“America Glorifies God More Than Africa”: Condemning two Cedarville Chapels Speakers
Civil religion is not new. In fact, one could argue that the use of religion for political power is quite the norm in human history. Cedarville is an openly political school with a fundamentalist agenda, bent on bringing up leaders who will stand against LGBT rights, women’s rights, reforms of capitalism, and far more. In the past few years, Cedarville has been rocked with a transition from a relatively moderate evangelical school, to a hive of conservative thought which excludes any resistance to its ideological hegemony.
In this blog post, I want to analyze how Cedarville’s chapel functions to forward particularly right wing political ideologies through the transcription of political ideology into a religious and theological text. I will discuss the nature of Cedarville’s chapel service, and two particular cases, and one way that conversations were the foundation for producing a counter-discourse at Cedarville.
Cedarville University is a small baptist school in southern Ohio, which boasts a large conservative population of both students and professors. Paige Patterson, who was recently ousted from the Southern Baptist convention for covering up abuse allegations in churches, was a trustee of Cedarville until uncomfortably long after we found out about the abuse allegations. Paige Patterson was also the mentor of current Cedarville president, Dr. Thomas White.
There are plenty of reasons to not like Cedarville if you believe in equality and human dignity, from their explicit disrespect for women’s rights, their assault on LGBT folks, and their open attack on freedom of expression and opinions on their campus in the form of shutting down the progressive student newspaper The Ventriloquist in 2013, after our staff decided to publish the story of an LGBT individual who was stripped of his positions due to his identity as gay. More recently, Cedarville began censoring nudity in art and humanities classes, and even banned an English Professor from having students read Aesop’s Fables, due to one of the fables involving a Dryad and Coyote love story. Whether it is their campaign against academic freedom, or their attempts to silence alternative readings of the Bible, Cedarville is a great example of a hegemonic organization who excludes marginalized perspectives.
Cedarville Chapel Services
The majority of Cedarville’s chapel services focus on theological and faith formation messages. However, the most notable chapel services attempt to integrate the principles of the christian right to the social and political situation in America. Cedarville’s political science department hosts a Christian apologetics blog which attempts to apply a Christian civic perspective to various political issues.
Cedarville represents a civil religious approach to governing, which is in contrast to some non-evangelical Christian churches such as anabaptists who are anarchists. Evangelical Christians generally believe in political enforcement of their values (Claiborn, 2016). A few obvious examples of politically charged Christian policy include the Christian opposition to LGBT rights and their opposition to both abortion and contraception.
Cedarville is certainly representative of this civic religious approach, and this can be seen in a variety of their chapels which advocate against gay marriage, female pastorship, Islam, female sexual liberation, and a number of other disidentifications.
Today I want to look at two chapels that I attended, and discuss my the rhetoric and message contained within them. The two cases I want to examine are the visitation of a Jewish tour guide who utilized the Bible to make a political claim to Palestinian land, and the visitation of renowned systematic theologian Wayne Grudem who argued that God is a capitalist. Both of these texts demonstrate that Cedarville’s view of chapel is not only as a space of religious formation, but as a method of training the correct socio-political worldview in their students, utilizing religious appeals to create political results.
Case 1: “Palestine belongs to Israel, because the Bible”
During my junior year at Cedarville, a speaker came who was a tour guide in Israel. He discussed the topic of why Israel has the rightful claim to the all land including Palestinian territory. He had everyone turn in the book of Genesis to the passage regarding the birth of Ishmael and Isaac. This story has been used by Zionists to argue that Arabs are not the historical heirs to the land, because Abraham had Ishmael with a woman other than his wife, Hagar. According to their tradition, Jewish people descended from Isaac and Arabic people descended from Ishmael.
According to this speaker, because Ishmael was an illegitimate child, Palestine has no political claim to the land. This rhetoric infuriated my fellow film student, who was Palestinian. The message turns the Bible into a political tool to decide one of the most complicate geopolitical questions of our time, and the message also relies on racial discrimination to determine the rights to land. This case demonstrates one example of when Cedarville disseminated a religiously charged reading of current events.
Moreover, the argument when examined in its context, is rather racist. It argues that God chose Jewish people over Palestinian, and the Arabic people should suffer consequences literally thousands of years later. This is a ridiculous statement to be made in a modern geopolitical context, yet at Cedarville this was an accepted message. For a better understanding of the conflict which he so brazenly tried to solve with a Biblical proof text, check out Kelly Parliament’s analysis of the Christian perspective for the Israel Palestine Conflict.
