Evangelical Elites Have Learned Nothing and Forgotten Nothing
“Don’t make Donald Trump your idol.” “It’s not about Left vs. Right but about the Messiah who already came.” “Saving souls is more important than saving your country.” “Jesus isn’t running in 2024.”
Ever since the former president soundly defeated his opponents in the Iowa caucus last week (as polls had been predicting for quite some time, to the consternation of the political class), and then immediately repeating the victory in New Hampshire, the crush of evangelical elite rhetoric targeting Trump’s evangelical voters has been deafening.
Passive aggressive tweets from pastors and online theologians and op-eds from individuals in the midst of some form of deconstruction have flooded the zone. Accusations abound, and sweeping, ideological generalizations are rampant. Even the very salvation of Christian Trump supporters has been called into question yet again.
Ben Ziesloft has pointed out that the veritable cottage industry of anti-Trump books written by the self-proclaimed guardians of “our democracy” is only equaled by the pile penned by evangelical thought leaders who castigate the evangelical hoi polloi who don red MAGA hats. (Whether or not the term “evangelical” is simply a sociological label or captures orthodox, low-church Protestants who attend church weekly is a different question entirely.) As Miles Smith has trenchantly observed on X, “Is their [sic] any more boring type of self-loathing American than an ‘Evangelical intellectual’ who is still writing about Trump?”
Aaron Renn has already begun reviewing one of the latest entries in this genre, Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. Among other things, Alberta profiles the “well-organized, well-funded” network called “The After Party” that anti-Trump evangelicals Russell Moore, David French, and Curtis Chang, a liberal Silicon Valley consultant, created in the wake of the 2016 election. This group has been working hard ever since “to reduce Republican voting by evangelicals by providing doing so with a theological rationale.” Unsurprisingly, in original reporting at First Things, Megan Basham has shown that they’re bankrolled by a number of left-wing foundations.
In other words, Moore and French are doing the very same thing that Vote Common Good, a progressive Christian nonprofit, is doing: making sure that a Democrat stays in the White House for the foreseeable future. As Vote Common Good’s website notes, they too are looking to persuade “an additional 5-10% [of evangelicals] who are looking for an ‘exit ramp’ from supporting the Republicans who sacrifice the common good.”
In an election year, the spigot will undoubtedly be opened even more. Scott M. Coley’s forthcoming Ministers of Propaganda: Truth, Power, Ideology and the Religious Right (published by the increasingly heterodox Eerdmans Publishing Company in June), is a prime example. A talk he gave in August 2022, where he described the “ideology of the religious right” as including “creation science, illegitimate appeals to biblical authority or sufficiency, [and] Christian colorblindness,” is likely a preview of some of the arguments Coley will draw on in Ministers of Propaganda. Upholding orthodoxy, it seems, is not part of his project.
Books like Alberta’s and Coley’s, however, aren’t meant to be read. Rather, they are for signaling one’s own inclusivity, rejection of power, and care for the migrant—all elements that are consistent with regime-approved morality.
As with Trump’s rise in 2015-16, evangelical elites and their aspirants—a group Stephen Wolfe has aptly called the “evangelical arm of the ruling class”—have evidently still learned nothing. And this year will be no different. Evangelicals will vote in overwhelming numbers for Trump in the general election after his inevitable victory in the Republican primaries. And evangelical elites will continue to reserve their harshest judgment for their own tribe, a relationship that looks more and more tenuous by the day.
On the surface, this is akin to political consultants who consistently run losing campaigns featuring outdated and ineffective messaging but nevertheless remain extremely confident that next time, Americans will finally pick someone who can defeat the Soviets and balance the budget. But if it didn’t work last time, why would deploying the same strategies work this time? Instead, why not reach out to dissident figures on the Right? Or men who lift weights or work with their hands for a living? Instead, we get pablum such as seeing the Gospel in Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour.
As Abraham Lincoln once told members of a temperance society,
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
However, evangelical elites have decided to use the opposite tack: “making one to be shunned and despised.” Lincoln warned that this approach would cause a man to “retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart.” Even a lance, harder and sharper than steel, thrown with “Herculean force and precision,” would “no more be able to pierce him than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
Which strategy sounds more like the one evangelical elites pursue today?
