The Embarrassment Reflex: Evangelicals and Culture

Nearly thirty years ago, Notre Dame historian Mark Noll fired a resounding shot across the bow of his own tradition, declaring boldly that “[t]he scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”[1] Ever since its publication, few books have loomed over evangelical intellectual life more powerfully than The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which laid out what Noll viewed as a devastating indictment of evangelicalism’s incapacity for meaningful engagement with disciplines beyond its boundaries.

Over the decades since, a much more comprehensive evangelical intellectual ecosystem has emerged, partially in response to Noll’s critique. New colleges and universities explicitly interested in cultivating the “life of the mind” have been founded. The catalogs of publishers like Crossway Academic and InterVarsity Press overflow with interdisciplinary efforts to place the evangelical tradition into conversation with topics of current interest. A complex of parachurch groups like the Gospel Coalition, with thoughtful evangelical content ranging from popular to scholarly, has sprung up online. And at the K-12 level, the classical education movement has promoted thoroughgoing engagement with the philosophical and spiritual wisdom of generations past. By virtually any metric, the landscape of evangelical intellectual thought is materially more developed than it was in 1994.

And over those years this matrix of institutions has incubated a new sort of public figure: the elite evangelical. The elite evangelical was educated at top-flight institutions and largely eschews the “culture war” language of Moral Majority forerunners like Jerry Falwell. He reads Christianity Today, listens to Tim Keller sermons, and tends to know far more about J.R.R. Tolkien than J. Gresham Machen. Above all, he is proficient in the use of the word “winsomeness.”

The rise of such a class, however, has not led to much of a rapprochement between America’s evangelicals and an increasingly secular mainstream. Nor has it seemingly engendered a healthier and more unified evangelicalism. Indeed, the recent 2021 General Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention exposed publicly what had already been obvious to many observers for some time: an ugly and deepening rift between these post-Scandal “elite evangelicals” and the rank-and-file members who fill evangelical church pews across the country.

The SBC presidential election victory of “moderate” Ed Litton over conservative hardliner Mike Stone (as well as longtime SBC fixture Al Mohler) was widely perceived as a referendum on the denomination’s alignment with ex-President Donald Trump, but the issues in play transcend any single figure. Many observers were caught off guard by the size and vehemence of the coalition backing Stone’s candidacy, a reflection of the fact that a large and growing faction of lay evangelicals are deeply concerned about their movement’s present trajectory. Chief among their targets is the group of elite evangelical figures—the pastors whose op-eds appear in the New York Times, the writers who pen Gospel Coalition columns, the seminary professors who urge greater interaction with secular academia, and so on—that they derisively describe as “Big Eva,” and view as steering evangelicalism away from theology and toward issues like immigration, racial justice, the environment, and so on.

For those firmly ensconced in the elite evangelical ecosystem, it is easy to write off much of this backlash as a result of escalating political partisanship. Kept out of view is the question of whether any of the alarm is warranted—whether perhaps there’s something in the elite evangelical water that actually does merit their concern. What if the worry that manifests—often inaptly—as complaints about “liberalism,” “cultural Marxism,” and “critical race theory”—has an intelligible root?

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Over the last few decades, whenever the political right happens to hold power, there have tended to appear claims that conservative American Christians—particularly evangelicals—are closer than ever to establishing something like an American theocratic caliphate. The Bush years had Damon Linker’s The Theocons; the Trump years had Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshipers and Jeff Sharlet’s The Family Netflix docuseries. Such commentary is downstream of the reality that American evangelicals often figure as the villains of modern academic historiography—characterized chiefly by their opposition to teaching evolution in schools, criticisms of various efforts at promoting civic equality, negativity toward environmental legislation, and so on.

For the elite evangelical who inevitably encounters such vilification within “mainstream academia,” the psychological response produced by all these allegations is likely to prove complex. Elite fears of an real-world Handmaid’s Tale are implausible on their face: at the time of this writing, Republican presidents have appointed twelve out of sixteen Supreme Court justices since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973,[2] and yet have never been able to marshal a majority to overturn that precedent, let alone revise the American constitutional order more dramatically. The most exaggerated versions of these claims don’t even attempt to persuade anyone not already adhering to preexisting secular assumptions.

