The Evangelical Reconcilers: How Evangelicalism Reconciles Itself with Modern Liberalism
Written by Managing Editor on August 5, 2019
Guest Post By Stephen Wolfe
Evangelical Christianity is incompatible with the prevailing ideology of Western society—modern liberalism. This is why evangelicals are increasingly pushed to the margins of public legitimacy and respectability. This marginalization however is principally and firstly not from physical coercion. Evangelicals are not rounded up by official authorities and sent to the Gulag or re-education camps. Rather the marginalization begins in the realm of discourse and recognition; it is more psychological. Modern liberal ideology, for this reason, is unique: it does not demand conformity through physical brutality (as one sees in communist and pre-liberal regimes), but through decentralized, seemingly non-official social pressure, and this pressure comes subtly in variegated forms. It subsequently creates and maintains a social environment in which the ease of life and peace with fellowman is conditioned on adopting particular patterns of thinking and acting and, more importantly, acceptable relational postures.
Evangelicalism has opposed this prevailing ideology in substance for quite a while, but it was somewhat tolerated. Evangelicals were the heretics that society’s orthodox let live. But since the culture wars are largely over and evangelicals have largely lost, evangelicals now face increased marginalization and social ostracism. Flagrant opposition to evangelical sexual ethics, for example, comes from almost all corners. Further toleration is in doubt.
The Condition for Toleration
Even the most strident early advocates for the toleration of heretics affirmed a condition for toleration: tolerated groups must not act in any way that threatens the political regime. For example, John Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration wrote, “no [religious] opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate.” So a precondition for toleration has always been harmlessness to the regime.
But the harmlessness of evangelicalism to modern liberalism is not at all obvious, especially since evangelicals can identify with political-theological traditions that were comfortable with and confident in political power and use it to establish and maintain distinctively Christian features in society. If an American evangelical is unwilling to appeal to the Christian founding fathers (e.g., John Witherspoon, John Jay, James Wilson, and Roger Sherman) and to the evangelical politics of the last 60 years, he can look to Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Althusius and many others for political-theological frameworks to contend with and attempt to defeat the secularist age. These political theologies are dangerous, however, because they call into question whether evangelicalism is fit for toleration in the modern liberal regime.
The Evangelical Reconcilers
As the division between the prevailing ideology and some marginalized group widens, three groups arise from the marginalized: the warriors, the capitulators, and the reconcilers. The warriors are those willing to directly and openly oppose the ruling class, in part with political power and confrontational assertiveness. They are and want to remain a threat to the ruling class and its interests. Douglas Wilson is a clear example of a warrior. The capitulators are those who abandon many distinctives of the marginalized group, largely conform to the norms of the ruling class, and assume a negative posture towards the marginalized group from the towering heights of the ruling class. They affirm with their generous overlords the unworthiness of conservative evangelicals to be tolerated. They are the Christian whip of the ruling class and demonstrate what it would take to be accepted and respectable. One obvious example of this is Jonathan Merritt.
But there is another group that can easily go unnoticed or miscategorized: the reconcilers. The evangelical reconciler’s efforts make evangelicalism not necessarily acceptable or even respectable, but safe for toleration. It is crucial to recognize that these people are not heterodox; they can easily demonstrate their orthodox credentials. The reconciler in evangelicalism is not like the old liberalizer, nor is he (strictly speaking) capitulating to the ruling class by attempting to make evangelicalism one with it. He affirms evangelicalism’s distinctive features (e.g., sexual norms), the sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture, the classical Protestant view of the atonement, etc. In fact, Danny Akin recently did exactly this in his defense of the leadership in Southern Baptist Convention. Confusing these people with the capitulators or the old liberals will cause us to miss a subtle and yet powerful force in the enforcement and dominance of modern liberal ideology.
Since the reconcilers are demonstrably orthodox, they enjoy legitimacy in evangelicalism, unlike the capitulators. But with this status, they can do the work that liberal ideology has for them: making conservative evangelicalism harmless to the regime. They do this by actively undermining evangelicalism’s ability, both theologically and practically, to directly, deliberately, and assertively shape civil society and government. Having become harmless, evangelicals can then receive their “religious liberty” (which is actually toleration), securing for themselves a small space and indeed the only space for exclusively Christian norms.
