Under Threat We Double Down on Doctrine

When evangelicals are faced with perceived threats we tend to double down on doctrine, a significant aspect of our identity and boundaries. Two incidents related to Islam clearly illustrate this.

In a previous post I've explored integrated threat theory (ITT) in relation to evangelical attitudes toward those in other religions. I'll quote a section of my past discussion this to set the context:

"In the context of intergroup threat theory, an intergroup threat is experienced when members of one group perceive that another group is in a position to cause them harm." It should be noted that ITT "is a social psychological theory in that it is primarily concerned with perceptions of threat." As originally set forth, ITT was understood to manifest itself in two different types of perceived threat. The first is realistic threats, "which refer to the physical welfare or resources of the ingroup," and the second is "symbolic threats, which refer to the ingroup's system of meaning."

As I reflect on ITT in my research I think that evangelical responses to realistic and symbolic threats are the same. Whether we are responding to a physical threat to our lives and welfare, or a symbolic threat to our worldview, evangelicals tend to double down on doctrine as a significant element of group identity and boundaries. Two incidents illustrate this, and both are in relation to reactions to Islam.

The first example comes by way of Rev. David Benke. I've discussed his story in a previous post as well:

Not long after 9/11, on September 23, a memorial service was held in Yankee Stadium. The event brought together thousands of people. Emotions were still raw, and many were still waiting for word about the fate of their missing loved ones. The event included not only various politicians, but also clergy representing the major religious traditions in the area. One of those in attendance was Rev. David Benke, a minister in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Rising to the occasion of massive grief, Rev. Benke saw an opportunity to be pastoral, and in doing this he led those in the stadium in prayer. You can watch a video clip of his prayer here. You might think that this was the end of things as the population of New York, and the rest of the nation continued to wrestle with the attacks and what life in the new normal of post-terrorism would mean. But things took an ugly turn for Rev. Benke. Because of his participation in the memorial service, taking the stage with leaders of other religious traditions, denominational leaders in Benke's church took exception to his actions, leveling charges over concerns of alleged heresy.

So the reaction of many evangelicals to the realistic threat of the 9/11 terror attacks, when a minister participated in an interfaith pastoral event in an attempt to function as a chaplain, was to emphasize doctrinal boundaries and make accusations of heresy due to alleged syncretism.

The second example comes by way of Larycia Hawkins, formerly a professor at Wheaton College. I won't go into too much depth here since I have a review of the Same God documentary film that tells her story coming out soon in Cultural Encounters journal where I discuss this and provide some commentary on what this means for evangelicals. But to summarize, Hawkins wanted to demonstrate solidarity with Muslim women, so she posted comments and a photo of herself wearing a hijab on Facebook that included remarks about Christians and Muslims worshiping the same God. A national controversy erupted, and eventually Hawkins lost her job when her doctrinal views were called into question.

The Hawkins case is an example of symbolic threat. Her views were seen as a compromise to pluralism, and again the charge of syncretism was leveled.

It is not my intention in this post to argue whether Benke's and Hawkins' actions were theologically appropriate or not. Instead, I want to draw attention to an interesting phenomenon. It would seem that whenever evangelicals are faced with a realistic or symbolic threat from Muslims, we double down on our doctrine. In this way we reaffirm our identity, and reinforce the boundaries between us and them. But we might ask ourselves whether this is a helpful reaction without at least including careful emotional and rational reflection.

The doctrine double down might make us feel safer, but it ultimately pushes others away. Are there better ways for evangelicals to react to perceived threats in a pluralistic world?

John Morehead