By Stephen Wolfe
When Donald Trump won the election in 2016, many evangelicals pondered the fate of their NeverTrump evangelical leaders. After months of pleading with and morally denouncing evangelical support for Trump—often in the opinion pages of national newspapers—their fellow evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump. In the end, these “influencers” had little influence; these “leaders” proved to have few followers. Trump’s victory looked like their downfall. How could leaders so out of touch maintain their prominence and power? Shouldn’t this failed leadership yield to those who better reflect evangelical political sentiment?
But that didn’t happen. Despite being politically ineffective, NeverTrump evangelicals have retained their positions of power. Russell Moore, for example, who before the election took to the New York Times to ask whether evangelicals will be “on the right side of Jesus” and will renounce their “pent-up nativism,” remains the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission or the ERLC, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), despite being personally shut out from the Oval Office. The publishing world is another indicator that nothing has changed. One would be hard-pressed to find a single book on social life or Christian politics published by a major evangelical press written by a non-NeverTrump evangelical since the election. The same goes for articles in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and others.
The 2016 election and the years that followed have revealed this truth: that the composition of the current “respectable” evangelical leadership does not derive its legitimacy from the evangelical many but from the few. They are a self-legitimizing, self-perpetuating, and self-anointed elite—unaccountable to and disconnected from those whom they are to serve and represent. In other words, as to form, they are no different than the elite of broader American society; and, materially, they are increasingly similar in political sentiment.
As Election 2020 approaches, the same evangelicals, along with a new assortment of allies, are preparing their message and methods. It has begun with an essay by Paul D. Miller, the lead researcher at the ERLC, titled “Faith and Healthy Democracy.” At almost 60 pages, the essay covers a range of topics in American politics, including civility, technology, religious liberty, race relations, political tribalism and others issues. In some ways it is a “report,” for the discussion centers around the findings of a Lifeway poll of evangelicals on faith and politics and on interviews of prominent evangelicals. Miller quotes the interviewees throughout the essay. But it is far more than a report.
The striking irony is that the essay exhibits the very ills that it diagnoses. Miller, along with the interviewees that he quotes, betray the same sort of tribalism that the report bemoans. The purpose of my analysis is not to uncover the hypocrisy. Rather the intent is to show that Miller’s report, with all its strange and subtle contradictions, perfectly captures the blindness of evangelical elites. In their denunciation of tribalism, they reveal their own tribalism, and yet they seem oblivious to it. They project onto others exactly what they are themselves.
Before getting into the report, we should recognize that the ERLC leadership itself is a product of tribalism, and the process of their selection is truly byzantine. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention appoints the members of a committee who nominate trustees who appoint the ERLC president. Though the Convention approves the trustees, it is almost impossible to change the nominations before the vote. The most important factor in electing the ERLC president is the composition of the annual Convention. In 2018, only about 8% of the SBC’s roughly 47,000 churches were represented at the Convention, and the costs to attend, which for over 40% of the attendees exceeded $1,000, prevents churches in rural areas and working-class congregations from attending and voting. In consequence, the typical urban, NeverTrump, and wealthy member dominates the electorate. It is doubtful that the current SBC president, J.D. Greear, would have been elected had the convention in 2018 reflected the actual socio-economic and regional diversity of the SBC. The irony is that the upper-class element of the SBC, along with its young and non-white allies, control a denomination known for its working-class origins.
Notice a further irony. Russell Moore, who is charged with carrying SBC’s political interest out into the public square, particularly in civil government, used his position to attack (in harsh moralistic terms)—from the towers of liberal national newspapers—the very sort of SBC evangelical that had little say in his selection and yet continues to pay his salary. Like the rest of America’s elite, Moore’s social commentary reflects the interests of the oligarchic element of the SBC.
But perhaps Miller, who was appointed by Moore, selected a diverse set of interviewees for this report—one that reflects the ERLC’s own great faith in democracy. Unfortunately, he didn’t. The vast majority of the interviewees are NeverTrump evangelicals. Out of a list of almost sixty interviewees, only two (Jim Daly and Wayne Grudem) support the Trump Administration, to my knowledge. Not only does the list reflect a tiny portion of SBC political sentiment (after all, over 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump), it fails to conform to the report’s own trust in democracy. Miller quotes the most ardent NeverTrump evangelical repeatedly. Miller received little to no input from evangelicals outside his own ideological bubble. If what you do reveals what you actually believe, then Miller does not actually believe in democracy, at least by his own report’s definition. Rather it points to another definition of democracy: the appearance of democracy with de facto control by a self-legitimating and self-anointed elite that are unelected and unaccountable to the people. The list could double as a conference invitee list; it’s a clique of people who belong to the same speaking circuit. Miller says that he “strove to include women and non-whites to ensure a diversity of backgrounds.” But like many academic departments that celebrate their “diversity,” it’s only a superficial diversity that conceals an underlying ideological unity.
