What type of book is David P. Gushee’s Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism? Because it follows Gushee’s fifty or so years in Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and American politics, one might call it a memoir, but it reads more like a series of portraits that help explain how politics and religion now relate in America, showing how individual people have negotiated the culture wars that still divide us. Gushee, the president of the American Academy of Religion and Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, has done something exceptional with his experiences: he has looked out onto the American public sphere, looked into himself, and written something simple and wise. Still Christian is neither a mea culpa nor an apologia. It was not written to settle old scores. Its style is plainspoken, yet it succeeds in laying out the complex shadows and knots of each political struggle it describes and the people who took part in them.
Gushee says he composed the book to make sense of his life for himself—how he began as a Catholic, became Southern Baptist, took centrist and then increasingly progressive political stands, was lambasted by both conservatives and liberals, and found his way back to Catholic worship while remaining at Mercer University with its evangelical heritage. The book is a model of how to survey one’s actions—and those of both supporters and adversaries—through the lens of Christian values. Gushee has been savvy in his professional life but he has also tried to be ethical. His ethic might be described as non-relativist forgiveness. He has taken clear, often controversial stands, and fought for them. He has had his share of opponents but tries to avoid demonizing them, and, to an impressive degree, he succeeds. If Gushee doesn’t go on at length about his own mistakes, neither does he dwell on those of his adversaries. He writes, “People are a mix of good and bad, and the bad is often just a slightly exaggerated version of the good. That’s just as true of Christians as it is of everyone else.... It will not be hard to show the virtues of each strand of Christian I have encountered. But it will also be clear how simultaneously these virtues became their own vices.... All we see are each other’s vices, none of each other’s virtues.”
This piece of wisdom runs throughout the book. Gushee’s irenic tone may not satisfy more partisan readers; they may accuse him of evasion. But this would be unfair given his willingness to take on the risks of engaging in politics and religion for twenty-five years. In one passage, Gushee highlights some of the more challenging ones:
the day in 1987 that I was told that white men had better remain quiet in a course on liberation theology, the day in 1995 that I was invited to sell my soul for a nice future working with a conservative seminary president, the evening in 1995 in which the Holy Spirit burned out of me any capacity to hate that same president, the days in 2006 when I received hate mail for opposing torture while my daughter lay unconscious in the hospital, the day in 2007 when I was interrogated intensely for having spent way too long working with conservatives, the day in 2008 when I figured out I was being used by the Obama campaign, and the day in 2011 when a very bright philosopher at a very conservative Christian college said to me, “We know we are supposed to oppose gays, but we can’t really give any good reason for it anymore.”
In his professorships and political activism, Gushee has supported environmental protection, immigration reform, gun-safety laws, women in the pastorate, abortion reduction, and, most controversially, LGBT “employment rights and relationship recognition within the context of religious-liberty protections” (Changing Our Mind, 2014). He has worked to end racism, torture, capital punishment, pollution, and nuclear proliferation. Gushee’s aim in this book is to understand how he and others, juggling belief, the intricacies of group dynamics, and political forces, got to the positions they held and the tactics they employed.
Gushee’s interest in religious questions began when he was still a teenager in the 1970s and it has continued ever since—through the writing of Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust (1994), Kingdom Ethics (with Glen Stassen, 2003), and The Sacredness of Human Life (2013). He tells us why, having been raised Catholic, he became a Baptist earlier in his life. He left the Catholic Church, he says, not because he lacked interest in things religious but because of substantial interest that went unmet.
I have long considered Vatican II a high point in Catholic history. But perhaps the progressive openness of Vatican II brought in its wake the theological disorientation of American Catholicism, in that pattern of vice entangled with virtue that is just how the world works. What seemed to trickle down to the Virginia parish of my youth was mainly a loss of confidence in Catholic tradition.... We received no instruction in Augustine or Aquinas, heard nothing about Nicaea or natural law, studied no great saints or martyrs.
The two other elements of Still Christian are intertwined. One is an account of how religious groups work among themselves as they seek to bring God’s vision to the world. In keeping with his key observation that “the bad is often just a slightly exaggerated version of the good,” Gushee discusses how Christian activism, on both the right and left, may turn to a self-righteous jockeying for power. The other element traces the intersection of American religion and politics over the past thirty years. Gushee covers the shift of the Southern Baptist Convention to conservative theology and the political right, the bonding of many Evangelicals to the Republican party, the political and doctrinal consequences of that handshake, and the battles in America’s culture wars, ending with current fights about anti-gay discrimination and religious freedom.
Gushee’s detailed description of these episodes (drawn from diaries written at the time) is a good read, full of interesting details and insights. It also maps his own ethical and intellectual journey through the culture wars that divided Christian communities. At several points he reports surprise at the new “party lines” that emerged. The result is less a picture of radical change than of someone trying to follow his understanding of Kingdom Ethics while the religious world changed around him. He tried to stand his ground in debates about environmental protection, torture, racism, and capital punishment. But by the time he took a more accepting view of same-sex relationships, his Kingdom Ethics and adherence to a Gospel of love and inclusion had brought him noticeably out of the Evangelical mainstream.
An important part of Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics is refusing to demonize even in these circumstances. Especially impressive is his account of learning not to hate a university president who took positions and actions Gushee opposed. But I was also struck by Gushee’s description of being rescued from a nasty political fight by a job offer that took him out of town before he had to articulate a position that might have damaged his career. Others were less lucky and suffered serious consequences for holding views similar to those Gushee held. I would have liked to hear more from him on how Christians are to understand the often-inequitable personal costs of holding controversial views.
In the last section of his book, Gushee describes his withdrawal from Evangelical politics and return to Catholic worship, which stems in part from a close marriage: his Baptist-born wife converted to Catholicism and he began accompanying her to Mass. The Catholic Church satisfies a need he feels for a “richly multicultural and global community.” It also answers his search for a theology of the cross. “Evangelicalism for a while had a jaunty optimism…. Who can have that spirit now? There is no narrative of triumph unless you’re a Trumpist; even then, it’s ambivalent.” We need, Gushee explains, “not a theology of triumph but a theology of the cross,” one that teaches us to work humbly from what is broken in the world. “The period when I thought I’d change the world ‘on the march’ is over. I’m digging now into older tradition towards other meanings of the Christian journey.” Still Christian invites readers to join him on this new path.
Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism
David P. Gushee
Westminster John Knox Press, $16, 176 pp.