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What David Brooks Got Right About Evangelicalism, and What He Got Wrong
True, false, or something else?
David Brooks’s February 4 essay on evangelicalism was the piece that launched a thousand takes. I saw more displays of real, visceral anger and frustration in Christian circles over that essay than I have seen in a while. I also saw a great deal of heralding and often over-the-top claims that Brooks (or the folks he profiles) was the savior that evangelicalism needed. For those who believe the most pressing danger in evangelical culture is racism and partisanship, the essay was a prized moment of clarity. For those who believe the bigger problem is Big Eva and elitism, the essay was also a moment of clarity, just in the reverse direction.
One problem with engaging this piece is that there’s so much in it that demands holistic treatment. A more careful columnist might have isolated 1-2 trends within evangelicalism and offered a more complex treatment. But I also think Brooks was swinging for the fences here, and he is probably not enough of an evangelical insider to intuit where there may be room for deeper exploration. Therein lies the article’s greatest strength and weakness: It’s a taut narrative that connects several dots and shines real light, but it does so at the expense of a fuller, more realistic portrayal of the changes within evangelical culture.
In the spirit of hopefully helping us sort the intellectual wheat from the chaff, I offer here a bullet-point engagement with Brooks’s article, in which I consider the major claims of the piece and try to decide whether those claims are true, false, or something in between. If this exercise isn’t helpful for you, or if you couldn’t care less about what David Brooks thinks about evangelicals, more power to ya. Hopefully I’ll have something more interesting for you next week.
Claim #1: Evangelicals have experienced significant division over the last 6 years, especially over Donald Trump, sexual abuse, and race.
This is part of the opening of Brooks’s piece, and it sets the agenda for what follows. I’m not sure how anyone could disagree with this statement, unless their idea of what “evangelical” means is sharply divergent from what’s going on in the SBC, “young, restless, reformed” network, and the major church planting organizations. When you look at any of these three hubs, you see division over these issues pretty clearly. Trump is the most obvious, but disagreement over responding to sexual abuse has shaken up the leadership of the SBC, while several prominent former members of YRR institutions have gone on record accusing the movement of racial indifference at best.
It’s of course possible to have different interpretations and explanations for these divisions than Brooks offers. But I don’t see how any serious, attentive person could disagree with the presenting issue.
Claim #2: The main problem has been systematic abuses of power by those closest to the center of evangelical influence.
Verdict: Partially true.
On this point, Brooks writes: '“the paradox of decentralization is that it has often led to the concentration of power in the hands of highly charismatic men, who can attract enthusiastic followings.” This is a very good observation, one that was made a couple years ago in brilliant fashion by Andy Crouch. Brooks argues that the crises within evangelicalism can be illustrated by the points of commonality between scandals such as Ravi Zacharias and Willow Creek. These situations involved men who were empowered by the structures around them to harass and abuse others. They justified their behavior with religious lingo, and since they were at the top of a spiritual hierarchy, no one could effectively stand in their way.
What’s missing from Brooks’s analysis is the way that in many of these stories, meaningful authority is actually missing. Zacharias was not involved in a local church. Willow Creek and Mars Hill had cultures where the biblical functions of elders were being ignored. While it’s probably true to say that abuse of power is close to the heart of evangelicalism’s moment of reckoning, without a fuller context, this could be taken to mean that the problem is the presence of any power within evangelical churches or institutions. This is a mistaken assumption, one that ignores the lessons of the broader #MeToo movement and tries to shoehorn a particular view of leadership into the analysis.
Claim #3: The most intense divisiveness within evangelicalism right now is sowed mostly by a minority of hyper-conservative, Trump-supporting dissidents.
Verdict: Partially true.
I want to be careful here. There are several moments in Brooks’s piece where he appears to be speculating along partisan lines. His characterization of World Magazine, for example, as a place that forced out Trump-skeptical leadership so that Trump-friendly strategies could be pursued, rings false. As a contributor to World opinions, I can testify first-hand that no one at World has ever objected to my pieces critiquing populist conservatism or online conspiracy theories. It’s possible, of course, that Brooks has access to information that few other people do. But it’s also possible he is interpreting ambiguous events in a way that fits his narrative.
Similarly, Brooks seems to lay all the blame for broken relationships and disrupted institutional health at the feet of Trump supporters. But this is historical revisionism. Part of what happened in 2016-2017 was that most of establishment evangelicalism was not only convinced that Trump was morally disqualified from the office (I still believe this is true), they were convinced that Trump would lose, partially because of lack of robust Christian support. Because of this, the rhetoric around Trump was unwisely combative and many evangelical leaders simply underestimated how important the electing of a Republican was to many of their church members. It was a costly lesson in presumptuous leadership.
Nevertheless, there’s an element of important truth in Brooks’s point. It is indeed the right flank of evangelicalism that is actively accusing TGC and other evangelical groups of deliberate doctrinal compromise. It is the right flank that believes that existing ministries and ministers must be ejected from their fellowships. It is the right flank seeks to consolidate power through turning evangelical churches and pastors against one another. There’s no virtue in pretending that David French’s intemperate columns matter more than this.
Claim #4: The crisis of sex abuse is directly tied to Trumpism or its attendant characteristics.
