As I have the past few years, I'll be detailing my picks and rationale here for your
Make sure you fill out your own bracket and vote when the tournament begins.
Anyway, here is my bracket.
And, here is the method behind my own personal American Jesus Madness. (I will note, though it should go without saying, that this is supposed to be fun. While the contest offers opportunities for some pointed commentary, please take my reasoning and picks with a grain of salt.)
The match-ups this year are all over the map in terms of scope. Our President comes up a few times, the Church's relationship to him a few times, too. Also, there are quite a few overlapping entries (i.e. the Jen Hatmaker v. Lifeway offers a similar conflict to Evangelical Lady Bloggers v. Evangelical Authorities). I will say, there are some quadrants of the bracket that seem far more likely to produce a depressing contender than others. Also, there are some match-ups I really wanted to see, but I've learned over the few years I've done this contest that there are more decent human beings participating in this madness than the cynic in me thinks possible.
But, without further ado, here's how I see the first round shaking out.
Thoughts & Prayers v. Actually Doing Something - It seemed that following every possible sort of tragedy that occurred over the course of this past year, notable leaders and celebrities were quick to offer sympathy and support to the victims in the form of "thoughts and prayers." Just as quick were the responses to those leaders and celebrities from critics insisting that "thoughts and prayers" were an unacceptable offering from folks who had the power and position to actually do something in either providing tangible care for the victims or enacting legislation to prevent similar such tragedies from repeat occurrences. Call me cynical, but thoughts and prayers seem to be winning out here. Despite the indignation of those hungering for action, too often our anger is being channeled into social media SCREAMS into the internet abyss rather than actually doing something ourselves. If "thoughts and prayers" is lamented as too easy, then so too is yelling at the "thoughts and prayers" folks. Winner: Thoughts & Prayers
Loving Guns v. Loving Children - It's sad that some version of this match-up makes a perennial appearance in the bracket. It'd be nice if that weren't the case. [Obligatory moment of thought and prayer that one day it won't be.] However, it's a telling statement that it's presented as dualistically as it is this year, because it really does feel like the that's the way the debate stands these days, particularly in light of the phase it has entered behind the voices of the students from Parkland, FL. It's now being presented as starkly as it is in this tournament: you either want to save the guns or you want kids to be safe. As for who wins in this contest, it's like Jesus said, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like an AR-15 shall not enter it." Then, he took up arms and blessed them. (Ew!) Winner: Loving Children
James Comey Bible Tweets v. Marco Rubio Bible Tweets - Oh, the joy of highly polarizing political figures trying to appeal to Christian voter bases by tweeting proof-texted Bible verses! Comey's best bunch came out during the peak of his testimony about Trump, Hillary's emails, and Russia. Since then, they've really dropped off. But, Rubio's are more consistent, and consistently receive some of the best pushback. At times, it's like Rubio is trolling himself and his own policies by tweeting scripture that immediately leads people to point out his own contradictions. Winner: Marco Rubio Bible Tweets
Jen Hatmaker v. Lifeway Bookstores - If there is a "The Man" of American Christian publishing, it's Lifeway. I don't know of too many current Christian writers more critical of "The Man" than Jen Hatmaker. Hatmaker was an evangelical darling until changing her position towards affirming the LGBT community a few years ago and since then has gone on to challenge many of the long-held tenets of evangelicalism, many of which have to do with the authority of the man in the Church/family. As a response, Lifeway has stopped selling any of Hatmaker's books (a tactic Lifeway has also leveled against other artists/authors deviating from evangelical orthodoxy). However, as more and more Christian bookstores are closing, the case can be made that consumers are Lifeway-ing Lifeway by refusing to patronize the stories. Still, as much as Hatmaker is trying to dismantle the cis-hetero patriarchy, "The Man" won't go down without a fight. Winner: Lifeway Bookstores
Donald Trump v. Being a Decent Human Being - This is the first match-up in one of the aforementioned quadrants that leave little hope of a positive outcome. If I remember correctly, Trump faced almost this exact match-up in 2016 AND lost a similar match-up in the first round of last year's tournament versus "Anything Remotely Christian." Still, if 2018 has proven anything it's that the limits of what constitutes human "decency" are being redrawn more rapidly than gerrymandered voting districts in an attempt to be favorable to the President. I'm not sure that's a good thing for the definition of "decent," but it's enough in this contest. Winner: Being a Decent Human Being