But this secured space is decidedly not an assembly ground for the achievement of political ends. In fact, reconcilers repeatedly criticize the “pursuit of political power”. For example, they suggest that all political activity and principles must have “moral witness” as their ultimate end; concrete civil ends are secondary. Our political theology/philosophy needn’t be practical, realistic, achievable etc.; none of that is the point. Indeed, political thinking is, in the end, purely apologetical. The local church shows forth “true politics” to the world, but forbids both the formulation of any realistic Christian political program and the use of civil power to shape civil society in accordance with that formulation. In the end, the only civil end actually sought is toleration, and the argument for toleration is principally based on evangelicalism’s proven willingness to be harmless to the liberal regime.
The reconcilers are de facto agents of the regime, working within those on the margin to nullify their possible threat to the regime. This is the role of the reconcilers in shoring up the prevailing liberal ideology. The widening division of secularism and evangelicalism created the role of the evangelical reconciler, a role with no shortage of willing participants. Indeed, this establishes the pipeline and conditions for success in evangelicalism, effectively drawing from the ambitious and talented. Most of these however are unaware of their role in securing liberal ideology, for they consider themselves and probably are sincere in their beliefs. So this isn’t some grand conspiracy. However, as many of them would no doubt affirm (given their talk of “systemic racism”), one can be sincere in his beliefs and actions and yet through them unwittingly perpetuate and secure an ideology. The reason for their success—for their teaching positions, book contracts, online publishing, speaking engagements, etc.—is not, formally speaking, of their own making. Rather, social roles were generated and they happened to be the ones who filled the slots.
One important reconciler in the Calvinistic circles of evangelicalism is Jonathan Leeman, author of Political Church and who is representative of TGC, ERLC, Christianity Today, and 9Marks evangelicalism. Leeman’s view is ecclesio-centric, making the local church an assembly for shaping “ambassadors” for Christ in the broader culture and civil society. Being the true political body, the local church is your ultimate, earthly identity. But it is not a forward operating base to establish political rule in the civil sphere, nor to Christianize civil society. Our “threat” to liberal modernity is not in our pursuit of a political agenda, nor in wielding political power, nor in fighting a culture war. The church and its members are “threats” because a faithful Christian life in the world incidentally challenges the nature of fallen civil society. “Faithful presence” is itself sufficient to threaten the economic, social, and political order. For example, refusing to conduct sinful economic activity “threatens” the economic order. So the “threat” is passive, not active. Christian politics is entirely a display that disrupts.
But Leeman’s political theology merely pacifies the threat Christianity can pose to modern liberalism. The irony is that the “threats” identified by Leeman are perfectly acceptable to the prevailing ideology. Leeman has simply reduced Christianity to a weird lifestyle in a society of lifestyles. In a world of expressionism, Christianity is just another way of having it your own way. You are merely displaying your identity among other identities. Leeman, of course, does not see it this way, but he has wildly underestimated the ability for modern liberal societies to absorb and normalize differences, especially a difference that amounts to a politically weak quirkiness.
It is true that Christian practices might inject inefficiencies into society (e.g., the time devoted to worship) and the economy (e.g., righteous commerce), but in the modern liberal order such inefficiencies are either practically harmless or their consequences are almost entirely borne by the individual himself, not by society. Leeman’s Christianity is absolutely no threat to the liberal world. If he were an actual threat, he would be silenced. If he were actually dangerous to the system, it would spit him out. But it hasn’t and it won’t, because people like Leeman reconcile people to the system and the ideology that regulates society. He actually eliminates the threat by deluding people into thinking that their presence alone threatens the established order. Leeman is an unwitting agent fighting on behalf of modern liberal ideology.
A whole crop of reconcilers has arisen in the last decade. This includes Alan Noble (whose “disruptive witness” follows the same theme and end as Leeman, only it’s more delusional), Mike Cosper (who calls us to “practice vulnerability”), Russell Moore (who regularly denounces the pursuit of power), Daniel Darling, Rebecca McLaughlin (identity politics), JKA Smith, Duke Kwon, and many others. Joining this evangelical class is conditioned on playing a part in pacifying evangelicalism.
