“Was the US never really a “Christian country,” or was US Christianity corrupted by politics?”
That’s the question that Kylie Beach, a writer for the Australian-based Eternity News asked several days after the capitol insurrection and several days before last week’s presidential inauguration. She continued:
Did the US only ever appear to be more Christian than other countries, or was its Christianity corrupted by politics? To put it frankly, are the people who declare themselves to be Christians in the US really just ‘cultural Christians’ – people who are ethnically descended from nations where Christianity was the primary religion? Or people who have taken on the outward form of their grandparent’s faith? Have they ever actually had a moment of conversion where they have decided to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour? Do they read their Bibles to try to learn what God is like? Do they pray and listen for his direction?
Beach isn’t the only Christian from around the world asking what to make of US evangelicals after Trump. At the UK’s Evangelical Alliance CEO Gavin Calver wrote a column for The Times with the headline, “Let us redefine evangelism after the Trump presidency.” He wrote that the word evangelical has become politicized and toxic even in the UK because of Trump politics.
René Breuel is the pastor of Hopera, an evangelical church in Rome and has served as a student leader in International Fellowship of Evangelical Students movements in Brazil, Germany, Canada, and Italy. He is also the author of The Paradox of Happiness.
Breuel joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss how non-US evangelicals saw American evangelicals before Trump, what has changed over the past four years, and what American evangelicals who want to regain this trust must do moving forward.
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Quick to Listen Episode #249
What role did American evangelicalism play in your faith journey while you were growing up in Brazil?
Rene Breuel: I grew up in São Paulo, Brazil. My family used to attend a church founded in the 80s. It was in many ways a wonderful Baptist church and I’m very grateful for it. It became a large and influential church in São Paulo.
Then in the 90s we had some influence from American evangelicalism. Some of our pastors in the church had studied in the United States, then the church hosted the Willow Creek Association conferences about leadership, and then the 40 Days of Purpose from The Purpose Driven Life. There were some evangelical connections in books we used to read.
I think that my experience probably mirrors the experience of others in Brazil who have received different waves of emphasis in groups like The Purpose Driven Life or seeker sensitive or the recent “young, restless, and Reformed” Calvinistic wave.
So all those movements acquired followers and got repurposed to be precedent to the present church.
Does the American church footprint have the same impact as American cultural influence on the broader culture there?
Rene Breuel: I think the American evangelical footprint is very significant. And I think it's part of the American cultural influence. People in Latin America, in Brazil specifically, look up a lot to the United States and love the American way of life. They dream of traveling and visiting the country.
Part of it gets transferred to church environments. Of course, I think when it comes to church groups, the influence is probably a little bit less because they know there is more of an ongoing life of the churches of the denominations in the country, but the influence keeps strong. It's not as strong as politics over the political or personal culture, but it's still very strong.
Do you remember any of these celebrity pastors or evangelists coming to visit Brazil?
Rene Breuel: Yes, I remember when I was a teenager, my church hosted this Willow Creek conference and Bill Hybels came to speak. It was a big thing and many pastors and leaders from other churches came.
At the end of the year, we did a new year’s fun event at the church, in which they asked me to do a sketch. I played Bill Hybels. Like I say, “No, it's good to be here. Wonderful.” And then a friend would translate me back to Portuguese just saying things that were nonsense. It was a joke. This was a personal experience in my hometown. And we would get sometimes a Michael W. Smith concert.
I was sad to hear about the Hybels allegations that were brought against him in the past years and his lack of repentance. I had to rethink his legacy and even that humorous moment at the end of the year. But it was an example of the influence an American pastor had in Brazil at that time.
Was there another country or part of the world whose evangelism had a similar amount of influence as the US?
Rene Breuel: Not at all. People looked up to evangelical heritage, for example, in the UK and in Europe. And we're very encouraged by the growth of the church in Africa and in parts of Asia. But I think that the US was the main influence.
What were some of the blind spots that you started to realize, things that didn't necessarily translate well from an American context to a Brazilian one?
Rene Breuel: I think some of the blind spots were similar in terms of focus on the individual and personal salvation, and not much of a vision for society, for the public square, or for having a vision for the Kingdom.
I think our gospel was very good at saving souls but did not challenge some of the problems in society; for example, the notion of social classes, which can be quite prominent in Brazil. In a way, churches adapted a little bit. There were a lot of Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches for the middle class and more charismatic churches for the working class.
My local church was in an affluent neighborhood in São Paulo, but it was right next to a favela, a poor community. Over the years, the leaders tried to bridge that gap by running a social project and planting a church there, but it was a hard gap to bridge.