Moreover, what’s startling about the interview list is how many of them have been terribly uncivil in their public engagements. After all, the paper is in part a discussion on the importance of civility in Christian public witness. The most egregious example is Thabiti Anyabwile, a baptist pastor, whom Miller frequently quotes. A regular contributor to The Gospel Coalition, Anyabwile wrote before the 2016 election that a vote for Trump is for “a revolutionary that would cast us in sentiment and law back to the 1940s at least.” In an article titled “We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King,” Anyabwile calls on young white people to begin their repentance by “at least saying [that] their parents and grandparents [on account of their being white]…are complicit in murdering” Martin Luther King. And most recently in the Washington Post, he accused his fellow evangelical of being “indifferent” and having “blind eyes to their brethren suffering at the hands of [the Trump] administration.” Why? Because they haven’t spoken out against mandatory prison sentences for drug dealers in Federal-level drug cases. That’s it. And near the end of the article he “call[s] into question one’s understanding of the faith and one’s claim to be a Christian” for such moral indifference. In other words, if you haven’t participated in the outrage machine on the injustice of federal-level drug cases, then you might not be of the faith.
Other interviewees have not practiced civility. Jemar Tisby, who is quoted several times, told his followers to “avoid” those who signed the Dallas Statement on Social Justice instead of engaging or refuting their claims. Signatories of the statement include many respected pastors, seminary professors, and other prominent figures. Tisby then takes to the Washington Post to denounce “white” evangelicals for not fully embracing the Black Lives Matter narrative on the Michael Brown shooting, even though the Obama Justice Department concluded that there was “no credible evidence” that Brown was murdered by the cop. He also claims that the white evangelical response to the Ferguson incident widened the rift between the races, even though it was the false racial narrative that did the work. Another interviewee is Matthew Lee Anderson, an evangelical writer and academic, who in 2016 labeled the pro-life justification for voting Trump the “dumb and dumber” argument. Of course, given Trump’s record on federal court appointees, the dumb-dumbs were right. Ray Ortland, another interviewee, tweeted with glee on the eve of the 2016 election that, as a consequence of evangelical voting patterns, “we’re losing a Bible Belt religion that held us back anyway.” Apparently, for Ortland, voting for Trump was so consequential that such evangelicals should be utterly discredited, resulting in the elevation and dominance of his own tribe. One might also look at the snark of Alan Noble, another interviewee, whose obsession with Trump’s activities and alleged crimes rivals CNN’s. In addition, many of the interviewees followed the online mob in slandering the Covington Catholic kids.
Miller himself hasn’t shown civility. In Providence Magazine, he asked the speakers of National Conservative conference, “Have you read a book of history or psychology?” to refute the claim that national identity is essential for human flourishing. He sees “little evidence for it.” Miller should ask the same question of Plato (Laws 708c), Aristotle (Politics 3.9), Cicero (De Officiis I.17), Augustine (City of God 19.7, 17), Althusius (Politica VI:39), and many others who affirmed the necessity of civil homogeneity for living well. But that’s beside the point. The problem here is Miller’s own incivility.
Far from being exemplars of civility and public engagement, many evangelicals on Miller’s interview list exemplify the very social ills that the paper seemingly tries to remedy. Perhaps however this wasn’t reflected in their interviews.
On the contrary, the essay is a marvelous example of projection: accusing others of doing exactly what you do. It denounces “political tribes” in strong terms, but is itself a perfect example of (elite) tribalism. Political tribes, Miller writes, “are bad for democracy. Because we isolate ourselves from information or news from the other side, we harden and accelerate political division and fuel polarization. We encourage ourselves to think the worst of our opponents and actively cultivate distrust in our fellow citizens. We blind ourselves to our own faults, listening to echo chambers that confirm our existing biases….[P]olitical tribalization is rooted in ideological inflexibility matched with righteous certainty in our own wisdom, intolerance for the necessity of compromise, and impatience with the machinery of democracy.”
Miller says that evangelicals don’t listen to each other; they talk at each other, seeking to win rather than persuade. Mutual trust is low. They exaggerate, and in the words of Matthew Wear, use a “rhetorical tool box” to “rationalize” our political views.
The report however repeatedly uses quotes that reflect this very level of discourse. Tisby is quoted as saying, “we have made a god out of a political party or a political agenda as we look to that party or that agenda for salvation.” Samuel Rodriguez states that evangelicals treat their pundits as “messengers from heaven.” It is “quasi-cultic.” Michael Emerson suggests that “evangelical religion isn’t religion; it’s a political movement.” Catherine Parks accuses evangelicals of looking to “politics or political figures” as “savior figures.” All this political tribalism is “idolatry, ” says Miller. A.B. Vines states that “not a lot of white Christians care about the poor.” Alan Jacobs states that “few churches overall are really interested in Christian formation.”
This discussion continues in the second part.
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.