A Revolution of the Elites
I have been a Protestant social scientist for twenty years, and over that time it has become obvious to me that Evangelicals are deeply averse to social scientific explanations of religiosity and religious change. The moment that I begin speaking about the role of economic, social, or political forces in shaping America’s religious landscape, Evangelicals in my audience shut down, as if talking about social class in church is an affront to the Holy Spirit’s role in the salvation of souls. This is why books like From Tolerance to Equality by Darel Paul are so important today for Evangelicals who want to get up off the floor and get back into the fight for the souls of Americans in the 21st Century. Despite the fact that this book is limited to discussion of the rise of the movement for the acceptance of homosexuality in America, its approach illustrates the core vulnerabilities at the heart of American Evangelical Protestantism, as well as the questions that we need to ask ourselves if we ever intend to go beyond damage control and defense in the spiritual war we are fighting today.
Paul begins his analysis by pointing out the wrongheaded approach that predominates among mainstream accounts of class in America. Rather than the common media-inspired notion of a middle-class 99% oppressed by an insidious billionaire 1%, America is stratified between one class with a great deal of access to financial and cultural capital and others with little. This first class is often described as the managerial elite, and Paul uses the term throughout. To be clear, many of the members of this elite class are not in themselves particularly wealthy or powerful, but are distinguished from non-elites by their access to institutions and people with power. He demonstrates that approximately 15% of the American population can be distinguished by significantly greater access to power and capital centralized in corporations, universities, political parties, government bureaucracies, non-profit foundations, and media corporations. This managerial class is comprised of individuals with substantial authority in these institutions and those who are adjacent to them, in contrast to the 85% who have little access to these institutions.
The managerial class is also distinguished by its dominant ideology: managerialism. Key aspects of this ideology include the organization of society into bureaucratic bodies governed by experts, whose goal is to abolish the social friction that they believe leads to economic and social inefficiencies. C. Wright Mills called this attitude the “managerial demiurge” in the 1950’s, and J. Gresham Machen recognized it in the push for ecumenicism in the early 20th Century. Distinct cultures, faiths, or ways of life are inefficient and waste resources which could be instead diverted to the elite, and so managerialism promotes the concepts of diversity, toleration, and consumerism to lubricate social relations.
Take, for example, a small town with three churches. Is it not more efficient if everyone went to one, larger church? This one, larger church would necessarily need to ignore any real theological disagreements between its members and would be limited to a “fast food” faith upon which everyone agrees, such as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. As Machen pointed out nearly a century ago, this principle necessitates stripping Christianity of any particular truth-statements that could possibly divide people into multiple camps, and thus requires the abolition of any notion of truth at all. All differences must be reduced to mere taste, expressed by consuming any of a number of pre-approved brands of social, religious, or cultural products. Being a member of a culture, ethnicity, or faith cannot become anything more than an interchangeable brand-label lest it become divisive.
Economic and cultural shifts in the 90’s and 00’s led to rapidly increasing incomes among the managerial class, and stagnation for everyone else. At the same time, cultural norms of both corporate employment and conspicuous consumption emerged which were hostile to family life. As globalism intensified, so did competition for limited positions of power. Those who worked more, moved more, and had fewer social obligations were better able to compete for high-paying corporate jobs or high-status positions in government and academia. Thus, a major shift took place among the elite-adjacent: childless couplings between careerists became the model of marriage. These proved to be more compatible with the lifestyle of high-flying urban, corporate elites than the old bourgeois ideals of family life. The definition of “success” in American society shifted from a 2800 square-foot house in the suburbs and 2.5 children to the “child-free” ideal of urban consumerism and 60-hour workweeks interspersed with extravagent vacations.
So far, Paul’s book seems to be less about gay marriage and more about social class in the 21st Century. His point, however, is that social class is the fundamental driver of the kind of social changes that resulted in the legalization of gay marriage. He demonstrates this by carefully parsing data to show that most explanations of the rise of the homosexual acceptance movement are backwards, and that class change precedes changes in social and religious mores. The religious changes are the result of a change in class identity, and the rise of anti-Christianity has become a signifier of elite-adjacency in America today.
Paul finds three major markers in the data that illustrate why class must be considered as the controlling variable over religiosity. First, he points to the geographical distribution of support for gay marriage, which strongly overlaps with economic and employment factors. Support for gay marriage changed most rapidly where there was a concentration of elites in the managerial class. A concentration of elites is defined as those regions dominated by FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) economies, in contrast to traditional resource and manufacturing economies where support for gay marriage increased much more slowly. One of the largest predictors of support for gay marriage has been employment in non-industrial corporate, academic, or government sectors.
Second, Paul distinguishes the characteristics of Christian denominations which support gay marriage from those who hold to biblical teaching. He finds that a strong correlation exists between churches with a high percentage of membership in the managerial class and a denomination’s acceptance of gay marriage. However, this does not reflect a mere accommodation of homosexuals to the existing religious doctrine, but the abandonment of all doctrines surrounding marriage and sexuality, in accordance with the managerial class values described above. Managerial “Christians” redefine marriage. It is no longer a sexual relationship oriented towards reproduction, but instead a domestic partnership revolving around the acquisition of consumer goods.
Third, he argues that the ideological causation of gay marriage is backwards in the literature; liberality or conservativism are not drivers of opinions on gay marriage, but are consequences of pre-existing class identities. The mainstream approach to this question, which is called “contact theory,” inverts the direction of causality by connecting proximity to tolerance. Paul instead shows that people seek out others whom they are ideologically predisposed to support in an attempt to reinforce their own identities. Those predisposed to support gay marriage seek out homosexual friends (the much parodied “token” friendships). An important section of Paul’s book is even titled, “The opposite of homosexuality is Christianity,” which showcases the evidence that social liberalism is downstream of affinity for homosexuals and disdain for Christians.
