The Shattering of Evangelicalism

Around the Web with American Reformer

Last week we took a look at the debates over whether the elites in charge of evangelical colleges, seminaries, and other institutions, in their desire to gain a hearing in the world, have compromised key Christian convictions in the process.

This week we dive into a related topic making the rounds, the current fracturing of the evangelical world. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote a much cited article in the Atlantic entitled “The Evangelical World is Breaking Apart” in which he contends that the evangelical churches are fracturing because they have become politicized and tribal “repositories of grievances.” David French (unsurprisingly) agrees.

Wehner and French’s contention can be boiled down to this: Christians who are politically active, more often than not, have exchanged Christian faithfulness for the resentful rage that defines the contemporary political scene.

A slightly different angle is found in Collin Hansen’s recent article about the final Together For the Gospel conference, to be held in 2022, where he laments the fact that “many pastors find more in common with even unbelievers who share their political and cultural assumptions than with believers who affirm the same doctrine.”

Unlike Wehner and French, Hansen doesn’t throw every politically right-leaning Christian under the bus, but he is also troubled by the same basic dynamic: those who would strongly insist that evangelicals should adhere to certain cultural and political priorities. Russell Moore shares Hansen’s concern, although he places those he criticizes in the category of heretics.

Wehner, French, and the myriad other writers churning out slightly different forms of the same basic claim, of course, always have only one group of evangelicals in mind: those on the right. While they may throw in a brief comment here or there about how this is a bipartisan issue, they never really examine left-leaning evangelicals at all. When Wehner mentions a pastor who has recently resigned his pulpit and left the ministry altogether because “he felt undermined by people in his congregation . . . who, it turned out, were less animated by spiritual matters than by political agendas” you know he isn’t talking about supporters of President Biden. Trump and evangelicals who support him are the problem. They are the ones who angrily denounce, ridicule, persecute, slander, and hound pastors from their pulpits. Crickets regarding those on the left.

One of the main ways this comes out is the anecdotes and quotes these authors choose to highlight. There will be a lengthy litany of abuses coming from those on the right, with an equally lengthy recounting of how mistreated and abused those are who righteously stand apart from politics, simply feeding God’s people with the unadulterated truths of Scripture. No doubt such mistreatment does occur. It should be opposed. But the selectivity of these authors is not accidental. It builds up a one-sided picture meant to send shivers of revulsion down the spine of any decent human being: “That kind of evangelicals, they are the problem. They have made an idol of politics. They must be stopped.” The recent special on CBS is a particularly egregious example of this kind of intentional selectivity. Those who, it is claimed, are politically neutral, are always carefully portrayed as being above the fray, their hands unsullied by worldly affairs. Instead, such pastors and leaders—so we are told—simply want to show us how the gospel shapes our understanding of race, gender relations, immigration, and more. Nothing political in that, right?

Many have pointed this out, but it is curious that writers like Wehner and French are so readily given platforms in venues that are normally very hostile toward Christians and the foundational teachings of Christianity, whether it be Wehner serving as a contributing editor to The Atlantic, or Russell Moore leading a politics seminar at the University of Chicago. The surest way for an evangelical to gain a slot in the New York Times is to write an article condemning fellow evangelicals. One need not doubt that these authors believe themselves to be on the side of the angels. One should have no doubt that those platforming them are using them to make evangelicals look ignorant, mean-spirited, and dangerous.

What about Hansen’s concern, that “many pastors find more in common with even unbelievers who share their political and cultural assumptions than with believers who affirm the same doctrine.” Surely this is a problem? Not so fast. Here we would do well to step into old-school scholastic mode: “We distinguish.”

I suspect Hansen has in view the common ground that many Christians find politically and culturally with figures like James Lindsey, John McWhorter, Glen Loury, Thomas Sowell, Abigail Shrier, Douglas Murray, and Bari Weiss. None of these men or women are Christians. What of it? Should we be surprised that evangelicals agree with Lindsey, McWhorter, and Loury on the dangers of critical race theory, or Sowell on empirically-based, common-sense political and economic observations, or Shrier on the evil of transgender surgeries for children, or Murray and Weiss on the harm of cancel culture?

Our Christian faith is the most important aspect of our being, and on this evangelicals have no common ground with any of these figures. But in other areas many evangelicals will see eye-to-eye with them. It shouldn’t be that hard to understand why this is the case. If you recognize that your society is on the verge of imploding you will work with whoever you can in godly ways to prevent that. That doesn’t mean you invite Joe Rogan to preach at your church.

Trevin Wax, while recognizing the genuine dangers of hyper-politicization in evangelical churches, rightly rejects the notion that being a Christian necessarily entails political neutrality (interacting with this piece by Steve Bryan). Yes, there is a danger that “partisan loyalties” can “blind us to the greater call of Christ,” but that does not mean that taking a side on a political issue must do so. This is a common claim among evangelical pundits, but it is false.

Carl Trueman, in a podcast with First Things editor Rusty Reno on Trueman’s recent piece “The Failure of Evangelical Elites,” highlights a genuine difficulty in Christian attempts to involve themselves in politics: the identity of the Christian, biblically speaking is that of a sojourner and exile on the earth in this age (1 Peter 2:11), of a pilgrim seeking a “better country, that is a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).

Trueman thus sees a major division in evangelicalism between two groups who don’t rightly understand their pilgrim status: those on the right who feel that a Christianized America is being stolen from them and an elite that attempts appease its many cultured despisers, usually by accepting positions of the left. He counsels the former with Christ’s words in John 15: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. . . . If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” The latter group, he rightly notes, are on a fool’s errand.

This brings to the surface a dichotomy much like the one posed by Hansen: must Christians renounce political and cultural power in order not to lose sight of the fact that heaven is their true home? Many evangelical leaders believe so. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, recognized that it is entirely the other way round: “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” Protestants have not always been so averse to the practice of politics and statecraft, because they recognized that these realms were ordained by God for the promotion of justice and the well-being of society (Romans 13:1–7).

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