I have been called on to repent.
Me and all other progressive and liberal Christians.
The American Association of Evangelicals has written “An Open Letter to Christian pastors, leaders and believers who assist the anti-Christian Progressive political movement in America.” They call on progressive Christians “to repent of their work that often advances a destructive liberal political agenda.” They do this in a heart of love, of course. I know this because the letter tells us, “We write as true friends knowing that most believers mean well. We desire the best for you and for the world God loves.”
Their main target of criticism is Jim Wallis of Sojourners because he has accepted money from George Soros, a liberal philanthropist. Multiple paragraphs denounce the nefarious Soro, all of them filled with links about the many ways he is undermining their conception of America. Wallis is presented as a stooge of the supposedly anti-Christian Soros, as are any other progressives who might agree with their political ideas about immigration reform or other social justice issues.
So who is the American Association of Evangelicals? They describe themselves this way: “Speaking truth to power, more than 100 evangelical and Catholic leaders urge Progressive “faith” groups to turn away from the liberal political funding and agenda that demoralizes and weakens the poor, the family, the Church and the nation.” I like the way they put “faith” in scare quotes in order to delegitimize progressive Christians. That’s what true friends do. I can tell that they’re really sincere when they say that “most believers mean well,” except they can’t accept that the faith of progressive Christians might lead towards a more liberal political agenda. So they can’t call it faith. It has to be placed in scare quotes.
I suspect, for a few reasons, that the author of the letter is Kelly Monroe Kullberg, founder of The Veritas Forum at Harvard. She is first on the list of signees. She is listed as the contact person for interviews. Because of those first two clues, I searched for more information about her and came across a guest blog post she had written against immigration reform in 2013. The writing style of that blog post has some similarities to the Open Letter¹. Also, just as the Open Letter does, her blog post from 2013 takes aim against Jim Wallis and George Soros for their involvement in organizing evangelicals for immigration reform. The same two targets for the Open Letter and the blog post from three years ago seems more than coincidental. She has it in for these two.
Of the signatories to the Open Letter, I recognized a few names: Eric Metaxas (author of a popular biography of Deitrich Bonhoeffer), Wayne Grudem (an evangelical theologian who has written a widely used Systematic Theology textbook, one that I used in some of my Bible classes in college), David Barton (a pseudo–historian), and John Morris (president emeritus of the Institute of Creation Research, a young earth creationist organization). Metaxas and Grudem have published articles urging their fellow Christians to vote for Donald Trump in November, claiming that it is the Christian thing to do. (Many other Christians, in turn, have written strongly worded rebuttals to Grudem.) [edited to add: In light of further revelations of ugly things Trump has said about women, Grudem has retracted his earlier statement of support. In his new statement, he condemns Trump and Clinton. He states that he refuses to vote for Clinton, but leaves open the possibility of still voting for Trump. His earlier article called “Why Voting for Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice” is still available in archived form.][Another edit: Grudem is back to arguing that voting for Trump is necessary because of his policies.]
The letter has attracted an interesting cross section of evangelicalism. Of the remaining names I didn’t know on sight, I did recognize some of the organizations they were affiliated with: the executive director of Precept Ministries, the president of the American Family Association, the founder and president of Charisma Media, etc. There are also pastors, educators, elected officials, and other ministry leaders on the extensive list of 100. As of this writing, more than 800 people have added their signatures to the letter.
The letter claims that “We are not here endorsing or denouncing a political candidate but reminding you of basic Christian morality,” but it’s a little hard to believe (though I understand that they have to say that for legal purposes). For one thing, this letter was published on September 27, 2016, which is 43 days before the presidential election. Two prominent signers are vocal Trump supporters. Soon after this statement about not endorsing or denouncing candidates, the letter has a list of ten “consequences of Progressive political activism over the past eight years.” Hmm, I wonder who has been in office for the past eight years? Right after the list of consequences, most of them distortions or falsehoods, they ask “why would any religious leader ask Christians to embrace a Progressive political agenda that is clearly anti-Christian?” Immediately following this incendiary question, the letter impugns Hillary Clinton, who happens to be a political candidate at the moment. Here’s what the letter says about Hillary Clinton in its entirety.
“When Hillary Clinton stated during a 2015 speech at the Women in the World Summit that religious beliefs “have to be changed,” she was openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church. And now Progressives claim that supporting such a view is the Christian thing to do? This is spiritual abuse of the family, the Church and the nation.”
