Present, But How Faithfully? Francis Collins, Evangelicals, and Elite Institutions

On Tuesday, Francis Collins announced he is resigning from the National Institutes of Health.

Collins has long been celebrated by evangelical influencers, and upon his departure those praising him included Russell Moore, Tim Keller, and David French. The well-credentialed  evangelicals who populate urban churches like Keller’s have been taught to aspire to a “faithful presence” in elite institutions, and Collins is often viewed as epitomizing this. He succeeded not just at an elite level, but in the scientific world, a domain where Christians have a particularly hard time gaining respect.

Yet Collins’s record over his 12 years atop the NIH shows serious and repeated moral compromises. That he continues to be praised as a model by elite-adjacent evangelicals suggests that what matters is the “presence” in elite circles far more than faithfulness to any clear Christian moral standard.

Collins’s most troubling action was his explicit defence in 2018 of research using fetal tissue from aborted babies, and the NIH’s 2021 resumption of such research under his leadership after a 2019 moratorium. This August, documents were released revealing that under his watch the NIH had given at least $2.7 million to researchers who sought out aborted babies (with a high quota of minorities) to harvest their organs.

As elite-adjacent evangelicals have departed from traditionally conservative positions on many political and cultural issues—notably those related to race—and deemphasized others involving sexuality, abortion has remained the one they have typically taken a purist stand on. Even when they downplayed legal prohibition, most emphasized strong personal opposition to abortion, typically including derivatives like embryonic stem cell research. Thus Collins’s actions on this issue reflect a direct betrayal on the one issue Christians in these elite circles can point to where they retain a distinctively Christian ethical position.

Given Collins’s compromise on abortion, it’s unsurprising he also followed secular trends on sexuality. Here he did not just preside over institutional actions, but personally embraced the language of the sexual left. In a June 2021 letter, Collins wrote that the NIH joins “in celebrating Pride Month and recognizing the struggles, stories, and victories of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and others under the sexual and gender minority (SGM) umbrella. I applaud the courage and resilience it takes for individuals to live openly and authentically…”

It’s hard to see how a faithful Christian can personally write this. That evangelical influencers continued to praise Collins as he committed these actions suggests there are few compromises with the establishment they would not tolerate for the sake of worldly status.

Collins’s failures, and the way they were often overlooked by prominent Christians, reveal broader flaws in the approach such people have taken to elite careers and cultural influence. This approach, reflected in James Davidson Hunter’s 2010 book To Change the World and Keller’s 2012 book Every Good Endeavor, tends to celebrate prestigious careers while discouraging conflict over moral and cultural issues. This presence at elite levels was often portrayed as allowing Christians to do more to exert real influence in these circles and institutions than the more provocative approaches evangelicals had been known for.

Yet more recent assessments suggest the Christian influence this approach was supposed to manifest has not been realized. Timothy Dalrymple, the publisher of Christianity Today, wrote a piece describing these urban-church Christians as “more likely to live on the margins of power” than those who took older evangelical approaches to politics and influence. He followed up by noting that despite their often elite careers and status, these Christians lack political and cultural influence. Cultural trends, especially in the circles in which these Christians live and work, suggest Dalrymple is correct.

Collins spent decades participating in evangelical conversations about faith and influence and reached the pinnacle of his field. That even with such power, he bent to secular morality instead of bending the NIH to Christian morality reflects an elite-adjacent evangelical culture where theoretical influence is celebrated, but accommodation to secular demands becomes the norm. This reflects the emphasis of the “faithful presence” narrative popular among such Christians: discussions typically focused on the elite “presence,” but placed little emphasis on the actual use of power in such roles, and offered few clear lines for the limits of acceptable compromise. While this accommodation has helped achieve the desired status in elite circles, it has not conveyed the Christian influence that was often described as its ultimate purpose.

In Collins’s case, the result was actually grimmer than simple failure to achieve impact: as head of the NIH, Collins played a role in institutional actions including funding fetal organ harvesting. Through a career celebrated as a shining example of “faithful presence,” he became an active participant in a grotesque evil.

It is clear Christians need more robust models for how to address politics and culture and how to use power. This is part of American Reformer’s mission. But for Christians who do not embrace doctrines that actually prepare them to fight against evils in the institutions they help lead, perhaps it’s better—for the sake of their souls—that they do not even venture into these institutions.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

Nate Fischer

Nate Fischer

Nate Fischer is the Chairman of American Reformer. He is also an investor and founder of New Founding, which is building and organizing commercial, technological, and media alternatives focused on the national good. He lives in Dallas with his wife and four children.

14 thoughts on “Present, But How Faithfully? Francis Collins, Evangelicals, and Elite Institutions

  1. Collins’s most troubling action was his explicit defence in 2018 of research using fetal tissue from aborted babies

    In 1979 (yes, the ancient past, almost tens of years ago), Christianity Today published an issue focused on contraception and abortion. In that issue, a professor from the Dallas Theological Seminary criticized the Roman Catholic view on abortion as unbiblical.

