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Where Did All the Evangelical Prophets Go?
Christianity's public witness needs more than punching Left.
The point that Trevin Wax makes in his latest column for TGC is a good one, and if you are attuned to a particular slice of evangelicalism—a slice that skews very online, well-spoken, and often cited in mainstream media outlets whenever an anti-Trump or anti-GOP story is filed—then you have a solid idea of the people he’s talking about. It’s true that there’s more freelance mileage in “punching right” than in, say, rebuking a Catholic like Joe Biden for attacking the Hyde Amendment. It’s also true that the word “prophetic” has a partisan flavor to it nowadays and, for the aforementioned slice of evangelicalism, mostly means, “Willing to tell your parents and pastors how wrong they are.”
But I think something is missing from Trevin’s argument, or perhaps more specifically, from his explanation of how this happens.
The explanatory gaps become a little easier to spot when you substitute proper names for the generic nouns in Trevin’s piece. Take this paragraph:
The assumption of some of today’s leaders most concerned about Christianity’s reputation is that taking a public stand against immorality and godlessness on the right is necessary, no matter the cost. But would the same critics who advocate a prophetic posture in the red states tell the preacher in the bluest areas of the country to be a consistent and vocal opponent of politicians and policies that result in the destruction of unborn life, or the redefinition of marriage, or the distortion of the body in service to new definitions of “sexual freedom”?
This is a good question because it pokes into an unspoken temptation of the aforementioned slice of evangelicalism: to only be available to big time journalists and thought leaders when they need someone to reassure readers that Jesus would definitely not vote for this Republican. But look what happens if you plug in some actual names to replace nouns like “today’s leaders” or “the same critics.”
The assumption of leaders like Russell Moore, who is most concerned about Christianity’s reputation, is that taking a public stand against immorality and godlessness on the right is necessary, no matter the cost. But would critics like Justin Giboney, who advocate a prophetic posture in the red states, tell the preacher in the bluest areas of the country to be a consistent and vocal opponent of politicians and policies that result in the destruction of unborn life, or the redefinition of marriage, or the distortion of the body in service to new definitions of “sexual freedom”?
If you plug in the names Moore and Giboney into Trevin’s paragraph, the whole argument weakens because Moore and Giboney indeed do push their elite friends and Democratic-leaning colleagues on issues of life and marriage. Moore and Giboney are examples of evangelical leaders who have spent a good deal of the last four years taking stands against “immorality and godlessness on the right” while simultaneously advocating for the unborn and for traditional accounts of sexuality.
But has this advocacy actually helped them appear more “on the team” to the pro-life, pro-marriage, conservative evangelical base? Moore has been effectively run out of the Southern Baptist Convention, in large part because the denomination’s top leadership wanted Moore’s platform to reflect political solidarity for the GOP…which meant not talking Donald Trump down. Giboney is a name many of you probably don’t recognize, and that’s the point: A young, black evangelical leader, robustly pro-life, is a marginal figure, even though he does exactly what Trevin is saying a truly prophetic Christian leader should do. Why’s that?
The answer is something Trevin has also written about at length. Institutions, especially the institutions of American Christianity, are in decline, and out of that decline has emerged a decadence that rewards reenforcement of predictable partisan narratives and punishes people who don’t play into them. Or to put it another way: The reason you don’t see people embedded in the political scene of blue states, pushing rightward on life and sexuality while also criticizing the libertine libertarianism of the Trump GOP, is that there are almost no healthy, robust institutions that will support them doing this.
Conservative evangelical money sees a man like Justin Giboney, appreciates his stand for life, but is turned off by his Democratic alliances and his rhetoric about racism. Progressive money likes Giboney’s racial advocacy but won’t touch his religious, pro-life sentiment. Here’s the point: without institutional solidarity, people who are actually prophetic become invisible, and are increasingly pressured to choose between making marginal gains while playing the partisan game (which is where more than a couple of the black Reformed leaders who were speaking at TGC in 2014 currently are instead), or trying to buck the Age of Lumping on a theological or political island.
What happened to Russell Moore inside the SBC machine is a lesson that will not be lost on younger, theologically and morally conservative but racially conscious evangelicals. The godlessness of the left maps very cleanly onto the evangelical church's radar because its institutions and leaders are watching for it all the time, but the godlessness of the right is obviously not yet something someone can talk about confidently, expecting their denomination or ecclesiastical support system to back them on. Trevin’s frustration with evangelicals who love punching right is understandable, and indeed the lack of self-consciousness is glaring among Christians who say abortion is “complex” but immigration is “clear.” But Trevin is essentially asking why more people don’t exist who cannot, as things stand right now, actually be supported. The question is itself the answer.
We can swap grievances about right-wing and left-wing Christianity all day long. But the roadblock that actually has to be moved is deeper than this. The roadblock is the degree to which Christians have absorbed the dominant mode of thinking of secular society: negative-association, enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, genetic fallacy tribalism. If you think the fact that Christianity Today likes Justin Giboney makes Giboney more likely to be a liberal, you’ve absorbed this mentality. If you think the fact that John Piper is a complementarian makes him more likely to be an abuse-covering megalomaniac, you’ve absorbed this mentality. And you’re exactly where the big American media and politics machine wants you to be.
I think Trevin gets this, and it’s why he writes:
Unfortunately, too often the concern over Christianity’s public witness seems rooted in something more like embarrassment: those kinds of evangelicals are making us all look bad. We’re not rubes, believe me! In the latter case, the deeper concern is not really about Christianity at all, but about distancing oneself from the evangelical “rabble” in order to better fit in.
Yes! But fear of being associated with rubes is a bipartisan fear. The last few weeks are a wonderful illustration of how this dynamic is all over the place within conservative evangelicalism. If you substitute the word "elites" for "rubes" in that quote above, you get basically the entire platform of a major “reform” movement that is near levers of power within the SBC right now. And even the question of caring for victims of sexual abuse has become deeply polarized for no better reason other than than the people on the receiving end of activism don't like the activists.
It’s a hamster wheel. We'll call David French an elitist snob, and then someone will play a Paige Patterson clip. We'll put Christianity Today's handwringing about Christian nationalism next to Charisma magazine's anointing of Trump as a prophet. And both sides will believe that the other is either elite or a rube, and because of this, we can be sure that whatever the other side says must be wrong, because elites are wrong and rubes are wrong.
The only way to break this malaise is to identify the epistemological rot behind it. People are catechized into this mentality. They’re catechized inside church and outside it. If we wonder where all the prophets have gone, we need to ask: did they leave, or did we lose the ability to hear them?