But there’s something else going on that more fully explains our present dilemma. In a recent piece at National Review, Andrew Walker concluded, “Heaping scorn on Evangelicals in all the ways that progressives love does not make one a prophet. It makes one a shill for Evangelicalism’s enemies.” Writing pieces ad infinitum denouncing those you supposedly are trying to shepherd provides more grease for the wheels of the regime to roll onward, crushing any threat—no matter how slight—to its continued dominance. Dangerous levels of naivety, over-the-top pietism, and spiritualizing politics are a deadly combination. This is what a recent episode of the Theology Pugcast called the “Betrayal of the Evangelical Elites.”
It also makes for some eye-opening alliances. The recent anti-Christian nationalist documentary “God & Country,” produced by the atheist liberal Rob Reiner, features Russell Moore, David French, and Kristin Du Mez discussing the scary prospect of Christians wanting the nation to be Christian. Screened at the U.S. Capitol, the movie was boosted by California U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, the only openly agnostic member of Congress. Why Christians would partner with those who blaspheme the name of Christ—and become the meme about non-Christians manipulating Christians into doing what they want—is a question that needs to be addressed.
This elite phenomenon is less about Trump, however, and more about a class that has been cowed by great social forces. Evangelical elites and their hangers-on are like scientists peering through a microscope, looking at some weird, foreign substance in a petri dish while the clerisy closely watch over their shoulders, making sure their observations track closely with the regnant scientific consensus.
John Locke describes this situation in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, wherein he lays out three moral laws: the divine, civil, and reputation, or fashion. He argues that men “govern themselves chiefly, if not solely, by this law of fashion.” This happens because “nothing can be more natural than to encourage with esteem and reputation that wherein every one finds his advantage.”
But no man escapes the punishment of their censure and dislike, who offends against the fashion and opinion of the company he keeps, and would recommend himself to. Nor is there one of ten thousand, who is stiff and insensible enough, to bear up under the constant dislike and condemnation of his own club. He must be of a strange and unusual constitution, who can content himself to live in constant disgrace and disrepute with his own particular society.
Unredeemed man generally looks to avoid pain and experience pleasure; he wants to be rewarded rather than punished. With the Hydra heads of the regime, and the digital swarm acting as shock troops, it is no surprise that the law of fashion is even more difficult to resist in our age.
John Ehrett has noted in this journal the lengths to which the respectable set has bowed to the law of fashion, allowing the broader culture to set the parameters for Christian public action. Channeling Machiavelli, the effectual truth is that evangelical elites are too often “merely rubber-stamping some secular ideology” rather than judging our 21st-century moral consensus by divine revelation mediated by general revelation.
“Gospel-centered” language, loose talk of Christians as exiles and sojourners, “faithful presence,” and attempts to locate the Gospel in the dregs of American culture simply buttresses the regime’s power. So does pushing back hard against being in good shape and floating political theologies on the civil realm that cleanly break with the Reformed consensus and support the reigning modern liberal paradigm.
Glaring hypocrisies and contradictions can easily show how captured the evangelical elite mind is to the current law of fashion. For instance, take the “character matters” crowd’s enthusiastic and unequivocal celebration of a man who committed countless acts of adultery and worse, had associates with ties to radical political ideologies, and taught heretical theology. Yes, I’m talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. Their praise of King would be more understandable if these serious issues were addressed and arguments were forwarded on why the good they say King did outweighed the bad. That never happens, however. Yet when evangelicals conduct exactly the same moral calculus when voting for Trump—weighing both the plusses and minuses—they are condemned without mercy. Evangelical elites seem to be completely oblivious to this phenomenon, not seeing that their “Gospel-centered” takes mostly fall in line with the received wisdom of our age.
Thankfully, an increasing number of evangelicals—and even a select few of the elites themselves at times—understand this. They see no reason to follow leaders who do nothing but castigate them over and over again in liberal outlets—the same ones that are working feverishly to despoil their political power, social standing, and livelihoods. They understand that the post-World War II consensus is fragmenting and that the old gods for which men fight and die are resurfacing, whether the current crop of elites likes it or not.
The talismanic power of our current ruling pieties is strong—as are those in the upper crust of the evangelical world. But it’s necessary for us to stop their influence, remove them from power one by one, and replace them with better elites if we want to have a shot at preserving the country we call home.
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