#ChurchToo v. Applauding Abusers - This is one of the harshest first round match-ups. One of the powerful movements of this past year has been the #MeToo movement of women sharing stories of abuse for the sake of camaraderie and justice. An off-shoot of the #MeToo movement was the #ChurchToo movement in which people shared stories of abuse in church settings, often by clergy or church authorities. It was a damning revelation of how widespread the issue of abuse is in our culture. On the other hand, just like there was the instance of Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar to undermine the #MeToo movement, there are instances like that of Andy Savage, the Tennessee pastor who confessed to his congregation of perpetrating a sexually abusive incident, and for his confession received a standing ovation to undercut the #ChurchToo movement. As a society, we continue to laud the achievements of known abusers as though we weren't pouring salt in the wounds of victims. Neither of the contestants in this match-up are flattering, but confession is better for the soul than the cheap grace of forgiveness without repentance. Winner: #ChurchToo
Evangelical Advisory Council's Silence v. Evangelical Advisory Council's Complicity - Since the beginning, Trump has had a very publicized cadre of Christian advisors said to both guides to the President's spiritual growth and voices representative of the Christian community regarding the President's proposed policies. In the course of the past year, there have been a number of instances in which the EAC (or a particular member of it) was quick to vouch for the President's character or motives with a proposed policy and other instances when the EAC was deafeningly silent in the face of a policy or statement by the President that seemed indefensible from a Christian perspective. Being complicit in political policies that can be viewed as harmful to some, but still fit within some semblance of Christian thinking is one thing. Failing to speak up out of political fear when something very clearly contradicts Christian thinking is a whole very other, very alarming thing. Winner: Evangelical Advisory Council's Silence
Jerry Falwell Jr. v. Shane Claiborne - The President of Liberty University - America's largest Christian college - has been an out-spoken advocate for both Trump and the Second Amendment. Shane Claiborne has for years enjoyed crossover success as someone birthed out of evangelicalism whose passion for peace and justice have resonated with progressive audiences as well as evangelical ones. However, in response to Claiborne's recent announcement of a Red Letter Revival event (in Lynchburg, VA, in direct response to Jerry Falwell Jr.), he started getting some pushback from more liberal Christians on just how much his beliefs have 'progressed' in other areas of social ethics. As such, some of his progressive street cred took a hit. As much as I appreciate Shane, without the full support of justice-minded, non-violent Christian community, I'm not sure Claiborne can withstand the heat Falwell is packing. Winner: Jerry Falwell Jr.
Trumpvangelicals v. Integrity - Pretty much ever since the election, in which 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump, pundits have been musing both to privately and publicly about the cost of their support to their Christian integrity. Considering that white evangelicals continue to be the most supportive group (at 78% according to this poll data), I don't think integrity is faring so well. Winner: Trumpvangelicals
Evangelical Lady Bloggers v. Evangelical Authorities - I wrote above about the treatment Jen Hatmaker got from Lifeway. On a slightly different level, female bloggers are policed by evangelical authorities. For years now (in part because finding a voice in a complementarian church can be difficult for a woman), evangelical women have taken to the blogosphere for the forum to share and process faith together. Now that it has grown more popular, the evangelical authorities are more wary of what these women are writing and saying. Write about family life and raising children = good. Write about scripture and what it says = "you don't have the authority to teach men about that." This rejection scandalizes some, but for others like Rachel Held Evans, it amplifies their voice for an even larger audience and largely verifies the critique the bloggers are making. Winner: Evangelical Lady Bloggers
500th Anniversary of the Reformation v. Feeling Like Trump's Been President for 500 Years - I'm a Protestant, so in a sense, I wouldn't be here if not for Luther
Museum of the Bible v. Ethics - I admit, I had to look this one up. I found it hard to believe a "Museum of the Bible" actually existed. It does. However, I quickly learned why it is being paired against ethics in the first round. As it turns out, the Washington, D.C. museum, which claims to be non-sectarian and non-political, doesn't quite live up to its claims of impartiality. Also, it has come under some serious scrutiny regarding the tactics it used to acquire some of its historical artifacts. Hmm. It's almost like this is another example of that tension that arises when capitalism gets a hold of religious fervor. Capitalism usually wins. (P.S. I heard if you pledge as a museum member, you can free a loved one from purgatory.) Winner: Museum of the Bible
Taking a Knee v. White Privilege - Last time I checked, the Philadelphia Eagles, the most socially conscious team in the NFL, still beat the New England Patriots, right? Okay. Winner: Taking a Knee