Instead, for elite evangelicals, the critiques that cut deepest tend to be those that allege that American Christians have betrayed their own tradition in a fundamental way. Three recent books—all of which have sparked much discussion and controversy within evangelical circles—epitomize this sensibility. In Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry argue that American Christians have bred a toxic “Christian nationalism” committed more to acquiring and wielding political power than to living out Christian ideals. In Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, theologians Gregory Thompson and Duke L. Kwon contend that the complicity of the American church in historical racism is so severe that “the language of White supremacy and reparations, now so unfamiliar and awkward, [should] one day become as fixed in the church’s imagination and fundamental to its vocation as the language of repentance and reconciliation is today.”[3] And in Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, historian Kristin Kobes du Mez posits that twentieth-century American Christianity was colonized by a toxic nationalist-inflected masculinity, one that eventually culminated in the election of Donald Trump.

The crucial common feature of these texts is that all of them are, at least in a sense, addressed to evangelicals (or at least point in that direction): they are calls to action of a sort, urging evangelicals to adopt alternative interpretations of their American Christian tradition, without repudiating it altogether, in the name of progress. At the heart of all three books is the conviction that popular evangelicalism as such is on the wrong track—that it needs to be saved from itself through immediate course correction, or risk falling back into a fundamentalist morass.

It is the presence of this conviction that likely goes further than any other factor in explaining the recent ruptures within the evangelical movement; the central distinction between the elite evangelical and his fellow church member is, perhaps, the extent to which this self-critical paradigm, this nagging sense that we’re really the bad guys, has been internalized—whether overtly or implicitly. One might call this condition of latent discomfort, which tends to manifest as an immediate tendency to distinguish oneself from one’s less enlightened evangelical peers when pressed, the embarrassment reflex. As professor Stephen Dilley explained in First Things in 2014:

In my experience, evangelical schools are particularly deft at self-loathing. . . . In two decades and four schools—ranging from conservative to liberal, private to public, pious to secular—I have never encountered the sheer volume of self-loathing that I experienced as a student (and professor) at an evangelical college. While my experience is anecdotal, I doubt if it’s unique. Why do so many students at evangelical colleges look with disdain upon their own institution—and, in a sense, upon themselves?[4]

Dilley had few answers to the question he posed, but the situation has not improved in the years since. For an obvious case of this embarrassment reflex at work, consider a recent set of claims by conservative evangelical writer David French. In applauding the Southern Baptist Convention’s election of Litton as president, French was keen to distinguish his own views from those of Stone’s backers: “I grew up in fundamentalism. I converted to evangelicalism. The difference is profound but often opaque to those who are outside the ‘born again’ (rather than Mainline) Protestant tradition.”[5] According to French, “Evangelicals will often share the fundamentalist’s cultural concerns (which is why the distinction between fundamentalism and Evangelicalism is often opaque to those outside the church), but not their political or cultural intensity, nor their apocalyptic fears.”[6] So too in French’s telling, “Evangelicalism more readily embraces doubt and difference. It is more open to sources of knowledge outside the church.”[7]

Setting aside the question of whether this binary meaningfully holds in the 21st century (who, aside from a tiny handful of Baptist congregations, still identifies as explicitly fundamentalist?), there is more than a whiff here of Alvin Plantinga’s famous definition of “fundamentalist” as “something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.’”[8] Those who agree with French are enlightened, careful, reasonable; those who disagree with him are reactionary rubes clinging to their guns and their Bibles.

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Now, none of this amounts to an argument that the elite evangelicals, embarrassment reflex notwithstanding, are wrong in their critiques of their own history. Hard truths, after all, are never immediately appreciated by the ones to whom they are spoken. Something like the dynamic described here can accurately describe the current state of affairs, and the non-elite evangelicals can still lack any philosophical or historical ground to stand on. That, of course, is the story that elite evangelicals choose to tell.

But at what price? At the heart of current debates is a philosophical move that many elite evangelicals, almost certainly subconsciously, have either made themselves or are comfortable with others making: a reframing of the relationship between the analytical categories of the “social” and the “religious.” Are religious doctrine and practice manifestations of an undifferentiated realm of “power” or “society” that stands behind all theological claims (a purportedly more enlightened view), or is any abstract concept of “society” inevitably shot through with theological significance (the traditionally “fundamentalist” move)? Put even more simply: is theology always the expression of some existing power relation or other, or is power always wielded on the basis of some theology or other?