    And now… 40 years later, evangelicals are united in an entirely different view, and no “true Christian” can possibly believe anything different.

    Biblical truth never changes, “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”

    1. So true. How can we possibly say that opposing abortion has been a consistent Christian position when we can only trace it back to the Letter of Barnabas and the Didache? Or I guess the alternative would be to say that the DTS professor in 1979 was breaking with Christian morality in the same way as Collins is.

    2. The mistake in reasoning here is the idea that an institution such as Christianity Today or the Dallas Theological Seminary is the final repository of Christian doctrine and therefore speaks for all Christians on matters such abortion. Many of us quiet, out of the limelight Christians take the Bible’s teachings seriously and do not base our negative views on abortion on the prevailing winds or what other denominations think.

  2. An excellent article, a worthy reassessment of the drift sinful man is inclined to especially in the intoxicating atmosphere of power and influence.

  3. I’m interested that you tie Hunter’s faithful presence concept into this argument.

    I agree with your assessment that earning the good opinion of secular elites is a fool’s errand carrying a high risk of compromise and a low chance of success (in terms of directing those institutions for good).

    But isn’t that a part of the point Hunter was making? That capturing elite culture-making institutions is really tough and impossible to do on a schedule and on purpose.

    I read him as focusing on a more populist form of engagement. Faithful presence in a Christian’s everyday life, in our context, for example, through acts of charity.

    So not being an elite investment banker at a major bank but being a good little league coach, or helping single moms, or helping the widow next door.

    1. Yes, my issue is not so much with Hunter’s actual message as with how the concept has often been applied in the circles that have celebrated Collins and other Christians who have achieved high status while using Hunter-esque language.

  4. Very good article. Thank you. As a practicing Christian, I’m very surprised after listening to him a few times on news shows, his relationship with Fauci, and his help in suppressing the truth in reference to COVIDs origins….that he is a Christian. I don’t expect politicians to be practicing Christians, but it would be nice to have some stand up folks in elected and nominated positions within our government.

    1. Couldn’t some politicians (I prefer elected officials) be honorable practicing Christians as well that maybe we don’t hear from God what they are hearing?

      1. So, maybe they are hearing from God that we should cover up SARS-CoV-2 origins, or promote the LGBTQWERTYUIOP agenda, or promote organ harvesting from aborted babies?

  5. Those of us with small church ministries can often dream of expanding into a wider sphere of influence. This article may serve as a cautionary tale. Collins and others are a good reminder of the pitfalls of fame.

  6. It seems like there is a tension between Fischer’s criticism of Collins here, and the mission of American Reformer itself. Of course Collins should not have compromised the Christian faith on key issues. But per Ben Dunson’s article on this site, Christians should pursue and steward political power for God’s glory. Is it even possible, though, for Christians to have political influence without getting connected in “elite” spaces?

    1. I think this will always be difficult, but stewarding political power cannot entail compromises on core moral truths, which is always the temptation when seeking to enter or remain within elite spaces in today’s world. I know many will find it an impossible balance, but I do not think that is the case. That said, certain governmental agencies without effective political oversight might simply be lost to Christians for the time being. Others, if political power is used effectively, might be possible avenues for service, but only if there is a way to prevent adherence to Christian convictions from being excluded from the outset by opposite political pressures. Certainly not for the faint of heart!

  7. The often difficult line these leaders walk is how to retain their position of influence (let’s assume for honorable rather than self-centered purposes) and promote a Christian perspective when as soon as a Christian perspective is identified or perceived, the leader can be fired and lose his position of influence. One strike and you’re out…. For example, he holds onto a distinct and solid pro-life position policy position, his profession concludes this is an anti-research position and the people in authority above him now remove him. How much influence would he then have, at least within the organization? Some would say that standing up for a position even if it means losing your job is a solid witness statement and I wouldn’t disagree with that however in this case, maybe God’s plan for him wasn’t to address the unborn issue but bring a Christian perspective to the many other areas that NIH addresses.

    As a church and a body required to support each other, don’t we have a command to love and support each other despite our fallenness? When Christians begin to repeatedly point fingers at other’s Christians’ fallenness and question their faith and integrity and in the public eye, are we not giving ample fuel to non-believers to say “even their own people don’t support him…” (the opposite of John 13:35) and diminishing the integrity and witness of the body? Couldn’t we just recognize (a choice we have) what he did accomplish for God’s kingdom rather than supposedly what he may have appeared hypocritical on (and continue then to negate the value of having Christians in leadership positions.)

    I would argue the bigger issue is the lack of Christian theology on how to love other Christians when we don’t agree with them or think we understand God’s plan for their lives better then they do.

    1. These justifications always seem to overlook the pattern of such leaders going far beyond what they are pressured to do. The head of NIH, if asked by subordinates to issue a Pride Month pro-LGBTQ statement, could simply tell them that such a statement has nothing to do with medical research and the mission of NIH. Enthusiastically praising all things LGBTQ was not required to keep his job.

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