I remember a mission trip, which came from the United States. I joined them one afternoon. I knocked on doors at the favela, the slum, and an American visitor would share the testimony, the plan of salvation, and invite people to receive Christ. I translated for them.
I was surprised at the immense success rate. We had apparently about 90% of the people we visited saying yes to receiving Christ, but then we left. I started asking questions over time. How many of those decisions were genuine and not a result of someone not wanting to say no to a visitor, an American visitor who came to their home? How many of those decisions last and was this the right approach? I think we received some very good things, but some blind spots took some reflection over time to think about.
How might evangelist attitudes be different in the US and in either Brazil or Italy?
Rene Breuel: I would say our approach is slightly more communal and less individualistic, a lot about trying to establish healthy and close relationships with people who don't share our faith, gaining people's trust, and showing acts of kindness. We try to have events or connection points in which people would come. I think people eventually come to question approaches like distributing tracks, visiting homes, or doing events at the public square. Over time they favor more relational approaches.
How engaged in politics were evangelicals in Brazil when you were growing up? How has that changed?
Rene Breuel: My experience growing up is that politics was very rarely spoken of. We held to a notion of separation of church and state, a concern for personal morality, changing people's hearts, and not much of awareness of society: what was going on, the poverty, and the challenges of Brazilian society. In a sense it was an apolitical approach, which ends up being a political approach when you don't talk about it.
Did American evangelical political priorities show up in politics? Was that ever preached about as you grew up?
Rene Breuel: Here, it was a glimpse. Among US evangelicals, people of course didn't support abortion. Here, people didn’t support abortion, but there weren’t protests or many debates. I think growing up evangelicals were more willing to try to grow as a community and grow local churches than try to have a vision or reflection about society and try to do things differently.
You’ve lived in other countries. What did you see in terms of how evangelical communities in Europe, specifically Western Europe, relate to American evangelicals?
Rene Breuel: I was doing some studies in Germany and the UK, and I lived for the past 11 years in Italy. My experience is that European evangelicals saw American evangelicals with a lot of gratitude for the witness, the vitality, the faith, the devotion, and the generosity. They didn't look up as much, I would say, like compared to Latin America; more like brothers or fellow believers that didn't have as much influence.
When something came from the US it was often appreciated, but we're often trying to be more critical of it, like “Would this work in our context? Would this fit?” And often the answer was no.
We speak to not just acts of mercy but also acts of political justice on behalf of the poor. To what extent is the American view of government affecting the global conversation among evangelicals?
Rene Breuel: I think in that sense the US perspective among evangelicals is a little bit more of an outlier. I didn't see caring for the poor as being a very controversial debate among Christians in Brazil or elsewhere I've lived. People had an “all hands on deck” approach, like “Let's try to do out as much as we can.” And the government tries to do as much as the government can. Though we believe some of this perspective, it was maybe a little troublesome seen by some US Christians to have the government become too large and giving too many handouts to people.
The story I often heard in Brazil, as you mentioned, is that Brazil and Latin American theologians played a big role in the Lausanne conference in ‘74, in terms of arguing for viewing the Gospel not just in terms of personal salvation, but also its political and social implications.
We thought often about how people appreciated the witness of Latin American theologians to try to help the global church and the evangelical church embrace its social Commandments like to love our neighbors as much as we embrace the cross, grace, and personal redemption.
In your observation, how responsive were American evangelicals to hearing those from outside of the US context give critiques regarding the war in Iraq, capitalism or materialism, or other integral parts of American culture?
Rene Breuel: Of course the Iraq war was controversial outside of the United States. In terms of the American economy and prosperity, there was admiration. But at the same time, there was a feeling here is a little bit too much in the materialism and the values that come along with it. What I noticed within church circles were some people pointing out to certain emphases, like the emphasis on technology, technique, numbers, and best practices, like in the commendable pursuit of church growth sometimes became a little bit of a business mindset.
Another issue I heard people talking about was the homogeneous principle that arose out of the church growth movement that led to churches that were very homogeneous in terms of race and social class. Also, Western Christians in general and American Christians, in particular, saw the world as a mission field, which was wonderful, but not as much a place to learn and receive from. The unspoken assumption was we come to teach. That was the perspective, but I think over time I have noticed a greater awareness of the multicultural, multiethnic nature of the church, a greater appreciation of the global church, and the gifts this can bring to the body and people. The US being much more willing to learn and visit as much as teaching others -- I think there was some good development in that sense.
What was the conversation with all your non-American church friends immediately after the 2016 American election?
