(RNS) — Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a long opinion piece he called “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself.” The “dissenters” Brooks cited included such well-known evangelical figures 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 pundits disturbed by both the content and popularity of her book “Jesus and John Wayne.”
What Brooks’ framing fails to acknowledge, however, is that there’s never been a lack of dissenters — pastors and laypeople — calling on and conversing with evangelicalism to do better, to resist the now-complete ingratiation of evangelical political will with the worst elements of today’s GOP.
What he doesn’t seem to recognize is the pace with which evangelical history is already repeating itself. Brooks asks Keller, a founder of The Gospel Coalition — one of the banner sites of establishment evangelicalism — 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 ideas. Not to Keller, who has been pushing many of these ideas for decades, and not to evangelicals. They are ideas evangelicalism has already tried and which the more fundamentalist factions have soundly defeated, not just in recent years through Trumpism, but time and again throughout evangelical history.
Today’s “dissenting” leaders are eager to enter another cycle of evangelical soul-searching, even as they cannot convince their own brothers and sisters in the faith to value racial justice (another item on Keller’s list) and rebuke Christian nationalism and white supremacy.
The United States cannot afford to give evangelicalism the benefit of the doubt again, and evangelicals cannot afford to just talk among themselves any longer.
Evangelicals have siloed themselves for too long. Not so much anti-institutional as alt-institutional, they rebuked the Federal Council of Churches by starting 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 the persecuted remnant, they have been treading the same theological waters — biblical inerrancy, gender complementarity, family values, a “biblical Christian worldview” — for well over a century. Owen Strachan signaled as much 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 groundwork for a century of culture warring. As Timothy Gloege writes, its significance was more in its methods than its specific contents.
It pioneered a means of creating an evangelical “orthodoxy” out of an ever-shifting bricolage of beliefs and practices, each of varying historical significance and some entirely novel. Unencumbered by an overarching logic, the fragments that constituted conservative evangelicalism faded in and out to accommodate contemporaneous circumstances. The Fundamentals thus pointed the way forward for modern conservative evangelicalism by modeling the methodology for creating, and constantly recreating, whatever “orthodoxy” the present moment required.
Time and again, evangelical institutions and powerful elites have been given opportunities to mend their ways and repent and they have opted not to. Various attempted reforms over the decades have only served to spur heated dialogue and, sometimes, schism.
There is no shortage of examples: from the Protestant battles in Chicago between “corporate evangelicals” like D.L. Moody and populist “radical evangelicals” in the 19th century; to the writing of The Fundamentals in the early 20th century in response to “liberal Protestantism”; to the 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, only to lead to a doubling down 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, as the mythology goes).
More recently, we’ve seen the pushback of the emergent church and the post-evangelicals of the new millennium — the swell 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™ exvangelicals, deconstructors and decolonizers.
These dishonored hometown prophets of evangelicalism have called on their leaders to reform and time and again have been told, “No.”
Whether this denial is couched in theological concern or expressed through derisive culture war language, the end result is the same: Those told no have been told that their whole selves do not reflect the image of God, and their concerns will not move their faith community (by birth, by choice or by both) to change. The consequence of this refusal is a rejection of another human for their preferred image of God. The would-be reformer leaves wounded, or stays in silent suffering, knowing their belonging is contingent on submission, not to God but to a status quo.
An evangelical heritage is a complicated one, and the continued theological gerrymandering by its leaders — who seek to claim a lineage of abolitionists yet disown the segregationists, and delineate who can critique and who cannot — makes it harder to reckon with our history or challenge harmful beliefs and practices. That reckoning is long overdue.
The answers to evangelical questions of identity, orthodoxy and politics have already been given by those on the margins, by those on the outside and those who maintain solidarity with them. It’s an open question whether or not the evangelicals who remain in their churches will listen to the prophets of the past or the present, who have challenged them on questions of theology, biblical interpretation, church relations, race, gender, sexuality, politics and more — and done so while standing on sound theological ground. But all signs indicate that evangelicalism will harden its heart once again.
A prime example of this is Christanity Today’s March 2022 cover story, which aims to make caricatures of those deconstructing because it is “trendy on Instagram” and both vilifies and baits those struggling with the consequences of evangelical politics, church practice and beliefs. It neglects to quote a single prominent public critic of evangelicalism — whether they use contemporary in-vogue terms like exvangelical and deconstruction or not — and again cuts itself off from dialogue. As a Midwesterner and an erstwhile evangelical, I understand the chip-on-one’s shoulder impulse to snub such things out of a sense of pride.
But evangelicalism cannot afford to be so myopic and self-serving any longer. Recently, through the Trump administration, evangelicals wrought long-term damage to the republic and to their own reputation; through their own reticence to change within their local churches, they stifle themselves and those under their care.
Wendell Berry once wrote that “there is an enormous number of people, and I am one of them, whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself, so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be.”
Those words were published in 1994, and little has changed. People who have tried to reform this thing they loved called “evangelicalism” were spurned 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 gotten “easier” to question and to leave our so-called native religion. We have the guiding lights of those who left before us, who asked hard questions of evangelical doctrine and evangelical leaders (and received harder answers) and blazed myriad trails for us to walk.
I do not hold out hope that evangelical elites will make the right choice and begin talking with instead of preaching to (or against, as John Cooper of Skillet recently did by declaring war on deconstruction) those who have left. The church will survive, but evangelical hegemony may not. It must not.
(Blake Chastain is host of the podcasts Exvangelical and Powers & Principalities, and writer 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.)