Even Unfair Criticism Can Be Right
A recent article by Tim Alberta in the Atlantic about “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church” has been making the rounds.
There are a lot of criticisms that could be leveled at this. For example, it ignores the even greater levels of political involvement in the black church and the Christian left movement.
We might also disagree with Alberta’s decisions about what to classify as political or whether he has given a fair portrait of the politicization. Clearly, a sharp turn into obsession over race has also hit a large number of churches, but that doesn’t factor much into his piece.
We could also argue that he relies on less than a handful of anecdotal and unrepresentative examples to make his case (although that’s common in journalism). He might just have easily written a long piece about three of the craziest examples posted by Woke Preacher Clips on twitter, for example.
We could also question whether Alberta would equally apply his claim that a focus on earthly concerns “runs directly counter to the commands of scripture” to matters such as racial justice, feeding the hungry, etc.
We could also note that his quoting of Russell Moore, who has publicly trashed Trump voting evangelicals in venues such in the New York Times using language that calls into question their salvation, as an authority without any counter-balancing authority discredits Alberta as a partisan in the dispute.
We could also question his description of postmillennial theology (which was commonly held among liberal Protestants in the past, and does not require “amassing political power”).
There’s probably a lot more that could be critiqued.
But let’s be honest: there’s a lot that’s true in there. Churches are being ripped apart by politics, as part of the turmoil and realignment I highlighted as resulting from the negative world.
It’s also true that what I labeled the “culture war” strand of evangelicalism has overly merged faith with politics in inappropriate ways, and also too often has become captive to conspiracy theories like Q-Anon. And it’s not just that the leaders are manipulating the flock, though there’s doubtlessly some of that. A lot of the people in the pews want this stuff. As they say, you can’t cheat an honest man.
A lot of conservatives want to overlook this because they view themselves as distinct from some of these wackier churches such as those profiled in the article.
But there are a ton of wacky churches out there. There prosperity gospel movement is not small, for example. Nor is support for Q-Anon a niche movement. Lots of Christians listen to Alex Jones and read a lot of these strange web site.
And in fact there was essentially a merger between a certain strand of culture war evangelicalism with conservative and Republican politics. This despite the fact, as I have repeatedly documented, the conservative movement has virtually no evangelical leadership (and limited Protestant leadership of any kind). These folks are little more than political shock troops serving someone else’s agenda.
Political conservatism has been happy to use the populist energy created by folks like Bill Bolin and Greg Locke, both profiled in the article, to achieve electoral victories. In fact, they can’t win elections without those folks. But they assumed a narrow conservative elite, which could publicly keep its distance from these people, would always be in charge and be able to use that populist energy for their own ends. Ross Douthat admitted as much back in 2016.
Similarly, evangelical elites are treated as major figures on account of these folks. Why was Russell Moore treated as a big deal by the New York Times? Because he was the head of the policy arm of the 14 million member strong Southern Baptist Convention. He might well despise the majority of Southern Baptists - much of his content these days is consistent with that - but he’d be a nobody without them.
Matthew Continetti once said movement conservatism’s elite could fit on a cruise ship (perhaps a reference to National Review’s annual cruise). The evangelical elite is bigger than that, but is still a relative small group. Neither would be viewed as having a major role in society without a vast populist mass under them that they purportedly represent.
There’s nothing wrong with being a conservative or a Republican. But churches shouldn’t be in the politics business. Some things you can’t avoid. Churches had to choose whether or not to shut down during Covid, whether or not to require masks, etc. Abortion is a political matter, but there is a legitimate theological angle to it as well. But political questions are ones that generally outside the expertise and authority of a pastor. Overt support for political candidates, Q-Anon, Alex Jones, etc. is completely inappropriate.
The more “respectable” leadership, as Douthat noted, has too often ignored the crazy stuff because it was electorally and socially convenient. That needs to change. I plan to write a much bigger, in depth piece on this, but we must see these folks as our people and find a way to connect with them and provide them better leadership.
Scott Yenor wrote a piece last year in the American Mind that really stuck with me when he said:
My wife and I sometimes drive through rural Idaho—Trump country. An old minivan with a “No More Bullshit” Trump 2020 bumper sticker pulls up. Out pops a tatted-up mom, smoking and cussing at her three little charges. No father around.
“These are our people,” my wife says. Indeed, we vote with this woman and feel the much same way about the country. But we live very differently from “our people.” Our kids know few people from broken homes, while “our people” may know few from intact families.
Here is a truth whispered to all who align with today’s populism: Healthy nations cannot proceed from “our people” as they currently live. Populism is not enough.
The most important thing is for us to start seeing people like that single mom or the people going to Bill Bolin’s church as “our people.”
Rather than standing back and delivering endless hectoring lectures to them, as the Russell Moores of this world do, or ignoring them because they are so cringey, we need to find a way to connect with them, to understand them, to meet them where they are and lead them to a better place, to provide better leadership than what they are getting.
How do we do that? I don’t know. But at least part of it involves viewing them as our people that we have an obligation to reach.
If we aren’t willing to do that, we should at least have the honesty to stop pretending that we represent some broad strain of American society and admit that we are a niche community that speaks only for the people on the cruise ship and not much more.
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