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The Three Possible Fates of Evangelical Anti-Wokeness
Trying to predict the future of a movement
The populist movement alluded to in my previous post is closely connected (though not synonymous) with a larger group of evangelicals who stand opposed to what they perceive as liberal progressive sentiment on issues like race, sexuality, and free speech. Most people reading this probably have an idea of who this group is and what they say. For those who don’t, your best bet would probably to read evangelical-themed articles from publications like The American Reformer and First Things. Megan Basham, who I also referred to in the piece about anti-Big Eva sentiment, is also a rising star in this camp.
If this group or their platform mean nothing to you, feel free to skip this post. If you’re tracking, let me share what I think are their three possible fates. I’ve alluded to some of these ideas before, but it might be valuable to make their current and future options more explicit. All three of my points below are my predictions for where the evangelical anti-woke movement will end up in, say, 10 years time, if they follow a particular course.
Fate #1: Success
In this scenario, the anti-woke movement successfully reforms a number of existing institutions and churches, catechizes a generation of faithful churchgoers against secularist ideology, and supplies the American church with a strong crop of pastors and thinkers for the next decade.
While victories in American elections would certainly be an expression of this overall success, a true triumph for the anti-woke would be concentrated in evangelical spaces, particularly touching its seminaries, parachurch organizations, and denominational leadership structures. Changing demographics in American religious life, coupled with the longstanding reality that any meaningful institutional transformation requires cooperation and patience, mean that the anti-wokeness movement achieves this by a careful, mature approach to reformation: building evangelical allies and appealing to a diverse group of Christians, including ethnic minorities. A well-crafted alliance of those concerned with creeping liberalism in evangelicalism push out a number of existing evangelical leaders, but not too many, since the alliance itself depends on leadership and a sense of inside-out reformation.
The end result is that the American evangelical landscape looks quite different in a decade, but also stronger and more able to resist an increasingly intolerant secular progressivism. The gospel is clarified and modeled, and many unbelievers, burned by the sexual revolution and by modern shame culture, find healing in the liberating message of grace and atonement in Jesus.
Fate #2: Failure
In this scenario, the anti-wokeness movement as we know it right now is a colossal failure. A failure to build any meaningful coalition or institutional depth saps the movement of both urgency and vision, and its current spokesmen become little more than online pundits, reigning in insular subcultures that do just enough to get the occasional book deal but are forgotten by the vast majority of American Christians.
The story of failure for anti-wokeness could be a story in one of two directions. First, there would be failure of persuasion. Much like the Emergent Church in the early 2000s, the anti-woke movement fails to deliver that key intellectual contribution. As the cultural mood changes, the things that made anti-wokeness look more interesting and credible begin to disappear, and the movement becomes entirely reactionary. Consequently, it ends up alienating the people it needs to convince, mistaking doubters for enemies, and becomes paranoid and self-referential instead of confident and assertive.
Second, an anti-woke failure would be a failure of cohesion. In its race to distance itself from institutions that are allegedly corrupted, the anti-wokeness movement fails to organize itself into a credible body and underestimates the importance of central planning, networking, and place. More seriously, a foolishly reactionary rhetoric results in an overheated departure from local churches, many of which are deemed “compromised.” Home churches and splinter cells constitute the core of the anti-wokeness movement, which leaves it outside the healthy norm of New Testament spirituality and vulnerable to various heterodoxies.
Meanwhile, a vicious leadership struggle, played out online via accusations of compromise, results in the creation of a hundred tiny cells rather than 2-3 sturdy institutions. Spread thin, the anti-wokeness movement cannot speak effectively to the challenges of the 2030s, nor does it have the resources to supply ordinary Christians (many of whom have become skeptical of living life on the Internet) with its ideas. The next decade of evangelical life leaves the anti-woke behind as churches, seminaries, and parachurch organizations look elsewhere for wisdom.
Fate #3: Decadence
With apologies to Ross Douthat and the Laodicean church, the third option for the anti-woke movement involves neither triumph nor tribulation, neither hot nor cold, but simply lukewarmness. A decadent anti-wokeness movement fails to comprehensively reform evangelical life, but it succeeds in creating some counterpoint institutions and leading some meaningful exoduses from major denominations and networks.
A decadent decade for the anti-woke movement would likely look a lot like what’s happening right now. Shaken by polarization and vulnerable to the temptations of negative epistemology, “Big Eva” leaders make some unforced errors and inadvertently give the anti-wokeness movement credibility. On the other hand, a still-disorganized, mostly-Very Online anti-woke movement can’t do much with this capital other than spend it on clicks, views, and the occasional SBC floor resolution.
What Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call “the polarization cycle” ends up becoming the hamster wheel of anti-wokeness. Mistakes and misjudgments by major evangelical institutions galvanize the anti-woke into periodic mobility, which lead them into their own overstatements and exaggerations, which in turn give credibility back to mainstream evangelical leaders. Local churches get mixed up in this cycle as well, creating grassroots-level resentments in each direction, but with no discernible results. Everyone has everyone else muted and blocked. Boycotts and calls for investigations are the norm and are mostly traded. Points are scored.
So, which will it be? Of all these options, I think option #1 is the least likely. So far, the anti-woke movement does not seem to care much at all for coalition building. Additionally, far too much attention within the movement is given to Tweets and blog posts, signaling that the movement might be ambitious for virality but little more.
Option #2 is more likely than #1, but much of it depends on major transformations in American culture that I don’t see as particularly likely right now. I don’t see any hope, for example, that the Democratic Party becomes more reasonable on issues such as religious liberty and free speech. The current landscape of evangelicalism also seems unusually vulnerable to the anti-wokeness movement’s accusations, and it’s simply hard to know where that will end up.
Option #3, Decadence, is thus the most likely outcome. This is, in my view, also the worst possible outcome for evangelical Christianity in America. An ascendant anti-woke movement could achieve some genuine good in an age of stagnation and complacency. On the other hand, a total failure would likely imply a course correction by evangelical institutions and a better landscape in American political culture. Decadence is the worst of all worlds. The decadent future is a non-future, little more than porting nostalgic grievances into the metaverse. Decadence is obesity, inertia, and atrophy.
The hope we have is that in all this drama, there is an Author who promises that the gates of hell will not overcome his church. Thus, we should contemplate these different fates not as autonomous futures that threaten us, but as different possibilities for how the risen Jesus will empower his church. We can and should pray for a dynamic era of repentance and mission. But if the Lord deems stagnation and decadence a more fitting tool by which the glory of his mercy and the splendor of his holiness can be seen, then it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.