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.

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