Rene Breuel: When Trump was elected, I think people tried to understand and put themselves in the shoes. For example, there were issues like pro-life and the desire for conservative justices. It is also a two-party system that gives you eventually two options and you choose one or the other. People try to understand, but in a way, my friends and I were shocked trying to imagine why and how could fellow believers we'd love and respect otherwise support a candidate which had such bombastic and un-Godly conduct.
For countless of us outside of the United States was it wasn't worth it. Like, don't vote for someone like that. Let's not align with that.
From a foreign policy standpoint, did anyone wonder if these American Christians are aware of the effect this might have on the lives and wellbeing of believers in other countries?
Rene Breuel: Yes. I think there is one issue that is dear to people around the world because they feel the influence of the direction the United States takes. But often it becomes a small concern for voters v. the economy or social concerns.
Maybe one exception would be the Iraq war, which was a big issue at the time for US politics. But I think people around the world wish people would be more aware of how much foreign policy views voters vote for then become implemented and makes a big impact in the development of nations, how much aid there is, and how business is conducted. If wars are started or not. It has a big impact.
What are you observing in terms of evangelicals around the world and their views on whether the Bible should inform the law of the land?
Rene Breuel: Yes. I resonate with that research. I think that is the case among people in Brazil and Latin America. What I've seen in developing nations is that as the Christian faith gains more followers, people often haven't really thought through the implications of ten bringing that into power and politics in a way that maybe people in Christianized nations for centuries have already tried to do that. They may not see it as being unproductive or receiving backlash in Brazil.
For example, there is a very prominent congressional evangelical group which tries to be vocal and to gain favors and access for the evangelical church. But at least in my opinion, it is not productive. It doesn't help people have a positive view of the faith or become willing to know more about the evangelical faith, because it feels like a very transactional approach to power. Like we're frantically numbers. Now we want to have some political clout, so let's press on these issues.
I hope that in these nations people eventually gain more experience and try to see the public arena as an arena in which to serve and try to pursue a fair and just society in which all groups or religious groups have the possibility of working and sharing our views. We of course believe that the truth will prevail and that people will mainly decide to follow Christ, but not try to have a favorite position which was from back then in ancient Rome.
Have you seen Christians in other countries begin to amass more cultural and political power, like in America?
Rene Breuel: Yes, I have. It becomes this place of clout and power. There's an example that came to mind as you were talking, a prosperity gospel church in Brazil. They acquired a TV station which was very prominent and has reached a lot of people and has had their congressmen. They're trying to make their influence felt. They built a large temple in Brazil which mimics Solomon's temple, the first Jerusalem temple. In a sense, these are stakes on the ground and affirmance over the questions of our own power and positions.
But the way it often plays out in society, the backlash is it makes people less willing to explore and less willing to hear about what Christian faith is. They become scared of those developments, almost like a sect-like approach instead of among Black Americans pursuing justice for all, serving the community, and seeking the flourishing of our neighborhoods, which I think is a much more winsome approach than trying to impose our positions through symbols.
Do you remember any moments from his presidency when leaders outside the US expected white evangelical leaders to say something to rebuke him, and they did not?
Rene Breuel: Yes, I did. In all honesty, there are so many moments where you wish they did. Maybe this time, maybe this crisis, maybe this tweet, but often it did not come close to the moment which I think struck me the most, which was before his election in 2016 when the Access Hollywood tape came out. It was heartbreaking to see someone boasting joyfully of adultery, sexual assault, and grabbing women.
How can someone justify that? But people found a way, saying it's locker room talk. I was very appreciative of people who spoke out, like Beth Moore. I think John Piper wrote an article about that. I remember, on the other hand, many who kept on, saying “Oh, the other side is worse. We cannot support it.” I remember specifically, I taught theological seminary for the first semester back then. One of the books I had assigned for people came from Grudem. Then he came out very strongly even after the Access Hollywood tape, suggesting Christians should vote for Trump.
There were a number of leaders, some who spoke out against, but I sense that many either didn't or those who did, were lost in the course of those who supported the deceit vert strongly.
Do you remember hearing a different tone or a way of relating to things from American evangelical leaders who lived overseas or who were a bigger part of international communities?
Rene Breuel: Yes, I have. Certainly, I think it helps a lot when one lives outside the country and especially outside the media ecosystem, in being able to listen to a number of views and receive news in different languages. My experience is seeing people who retained their convictions and maybe aren't as vocal because it's a different society. At the same time, many who come to get a greater sense of perspective are able to see things more critically. Normally it becomes a matter of soul searching and pain.