A key problem with Brooks’s piece is that it draws very straight lines between moral crises and political turmoil, so that the reader is left unable to discern where populist conservative complaints end and power-hungry predation begins. This is a problem for two reasons: One, it’s not a correct analysis, and two, it is easily and swiftly complicated by recent news.
Jerry Falwell Jr.’s mention in the essay is somewhat misleading in light of Vanity Fair’s January profile of their family’s downfall. The psychoses of the Falwells clearly and obviously transcend the former Liberty president’s affinities for Trump. Whether he threw his support behind Trump because the latter was accused of sexual misbehavior, or whether he supported him out of a rank mammonism, is an open question. But blending Trump and Falwell together in an impressionistic way plays fast and loose with what appears to be a cringe-worthy yet banal tale of morally and spiritually disqualified leadership that was propped up by financial success.
It’s also an interpretation that seems less compelling by the hour. Since Brooks published his article, major allegations of harassment and impropriety have rocked Christianity Today and Hillsong Church, neither of which participate in the same culture war conservatism that described Falwell. My sense is that the #MeToo movement languishes in decadence partially because both sides of American ideology insist that it vindicates their tribe against the other. Brooks’s narrative unfortunately participates in this, and it’s a major strike against the reliability of his framework.
Claim #5: Recent tensions between major evangelical leaders and their denominations/networks are completely attributable to Trumpism/right-wing.
I’m tempted to put “Partially true” instead of false, because I do think there are examples of leaders’ having been pushed out by the right flank. And a major problem with the contemporary “anti-woke” movement within evangelicalism is that it doesn’t see the value of broad coalition -building and relies instead on a strict separation ethic.
But Brooks’s piece pulsates with a confident certainty that takes his claims from partially true to mostly false. In particular, he puts Beth Moore and Lecrae Moore (no relation) in the same category of having been turned on by their white, Trumpist evangelical base. This is far too simplistic. I believe Beth Moore has experienced some unacceptable and sub-Christian behavior on Twitter, but her position within SBC culture was always complicated. She was the best selling author for the publishing wing of a denomination that does not permit women to be ordained teachers. Whether there was a space for her within the broader life of the SBC is a different question than whether that space was always pleasant or easy for her to occupy.
Brooks quotes Lecrae as saying that white evangelicals turned on him when he started talking about racial injustice. But this too is simplistic. As Jemar Tisby made clear when he told his story of leaving TGC, part of what transpired in 2014-2015 was a dissonance between Reformed black evangelicals and the overall approach to talking about race that was adopted by majority-white evangelical institutions. In light of Ferguson, Tisby says, many in the Reformed black community wanted proactive antiracist messaging from places like the SBC and TGC. “Racial reconciliation” stopped being the goal. The goal was systemic transformation through policy and activism. The end result was a resorting. Black evangelicals who wanted this change in racial discourse separated from the Reformed institutions that they no longer trusted to deliver it. And for Tisby, his journey has taken him away from evangelical belief entirely and toward a neo-mainline Protestantism.
The omission of these factors from Brooks’s narrative communicates a simplistic story about white evangelicals betraying their black brothers and sisters. Many journalists and activists agree with this narrative. But many in the pews do not, and they have good reasons as well.
Claim #6: The most important key for evangelical renewal will be conservative evangelicals’ repenting of their political partisanship.
Verdict: Partially true.
Brooks ends his essay with a programmatic path toward conservative evangelical renewal, including a formulation of social doctrine that avoids partisanship. It’s important to note that he’s right when he says that evangelicals don’t have the same traditions and resources about public ethics that Roman Catholics do. That is, admittedly, a feature rather than a bug. Evangelicals do not invest all authority in a central church or governing body, so division and intramural strife are (theoretically) more likely. And Brooks is right that evangelicals need a renewal of robust ethics that rise above talk radio and punditry. Part of the division I have observed over the last few years has been between evangelicals who steeped in historical theology and those who are not. The latter group skew highly populist and conservative, likely reflecting the influence of media. The former group tend to be more diverse and more skeptical of talking points.
But there’s a massive part of evangelical renewal that’s missing from Brooks’s analysis. The piece ends on a note of “When will these obnoxious conservative evangelicals stop watching FOX News?” But part of the reason they watch FOX News is that the American left and Democratic Party really do seem hell-bent on deconstructing the fundamental categories of personhood and society. When a nominee for the most powerful judicial body in the Western world cannot answer the question, “What is a woman,” you cannot blame conservative evangelicals for trusting those who can answer. The social justice wing of American politics is simultaneously the anti-human wing, and this paradox won’t be solved by everybody canceling their Twitter accounts and only reading the physical edition of the Wall Street Journal.
And this dynamic applies to the church as well. Evangelicals who want greater progress on talking about police violence toward minorities or racism in Bible Belt culture have to commit themselves to the very, very hard work of not pleasing anyone. Through one side of their mouth, they have to advocate for humane politics toward minorities and women. Through the other side, they have to advocate for the personhood of the unborn and the reality of gender. Folks, there’s just not a lot of money out there for people willing to say this. And so few people will be willing to say it. Instead, a binary choice will be presented to those who want to be heard: either racial justice or pro-life; either root out sexual abuse or oppose puberty blockers.
People who try to be consistently Christian will not be consistently powerful. The question is: Are we ok with that?