Eugene Peterson's Flip-Flop v. Nashville Statement - Peterson's flip-flop is not a reference to The Message's word for the thonged sandals of Jesus that John the Baptist wasn't fit to undo. It's a reference to an interview that Religious News Services's Jonathan Merritt released in which The Message's author appeared to concede he'd changed his view on same-sex marriage. Liberals rejoiced. Conservatives lamented. Lifeway threatened to pull books from the shelves. A day later, Peterson was doing the "see, what I'd really said was..." dance. Lifeway restocked. Conservatives rejoiced. Liberals whined. The Nashville Statement, on the other hand, left no such ambiguity. It was a collective document meant as a unifying affirmation of orthodox (read: conservative evangelical) Christian view of gender and sexuality. Conservatives signed on. Liberals started writing their counter documents. Honestly, the Nashville Statement had more productive results, but, it didn't have the roller coaster effect Peterson had. Winner: Eugene Peterson's Flip-Flop
Mike Pence Rule v. Donald Trump Mulligan - Mike Pence has a personal policy regarding his interactions with women. He won't have a meal alone with any woman who is not his wife, and he won't attend any function where there is alcohol without his wife there. He presents the rule as a noble guard against infidelity and impurity. However, below the surface it suggests that either he doesn't trust himself, or he doesn't trust women. Which ever the motivation, Pence chooses to err on the side of caution, I guess to prevent the scenario where you're being sued by an adult film star after paying her hush money following an adulterous affair...which happens to be the situation Trump finds himself in. If only he'd abided by the Pence Rule... Instead, he can be thankful that Tony Perkins - president of the Family Research Council - has granted him a mulligan for the incident (and all the rest of his past misdeeds) as long as Trump can still sink the putt on his policy promises. See, and he still hasn't had to ask God to forgive him for anything. Winner: Donald Trump Mulligans
Robert Jeffress v. Franklin Graham - In a battle between two high profile Christian leaders who race to justify the President's every policy and statement, it's difficult to pick a 'winner'. However, the family legacy aspect puts Graham over the edge. Every move that Franklin makes impacts the enduring memory of his late father Billy Graham - and not in such a good way. Winner (I suppose): Franklin Graham
After some pretty interesting first round match-ups, most of which had obvious association with each other, round two presents the challenge of pairs that maybe don't seem to connect. Regardless, I have to pick 'em, so I'll make up some rationale while I go.
Round 2 - The Salacious 16
Thoughts & Prayers v. Loving Children - I mentioned above that the students of Parkland, FL, have very recently and powerfully made the point that "thoughts & prayers" and loving children at not necessarily synonymous actions. The traction that their plea for action on gun reform has gained is evidenced by the widespread student protests that happened at schools across the country on Wednesday and the march in Washington, DC, scheduled for the 24th. The call to loving children is certainly making the case that it is a more powerful and necessary task than just offering "thoughts & prayers". Winner: Loving Children
Marco Rubio's Bible Tweets v. Lifeway - Honestly, in as much as Rubio's out-of-context tweets serve to undermine his policies and illustrate his own hypocrisy, he ain't got nothing on Lifeway, who bans authors like Hatmaker and Rob Bell and almost Eugene Peterson (before his flip-flop), but yet proudly sells books by Donald Trump...who needs mulligans... Winner: Lifeway
Trumpvangelicals v. Evangelical Lady Bloggers - In round one, the lady bloggers subverted the evangelical authorities by daring to speak on what they supposedly should be silent about and thus exposing the authorities' insecure underbellies. In round two, they employ the same tactic to expose the underbelly of the insecure white Evangelical Christian male. Winner: Evangelical Lady Bloggers
500th Anniversary of the Reformation v. Museum of the Bible - One of the significant contributions of the Reformation was to (with the help of the printing press) make the Bible accessible to everyone. I'm sure there's an (unironic) exhibit in the carefully curated museum dedicated to how the Bible went from exclusive property of a select few to being available to the masses. I'm sure the exhibit explains how the Reformers revolutionized the way the Bible was read and interpreted, resulting in a broad variance in Christian understandings of inspiration and scriptural authority. I'm sure all of this is exhibited with a fair respect towards the history and diversity. (Oh, the museum skews Protestant? AND makes staff sign faith agreements? Hmm...) Winner: 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
Taking a Knee v. Eugene Peterson's Flip-Flop - Whereas it seemed as though the immediate backlash to the RNS interview prompted Peterson's
Donald Trump Mulligans v. Franklin Graham - No matter what the legacy ends up being for the Trump presidency - which parts people (and history) choose to focus on or conveniently overlook - the reality is that it probably will not deviate much from what we already knew of him before he became President. Franklin Graham on the other hand may be doing damage to a family legacy that no number of mulligans may be able to undo. Winner: Donald Trump Mulligans
Now, to determine who earns the right to count themselves among the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse this year. Also, to see who emerges from each of the four quadrants. Fingers crossed.
