This Article is Not About Tim Keller

Interrogating Evangelistic Politics

Last week First Things published my essay “How I Evolved on Tim Keller.” An old friend (who clearly is not on Twitter) texted me today asking if there had been much response. How could I possibly explain the dustup via text? Even more importantly, how can I possibly respond to all of the critiques?

I can’t, and I won’t even try.

What I would like to offer are some points of clarification in response to some of the most common concerns I have seen raised, and to elaborate on some of my key arguments.

To start, there are two things I wish I could’ve included if I had more space. Both of these are related to the growing constituency of former disciples of Kellerism. First is that, in some ways, this piece was intended as a defense of Keller against his harshest critics. In recent months I have found myself in various conversations in which former fans express deep disappointment and anger toward Keller. Some argue that he is revealing that he has always been some kind of liberal in third way clothing, or that he is some closet Marxist, or just a general enemy of the church. I think these are all extreme and unwarranted opinions. But I believe they emerge in response to some real issues. I wanted to give expression to the basic concerns of many of these people, and to get out in front of the discourse to establish what I hoped would be more constructive terms for the debate. Secondly, I desire for our evangelical leadership to recognize this growing constituency and not simply dismiss their concerns. These people are looking for leaders to help them navigate our new cultural waters. Often they are turning to less-than-ideal sources. I want godly leaders to respond to this need—whether that be some from the current set of leaders or an entirely new crop that rises to fill the void.

To reiterate, I have an enormous amount of respect for Tim Keller, who helped me understand the depths of the gospel, resolved some key apologetic issues in my thinking, and inspired a life of mission (I was a campus evangelist from 2004-2013, then a pastor to this day who has helped plant churches in secular, liberal cities). Like him, I desperately want our neighbors to receive forgiveness and new life in Christ and to join the fellowship of the church. I want us to build on his example of intellectually serious, culturally aware ministry. 

But I would like to shift a bit away from direct discussion of Keller himself, if I may. I do have some critiques of his own thought and public statements, which I articulated in the piece. But I am largely concerned about the way his framework is broadly appropriated by his disciples, many of whom populate leadership positions in churches and other Christian ministries.

Some critics have highlighted the paragraph in which I spoke about my experience of the 2016 election. At that time I couldn’t understand how a Christian could vote for someone like Donald Trump. This, I assumed, would do irreparable damage to the witness of the church. I noticed that my heart became increasingly hardened toward my fellow Christians, and I felt convicted. I started to wonder if there was something amiss in my thinking, if there might be something wrong with my framework.

Critics have focused on this paragraph, saying: “Isn’t that your problem, not Keller’s?” Yes and no. I intentionally wrote that paragraph in a confessional manner to signal the fact that I believe I was applying Keller’s thinking in a certain way, and thus was primarily responsible for my actions. Yet, I don’t believe my experience in this regard was unique. I have heard from many others similar stories; and, even more, I have witnessed over the past six years how Kellerite Christians treat other Christians in similar ways. I do not believe that Keller’s teachings are necessarily responsible, but I do think they generally dispose his disciples in a certain direction. 

The Kellerites propound to abhor division among Christians, and yet I have found them far more divisive than they admit. This is captured in the common trope: “Punch right, coddle left.” Those who are devoted to the third-wayism of Keller generally appear to assume the worst from one side of the political spectrum and give the benefit of the doubt to—or at least provide an apologetic for—the other. (Case in point: David French’s recent piece on my essay.) Kellerites make up a significant portion of the “never Trump” movement among Christians, and this movement is unforgiving of those who have chosen, for whatever reason, to vote in that way (full disclosure: I did not in either election). They are also quick to join in the chorus of denunciations of “Christian nationalism,” which is often a bogeyman label for any robust pursuit of conservative Christian influence in politics. Make what you wish of Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds schema, but I think it is a bit obvious that, for example, in recent years conservative Christian political engagement that would have been seen as somewhat innocuous in previous years is quickly and regularly denounced as authoritarian “Christian nationalism.” I think this is itself partial validation of the Renn thesis, however much we want to debate the specifics of the timeline. And Kellerites are often quick to join in the denunciations. 

