Ryan Helfenbein from Liberty University wrote a troubling op-ed in Newsweek magazine recently. Its about Evangelical Christians and how they are failing in the 2020 election. Matt Boedy wrote a response and it is being published here.
“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.
James 4:10 NLT
Liberty University students protesting the financial scandal broken by Politico
Recently there was an op-ed in Newsweek by the Vice President of University Communications at Liberty University that raised some concerns. Ryan Helfenbein is also the Executive Director of the Falkirk Center at Liberty University. According to LinkedIn Helfenbein also worked for controversial Christian nationalist Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin who is known for a series of controversial pardons of murderers, child molesters, rapists and more convicted in the Kentucky judicial system by a jury of their peers. You can read more about Bevin in a post that was written in, “Former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin Who Issued a Number of Controversial Pardons Illustrates Why Christian Nationalists are not Pro-Life.” The comments by Helfenbein in Newsweek continue to point of additional politicization of Liberty University. At some point the question must be asked…is this a Christian University or a place for political activism? Christianity is not meant to be a political party or organization. That was not the message that Jesus preached if you are going to follow that teaching. This post is a response to Ryan Helfenbein’s article in Newsweek by Matt Boedy.
The demise of Newsweek as a reputable outlet started long ago. But in recent years, a series of insider looks at the news organization show a love for clickbait, among other serious problems. See here, here, and here.
I don’t know why Newsweek started publishing opeds from Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA and Trump sycophant. It could be its desire for clicks. Or a shared theology between Kirk the evangelical Christian and Newsweek’s links to the evangelical college Olivet University.
Those Kirk opeds are terrible. I prove that here.
Whatever the reason for publishing Kirk, it is abundantly clear why Newsweek recently published an oped by the virtually unknown Ryan Helfenbein.
Very simply, he is a good friend of Kirk. He is also the Executive Director of the Falkirk Center, the Christian nationalism “think tank” at Liberty University, founded by Kirk and the school’s president, Jerry Falwell. He is also – as far as I can tell by his lone opinion piece to be found on the internet – a believer in the same “free market” ideals of Kirk.
The premise of Helfenbein’s Newsweek piece is encouraging evangelicals to vote: “This is at a time when Christian action has never been more urgent than right now.” It does not specifically say “vote for Trump,” but by implicitly comparing Trump and the Democratic party on a range of issues, the choice to be made is clear.
But more broadly, this piece by Helfenbein is a prime example of the subtle yet stupid linking of Christianity to nationalism. Such linking is subtle because it doesn’t define its central terms, only assuming a link. Letting the readers supply the link or assuming there is one is a tried and true rhetorical move. But here it is stupid because it is also based on some dubious Bible reading, deeply disturbing comparisons of evangelicals voting for Trump to Christian heroes like Bonhoeffer, and not a little fear-mongering.
First, Helfenbein, who has an MDIV from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and was in 2012 at least, a PhD candidate at that same school, repeats a debunked quote about evil from Edmund Burke.
Then he attacks his own governor of Virginia for declaring a state of emergency for the gun rights rally in Richmond. Helfenbein wrote the governor acted “in fear of his own constituency by declaring” that state of emergency. Helfenbein willfully ignores why the governor declared the emergency: “Law enforcement intelligence analysts have identified credible threats of violence surrounding the event, along with white nationalist rhetoric and plans by out-of-state militia groups to attend.”
Those fears were grounded in reality. While no one attending the rally engaged in violence, federal authorities “revealed that three members of neo-Nazi terror group The Base had planned to attend Monday’s rally in Virginia, kitted out with a home-built, functioning fully-automatic rifle capable of firing several rounds at a time; survival gear; and 1,500 rounds of ammunition. They had planned to open fire into the crowd.”
Three citizens from my state of Georgia were arrested as part of the undercover FBI investigation into the Base.