Quarterfinals - The Exquisite 8
Loving Children v. Lifeway - Lifeway, as a purveyor of curriculum and content full of wholesome Christian family values, would seem to have cornered the market on loving children. However, I believe loving children today is more about teaching them how to think about their faith than indoctrinating them on what to think. Lifeway's selectivity of product indicates that there's a very particular perspective of "Christian family values" they're interested in spreading to the exclusion of any other perspectives. My kids have already learned things about today's social and family systems that they couldn't have learned from a Lifeway product. Winner: Loving Children
#ChurchToo v. Jerry Falwell Jr. - Every year, Jerry Falwell Jr. survives my bracket longer than I'd prefer. This year's run ends here, where Falwell's "persecution complex" victimhood comes up against the stories of actual victims. Yes, the persecution narrative has proven persuasive, but the truth is more powerful. Winner: #ChurchToo
Evangelical Lady Bloggers v. 500th Anniversary of the Reformation - The lady bloggers have thus far taken out the manly Evangelical authorities (the 60-year old white guys) and the manlier Trumpvangelicals (the 40-year old white guys). But, they're no match for 500-year old white guys of the Reformation whose patriarchalism has been enshrined in hundreds of years of denominational tradition and polity. Good luck undoing that with a blog. Winner: 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
Taking a Knee v. Donald Trump Mulligans - That moment that the President called kneeling players "S.O.B.s" is probably a moment he'd like to have back. It resulted in somewhat of a league-wide act of solidarity - not so much in keeping with the original intent of the movement, but in affirming the dignity and worth of each player whether they choose to kneel or not. One of the constant goals of those against taking a knee is to say that it's about something it's not (i.e. disrespecting the flag or veterans). Those who kneel insist it is about the worth of a human life. In insulting the protestors, Trump only (even if only momentarily) galvanized the movement by proving its point. Winner: Taking a Knee
Given all of the negativity in this year's bracket, I must admit surprise at the four contestants that remain. Read on to see who makes the final.
Semi-Finals - 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Loving Children v. #ChurchToo - If you asked any church whether they liked having kids around, they'd say, "Yes, we love children!" They'd probably even say, "We wish we could figure out how to have more of them here." In practice, however, it's not always so clear that churches do love kids. We unsure how to include them in worship; our Sunday school curricula struggle to engage them; we patronize rather than empower them. Then, there's the reality that #ChurchToo brings to light: that for an institution that claims to love children, we don't do a good job of keeping them safe in our care. A whole generation of kids has come of age in the wake of 9/11, Catholic abuse scandals, and school shootings - all of which have taught them to suspect nowhere is safe. #ChurchToo indicates that we've too often perpetuated that suspicion by failing to protect our children from predatory people and harmful doctrine. If we really want to love children, we need to be better. Winner: #ChurchToo
500th Anniversary of the Reformation v. Taking a Knee - At its core, the Reformation was a protest (hence, "Protestants"). It was a protest against the abuses perpetrated by the religious authorities against the common people. It was a protest against the misuse of power in the Church. It was a protest, not against Christianity, but against the way that Christianity had been corrupted by poor theology and poor leadership. While not specifically a religious movement, taking a knee captures the same spirit of protest that fueled the reformers: against abusive authorities, against misuse of power, against the ideal of American freedom being undermined by poor leadership and unjust practices. To its advantage, it's not 500 years old. Winner: Taking a Knee
#ChurchToo v. Taking a Knee - It's fitting that this year's Madness should come down to two protest movements doing an important job of raising awareness on some very important societal ills. One began on the national stage with Colin Kaepernick and has caught on across other professional sports as well as trickled down in collegiate and high school settings. The next generation is paying attention and learning non-violent, yet powerful, ways to stand up for what they believe in. The other began on Twitter, as a spin-off of the #MeToo movement in which (mostly) women shared their stories and experiences of sexual abuse/assault. The #ChurchToo branch focused on cases in which churches or religious groups were the setting for such experiences. It represented an opportunity to unheard voices to make their stories heard. And, it was startling. Both of these movements are important, but only one can win. And, because this is American JESUS Madness, and because the Church needs to be called to recognize its sins, repent, and change... Winner: #ChurchToo