Paul ends his book with what is perhaps the weakest element of this argument, the treatment of transsexualism as the latest phase of the homosexual acceptance movement. He is correct that the conflict over gay marriage cemented anti-Christianity as a core element of elite identity, thus creating an environment for elite contempt of Christians. However, he also claims that the tensions between feminism and transgenderism will eventually and inevitably conflict with the entrenched interests of elite women. This final point in his analysis fails to adhere to what he wrote earlier about class power. What distinguishes the managerial elite from elites of the past is that their power is not held in their person, but instead derives from their adjacency to powerful institutions. This means that no person or group is irreplaceable. Most likely, elite women will find themselves muscled out of their positions if they dare resist the intrusion of biological males into traditionally female spaces. Paul begins his book by describing the fates of powerful Christians who ran afoul of the homosexual acceptance movement, and yet doesn’t see that a similar fate may well fall upon elite feminists who are even now derided as unfashionable, un-elite “Karens.”
Why, then, is this book essential for evangelicals? Like the gay marriage debate, the current divide in the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical bodies consists in largely class-based conflicts that are cloaked by liberal and conservative language. Paul’s argument centers on the way that egalitarian, libertarian, and traditionalist rhetoric were often cloaks for issues of identity, power, and class interest. That is to say, the fundamental questions were not philosophical, but issues of who would dominate the institutions of power in the United States, with the stakes being the ability to decide who fills the limited positions of influence and power. The battle for gay marriage began not in Congress but in corporate board rooms, human resource offices, and university hiring committees, as one faction among the elite made their move on the positions of the other. Those who were predisposed to be more favorable to Christians or homosexuals chose arguments that fit that presupposition, rather than consider the issue on the merits of the argument. Paul leads us to question whether debates on these kinds of issues are being conducted in good faith, or are mere rationalizations for deeper assumptions and identities of the speakers. It should lead Evangelicals to ponder the unasked questions of whether our own debates are truly reflective of a Christ-centered worldview or if we are assuming non-biblical values that we absorbed from our secular social environment.
Specifically, as evangelical elites are drawn more from managerial class backgrounds, similar problems come to the fore. The recent crises of unaccountable mission boards and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) greatly resemble the emergent “managerial demiurge” in religious guise, just as the leadership of Southern Baptist seminaries is increasingly arising out of the same social and intellectual movements that Paul identifies as sources of managerial power. Paul tells us that attitudes about social issues are downstream from identity, and that the identity a person holds as primary will usually dictate their beliefs. These evangelical elites, who identify more strongly with fellow elite college graduates, media figures, and politicians than they do with working-class laypeople, will not act in the interests of those whom they are conditioned to see as ignorant rubes, at best. Just as in Paul’s work, it leads to suspicion that the superficial arguments used by evangelical elites are merely rhetoric disguising contempt for the average layperson and the unexamined values of their social class.
Let me be clear: members of the managerial elite class are not evil simply because they belong to that class, nor are they necessarily malevolent. They honestly believe that their social practices are best, that traditional social organizations are inefficient or inequitable, and that technocratic leaders know better than the vast majority of laypeople. However, managerial elites within evangelical leadership are blind to the way in which their assumptions are grounded in the anti-Christian bigotry of their social class.
There are several examples of how the assumed values which Christian managerial elites imbibe from their social peers in the secular world clash with the faith of the vast majority of laypeople. As Richard Neibuhr points out in The Kingdom of God in America, criticism of Christianity for violating secular norms of equality or justice, such as those promoted by the ideology of managerialism, is a mere begging of the question that ignores the fundamentally theological basis of Christian doctrine. Christian principles of justice and fairness do not arise out of abstract rationalist doctrines like those of Locke, Rousseau, or Kant, but reflect a perspective on human nature derived from the divine revelation that mankind is made in the image of God and has an ultimate destiny in eternity. In addition, rather than seeing these institutions as examples of efficient use of resources, many evangelicals find the bureaucratic character of the North American Mission Board and ERLC to be inauthentic expressions of a faith that centers the local congregation as the fundamental unit of church government. Lastly, leaders who come from this social background have proven themselves unable to recognize that what they perceive as legitimate critiques of evangelical laypeople, especially with regards to politics or race, often have as much to do with rationalizing their preference for their own class and power interests as they do with scripture and theology.
One of the core insights of From Tolerance to Equality is the way in which the homosexual acceptance movement presented itself as a struggle by an oppressed underdog against social injustice even though the core of its support came from corporations, government bureaucracies, the wealthy, and the powerful in society rather than the working classes and politically marginalized. As similar “social justice” issues get pushed to the fore among evangelicals, this book helps illustrate the way that these movements are far too often a smoke-screen for vested power interests. Are we to believe that it is a mere coincidence that those who push hardest for Christians to conform to modern secular culture arise without fail from upper-middle class, college-credentialled, urban elites who embrace managerial ideologies and culture?
For these discussions to move forward, we require an awareness of the degree to which secular identities like social class fracture our faith communities, as well as a renewed willingness by believers to put Christ first, grounding ourselves in the Word of God, rather than secular ideologies and assumptions. It will require a greater sacrifice by people who hold high status in the secular world, who possess credentials and position, to acknowledge that their political and social preferences are not binding on the Church, and that their secular status does not automatically entitle them to leadership and influence over fellow Christians. As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon put it in Resident Aliens: the greatest challenge facing the modern Church is to let the Church be the Church, and not to allow it to become, even if in a spiritual guise, a mere means to the secular ends of our social and political elites.
As the Apostle Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 1:19-20: “For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?”
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