This point is difficult to bring to the fore, and virtually no evangelicals appear to have framed the matter accordingly. And the reason for its absence in contemporary conversations is understandable. In the modern world, it is conventional to think of “religion” as something principally having to do with personal meaning, purpose, and value. Shunted to the side is the idea that theological claims actually have anything much to do with the structure of reality as such, or the notion that other disciplines—no matter how seemingly “secular”—inevitably rest upon assumptions about the fundamental characteristics of primary reality. Indeed, the entire academic fields of “religious studies” and the “sociology of religion” are methodologically characterized by the conviction that other disciplines—such as anthropology, sociology, economics, and so forth—are truer guides to the “real nature of things” than theology itself. Theology, on this view, is something to be deconstructed to disclose the real “stuff”—usually the abstract idea of “power”—that underpins it.

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This tendency—to see theology as principally a mask for the more primordial reality of power—looms over major recent controversies within the evangelical fold. In early 2021, Presbyterian pastor and writer Kevin DeYoung penned a lengthy review of Kwon and Thompson’s Reparations. DeYoung denied any intention to “focus on the sociological and economic claims of the book,” instead preferring to “provide a theological assessment of the book’s theological claims.”[9] Viewing the text through that lens, he concluded that Kwon and Thompson’s “religious vision is still one that I find more in line with a community organizer’s dream for America than a distinctively Christian one”[10] and hence declined to recommend the book. For DeYoung, the “master discourse” governing evangelical intellectual analysis, so to speak, was theology—and so only through a distinctively theological prism could Kwon and Thompson’s arguments be properly rebutted. Kwon and Thompson, for their parts, replied several months later—charging DeYoung with practicing “a mode of theological reasoning that, in both past and present, has been a crucial factor in sheltering and sustaining the cultural project of white supremacy.”[11]

Crucially, embedded at the core of this dispute were competing views of the priority of the category of the “social.” For DeYoung, theology is always primary; while biblical interpretations are inevitably shaped by the social milieu in which they emerge, the Bible’s spiritual and eschatological orientation always has priority in defining the mission of the church. The distinctly theological language of repentance and reconciliation, for DeYoung, is biblical and foundational in a way that the sociological language of White supremacy and reparations is not. To the extent there is an independent category of “society” at all, this category must be narrated and described in distinctively Christian terms.

For Kwon and Thompson, by contrast, DeYoung’s move to center biblical theology evinces “spiritualizing, individualizing, and forensic tendencies in a way that allows him to seize discursive control.”[12] In so doing, DeYoung ostensibly “turn[s] the conversation away from history, economics and sociology, and toward the forensic dimensions of personal salvation.”[13] “DeYoung’s decision to ignore history, sociology, and economics,” Kwon and Thompson contend, cannot be described as “a convenient disciplinary delineation, but [rather] as the reflexive redeployment of a prejudicial methodology with deep historical roots in white supremacy.”[14] For Kwon and Thompson, it would appear, the analytical categories of history, sociology, and economics are “upstream” of theology, and hence more likely to make objectively true claims about the world. This is consistent with the tenor of their volume: throughout Reparations, the claims of academics in these fields are simply assumed to be true, without more, whereas traditional theological claims are consistently accused of internal ideological corruption. The domain of the social, then, is more basic: it “produces” the theological.

Left unaddressed by all participants in the Reparations debate was a critical question: what if these alternative disciplines of history, sociology, and economics—the fields of the “social”—tend to embed certain assumptions of their own that are not theologically neutral? The modern academy, committed to Enlightenment-era methodological commitments, has historically declined to ask this question. For those who would subordinate the theological to the social, to the extent there is anything “true” in religion, it is “a ‘private’ value” which leaders may sometimes invoke politically “to overcome the antimony of a purely instrumental and goalless rationality, which is yet made to bear the burden of ultimate political purpose.”[15] Religious language and concepts, in other words, should be confined to the realm of ceremony and solemnity, and otherwise evacuated of any real meaning that might inform substantive decision-making. On this view, the natural destiny of “good religion”—as opposed to bad, authoritarian religion—is to “evolv[e] to a true self-recognition of its own marginality.”[16]

