Published December 31, 2023
The same column and the same argument are on repeat, it seems.
The ability to receive critique is a mark of health.
The tendency to give nothing but critique is not.
I raise this question of critique because if anyone has followed along for the past two or three years, self-identified Evangelicals with elite-media platforms at such places as the Atlantic, Yahoo, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and even Evangelical outlets have a ceaseless fixation on criticizing Evangelicals, especially “white Evangelicals.” Think of such writers as David French, Pete Wehner, and Tim Alberta. Or Evangelical thought leaders who participate in documentaries about “Christian nationalism” produced by fabulously rich and progressive celebrities. The same column and the same argument are on repeat.
These journalists use their Evangelical credentials and powerful media platforms to scold other Evangelicals and warn of the looming threat that Evangelicalism poses to America. We are all, it seems, would-be insurrectionists more devoted to Donald Trump than to Jesus Christ. We’ve sacrificed integrity and virtue for political power. We love America more than the Kingdom of God. These journalists are the only ones with any credibility left, they imply, because they possess the integrity, rectitude, and fortitude to see through the fog of Trumpism and tribalism. In their critiques, there is little demonstrated willingness to consider whether Evangelicals have any justification to feel besieged by a grimly secularizing culture. If you do acknowledge the grave moral threats posed by progressive ideology, you are quickly dismissible as “fearful” or as more interested in the “culture war.” They cannot grant the Evangelical concern that progressive ideology countermands God’s natural law and harms civilization.
Furthermore, they tell us that individuals are leaving the church in droves because of Evangelical hypocrisy and captivity to politicization (data suggest other factors at play). The Evangelical church is its own worst enemy, we’re told, and is bleeding individuals because secularists and Christians alike are convinced that the Evangelical church does not really believe its own confession. It seems odd to put non-Christians in the position of judging what is or is not authentic Christianity.
Is it really the case that young Christians are leaving because they’re too Christian and the Evangelical church is not? Is there really a groundswell of individuals who are resisting the LGBT revolution, who are steadfast against woke ideology, who are thoroughly committed to a robust Reformational theology, and who are leaving because the church is not as committed to personal holiness as they would like? Conversely, would non-Christians convert in Great Awakening–style numbers if only Evangelicals would get their act together? I find this all very suspect; like talking points served up for secular media.
Receiving critique when warranted is important. These writers’ complaints and warnings should not be dismissed. If Evangelicalism were immune from self-criticism, that would indeed be a major problem. Yet I cannot think of a single high-profile Evangelical who would not admit that Evangelicalism has problems. We should acknowledge that certain precincts within Evangelicalism are too political, have been too cozy with bizarre conspiracies and suspect charlatans, and have leaders who are hypocritical and scandal-plagued — or went too far in dismissing the many valid concerns about Trump. I wish to excuse none of this, even while I can look on at the behemoth of American Evangelicalism and see profoundly good gospel ministry. It is also the case that any demographic label that accounts for an estimated one-quarter of America is going to have its share of charlatans, problems, and cringey outliers.
But it is an odd thing when voices who have elite platforms use them not to promote a better understanding of Evangelicalism but as a bludgeon to pulverize Evangelicals for their alleged sins. Almost parroting Luke 18:11, the condescension drips off the page, “God, I thank you that I’m not like those Evangelicals.” The writers are not altogether wrong in their critiques, but the proportion of rebuke outweighs any evidence of love. There is a distinction between a plaintive warning and a scalding and sanctimonious reprimand issued from a distance.
Their indignation is often characterized by a myopia that cannot entertain good-faith disagreement — the idea that an Evangelical, somewhere, might have reason to reject these writers’ perceptions and denunciations, or at least see things a bit differently. No, if you disagree with how these journalists see the world, it is because of some nefarious motive — lust for power or ego or fearfulness that Christianity is losing its grip on America. The formula is this: Imply the worst about your fellow Christians and believe secular liberals are motivated by righteousness; empathize with leftist sentiment but give no hearing to those whom elites disenfranchise; dismiss the household of faith and ratify secularist suspicion of Evangelicals. For one must never allow those in the ruling class to become uncomfortable or be told that their own godless worldview is built on sand.