Though I have been accused of saying otherwise, I very much share with Keller the desire to resist political tribalism and uncritical partisanship. Christians should absolutely avoid becoming beholden to any particular party. But one of my concerns about the third way, “winsome” model for politics is how it often seems to incline its adherents to be beholden to the perspective of the contemporary status quo—what the kids call “the Narrative.” This was all too evident during the pandemic as countless pastors and Christian leaders, especially those of the Kellerite persuasion, uncritically imbibed and disseminated the messaging from legacy media and public health officials. There is a place for trusting institutions, but this seemed to go too far, especially when reasonable voices of critique were roundly dismissed and castigated as conspiracy theorists, many of whom have been subsequently vindicated. But even worse than this, many of these Christian leaders mediated the messaging that any dissent from the covid regime was a failure to love one’s neighbor, thus binding the consciences of Christians and stoking division in the church.

What does this have to do with the winsome, third way framework? Well, as I argued in my piece, it seems to me that this framework tends to think about politics through the lens of evangelism, and thus in an apologetic mode. This gets expressed in the overwrought concern with how Christians are perceived by virtue of their political actions and the impact on the “public witness” of the church. This leads Christians, often and in various ways, to let the broader culture set the terms for our engagement out of fear about negative perception.

I have two primary problems with this approach to political judgments. First of all, I question our capacity to augur such eventualities. How do we know what the future holds for the public’s perception of Christians and their attempts to love their neighbors through political action? We might be surprised what the judgments of history have in store. Not only do I question the certainty we can have in these assessments about how our political actions will impact our long-term gospel witness, but I also think this is a category error. Politics is not about minimizing offense in order to maximize openness to the evangelistic message. Politics is, rather, focused on the pursuit of justice and the just ordering of society.

Here is where the Kellerites, and also the Christian center-right, could really learn from the left (including the Christian left). Politics is the prudential pursuit of justice. The left is quite clear on this. Most Christians on the left are passionate about the pursuit of justice (as they perceive it), and they are not overwrought in concern about how their political actions will help or hinder the reception of the gospel message. They have, I would argue, a better understanding of the nature of politics.

It has been said that I advocated the position that “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and that my critiques of the methods of “winsomeness” as a cultural and political strategy for the present moment must mean that I jettison the Christian virtues and the biblical imperatives to show “gentleness and respect” and to love one’s neighbor. I absolutely want to dispel such concerns. If I thought Christians should just get nasty, then I would have been nasty in my piece, which I don’t believe I was. Christians are called at all times and in all places to love their neighbors, even their enemies; no shift in context repeals these imperatives. I just think that much debate is needed over what it means to love one’s neighbor through politics in the negative world.

To love one’s neighbor is to seek their good and goods in common. This bears upon the political, which is focused on our common life and the pursuit of justice. Working to bring about a more just social order is a way we love our neighbors. This will require clarity and conviction. And as our culture has increasingly turned away from and become openly hostile to its Christian foundations—and even more basically to conceptions of nature and natural law—such bold positions will be met with fierce opposition. We will be pressured to assume that loving the sinner means affirming and supporting their sin. True love, which calls evil “evil” and limits violations against the dignity of God’s image bearers, will often be experienced as harsh and interpreted as unloving—as “un-winsome.” We owe it to our neighbors to risk being misunderstood and despised as we seek their good and the welfare of the most vulnerable. We will need courage.

This will include taking sides on certain issues—without constantly highlighting with equal airtime the flaws in each position or strategy. Restating my point from above, I agree that we should avoid political tribalism and any assumption that one party has everything correct. However, on certain issues there is often a clear moral asymmetry in the approaches of the contemporary sides, and there is certainly an asymmetry among the issues themselves. One of the other major flaws of the third way framework is that it often creates false moral equivalencies and inhibits the capacity to act in accord with proper political prudence. Some causes are simply more important than others; some issues are black and white; and some strategies are clearly more in accord with justice. Conveniently positioning yourself between positions or failing to act because all strategies are imperfect strategies might make you feel a sense of moral purity and intellectual superiority over those who have made a prudential judgment, but this hesitancy to act is not the same thing as the biblical vision of showing “gentleness and respect.”

