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Are "Evangelical Elites" Compromisers—or Just Not Fundamentalists?
A letter to the editor of First Things
First Things magazine asked me to submit a letter to the editor for the April issue, responding to Aaron Renn’s essay from March, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” Below is the letter I wrote as it appears in the magazine.
As a lifelong Southern Baptist who has worked in two major evangelical institutions, I appreciated Aaron Renn’s informative perspective on the current tensions and divisions within American evangelicalism (“The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” February).
I’m less sanguine about the particular story that Renn tells in the essay. For one, his narrative suffers for lack of what Alan Jacobs would call “temporal bandwidth.” In other words, Renn’s interpretation of contemporary evangelicalism doesn’t consider enough history. Renn describes evangelicals who take the “neutral world” approach and consequently model a “cultural engagement” strategy. Renn implies that these evangelicals, such as Tim Keller and Russell Moore, betray their theological confessions and instead “take their cues from the secular elite consensus,” especially on LGBT issues.
The problem here is that Renn’s timeline is completely wrong. He assigns the “cultural engagement” model to 1994–2014, and I was surprised to see absolutely no reference in his essay to H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 landmark book Christ & Culture, which provided a compelling taxonomy of the different Christian perspectives on how to relate to unbelieving culture. The people that Renn describes as engaged in the “negative world” posture are quite obviously descendants of the Christ-versus-culture framework that Niebuhr outlined, while people like Keller and Moore belong in Niebuhr’s Christ-transforming-culture category. Of course, one may disagree with Christ-transforming-culture and agree with Christ-against-culture, but the point is that these two frameworks have been competing against each other much longer than Renn suggests, which casts serious doubt on the way he ties evangelical “cultural engagement” with desire for secular approval.
Renn’s incorrect view of how and why the cultural engagement model emerged clearly distorts his view of this group’s motives. For example, of leaders like Keller and Moore, Renn writes, “Their rhetoric . . . is increasingly strident and ever more aligned with secular political positions. . . . They talk often about being holistically pro-life and less about the child in the womb.” This is simply not correct. Under Moore’s leadership, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was triumphantly pro-life, establishing initiatives to place ultrasound machines in crisis pregnancy centers, as well as organizing Evangelicals for Life, a massive pro-life gathering in the heart of Washington, D.C. (right under the nose of our nation’s elite!) to coincide with the March for Life. True, Moore emphasizes that the doctrine of imago dei defends all victims of violence and oppression, born and unborn, but the imagined tension Renn suggests between being “holistically pro-life” and defending “the child in the womb” is merely a talking point borrowed from the pro-choice movement.
The culture warriors (to use Renn’s term) within evangelicalism have some legitimate complaints against cultural engagers. But those points will be utterly irrelevant if negative worlders are so eager to cut off an approaching left flank that they become ignorant of history and careless with facts. Contemporary threats to religious liberty and the well-being of children do not demand that one evangelical subgroup dunks on another, but that they find crucial points of unity amid disagreement. A quarreling, fragmented evangelicalism, locked in presentism and apathetic toward biblical commands to honor one another (Rom. 12:10), will lack the strength to resist the spirit of the age, instead tempting the kind of divine judgment that removes a lampstand (Rev. 2:5).