There is division within families. For example, a missionary couple of mine here in Rome who do wonderful work was sharing with me how he was interacting with their parents who live in the Midwest and who have supported Trump throughout.
It was some delicate conversations right between children and parents of those who live outside the country and those who live within it. I had my own conversations with cousins who have moved to the US and are strong supporters. We have some good conversations, respectful conversations, but one gets the sense that it matters a lot where you live and the kinds of news you receive.
Where would you encounter those communities who were supportive of Trump and his policies?
Rene Breuel: It was among people where the American influence was in the way ministries are run or the leadership is American led. At least the tested assumption is that those are often not questioned.
What I've seen from among other nations is not so much direct support for Trump himself, but more like support for Trump-like politicians, like in Brazil or here in Italy, we have one called Mattel Salvini. Then Viktor Orban in Hungary, people who do politics in a certain way, like a strongman persona, nationalistic policies, and using religious symbols and language.
Not because they were believers per se, but to attract support from people of faith. I think Trump emboldened this kind of politicians and the authoritarian kind of personality in other nations. I saw people supporting those politicians in their nations.
To what extent would you say that the Brazilian evangelical community has begun to look similar to the US evangelical community with regards to how they engage in politics?
Rene Breuel: It has become very similar. As I mentioned, this mirror effect is a big influence from American culture to pursue a thing. It becomes almost the same debates before; in the past 10 years or so, the big debate was about prosperity theology. Some churches were advocating growth and others were very critical of it and thought it wasn't the gospel. When you present faith in that way though, the debate was almost like the lines of division. The debate now follows the current president, which is almost like a mirror of Trump in Brazil.
So are you for him? Are you against him? Then people share WhatsApp messages, which so often becomes fake news, and then there'll be some proxy debates. The most recent one was about the virus: how real is the virus, should we use masks or not, should churches press on to stay open -- almost the same debates and same things get transposed in a way, which is not encouraging.
Are you seeing more connections between Italian evangelicals and Brazilian evangelicals happening without connections to the US, or are US organizations still largely the groups convening and helping those friendships flourish?
Rene Breuel: I think there was a wonderful input from American and Western evangelicals in the 20th century in launching movements like Lausanne, APF, IFES, International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, the evangelical alliances which flourished. Those movements were started by the US, but I think nowadays they go ahead with participation in many nations, often without the convening necessity of the American church leading or proposing things. It's still, of course, the main and most influential country within global evangelicalism. But I think it's a positive thing to see people relating across countries, across continents to help look for Christians, for spiritual leadership around the world.
I think that is a healthy development because we often have a closer reality with one another. If you see some similarities, you also see some of each other's blind spots and call out the best of the other. I was certainly helped as people from outside Brazil helped me see some of my own blind spots in Brazil. It's a positive development when we can have global Christians interacting with each other in an equal manner.
Do you think that the last four years has hurt the credibility of the American evangelical church? And if so, in what ways?
Rene Breuel: Yes, I'm sorry to say, but I think in part it has, though of course, it's not a blanket statement. We can see nuances and they may be people who did not support Trump or voted for him reluctantly, the tough spot people of faith find themselves in a two-party system. But people being vocal, like Black Christians being vocal, was very helpful.
There is a feeling that the American evangelical church, at least in the past four years, lost part of its moral authority and spiritual leadership. Too many leaders, unfortunately, supported Trump noncritically, too many churchgoers supported Trump joyfully, and then too many prophets in the charismatic movement predicted a second term, which did not come to pass.
I sense that people are clear on the gospel of Christ, the cross and repentance, and faith in the new birth, but when it comes to the church’s relation to society, I think there's something which will be helpful to think a little bit more about, like to what extent should we get involved in politics? How can we conceive of a public sphere in ways that are not political, trying to seek the common good without falling into partisanship? I think these are some key questions which of course I've been asked in the United States and people around the world as well.
As we can see, movements like that can happen and are happening in other countries. How we can be more nuanced and more thoughtful when it comes to supporting parties and candidates? Even with sharing some policy platforms, we can try to be a little bit more thoughtful about that.
What steps would you suggest American evangelical leaders take to rebuild trust and regain credibility with global brothers and sisters?
Rene Breuel: These kinds of conversations are very helpful in being able to listen to other people's perspectives and having the humility of listening to how developments in my country can impact people in another country. I think it's a key opportunity to model this being quick to listen, being teachable, being humble, demonstrating self-awareness. From there will be a place of authority then to invite others, to be able to become aware of each other’s cultures, because every culture has its own personal, cultural, and political items. Then lead all of us in awareness of repentance of our own blind spots in idols. I think it's the occasion to model humility and good listening.
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