There is a link to her speech, or rather a link to a short clip from the speech. I recognized this. I came across this same edited clip of her speech on Facebook a while back from a linked article that was even more wild-eyed and conspiratorial. It was written by Theodore Shoebat, who calls himself a “proud fascist,” and supports having the government execute gay people, and says that women who have abortions should be put before a firing squad. In his article, Shoebat claimed that “Hilary [sic] Clinton just said that Christians must deny their Faith through the enforcement of laws.” Then he misquotes her: “Notice that she says that the change of Christian beliefs is the ‘unfinished business of the 21st century,’ which means she wants to persecute Christians.” He caps it all off by calling her a “witch.”
Although the American Association of Evangelicals version is slightly more timid than Shoebat’s, they are both saying essentially the same thing. And they are completely distorting Hillary Clinton’s words and their meaning in order to make it falsely look like she is against Christian belief. They are bearing false witness. Let me show why.
Here is the clip of the speech.
And here’s the transcript provided on the YouTube video:
“Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”
The clip was uploaded by a conservative talk radio program called The Joe Walsh Show. Joe Walsh was a one term U.S. Representative from Illinois who was elected in the 2010 midterm Tea Party wave. He lost in 2012 to Tammy Duckworth, and soon afterwards started his radio program.
So is Hillary Clinton “openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church” with these words as the Open Letter and Theodore Shoebat would have you believe? The answer is no.
The reason I know this is because the clip has been taken out of context. Anyone who has learned the fundamentals of biblical exegesis knows the importance of considering context rather than trying to interpret a statement in isolation. (Wayne Grudem, the systematic theologian who signed the Open Letter, points out that “the place of the statement in context” is one of four sources for interpreting biblical passages in a chapter he has written on Bible Interpretation.)
Clinton is not speaking about America or American laws. In this quote, she is actually talking about the worldwide maternal mortality rate, not that you would know that because the edited clip begins partway through a sentence and omits the first words. And the edited clip has had a much greater impact, having been viewed more than 600,000 times compared to the full speech, which has only been viewed slightly more than 150,000 times. (The edited clip, or a brief summary with the key words “religious beliefs have to be changed,” has made the rounds of Christian websites and conservative media sites. A partial list of Christian sites: LifeNews, CharismaNews, ChristianDaily, and Now the End Begins. A partial list of conservative media sites: The Blaze, National Review, The Daily Caller, and Fox Nation. Interestingly, the last two include the video of the entire speech, but only highlight the same portion about “religious beliefs have to be changed” as those who include the edited version.)
Here is the same quote with the fuller context. I’m going to provide more than the beginning of the sentence that was cut, going back even farther so that there can be no mistake what she is talking about. (Begin the video at 7:40)
“But the data leads to a second conclusion that despite all this progress, we’re just not there yet.
Yes, we’ve nearly closed the global gender gap in primary school, but secondary school remains out of reach for so many girls around the world.
Yes, we’ve increased the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence, but still more than half the nations in the world have no such laws on the books and an estimated one in three women still experience violence.
Yes, we’ve cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.”
I’ve provided the larger context so it is clear that when Clinton says, “far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth,” she is talking about the maternal mortality rate in the developing world. We can know this because of context and because of the facts about maternal mortality. First, she is giving the keynote address at the Women in the World conference. Of course her remarks are going to be global in nature. Second, the context of the first two examples in this list of three areas where more progress needs to be made—the gender gap in education and domestic violence—makes clear that she is referring to areas other than America (“global gender gap,” “girls around the world,” “number of countries,” and “half the nations in the world.”). And third, according to the World Health Organization, “99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.” (All quotes from the World Health Organization come from their fact sheet on maternal mortality published in November 2015.)
So when Clinton says that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed,” in order to further cut the maternal mortality rate, she means in other countries, specifically in the developing world. So what are the challenges with cutting the maternal mortality rate in these countries? Though the maternal mortality rate has been nearly cut in half in the past 25 years, as Clinton said, still around 300,000 women die each year for preventable reasons associated with pregnancy or childbirth. According to the WHO, greater than 50% of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and nearly a third in South Asia.
Here are the reasons given by the World Health Organization:
“The major complications that account for nearly 75% of all maternal deaths are:
- severe bleeding (mostly bleeding after childbirth)
- infections (usually after childbirth)
- high blood pressure during pregnancy (pre-eclampsia and eclampsia)
- complications from delivery
- unsafe abortion.