The view of politics I am promoting here does not mean that the ends justify the means. No; but we need to be clearer about the proper ends of political action. Again, our political stances should not be developed, articulated, and pursued primarily in view of minimizing offense so that the gospel can be heard. The ends are justice and the temporal common good (and we can continue to discuss how the temporal common good relates to the supernatural common good; but that would bring us far afield for this essay). As we become more clear about our understanding of the ends, we then must think clearly about the means available to us. We need a good dose of Christian realism, I propose. Or, to put it in Bonhoefferian terms, we need to be more attuned to the “concrete” circumstances in which we find ourselves and seek to understand what “responsible” action looks like therein. The apologetic mode of politics and forms of political pietism cloud one’s judgment as it pertains to determining prudential solutions to the complex problems of the temporal order. At times, for certain causes, Christians will need to collaborate with flawed figures and employ imperfect methods. Almost any successful political movement, including those for just causes, demands such. In the “negative world,” Christians will find that they are disproportionately accused of mischief here.

We are still wrapping our heads around the implications and dynamics of a post-Christian culture. And here I want to propose that there might be something different about our contemporary moment than previous periods of hostility to Christianity. Christianity has always faced opposition, even in the “neutral” or “positive” worlds. Rod Dreher summarizes this point well in his recent essay.

It is interesting to consider how Christian political action is impacted by a culture that was once animated by Christian ideals but has left them behind and now views those ideals with suspicion and hostility. My research on Henri de Lubac exposed me to his teachings on progressivism as a form of Joachimism—a school of thought originating with a twelfth-century Cistercian monk. Joachimism presents a progressive view of history that imagines a final stage in which humanity would surpass the need for the particularities of Christianity. De Lubac perceived in the modern secular humanism on display in his contemporary French context a similar impulse, and he particularly highlighted the prevailing assumption that Christianity has been fulfilled in, and replaced by, liberal, progressive politics. As a result, society believed it could thus dismiss Christianity as backward, leading to a resistance to any attempt to return to Christian moral norms for social ordering. Such Christian norms are perceived as anathema to human flourishing, as a threat to the social good. My research on de Lubac’s good friend, Hans Urs von Balthasar, revealed very similar insights about secular liberal humanism in late-twentieth century Europe. Many scholars have argued that secularization, or rather the shift to an explicitly post-Christian culture, was delayed a bit in America. It is quite clear that it is here now, and we still need much more reflection on what this means for political engagement.

My concerns about Christian political engagement in the “negative world” are concerns about justice and the good of our neighbors. As de Lubac argued, ordering society apart from God leads increasingly to ordering society against man. But contemporary society thinks that the Christian social ethic is opposed to human flourishing. And because there is residual memory of Christian cultural dominance, it is easy to blame Christianity for contemporary society’s ills. This neuters not just our witness, but also sociopolitical engagement for the common good. Our pursuit of justice in service of God and neighbor will be met with hostility that we won’t be able to avoid. And I don’t believe the winsome, third way model prepares us sufficiently for political action in this context. A church obsessed with appearing winsome will be tempted to over-accommodate the culture’s negative propaganda against Christian moral principles. This will fail our neighbors.

I agree with many of my critics that Christians must refuse to make politics ultimate; we must de-absolutize politics. But I think this has multiple implications. Yes, we should avoid obsessing over politics and seeking to grasp power by any means necessary so as to impose our will on the world. But we must also not ignore or deny the complexities of power which are involved in temporal politics. And thus, we must avoid obsessing over how our pursuit of justice and the common good might be perceived by others so as to harm our public witness. Both angles here are ways of unduly inflating politics. One, by placing our ultimate hope here, leading to the abandonment of Christian virtues; the other by letting the judgments of the world about our political activities overly define our sense of calling and lead us to doubt our convictions.  

Politics proper is only one field of Christian concern; but it is a field we need to think carefully about. It is a site in which we need to be wise and virtuous; in fact, it is a site in which the virtue of charity can and should be expressed. But there is much more than politics. Christians should place their faith in the finished work of Christ, hope in the coming consummation of his kingdom, love their neighbors through their cultural labors and gospel witness, and focus their social life in the church. This is what I have largely written on, and what I have practiced for decades as a campus evangelist and pastor.

As an expression of love of neighbor, let us focus on the pursuit of justice in politics, rather than how our political actions might be perceived. Yes, we will disagree on what best serves justice. But let’s focus more of our energy on that debate. I think that would be an improvement on the contemporary discourse.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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James R. Wood

James R. Wood James R. Wood is an Associate Editor at First Things. This fall he will begin as an instructor at Redeemer University (Ancaster, ON).