Religion

When Christians Are Too Afraid to Hear Ben Shapiro Speak

Ben Shapiro speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., February 22, 2018. (Gage Skidmore)
Fear of the Left is choking the Christian public witness.

On Friday another university canceled another Ben Shapiro speech. He’s used to this by now, of course. It’s happened at public and private universities across the country. There are some on the left who hate him. They want him de-platformed as often as possible. And so it’s hardly surprising that where the Left holds the most power, his position will be most precarious.

But Friday’s cancellation was different. This time, a Christian college canceled his appearance. Grand Canyon University holds itself out as traditional and orthodox in its beliefs. Its doctrinal statement reads like the statements of faith at countless Evangelical churches in the United States. Moreover, the school supplements its doctrinal statement with a truly admirable series of ethical position statements.

As a matter of official position, the school declares a belief that God created the universe (without stating a specific position on the manner of creation), it supports a right to life from conception until natural death, it affirms the view that sexual relationships should be reserved exclusively for marriage, and it defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Grand Canyon even has a strong statement in support of academic freedom, stating that “critical thought, open dialogue, and a fair presentation of all major views is vital to higher education, but is indispensable for genuinely Christian instruction.”

Shapiro, by the way, believes in each of the statements above. He wasn’t coming to disrupt the university’s mission. If anything, he’d affirm many of its most central teachings. Yet Grand Canyon canceled him anyway. Why?

The school’s statement justifying its decision was a revealing mess — somehow managing to be simultaneously self-righteous and cowardly. At the outset, it acknowledges that the school agrees with “many of the things that Ben Shapiro speaks about and stands for,” but then it (nonsensically) claims that “our decision to cancel Shapiro’s speaking engagement is not a reflection of his ideologies or the values he represents, but rather a desire to focus on opportunities that bring people together.”

But de-platforming is inherently divisive. It’s an explicit rebuke and rejection of the (many) people who wanted to hear Shapiro speak.

As the statement continues, it grows more obsequious — writing bullet points about Grand Canyon’s diversity, its commitment to its community, and its positive impacts on its neighborhood and the wider world. It acknowledges that it’s offending Shapiro’s supporters, but the entire release reads like a plea to a secular world — yes, we erred by inviting Shapiro, they argue, but please, like us anyway. We’re still good people.

At first glance, a statement like this seems very off-brand for modern Evangelicalism. After all, isn’t it Trumpian now? Aren’t Evangelicals all about owning the libs? But if you dig deeper, you know that Grand Canyon’s actions are entirely consistent with the real malady that stalks much of American Evangelical thought. Christians aren’t so much about owning the libs. They’re all about fearing the libs, and that fear manifests itself differently in different Christian communities.

In white Evangelicalism more broadly, you see the palpable panic of increased secularization and diminished liberty that led the people of God — the heirs to a line of faith that is thousands of years old — to seek the protection and good graces of a philandering, mendacious reality-television star and real-estate developer.

Yes, in earlier days, people of faith like Hezekiah confronted the Assyrian army while relying on God and not human alliances to save his people, but — good grief — that’s Hillary Clinton out there! How can the church withstand her terrible wrath?

In other sectors of the Evangelical church, however, the fear of the Left (mixed with more than a little desire for the kind of earthly prestige that only the secular progressive elite can bestow) creates a very different effect. Especially in academic circles, you see Christians virtually begging, “Don’t treat me like the other Christians. I’m not like them.”

It’s a modern version of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, where the new Pharisee puts out a press release that says, “We’re not like those mean conservatives! We give back to our community and embrace diversity!” In the vain effort to secure the world’s approval — and thereby secure their institutional future — these fearful Christians broadcast their good deeds to the world, hoping the world will love them back.

Or, to continue the analogy to Hezekiah and the Assyrian threat, one set of Christians looks at the Assyrian army and cries out to Egypt for assistance. The other looks at the Assyrians and seeks to curry their favor, hoping for mercy from those who are fundamentally hostile to their faith.

It is absolutely the case that America’s churchgoing Evangelicals are among our nation’s kindest, most compassionate, and most generous citizens. Attend your local Evangelical church, and you’ll find people who are diligently and earnestly wrestling with the best and most effective way to love and serve “the least of these” in their communities and the world.

But — let’s be honest — the Evangelical political witness is a panicked mess. And in an era that features the increasing politicization of all walks of life, that political witness assumes greater importance even as the Evangelical community falls into greater confusion. Fear of the secular Left dominates the Evangelical political mind, and it distorts the Evangelical response.

And here’s where I have to take my share of responsibility. I’ve been writing for years about the rising tide of secular intolerance. I’ve traveled the country speaking about the progressive threat to religious liberty. Those challenges are real, but when warnings are divorced from greater historical context — when they’re not accompanied by clear expressions of faith and confidence in God’s unquestioned ability to protect His church — they can breed unreasonable fear and help rationalize a faithless response.

In 2014, my friend Tish Harrison Warren, now a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, wrote one of the most important Christian essays of the new century. In “The Wrong Kind of Christian,” Warren describes how the student group she led at Vanderbilt University was kicked off campus after refusing to consent to a university policy that required Christian student groups to be open to non-Christian leadership. She described her dismay after finding out that her far-more-progressive identity was no protection against punitive progressivism so long as she retained her belief in biblical teachings about human sexuality.

She discovered there is truly no “acceptable” Evangelical. But the thing I appreciated about Tish then (I advised her student group as it fought to stay on campus) is that throughout the process — even as her group of winsome, thoughtful young Christians was compared to racist segregationists — her alarm never turned into fear or bitterness. She was resolved, but she was not afraid, and she did not exaggerate the stakes.

Grand Canyon could stand to learn the lesson that Tish learned. Cancel all the speeches you want — you still won’t be an “acceptable” Christian institution so long as you hold to the core fundamentals of the faith. Instead, why not simply keep your promises? Open your campus to the dialogue that’s allegedly so important that you made it one of your ethical position statements. And if members of your community think Shapiro is too divisive, ask them to challenge him on that very point. I know him well enough to know that he’ll be more than ready to provide an answer.

By its cancellation of Ben’s speech, Grand Canyon is communicating to its students that their own commitments to life, liberty, and the nation’s founding ideals are somehow suspect on their own Christian campus. And to what end? You’ve unified no one. You’ve stifled debate. And you’ve done what Christians are doing across the land — you’ve allowed fear of the Left to corrupt your witness. You’re begging the world for its love. It will not love you back.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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