As theologian John Milbank is keen to point out, this stance is not in any sense “neutral.” Rather, it is profoundly theological in its own way, reflecting a “‘liberal protestant metanarrative’ that ‘encompasses’ the specificity of the Christian religion (which lets religion be truly religious) and releases the other cultural spheres to their own autonomy.”[17] Religion, that is, is at its “best” when it has the least impact on anything significant in the real world. Under modernity, for proponents of this view, “[w]hat has declined is merely the improper influence of religion in the public sphere, and the institutional and ritual ‘trappings’ of religion. But true religion, the ‘religion of the self’ and of experience, may flourish as never before.”[18]

Such a stance, in short, reflects a very particular view of what religious belief ought to be: a view where theology allows social science to take the analytical wheel, relegating itself permanently to the intellectual backseat. To the extent that the language and imagery of traditional belief can be creatively pressed into the service of social-scientific conclusions, it is to be valued; where theology stands in the way of progress, it ought to yield.

The shape of this argument should be familiar to elite evangelicals—after all, it precisely describes the structure of both Jesus and John Wayne and Taking Back America for God. Both volumes are keen to deny that “bad” (viz. illiberal or non-progressive) theological claims are actually products of sincere Christian piety, preferring instead to attribute these claims to darker forces. For du Mez, “militant masculinity (and a sweet, submissive femininity) . . . remain[ed] entrenched in the evangelical imagination, shaping conceptions of what was good and true.”[19] And for Perry and Whitehead, a menacing Christian nationalism “co-opts Christian language and iconography in order to cloak particular political or social ends in moral and religious symbolism. This serves to legitimate the demands, wants, and desires of those embracing Christian nationalism in the transcendent.”[20]

By contrast, “good” religion, for du Mez and Perry and Whitehead, stays in its lane, and at its best tends to cheerlead for secular social reform efforts. Jesus and John Wayne celebrates “expressions of the Christian faith—and of evangelical Christianity—that have disrupted the status quo and challenged systems of privilege and power.”[21] So too, Taking Back America for God emphasizes that “Christian nationalism and personal religious piety are not one and the same,” such that “those who attend church more often, pray more often, or read their Bible more frequently are more likely to support gun control” and are “less likely to fear refugees from the Middle East, or atheists, or Jews.”[22] A common heuristic underpins both books’ arguments: where theology leads to conservative-coded conclusions, the impetus is not actually theology, but something from the “social” realm; where theology supports progressive ends, it is authentic and praiseworthy, if somewhat superfluous relative to other forms of political action.

Few self-professed evangelicals would likely endorse that framing as presented. And so it is somewhat mystifying that elite evangelicals have received these books quite seriously, almost uncritically. For instance, Baptist theologian Russell Moore—the archetypal elite evangelical and a frequent target of criticism—recently wrote of Jesus and John Wayne that

One need not agree with DuMez [sic] on every point to see that her book is resonating even with some conservative evangelical, complementarian homeschooling moms (whom I hear from every day) because of the points where she is exactly right about some (though, of course, by no means all) of what has been unveiled over the last several years. The response from those of us who think the Bible teaches some distinctions in various aspects of calling between men and women should not be asking “Why is she raising these questions?” but “Where is she right, and how did we not see it?”[23]

Even if some or all of what Du Mez says here is true, it is odd for Moore to advise his readers that they should begin by accepting elements of du Mez’s critique head-on, rather than note from the outset that, by positioning theology as downstream of ideology, Jesus and John Wayne sets out a profoundly sociological and a-theological argument that attempts to undermine core evangelical theological convictions without even engaging them. And yet for those familiar with the elite evangelical’s persistent embarrassment reflex, Moore’s admonition represents a familiar pattern: when criticized, assume reflexively that the criticism is accurate, differing theological frameworks notwithstanding.