Then in a unbelievable list, Helfeinbein tosses out all the things he thinks the Democratic candidates for president believe in: “Every candidate in the field of Democratic contenders affirms some form of abortion on demand, infringement on free speech and religious liberty, infringement on gun rights, redefinition of sexuality and the family, restrictions on school choice, redistributive policies that includes higher taxes, restrictive market regulation and freedom, government run healthcare that also infringes on the rights of the church, supposedly free college tuition, and a behemoth government with legacy costs that near $100 trillion in tax bills to American citizens.”
I won’t attempt to fact check this broadest of broad strokes. It is a ‘greatest fears’ list for white evangelicals who support Trump.
Though that last figure is worth looking at. It comes from a tweet apparently spread by President Trump and based on the plan put forward by many Democrats called the Green New Deal. According to The Washington Post, “The report itself doesn’t mention the number $93 trillion. But when the top of all the ranges of the report’s six different categories are added together, that is the sum.”
With this shallow slap at Democrats, then Helfenbein then claims those Christians he wants to get engaged (for Trump) are just as shallow: “All the while, many Christian resources today are focused almost entirely on devotional living, few are actually equipping Christians to think Biblically, ethically and logically….”
And it is the end of that sentence which should disturb all Christians. Helfenbein argues that Christians should be equipped to think “biblically” about “first principles for American freedom.”
He doesn’t name those principles but we can rightly assume they mingle with the misguided claim that America was founded as a Christian nation and that spiritual freedom translates into economic freedom aka capitalism and the “free market.”
Of course that denies any Christian or biblical argument for any other type of government, economic system, or any policy that would deny “freedom” across the board in any area.
I recently wrote about the relationship between this sweeping claim to freedom and the Constitution. Kirk and his friend have it wrong. Read it here.
Then with this shallow, undefined case for principles, Helfenbein then claims scriptural warrant for the political action he wants to
see from American evangelicals, specifically one verse from the Old Testament and one from the New.
“God rebukes Moses for prayer with no action (Ex 14:15-16). James, the brother of Jesus, also states that “faith without deeds is dead” (Ja 2:15-17). The challenge for Evangelicals today is no different than in the early days of Israel or the early church.”
If you have read your Bible, this Exodus passage about passing through the Red Sea when the Israelites were overrun by the Egyptians has nothing to do with “prayer with no action.” And while the James passage does mention the words here quoted, the context specifically named is offering a word-based blessing and not attending to the physical needs of our brothers and sisters. Neither passage has anything to do with political involvement.
Next Helfenbein tries to use Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce as examples for evangelical voting in the 2020 election. While Bonhoeffer did oppose the Nazi regime, that is of course nothing like voting for an incumbent president. And as a published expert on Bonhoeffer, I can say that Helfenbein’s description of the German pastor’s situation before he took on Hitler is wrong. Bonhoeffer was a pastor of many churches, founder of an illegal seminary, and most notably yes, a professor, all at the same time. He didn’t “step out of the comfort and quiet pacifism of the Academy.”
And yes, Wilberforce practiced “civic engagement, parliamentary tactics, and statecraft” to end the slave trade. But here, oddly, Helfenbein is only calling American evangelicals to vote.
Helfenbein claims 25 million evangelicals are unregistered to vote. That number seems to come from a group called MyFaithVotes, a voter engagement group run by Mike Huckabee, which started in 2015. Though one of the organization’s websites says 15 million, with no source.
It is beyond irony that Helfenbein makes a dramatic case using Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, but then his call to action is to merely vote: “When Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, he did not mean in words or thoughts only, but in deeds and action. It is impossible to think that we can serve God or love our neighbor without properly stewarding the one responsibility we have in shaping the policies and laws that have direct impact on all their lives. Our role as Christians is not to be a people of words, but action. Vote.”
Helfenbein believes a non-voting Christian like me (I didn’t vote for president in 2016) can’t possibly serve God or love my neighbor. Voting is not the sole “responsibility” we have – as Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce makes clear. Yet Helfenbein, in his implied advocacy for Trump, thinks voting is all we can do.
I’ve protested on the street, canvased neighborhoods, written opeds, and called my elected leaders. Yet Helfenbein thinks that only voting shapes policies and laws.
To that I say, Newsweek need to get a new opinion writer.