In this blog I will not have the time to establish a complete pattern, but there are literally hundreds of examples I could have chosen from to discuss political messages being disguised as “true Christianity”. I hope a second case may help us see how Christian discourse is disseminated to students and online via Cedarville’s physical communication space of the chapel.
Case 2: “America Glorifies God More Than Africa”
Wayne Grudem is a renowned evangelical theologian. He wrote a systematic theology which commentated the Bible from a evangelical perspective, and his books are incredibly popular among evangelical leaders and church leaders. When he spoke to us at Cedarville, he didn’t discuss his systematic theology. Instead he came to peddle racism and capitalism. First, he attempted to argue from a single verse “thou shall not steal” that God was a capitalist. His argument required a number of unsupported links, 11 to be precise, to get from that commandment to God is a capitalist.
The argument essentially was that “stealing” must mean that someone can own something. From here he states therefore God has endorsed property, and that must mean private property as we understand it today. And private property requires bartering, which is free markets, etc.
All of this was said, without any seeming recognition that capitalism didn’t develop until the 19th century, so the idea that ancient Israel was capitalist is nonsensical. The complete argument can be found on Cedarville’s website where all their chapels are documented.
His conclusions and “applications” were what was truly astonishing. Grudem argued at one point in the text that “America glorifies God more than Africa” because of how much we produce, and specifically because “we have airconditioners”. I feel it is unnecessary to explain what is wrong with these statements, but I will anyway. Firstly, Africa has air conditioning. Secondly, Africa has been historically exploited by the west for resources, and that exploitation is a lot of the wealth that America possesses which he claims makes us better. Thirdly, America is a country, Africa is a continent. Finally, your production does not determine how much you glorify anything but your materialist wealth.
Later, he showed a satellite photo of Phoenix and argued that the reason that Phoenix is so much more developed than the native reservation near by is because America is capitalist and that the natives were tribalist. Not only is this a racist description of modern indigenous peoples and non-western people of color, it also comers from a deep misunderstanding of how America stole land from the natives and forced them increasingly onto smaller and less productive lands over time, and has subjected Africa and other cultures to colonization and exploitation through American hegemony.
To be fair, these descriptions were offensive to most Christians who heard them, but while I was at Cedarville, I heard professors defend child labor, debunked economic theories about the poor being depraved and sinful, racist attacks on the reputation of reformers like MLK and Malcolm X. The concept that God is a capitalist isn’t isolated to publication in chapel, it is also a required concept in the syllabus for all business students at Cedarville.
The submission of Christianity to political purposes is certainly not new, but it is disappointing to both Christians and non-Christians alike. The idea that Jesus was a capitalist is patently absurd to anyone who reads the bible in its historical context, indeed Ellul argues that capitalism is antithetical to the rejection of materialism inherent in Jesus’s message. For that matter, Ellul in “The Subversion of Christianity” argued that Christianity as an idea is marked by its refusal to utilize power, because Jesus is marked by the intentional choice to not utilize his power for domination. Jesus said that “it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven”. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall inherit the kingdom of god”. The rejection of materialism, which capitalism relies upon to operate as an ideology, is clear in Jesus words. For Ellul, modern Christianity is now a form of the older Christendom, seeking political influence and power, and using their ideology as a tool rather than attempting to engage in dialogue and discourse with those who are different than them.
In both of these cases we can see how conversations scale up and down within the organization. Cedarville disseminates messages to students and faculty, which inform the discursive situation of the university in ways that are not immediately intelligible to every individual. The mixing of the conservative right and evangelical Christianity is alienating and nonsensical, because Christianity preceded capitalism, and in theory would outlive it. The use of religion as a political ideology is concerning on a number of levels, but one of the most personal occurred to myself a couple months ago.
I reached out to Cedarville to help them with something for their debate team, and their new coach met with me. She told me that because of my political ideology, I was not worthy of teaching and that I could never be a good Christian with my “radical leftist” ideas. She also ranked her daughters in order of favorite, and determined her favorites based on how closely they conform to her political ideology. This concept of good christian comes up again, and when the concept of good christian is connected to a political ideology, the organization and many of its members reduce the message of Christ to simply the bullet points of the Republican Party and wealthy capital investors.
Christianity shouldn’t be a political platform, it should be about unity and love. The political religious narrative of Cedarville drives out compassionate Christians and non-christians, creates division, and insults the dignity of those who do not conform to the organizations ideology. I feel that this is bad, and i felt like it was time someone said something about these two particular chapel messages.
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Written by Aaron Alford, M.A. in Communication
Aaron Alford attended Cedarville University for four years, and coached their debate team for a year. During his time there, he sought to provide an inclusive and progressive perspective to a campus bereft of open and honest discourse.