposed civil unions between homosexuals.

These leaders and their left-leaning followers are in the midst of a schism, a fundamental splitting off from the former generation of more conservative evangelical Christians who saw it as their duty to promote their social values in the secular world. This is the real culture war—the one unfolding within Christianity over what it means to be a true believer—and Aaron D. Taylor is a grunt on its battlefield. The future of this movement will help set the course of evangelical Christianity, which includes an estimated one-quarter of American adults.

“President Obama’s recent election reinvigorated the culture wars and renewed the base within the Christian right,” Taylor said yesterday when he spoke by phone from the hospital room where his wife had just given birth to their first child, a boy named Christian David who wailed in the background. For Taylor and his new generation of progressive believers, they have to fight back against these outmoded and dangerous campaigns to mediate people’s everyday lives.

The most important thing that evangelicals can do, according to Taylor, is to stay far away from worldly politics. “Taking on the role of moral police is the exact opposite of what Jesus did,” he told me. The old fights over controlling American culture at home in the United States and abroad (in Africa more than anywhere else) seem at best a waste of time, and at worst, a betrayal of the core tenets of their faith. In regard to Uganda, he said, "I would expect something like this from a group like the Taliban, but from a nation with a vast majority of Christians? Who would have thought?”

Taylor is also a member of an evangelical splinter movement that goes even further. He belongs to a group of Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice, started by the controversial Pentecostal pastor Paul Alexander, whose members argue that not only do evangelicals have to stay out of worldly business, they have to stay out of war. They are pacifists who challenge any role evangelicals have in fighting in America’s wars, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group claims they are following the tenets laid out at the start of the 20th century by the first Pentecostal believers. (Pentecostals are Christians who believe that they’ve had a visceral experience with the Holy Spirit, and belong to one of the world’s fastest growing religious movements.) They hold that the first Pentecostals were actually conscientious objectors who refused to fight in World War I. Now, they want to renew what they see as this most basic call of their faith.

Taylor came to this understanding in the oddest of ways—through an encounter with a militant Islamist, which he writes about in his recently published book, Alone With a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War.

“Faith is at its worst when it becomes subservient to power,” Taylor said. “Jesus refused political power not once, not twice, but three times throughout His earthly ministry. The more Christians pursue political power to try to control other people’s behavior, the less they look like Jesus.”

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Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG this spring.