The remainder are caused by or associated with diseases such as malaria, and AIDS during pregnancy.”
The first four reasons the WHO lists require what Clinton said in the first part of her statement: “access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth.” So that leaves the issues of unsafe abortion and the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS.
According to WHO, “To avoid maternal deaths, it is also vital to prevent unwanted and too-early pregnancies. All women, including adolescents, need access to contraception, safe abortion services to the full extent of the law, and quality post-abortion care.”
There are two components here. First, there needs to be access to contraception. One reason is to “prevent unwanted and too-early pregnancies.” The other reason is to prevent the spread of AIDS. Consistent and proper condom use helps reduce the spread of STDs, and HIV/AIDS specifically. So widespread access to contraception would help reduce the maternal mortality rate by decreasing unsafe abortions and by helping curb the spread of AIDS.
One of the barriers to widespread access to contraception, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is the belief that contraception is immoral. I think it is most likely that Clinton’s comment that “cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed” has to do with the use of contraception. If people changed their minds about contraceptives, then the maternal mortality rate would go down. Here is the only place where Clinton could be urging Christians to change their beliefs. The Catholic church still forbids the use of any contraceptives with the exception of natural family planning. However, while that is the official position of the church hierarchy, the vast majority of Catholics worldwide (78%) do not find contraceptives morally wrong. But Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa do agree with their church’s position on contraceptives at a higher percentage. I find the idea that this is Clinton waging war against Christians and their beliefs hard to take seriously when American Catholics also overwhelmingly do not think that contraceptive use is immoral.
The second component is “safe abortion services to the full extent of the law, and quality post-abortion care.” To a pro-life audience, which the AAE Open Letter clearly addresses, this is anathema, but please hear out my reasoning. Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa restrict abortion much more than in the United States. Only two countries, South Africa and Mozambique, allow abortion for any reason with gestational limits, the same as the U.S. All of the other countries restrict abortion to save the life of the mother or they ban it outright. The story is similar in the countries of South Asia. So between the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, most of them restrict abortion heavily or completely ban it. The WHO and Hillary Clinton are calling for the laws in these countries that do allow some abortions in some cases to be enforced and for those abortions to be safe. How could it be the pro-life position to allow a woman who has a legal abortion to die from inadequate medical care during and after the abortion? These women need good and safe reproductive care—whether they choose an abortion or not—during pregnancy and afterwards.
So while pro-life Christians can certainly disagree with Hillary Clinton’s positions on abortion, Clinton’s comments in this speech are about following existing laws in other countries and saving the lives of women. She is not calling on Christians to change their beliefs on abortion or any other article of faith, aside from accepting the use of contraception.
So not only did the letter writers take Clinton’s words out of context to distort their meaning, they also charged that she is “openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church.” This accusation seems to presume that Clinton herself is not a Christian. That is not true. Clinton is a Christian, and though she is fairly private about her faith, it has never been a secret. They are again bearing false witness.
Back in January of this year, at a campaign stop in Iowa, Clinton, when asked about her faith, proclaimed, “I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist.” Later in her answer, she boiled down the essence of her faith: “My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do.” Her beliefs have led her to a life of service in which she fought for health care for children during her husband’s administration, for women’s rights around the world, for health care for 9/11 first responders, etc. At the end of the Democratic National Convention in July, after her speech, Clinton listened to the benediction by a Methodist minister where he ended with the Methodist maxim, “Do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as we ever can.” If she isn’t a Christian, she sure is trying to do the work of a Christian.
So here’s my answer to the Open Letter calling me to repent:
I do have reason to repent. I need to repent of my selfishness and idleness. For harsh words spoken. My indifference to suffering. And my envy of others.
But I will not repent supporting liberal political policies that feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison.
And I will not repent supporting a politician who works towards closing the global gender gap in education, prohibiting domestic violence, and cutting the maternal mortality rate.
¹In her blog post, she also used a phrase that stood out to me when she called an evangelical group in favor of immigration reform “an ad hoc group.” The Open Letter also calls themselves “an ad hoc fellowship of evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox believers.” In 2013, in response to the evangelicals in favor of immigration reform, Kullberg formed “Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration (EBI) [which] is an ad hoc movement,” and more recently The America Conservancy, whose motto is “For America’s renewal. Because of love.” The line “because of love” can also be found on the Open Letter just after the author describes them as an ad hoc group, “We stand — because of love.”