The reconcilist perspective is subtle, but not hard to recognize when you’re aware of it. For example, Samuel James, recently writing for The Gospel Coalition (TGC), states in an otherwise decent piece, that “Nothing in Scripture suggests that being willing to offend elite cultural gatekeepers is necessarily a sign of courage or even truthfulness, especially if such willingness to offend comes wrapped up with influence or political power.” The denunciation of “political power” is a clear sign of reconcilism. Talk of “moral witness” is another. These undermine the theoretical and theological foundation for political action. But the reconcilists also undermine confidence in action with (often just-so) stories and simplistic narratives about evangelical “complicity” in our own current predicament. We see this in James’ piece: “the church is, in a real sense, inheriting its own wind,” having “baptiz[ed] unregenerate social structures.” Some writers have suggested that attacks on the church should occasion not self-defense, but self-reflection; we should ask ourselves whether we’re simply getting what we deserve. As Jake Meador and others have stated, “if the American church is dying, it’s because we deserve it.” In addition, the Christian-as-exile trope, which is increasingly popular among modern (not classical) two-kingdom proponents and TGC, is preparing evangelicals for passive marginalization. Furthermore, the reconcilers (with a few exceptions) exclusively criticize and distance themselves from warrior evangelicals and often take their moral-outrage cues from the ruling class. Almost every article published by TGC and Christianity Today that concerns politics or public life follows one or more of these reconcilist patterns. And such outlets are in consequence supplying the theology, sentiment, and mantras that nullify any threat that evangelicals might pose to the prevailing secularist world.
But reconciling evangelicals and modern liberal ideology requires more than a neo-anabaptist ecclesiology and Jesus-isn’t-a-Republican political rhetoric. It involves having the right relational postures. Evangelicals must be able to affirm traditional sexual norms (viz. oppose homosexual acts), but still relate to homosexuals qua homosexuals in some affirming way. Hence, you have TGC writers and conference speakers (including Joe Carter) stating that “straight” is not a biblical category or a command in Scripture, and you have the very recent controversy over same-sex attraction (SSA) and the “benefit” that evangelicals with SSA can be to the church. Indeed, they suggest that new relational postures must arise in evangelicalism for all the sacred identities in modern liberalism. This explains the recent emphasis on racial reconciliation and reparations, the MLK Conference, and a complementarianism that is functionally egalitarian, and why the reconcilers so often pit the Gospel against national identity. Certainly, this explains why one TGC writer and speaker has advised, apparently without TGC’s objection, that evangelicals “stop fielding straight white men.” The irony, however, is that the likely audience of all this moral theater is the powerful white liberal, whose out-group sympathy is matched only by his in-group antipathy. The whole point in reconciling is to re-posture evangelicals toward adequately affirming modern liberalism’s sacred identities and undermining profane ones without abandoning theological orthodoxy. This eliminates the perception and reality that evangelicalism is a threat to modern liberalism.
But the evangelical reconciliers, orchestrating a Neo-Anabaptist turn, are merely doing what the prevailing ideology has exalted them to do. Few will notice however this subtle reformulation of evangelical thought, despite its opposition to classical Protestant political theology. Many will miscategorize it as just another reiteration of the old liberalization of the Christian faith. But after demonstrating their theological orthodoxy, the reconcilers will continue unabated to eliminate the evangelical threat to modern liberalism. They will continue to socialize people into a new evangelical discourse dominated by catchy phrases, lines, tropes, and mantras and appropriate terms, such as “threat,” “witness,” and “political,” to new ends. They will continue to Christianize popular sentiment and delude people into thinking that harmless Christian practices can “disrupt” secular ones. They will reduce political activity to “moral witness” and to securing walls of tolerance (or “religious liberty”) for a small space of distinctively Christian norms. But despite appearances, their orthodoxy, and perhaps their own consciousness, the reconcilers are agents of the liberal ideological regime, legitimated by it and for it, and we ought to identify them as such.
Stephen Wolfe is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at Louisiana State University. He and his family are members of a PCA church in Louisiana.