But I have a question of great concern and a plea for clarity: Has anyone else noticed that many Christian journalists have gone more or less silent on issues of cultural controversy that intersect with the so-called culture war? For example, I haven’t heard an affirmation of the exclusivity of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, or biblical views on abortion or sexuality in years from many who write at these outlets. When was the last time one of these writers picked up their pen or used their platform to defend the interests of conservative Evangelicals in any meaningful way, even if it put them at odds with their cosmopolitan readership?
Translating values to a readership that does not share them can be done, after all. Ross Douthat does so commendably. But Evangelicals have an inferiority complex that Catholics do not have. Evangelicals have been incubated in paradigms such as “faithful presence” from the likes of scholars such as James Davison Hunter. This paradigm imagines the class-conscious Evangelical clamoring for elite access and finally getting it. The assumption is that, in time, the Evangelical will slowly leaven his institution with the gospel and transform it by his winsome and culturally enlightened version of Christianity. The problem with this model is that Evangelicals who think they will transform an institution are the ones who become transformed into the image of their secular betters. They may be present, but the question is how faithful they remain.
Having gained an elite platform, maintaining it comes with the expectation that you play by elite rules, turn your focus to the areas that will not get you in trouble, and set your criticism on those your readership already is inclined to see as throwbacks and troglodytes. You either go silent or else you moderate on those areas that would jeopardize your platform.
After years of insults and caricatures hurled at Evangelicals outside the corridors of power, it’s worth asking whether more is going on than just scolding. It raises the possibility of a far more troubling concern. Adherents of the new liberalism are, I fear, disguising theological shifts by scapegoating millions of Christians and using personal anecdotes to legitimate their grievances and palliate their transformation. This, while appeasing an audience of elites looking to validate their contempt of Evangelicals. If that is not the case, and let us hope sincerely that it is not, it would be good to hear it. It seems almost impossible to devote one’s energies to slamming your fellow Evangelical and not have that affect your own views or the posture in which you hold them.
To my fellow Evangelicals, I want to end with this: The message of the New Testament seems to be that no matter how gracious, consistent, or justice-oriented a Christian may be, Christians might still be seen as risible and contemptible rejects to non-Christians. This is not a permission slip to act as bellicose jerks or hypocritical scoundrels. Still, it should make us rethink the idea that non-Christians are arbiters of what is or is not faithful Christianity, and the notion that “the world is watching,” as if the world in any sense has its own conscience rightly and consistently calibrated. It does not. Non-Christians are not failing to become Christians because of Christian consistency. Jerry Falwell Jr., though a sad spectacle, is no threat to God’s sovereignty. We could exemplify every virtue imaginable, and the world would still hate us. Why? Because the world loves darkness (John 3:19).
For every Evangelical scandal, I can point you towards an example of an Evangelical doing things that will never get them profiled in any of these elite publications. No one cares when a Christian does Christian things. An Evangelical Christian man I know, who is very conservative politically, used his vast resources this Christmas season to drive to an impoverished part of this country to make sure poor children devastated by a natural disaster have Christmas presents. “Man, Jesus was right. It is better to give than to receive,” he tells me. Evangelicalism has a more varied complexion than the red hue of a MAGA hat.
The problem is not Evangelical pundits publishing in elite media. The issue arises when these pundits repeatedly reinforce the prejudices that their readers already have against Evangelicals. Few, I’m almost sure, are conscientiously trying to appease secular elites. All of this, however, begins to look a little suspicious after some time. Either the Evangelical critic has become a progressive but is happy to keep the Evangelical label because it provides access, or the critic remains a sincere Evangelical but is oblivious to the fact that he is being used to beat up on other Evangelicals in ways that perfectly align with a progressive narrative. Either way, there’s a problem, and correction is needed. It is hardly courageous, after all, to take a disfavored demographic and denounce it.
Heaping scorn on Evangelicals in all the ways that progressives love does not make one a prophet. It makes one a shill for Evangelicalism’s enemies.
EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., researches and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public theology, and the moral principles that support civil society and sound government. A sought-after speaker and cultural commentator, Dr. Walker’s academic research interests and areas of expertise include natural law, human dignity, family stability, social conservatism, and church-state studies. The author or editor of more than ten books, he is passionate about helping Christians understand the moral demands of the gospel and their contributions to human flourishing and the common good. His most recent book, out in May 2021 from Brazos Press, is titled Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Secular Age.