Updated: May 23
It’s been a bad season for Catholics and evangelicals. Catholics are embroiled in a global scandal about who knew and did what about multiple instances of sexual abuse, a scandal reaching the highest offices of that church.
Meanwhile, evangelicals are tarred with the brush of Trump-praisers: not just Christians who, given limited options, reluctantly voted for and even continue to support the general policy direction of a blatantly un-Christian person, but who continue to praise him as a divine agent and tribune of Christian values.
I recently wrote an article for an academic journal that reviews books on contemporary Canadian religion. Among its main conclusions is that two Christian groups continue to show signs of vitality, even growth, in a narrative that otherwise features the decline of Christianity in North America and the rise of those claiming “no religion.” Those two exceptional groups? Catholics and evangelicals.
So what are faithful Catholic and evangelical Christians to do to keep bucking the trend of decline amid this maelstrom of terrible publicity? And what are other people to make of Catholicism and evangelicalism when so many of their leaders are so obviously wicked?
We must make the crucial distinction between people acting in concert with the tenets of their religion and people acting against those tenets.
As I walk down a street in Kolkata and come across a beggar reaching out to me for aid, my Hindu friend might say to me, “You can give him a handful of rupees, but otherwise not too much: He is working out his karma, his just deserts for the way he lived his previous lives.” I might find that response lacking in compassion (as my Buddhist friend might, too), but it is consistent with at least some strains in Hindu ethics.
In defense of Catholicism today, it is clear that its own ethics do not condone sexual abuse, coercion, lying, toleration of evil, blaming the victim, and every other unseemly or awful element of this situation. Quite the contrary: The people involved stand convicted by the teachings of their own religion.
Likewise with the evangelical courtiers to President Trump: their fawning refusal to acknowledge his manifold sins and their insistence on using the most glowing terms to praise him are in obvious contradiction to any Sunday School understanding of Christian morality.
The Christian faith, therefore, cannot be identified with either group.
But can such real Christianity be discovered elsewhere? If certain leaders are disgracing themselves and their traditions, are other leaders and congregations remaining faithful? It’s all very well to say that the theory doesn’t correlate with the practice, but people at all interested in the Christian faith need real-world instances of faithfulness, integrity, and vitality, not just assurances that Jesus and the Bible say otherwise.
Happily, North America is full of Christian individuals and congregations who, whatever they think about the rules and regulations involved in Catholic clerical leadership, refuse to countenance any abuse and any cover-up.
North America is full of Christian individuals and congregations who, whatever they think about Donald Trump’s policies, refuse to endorse the sleaze and the sin surrounding him.
It remains, however, for such Christians to speak up and separate themselves from these moral disasters. It is tempting to just pick sides, as if there are only two sides, and either defend the pope/president no matter what or attack the whole Christian community as hopelessly rotten. But there are not just two sides, and distinctions must be made, and made loudly—over the voices of the sensationalist media and the raucous defenders and critics at either extreme.
Just as we want our moderate Muslim neighbours to help us distinguish them from militants in their midst, so we Christians must help them, and our other neighbours, understand that Catholic and evangelical Christianity are not like what they’re reading and hearing about. Christianity is not, in fact, hopelessly corrupt—as many, many of our contemporaries have concluded that it is.
It’s not going to be easy for many of us to openly criticize fellow Christians, and especially Christian leaders. And it shouldn’t be easy. In such extreme cases, however, we simply must.
For if we evangelical or Catholic Christians don’t clearly distinguish the gospel, and those who are living authentically the life that flows from it, from these odorous clouds that threaten to obscure them, who else will?
And if we don’t, we will have only ourselves to blame if the next round of books about religion in Canada shows the final submergence of all forms of Christianity under one tide of failure or another.