(RNS) — Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a lengthy opinion piece which he titled “Dissidents trying to save evangelicalism from itself.” The “dissidents” cited by Brooks included well-known evangelical figures such as Russell Moore and Tim Keller, as well as other familiar figures such as Karen Swallow Prior, Thabiti Anyabwile and Lecrae Moore. Brooks also interviewed scholar Kristin Kobes Du Mez, though her evangelical pedigree is regularly challenged by evangelical experts bothered by the content and popularity of her book “Jesus and John Wayne.”
What Brooks’ framing fails to acknowledge, however, is that there has never been a lack of dissenters – pastors and laity – calling and conversing with evangelicalism to do better, to stand up to the now complete ingratitude of evangelical political will with the worst elements of today’s GOP.
What he doesn’t seem to recognize is the pace at which gospel history is already repeating itself. Brooks asks Keller, one of the founders of The Gospel Coalition – one of the leading establishment evangelical sites – to provide a “new” agenda to revitalize evangelicalism from within.
But Keller’s ideas—church planting, a “Christian Mind project,” Protestant social teaching—are not new. Not Keller, who has been pushing many of these ideas for decades, and not evangelicals. These are ideas that evangelicalism has tried before and that the most fundamentalist factions have soundly defeated, not only in recent years through Trumpism, but time and time again throughout evangelical history.
Today’s “dissident” leaders are eager to enter another cycle of evangelistic soul-searching, even if they cannot convince their own brothers and sisters in faith to value racial justice (another element of Keller’s list) and rebuke Christian nationalism and white supremacy.
The United States can’t afford to give evangelicalism the benefit of the doubt again, and evangelicals can’t afford to just talk to each other anymore.
evangelicals have walled off for too long. Not so much anti-institutional as alt-institutional, they reprimanded the Federal Council of Churches by creating the National Association of Evangelicals. They founded their own Bible colleges, radio stations and publishing houses. They cut themselves off from ecumenism.
And, with a self-proclaimed identity as a persecuted relic, they have trod the same theological waters – biblical inerrancy, gender complementarity, family values, a “biblical Christian worldview” – for more than a century. Owen Strachan signaled this when he told Religion News Service’s Bob Smietana that social concerns such as the existence of systemic racism are the new social gospel. The threat of the social gospel being one of the major animating factors for late 19th and early 20th century evangelicals to write The Fundamentals, from which we get today’s term “fundamentalist”.
The Fundamentals Project laid the foundation for a century of cultural conflict. Like Timothy Gloege writingits significance lay more in its methods than in its specific content.
He pioneered a way to create an evangelical “orthodoxy” out of an ever-changing tinkering of beliefs and practices, each with varying historical significance and some entirely new. Freed from a global logic, the fragments that constituted conservative evangelicalism have faded to adapt to contemporary circumstances. The Fundamentals thus showed the way forward for modern conservative evangelicalism by modeling the methodology for constantly creating and recreating whatever “orthodoxy” the present moment requires.
Time and again, evangelical institutions and powerful elites have been given the opportunity to mend their ways and repent and they have chosen not to. Various attempts at reform over the decades have only served to spur heated dialogue and, at times, schism.
Examples abound: Protestant battles in Chicago between “corporate evangelicals” like DL Moody and “radical evangelical” populists in the 19th century; the drafting of the Fundamentals at the beginning of the 20th century in response to “liberal Protestantism”; to evangelical resistance to the religious rhetoric of FDR’s New Deal, made popular by Billy Graham and James Fifield in the 1940s.
Then there was the neo-evangelical movement and discussions of decolonization in the 1960s, to lead to a doubling as Bob Jones University and Liberty University resisted desegregation in the 1970s and formed the modern religious right to defend segregationist practices (not to defeat abortion). , according to mythology).
More recently, we have seen the pushback of the emerging church and post-evangelicals of the new millennium – the wave of popular writers like Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey and Jen Hatmaker often questioning evangelical teachings on sexuality, race and gender – and today’s Extremely Online™ evangelicals, deconstructors and decolonizers.
These disgraced prophets of hometown evangelism called on their leaders to reform and were repeatedly told, “No.”
Whether that denial is framed in theological concern or expressed through derisory culture war language, the end result is the same: those who were told no were told that their whole being did not reflect the image of God and that their concerns would not shake their community of faith. (by birth, by choice or both) to change. The consequence of this refusal is the rejection of another human for his favorite image of God. The would-be reformer leaves hurt or remains in silent suffering, knowing that his belonging depends on submission, not to God, but to a status quo.
An evangelical heritage is complicated, and the continued theological gerrymander of its leaders — who seek to claim a lineage of abolitionists while denying segregationists, and to delineate who can criticize and who cannot — makes it harder to account for our history or to challenge harmful beliefs and practices. This report is long overdue.
The answers to the evangelical questions of identity, orthodoxy and politics have already been given by those who are on the margins, by those who are outside and by those who remain in solidarity with them. It is an open question whether or not evangelicals who remain in their churches will listen to prophets past or present, who have challenged them on issues of theology, biblical interpretation, church relations, race, gender, sexuality, politics and more. — and that while standing on solid theological ground. But all the signs indicate that evangelism will harden the heart again.
A great example of this is Christianity Today March 2022 cover story, which aims to caricature those who deconstruct because it’s “instagram trending” and both vilifies and baits those who struggle with the consequences of evangelical church policy, practice and beliefs. He neglects to cite a single prominent public critic of evangelicalism – whether or not he uses such fashionable contemporary terms as exvangelical and deconstruction – and again cuts himself off from the dialogue. As a Midwesterner and former Evangelical, I understand the chip-on-the-shoulder impulse to snub such things out of pride.
But evangelism can no longer afford to be so myopic and selfish. Recently, through the Trump administration, evangelicals have done long term damage to the republic and to their own reputation; by their own reluctance to change within their local churches, they stifle themselves and those in their care.
Wendell Berry once wrote that “there are an enormous number of people, including myself, whose mother religion, for better or for worse, is Christianity. We were born there; we started to learn it before we became conscious; it is, whatever one thinks of it, an intimate belonging to our being; it informs our consciousness, our language and our dreams. We can turn away from it or oppose it, but that will only bind us tightly to a smaller version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, survives and renews itself, so that it can become as broadly and truly instructive as we need it to be.
These words were published in 1994, and not much has changed. People who tried to reform this thing they loved called “evangelicalism” have been rejected and evangelicalism has shown that it does not want to be reformed. Yet in the nearly 30 years since Berry wrote those words, it has become “easier” to question and leave our so-called indigenous religion. We have the beacons of those who went before us, who asked tough questions about gospel doctrine and gospel leaders (and received tougher answers) and gave us myriad paths to walk.
I don’t hold out hope that the evangelical elites will make the right choice and start talking with instead of preaching (or against, as John Cooper of Skillet recently did by declaring war on deconstruction) those who left. The church will survive, but evangelical hegemony Maybe not. You don’t have to.
(Blake Chastain is the host of the Exvangelical and Powers & Principalities podcasts, and author of The Post-Evangelical Post newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @brchastain. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)