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"Big Eva" is Not Who You Think It is
Evangelicalism's critics mimic one another even as they disagree.
I respect David French as an engaging writer and a thoughtful Christian who is tackling hard subjects in a very public way. At the same time that I respect him, I’m frustrated by what seems to be his myopic focus on the corruptions within American Christianity. Some of French’s critics may deny that such corruptions even exist. I don’t deny them. What I deny is the helpfulness of obsessing over them. I think a principle that tends to hold true in everyday life as well as intellectual discourse is that even very serious problems do not get better by taking up all of your attention and energy. Whether it’s a problem with pornography or the political idolatry of evangelical churches, the sea in which you’re drowning is not all that’s real.
It tends to be true in my circles that the folks who are most impatient with French’s problematic-Christian beat are also pretty upset with “Big Eva,” a term that supposedly describes the major institutions and networks within evangelicalism. The SBC is an example of Big Eva, as is Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition. French’s most vocal critics tend also to be critics of Big Eva, but interestingly their criticisms run in opposite directions: They think French slanders Christians but they think Big Eva is a grossly compromised and immoral entity. Here’s a thread (which did some numbers) that summarizes both the material and the emotional case that these folks make against Big Eva, particularly TGC.
The antipathy toward Big Eva and toward French has a transparently populist flavor. Read the thread I linked for some major watch-words, like “elite,” “little guys,” etc. There’s an obvious resentment that has settled in, and it’s a resentment not toward a particular theology or even a particular institution but toward a kind of mode of existence. The case against French isn’t that he’s misquoting or misapplying Scripture, it’s that he only wants to apply it toward certain people, the people he just happens to dislike. The people he likes? They get a pass. This is the case against Big Eva too. Megan Basham’s article about Francis Collins was a massive hit among the populist crowd, and truthfully I think it scored some legitimate broadsides.
But the point of Basham’s article was to confront the motivations of people like Tim Keller and Russell Moore. Everything Basham says about Collins could be absolutely true, and it could simply be the case that Keller, Moore, and other evangelical friends of Collins either did not know some of these things, or else they chose to interpret them in light of friendship rather than vice versa. But neither of those possibilities is grounds for a viral story. What is grounds for a viral story is the possibility that Keller and Moore are morally compromised themselves, they are not who they project to be, and that they took advantage of Collins’s placement and prestige in order to spread what they really believe and act like who they really are. That is the plain subtext of Basham’s reporting.
You can probably tell where I’m going with this.
David French’s writing about evangelicalism is basically a mirror of Basham’s writing about Big Eva. The characters are simply reversed. In French’s narrative, it’s the grassroots, no-college degree, Bible-thumping Fox News viewer who has farmed out their Christian convictions for political advantage. In Basham’s narrative, it’s Keller, Moore, and Big Eva who have done this. French is anxious about what Christians who support Donald Trump are doing to the public witness of the faith. Basham believes it’s Christian who support Big Eva who are corroding the faith in the name of public witness. These are two different interpretations of the exact same American religious landscape. One story comes from the intersection of Christianity and the Beltway, the other comes from the intersection of Christianity and populist conservative media.
I don’t have a scorching hot take about all this. I think I’m just starting to make peace with the idea that I don’t have to buy either of these narratives, and I don’t have to accept the accusation that in declining one I am passively accepting the other. Personally, I think Basham and the anti-Big Eva populists are more wrong than David French is, because the problems that the populists point out are problems mostly contained within the media class, while the stories of racism and political idolatry that French tells have a straighter path toward the pulpit. But that’s a difference in degree, not really in kind. You don’t always have to embrace the lesser of two evils. Sometimes you can simply decline and hold out for a better offer.
I’ve spent most of my adult career now in institutions that would be considered Big Eva. The descriptions I read of the men and women I’ve worked for and with are completely strange to me. I’ve been on long car rides with Russell Moore, had private conversations with Collin Hansen, been in the room for exclusive events with Ross Douthat and Christianity Today editors. I’ve never heard anyone conspire how they can turn America against the working class evangelical. I’ve never received instructions to hoist up a narrative about racial reconciliation to the expense of orthodoxy. You know what I’ve seen? I’ve seen honest people make mistakes. I’ve seen sincere Christians make bad predictions. I’ve seen God-fearing, Bible-loving evangelicals embrace people who later renounced their old convictions. It looks bad. That’s leadership. But the narrative about a certain kind of double agent in evangelicalism just doesn’t describe anything I’ve experienced.
My father was an SBC pastor for 20 years. I’ve lived within small, anonymous local churches almost my entire life. You won’t read essays or books about them. I know what evangelical life looks at the congregational, associational, and denominational level. There is so, so much good. It is impossible to know what’s going on by looking only at polls or by reading only the testimonies of people The New Yorker think to interview. It’s so much more complex.
But sometimes, local churches lose their mind. The “grassroots” evangelical who is romantically described by a certain anti-Big Eva segment is likely not the one who is holding the line against LGBT orthodoxy. The grassroots evangelical is probably the one who told my Dad that traditional sexual ethics works for people like him, but not for regular people who have gay and lesbian children and neighbors. The grassroots evangelical is probably the older man who left our church because he thinks that even unbelievers should be welcome to serve and lead worship, if it’ll at least make them come to church. My experience with grassroots evangelicals is that what discipleship happens in these contexts usually happens because somebody gets ahold of a resource that was created by Big Eva.
Your mileage may vary. But I can’t forget what I’ve seen. Personally, I think everybody should calm down and stop resenting one another.
Originally published March 2022.