A Conversation with Philip Yancey

One of the most important things we can do at Newbigin House is create a space that encourages people to think critically about the world around us and imagine how we might create a more robust and generous place to live. It was in that spirit that we recently invited Philip Yancey to offer some spiritual reflections on the 2016 election.
Back in 2012, Philip Yancey wrote a book called Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners. The popular theologian has also written books like The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? But it was when his comments about Donald Trump to a Spanish-language newspaper got widely distributed earlier this fall that he wondered how evangelicals could support someone who “stands against everything that Christianity believes?”
Yancey describes the fallout as a kind of “wake-up call” about the state of evangelicalism in America. After people left comments and sent emails about his remarks, Yancey said, “I learned how mean evangelicals were. It was a real glimpse into how the rest of the world perceives evangelicals.” But Yancey does not want to disavow the evangelical label, and points out that as Christians, we don’t have the luxury of dismissing people who think differently from us. “Let’s start by understanding,” he said. “This required some soul-searching on my part.”
Some online commenters wondered why Yancey spoke out against Trump. “Many people kept saying well, what about Hillary Clinton? It’s true, there are some alarming things about her…but I didn’t see 80% of evangelicals standing behind Hillary Clinton, trying to make her their flag-bearer. So I feel more obligated to speak to what happened in the campaign that was waged primarily by Donald Trump and the lasting impact of what it did in our country.”
Looking back on the election, Yancey identifies two primary casualties, entities that took a hit in the process of the campaign. The first, he says, is evangelicalism. In this election, evangelicals associated themselves with a candidate who, time and again, acted immorally. Yancey cites American Grace, a book by the sociologist Robert Putnam, which details the rise of the “nones”–those people who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. The nones, Yancey said, “see evangelicals as one more lobby group…with good reason. Its commitment to politics proved more important in this election than its commitment to the values of Jesus.”
The second casualty that Yancey identifies is democracy. “Democracy may never recover from the stains that have been inflicted on it in this past year,” Yancey said. “The Oxford Dictionary made their word of the year ‘post-truth.’ They defined that as ‘referring to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping the public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ Or, ignoring the facts in favor of feelings.” This is a hit to democracy, Yancey says, because it fundamentally goes against the spirit of government that empowers people to search out the truth on their own and vote accordingly. Conspiracy theories and the spread of fake news sites ended up bearing false witness against many people and situations.
A pastor friend of Yancey’s posted a reflection to Facebook after the election, in which she recounted that “being a Christian is hard…as a Christian, I must lean in and listen. I must embrace and include,” she wrote. We are all “beggars of grace. The one from whose hand we have equally received will not allow me to stand close while my heart is far away.” Yancey was moved by these words, which acted as a reminder that we are all tempted at times to separate ourselves from those who think differently than we do–and we, as Christians, do not have that option.
Yancey also talked about a book called The Righteous Mind, in which the author, Jonathan Haidt, identifies ways that liberals and conservatives can better understand each other. Liberals, Haidt says, are primarily concerned with the virtues of tolerance and compassion–but, ironically, can have a hard time extending those virtues to the people who disagree with them. Conservatives, on the other hand, extol virtues like authority, loyalty, and sanctity. And it can be hard for them to believe that some serious Christians come to different opinions on issues that are important to them. While people on both sides of the political spectrum may never end up agreeing with each other about everything, we can agree that as Christians, we have to commit ourselves to understanding each other and seeking the welfare of those around us.
“We have a great divide in our country,” Yancey said. “If you look at the electoral map, you see the red and the blue, and that is not a healthy picture.” Indeed, it can feel at times like we are only growing more and more divided. It takes the church–the “holy fire, the martyr spirit” of the church–to act as an agent of reconciliation across all lines, including party lines. “I still call myself an evangelical, because it means ‘good news,’” Yancey said. “And I want to cling to that until I can’t cling anymore.”
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