I learned wonderful things in the youth groups of my teenage years. I put my faith in Jesus Christ at a youth conference. I made incredible friends, was mentored by loving and godly people, and learned important truths that have stayed with me through tumultuous times.
But I also learned some things I wish I hadn’t. More than one well-meaning college senior left me confused by his overconfident analysis of Revelation, and I’d rather leave behind many of the (sometimes unintentional) lessons about sexuality and gender.
But lately, I’ve been remembering what my youth groups taught me about one of their favorite topics: post-modernism, and specifically the idea that everyone has their own truth. Those lessons came rushing back after Oprah Winfrey’s stirring speech at the Golden Globes, which prompted much speculation about her presidential ambitions. The speech was widely applauded, even by those who may not necessarily support an Oprah candidacy. But one line got more negative attention than the rest: “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”
Everyone from The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro to The Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau commented on the phrase “your truth,” arguing that it undermined the very notion of truth. This is classic youth group material. I remember many youth pastors, conference speakers, and small group leaders laughing as they put air quotes around phrases like “your truth.”The Church has a profound gift for a world hungry for true authenticity: consistent convictions about truth.
“This is postmodernism, kids! Everyone thinks they can have their own truth!” The shallowness of the analysis aside, I remember thinking it was so clear: “your truth” was an oxymoron. They made even more fun of one of the big ideas behind it: “authenticity” as the mark for all truth and morality. We had countless conversations about how everyone in the world was supposedly so interested in “authenticity,” but it was all a sham because you could be authentically wrong, evil, or immoral. “Being genuine sounds great, but you can genuinely go to hell,” I remember one particularly captivating leader saying.
But then I look at the man that so many church leaders have supported, and I begin to feel some whiplash. Jonah Goldberg argues that Donald Trump’s evangelical supporters have sought to “elevate the idea that authenticity is its own reward.” Trump “tells it like it is,” according to many. Very few explicitly defend the President’s particularly crude remarks. So rather than discuss Trump’s actual policies or decisions, supporters pin criticisms on his word choice and declare his foul, cruel language to be “authentic” and “down to earth.”
Jerry Falwell, president of the country’s largest Christian university, followed this trend when he tweeted this about President Trump:
Complaining about the temperament of the @POTUS or saying his behavior is not presidential is no longer relevant. @realDonaldTrump has single-handedly changed the definition of what behavior is “presidential” from phony, failed & rehearsed to authentic, successful & down to earth
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) January 10, 2018
So did evangelical political commentator Dinesh D’Souza when he tweeted after Trump’s horrifically disparaging remarks about immigration protections for Haiti and various African countries:
I won’t say Trump has the most diplomatic way of putting things but he does have a way of speaking unspeakable truths pic.twitter.com/byWFw1rPoW
— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) January 13, 2018
But as Goldberg points out, the sort of justification employed by Trump supporters is antithetical to Christian thought. After all, he writes, “Satan is nothing if not authentic.”
How did we get here? Multiple factors are at play, not the least of which is a deeply entrenched and historically rooted alliance between evangelicals and the GOP. This alliance forced many evangelicals into a choice they’d rather not make: champion the values of their faith or defend a man who utterly fails to uphold them.
But there’s something more at play than a desire to defend Trump specifically. Frustrated with the perceived limitations placed upon their speech by “political correctness,” some have begun to value language, tone, and ideas that might be deemed politically incorrect. Though it may have started as an appropriate and necessary resistance to standards that had reached a point of absurdity, this new strategy doesn’t just want to criticize those standards — it seeks to elevate anything that defies them.
While perhaps unintentional, many evangelicals who would criticize a Super Soul Sunday brand of “your truth” have ended up operating with as flexible and relative a concept of truth as those they criticize. When truth or morality is dependent largely on “authenticity,” it doesn’t matter if Trump’s claims are disproven. His language was “down to earth” and that’s all that matters. He must be right because he’s so “genuine.”
Politics aside, this trend has also resulted in a heartbreaking trend within the Church. Whether it’s directly related to an opposition to “political correctness” or finds its roots elsewhere, many churches have begun elevating our own Christian spin on “authenticity”: confession.
Viewed from the proper perspective, confession is an important part of the Christian life. It’s a necessary stage of repentance: we examine our hearts, acknowledge (i.e., confess) our sin, seek forgiveness, and begin the process of restoration. But instead of appreciating the deep beauty of repentance, too many believers are being formed to value confession alone. We want “raw” and “real” as much as the average Trump supporter wants him to “tell it like it is.” But when we begin to value authenticity above all else, we end up celebrating confession more than true repentance.
When Andy Savage responded to detailed allegations that he’d sexually assaulted one of his students while a youth pastor back in 1998, his initial comments to his congregation largely corroborated Jules Woodson’s story. However, his tone and overarching message was one of mere confession, not repentance. Savage’s congregation may have greeted his request for forgiveness with a standing ovation, but many prominent evangelicals, such as Ed Stetzer, Mike Cosper, and Katelyn Beaty, pointed out the deeply flawed approach both Savage and his church, Highpoint, had taken.
Not only did Savage repeatedly refer to the assault as an “incident” and imply that Woodson was equally responsible and in need of forgiveness, but his speech and the lack of action by his church’s leadership led many to point out the “cheap grace” that was dispensed. Savage wasn’t going to face any serious consequences for his actions. Savage’s church wasn’t planning on removing him from his position or (initially) investigating the circumstances of his hiring or his service at the church. Instead of seeking true repentance, there was merely confession.
While this example was particularly heartbreaking and disturbing, it follows a trend many churches reinforce. A church deeply concerned with younger generations’ focus on authenticity may respond with an overreaction, i.e., a weird obsession with getting really gritty testimonies instead of working on improving its members’ transparency and honesty.
The evangelical response to abusers in the Church like Savage, or abusers that evangelicals support politically (e.g., Trump) reveals how deeply we have accepted the very ideal we often mock: that authenticity is the true marker of character, or at least, a pretty good substitute for it.
The Church has a profound gift for a world hungry for true authenticity: consistent convictions about truth. Instead of selectively applying our criticisms, we need to be humbly honest about our own failings without glorifying only half of the equation. The Gospel’s power is not that we are sinners, but that there’s hope for redemption. Our greatest, most authentic witness to a weary world is an unwavering commitment to truth that doesn’t bow to power or wealth, but outlasts them both.