Perhaps the non-elite evangelicals, the much-maligned “fundamentalists,” are rather more accurate judges than Moore and French of their core beliefs’ incommensurability with those of their critics. And from this vantage point, the idea of the “scandal of the evangelical mind” starts to look rather different. The engagement of theology with other academic disciplines is never, properly speaking, egalitarian. Theology is necessarily hierarchical relative to other disciplines: some theology or other, some governing set of metaphysical claims, necessarily informs how every single other field does its work. Viewed from this angle, there is no such thing as a university devoid of theology—merely universities devoid of particular forms of theology. Among those non-elite evangelicals who harbor such intuitions, the notion may be inchoate and underdeveloped, but the claim that many of their deepest theological convictions are categorically rivalrous to the assumptions of the modern academy is certainly intelligible—and, indeed, correct.

Perhaps the price of elite evangelical respectability in the modern academy is adoption of the embarrassment reflex—understood as, in its deepest sense, a willingness to allow the idea of the “social” to displace that of the classically theological at the taproot of intellectual life. Such a displacement demands that evangelicals norm their theological claims against the conclusions of the social sciences, rather than vice versa—or else be tarred with the dreaded label of fundamentalist.

Pursuing that path can only, in the end, lead to a hollowing-out of theology as such. If the “right” kind of theology simply baptizes what other disciplines have already decided to sanction, the church’s “prophetic witness” inevitably comes to mean merely rubber-stamping some secular ideology or another. If religious practice is principally about the believer’s interior sense of meaning and purpose, what purpose does it serve that cannot be better accomplished by self-help materials? Such a view entails that theology must become only about an abstract hereafter and cede the temporal domain to other fields—thereby, paradoxically, repeating the same move that Kwon and Thompson fault DeYoung for allegedly making.

What might an evangelical academy look like that refused this embarrassment reflex, that declined to allow its theological core to be subordinated to the social-science canon? Perhaps it would look like the output of Vern Poythress, who has penned lengthy treatments placing the governing assumptions of logic, mathematics, philosophy, and sociology (among other fields) into conversation with his own Reformed Protestant tradition. Such an approach might not be Noll’s ideal; almost certainly, it would not leave an impression on the academic world that could be measured in terms of awards received or journal impact factors. But it would not produce the rifts within the evangelical movement that cause so much pain today.

This paradigm need not entail an intellectual naïveté, such as the construction of a hermetically sealed “worldview” bubble impervious to outside influences or consideration of the ways in which biblical interpretation is inevitably socially conditioned. It would entail that evangelicalism refuse to apologize for its own existence as a discrete tradition, and in so doing take seriously its own truth-claims, rather than merely internalize the criticisms leveled by those outside its borders.

A movement that fails to do so—and in that reticence, thereby allows itself to be defined by its critics—lays the groundwork for its own eventual demise.


[1] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[2] Joan Biskupic, “The Supreme Court Hasn’t Been This Conservative Since the 1930s,” CNN, September 26, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/26/politics/supreme-court-conservative/index.html.

[3] Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Reparations; A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 28.

[4] Stephen Dilley, “The Problem of Self-Loathing at Evangelical Colleges,” First Things, October 17, 2014, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/10/the-problem-of-self-loathing-at-evangelical-colleges.

[5] David French, “Under Attack from Fundamentalist Pirates, Evangelical Baptists Refused to Give Up the Ship,” The Dispatch—The French Press, June 20, 2021, https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/under-attack-from-fundamentalist.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 245.

[9] Kevin DeYoung, “Reparations: A Critical Theological Review,” The Gospel Coalition, April 22, 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/reparations-a-critical-theological-review/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gregory Thompson and Duke Kwon, “Sanctifying the Status Quo: A Response to Reverend Kevin DeYoung,” The Front Porch, July 19, 2021, https://thefrontporch.org/2021/07/sanctifying-the-status-quo-a-response-to-reverend-kevin-deyoung/.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 106.

[16] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 110.

[17] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 132.

[18] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 132.

[19] Kristin Kobes du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020), 12.

[20] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 153.

[21] Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 14.

[22] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 155.

[23] Russell Moore, “Mark Driscoll Was Our Warning Light,” Moore to the Point email newsletter, August 5, 2021.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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John Ehrett

John Ehrett John Ehrett is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife and son. His work has previously appeared in American Affairs, Public Discourse, and the Claremont Review of Books, among other venues.