The Big Placebo

Timothy Keller, via Redeemer Seminary

If you had asked the average observer of American politics 5, 10 or 20 years ago, “what ails modern evangelicalism?” he or she likely would have identified fundamentalism, political “analysis” by theodicy, or dominionist ambitions. But times have changed. Democratic president Barack Obama tapped southern California’s Rick Warren for an inaugural prayer and seeks spiritual advice from Florida evangelical pastor Joel Hunter (who was once poised to become president of the Christian Coalition and had endorsed Mike Huckabee).

Thanks to a slick public relations facelift that has excised the fire and brimstone in favor of a Jesus narrative of self-improvement and kitschy, Christianized tikkun olam, evangelicalism has a deliberately—and deceptively—softer face. Although James Dobson still lurks out from retirement in Colorado, on the coasts hipper newcomers focus on how Jesus will transform your life, not just how God will judge it.

This new evangelicalism, which many wishful thinkers argue has supplanted the religious right, is the realm of Timothy Keller, mega-church pastor to what might be considered secularism’s (and hence hedonism’s) ground zero: Manhattan. In his new book, Counterfeit Gods, Keller takes a look around his island bubble and concludes, as the title suggests, that the travails of his fellow Manhattanites are caused by the worship of false idols.

Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian and most recently author of the bestselling The Reason for God, maintains that we worship money, sex, politics, and professional success. If only we could remember that the Jews’ rejection of idolatry ultimately led to God’s risen son, we could rightly steer the wayward ship of modern life.

The prescription—or shall I say, the placebo—for everything is Jesus.

Buy Counterfeit Gods

Buy Counterfeit Gods

Counterfeit Gods is an attractive, compact volume that a busy urbanite might tuck in his murse alongside his iPhone. It’s got a “there’s-an-app-for-that” sort of answer for the anxiety of contemporary city living. It’s a handy Jiminy Cricket to set you straight when you might be thinking of having sex with someone you’re not married to, contemplating a risky investment opportunity in the hopes of hitting the jackpot, or staying late at the office instead of having dinner with the family. While you’re at it, you might remind your spouse not to over-schedule the kids, because Jesus doesn’t like that, either.

Imagine: Wall Street casts its eyes upon Saint Timothy instead of Timothy Geithner! Dalton minus the uptight parents! A Manhattan nightlife free from casual sex! Coffee shops and bars purged of political ideology and discourse!

Such “counterfeit gods” ail the suburbs, too, but they are already saturated by big box mega-churches to counteract the false idols of Sam Walton-inspired strip malls and hyper-competitive Saturday morning soccer tournaments for six year-olds. Keller doesn’t bother with them. His schtick is to break into the untapped urban market for potential believers.

It’s hard to see, though, how New York’s wide swaths of spiritual diversity would take to Keller’s air of Christian superiority. For him, the Bible “comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.” See? It’s that simple.

The focus isn’t eternal salvation, but rather remaking the cultural and political world. He offers a way of making sense of what Jerry Falwell-style fundamentalists might call the scourge of secular humanism. Instead of spiritual warfare against these satanic enemies, Keller asks his readers to confront them as biblical figures might have rejected false idols.

Thus, the hovering, over-protective mother might take lessons from Abraham: let God test your love for the children by letting them be free. The man who lusts for someone other than his wife might learn from Jacob’s misguided quest for the more beautiful Rachel. Jacob’s wife, Leah, provides cues for anyone looking for love and sex and transcendence in their romantic lives, rather than through God. The inevitable result of looking for everything in romantic love, Keller maintains, is “bitter disillusionment.”

One would think the Jacob-Leah story might yield some feminist deconstructions. But feminism, apparently, is also idolatry. Every such political ideology, Keller maintains, creates a sort of idolatry of its own. “An ideology,” he writes, “like an idol, is a limited, partial account of reality that is raised to the level of the final word on things.” Keller can’t see, somehow, that our body politic was designed to be secular, and that a religious prescription for its ills—itself portrayed as a final word—is one of the scourges that has, over the last four decades or so, led to the single-minded extremism he decries.

Keller is a favorite of flagship evangelical magazines like Christianity Today and World, but he receives glowing coverage in mainstream outlets as well. “While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths,” observed a 2006 profile in the New York Times, “he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere.” Keller, the piece went on, “shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being ‘born again,’ and the full authority of the Bible.”

This assertion—that biblical orthodoxy is somehow apolitical—was put to the test recently when Keller became one of over 100 original signatories to the Manhattan Declaration unveiled on November 20th. Billed as a statement of “religious conscience,” the Manhattan Declaration is something more, something unmistakably fundamentalist and quintessentially political, a regurgitation of the religious right’s assertion that sexual and gender rights are somehow a threat to good Christians’ religious liberty. The signers of the Manhattan Declaration demand that those who disagree with them be reviled and silenced, yet claim they are the persecuted ones:

It is ironic that those who today assert a right to kill the unborn, aged and disabled and also a right to engage in immoral sexual practices, and even a right to have relationships integrated around those practices be recognized and blessed by law—such persons claiming these “rights” are very often in the vanguard of those who would trample upon the freedom of others to express their religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.

The Manhattan Declaration—and indeed Tim Keller’s vision for Manhattan—represents the latest roadmap for the culture wars. With a sleights of hand and clever marketing, this new fundamentalism is portrayed as unquestionable orthodoxy that will at once transform your life as well as that of the nation and the world. No doubt it will, as 21st century evangelists stealthily repackage fundamentalist politics as essential but harmless remedies for contemporary angst.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, is associate editor of Religion Dispatches, where she blogs about politics. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, Salon, and other publications.