By Stephen Wolfe
This is the second of a two part series. The first part is found here.
Paul Miller’s presentation of civic trust in his ERLC report is useful for exposing the tribalism of the evangelical elite. The report bizarrely prescribes distrust in order to remedy distrust—committing a sort of performative contradiction.
At no point does he or any quoted interviewee recognize even the possibility that white evangelicals support Trump and vote Republican for reasons other than tribalism, idolatry, or racism. Could it be that most evangelicals generally agree with the Republican Party platform? Might they disagree with their elites on the principles of voting? Miller makes no attempt, anywhere, to look sympathetically at America’s political situation through the eyes of the majority of non-elite evangelicals.
The lengthy section on race and ethnicity simply dismisses the political beliefs, reasons, sentiments, or concerns of “white” evangelicals. Miller and his interviewees show only tribalistic traits: ideological inflexibility matched with righteous certainty. Miller argues, for example, that there is “glaring and irrefutable evidence” that “non-whites have starkly different life opportunities; that they are treated differently by the institutions of American life (like law enforcement); and that whites enjoy a position of privilege in society that belies our belief in meritocracy.”
One certainly can make such claims, but to preface these assertions with “glaring and irrefutable” is to shut down debate and in effect open white people up to every kind of bulverism imaginable, which is exactly how that section proceeds. But notice first that we cannot, given the “irrefutable evidence,” consider any works that might question this obvious, clear, irrefutable, clear-as-day narrative. So don’t cite the historical, analytical, and statistical work of Heather Mac Donald, Coleman Hughes, Jason Riley, Walter Williams, and Thomas Sowell. You can’t question Kristie Anyabwile’s assertion in the report that “we [non-whites] know what the battle is on a daily basis to have to strive for simple things, ” nor Emerson’s assertion that in favoring the “status quo,” white people “perpetuate a system that favors themselves at the expense of others.” Jonathan Leeman states, that “whites, at best, have been negligent in emphasizing and showing concern for the issues felt acutely by our minority brothers and sisters in Christ.” Yet could it be that white evangelicals have principled disagreements on those issues? Perhaps many white people reject, for good reason, key elements of the racialized narrative, namely, that racism and “implicit bias” best explain current disparities in outcomes. But this sort of talk contradicts what is glaringly obvious. Questioning the irrefutable is a sign of moral deficiency. How dare you refuse to affirm the consequent!
And because the racial narrative is so morally obvious, Miller can proceed with the Christianized bulverism of evangelical race-rhetoric.
Miller writes, “Some whites, when reading the paragraph above, may feel defensive or upset and become unwilling to engage in further discussion about race, Christianity, and American politics. But we ask our readers to remember from Scripture that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). It can be extraordinarily difficult to recognize a needful rebuke when we hear it; we tend to deflect, shift blame, excuse or justify ourselves, or look at the speck of dust in our neighbor’s eye to avoid the plank in our own.”
This blatant attempt at psychological manipulation is common in elite-level discourse. It is gas-lighting, poisoning the well, and simply unjust. Maybe the white person’s “deflection” is a reasoned reply, rooted in personal study. Or perhaps people disengage because they sense their rhetorically impossible position, namely, that any reply is prima facie racism or a failure to “listen” or to “submit“. No. Your role is to listen humbly and let non-whites reveal the unconscious “racial animus” in your “own motives.” And when white people perceive incivility from non-whites, Jason Cook tells us in the report, it is actually the “majority culture” protecting itself from “dissenting opinion.” In the end, white evangelicals must reflexively trust non-white voices and distrust their own reactions, thoughts, and reasoning. Non-whites however can do the opposite: trust their own self-narrative and distrust white people.
The magnitude of distrust in Miller’s report moves speedily into cognitive dissonance. Take these two sentences for example: “White evangelicals who supported Trump did not believe…that their support for him was support for racism. But it became increasingly difficult for non-whites Christian to give their white brothers and sisters who supported Trump the benefit of the doubt.”
In the first sentence, Miller affirms, as a fact, that white evangelicals did not intend to support racism. The second refers to a non-white perception that whites appeared to be supporting racism. But is the fact or the perception more important for this report? You guessed it. Miller quotes Bruce Ashford next: “white folks don’t understand…how afraid—not just offended, but afraid—they are.” Again, everyone must distrust the thoughts of the white evangelical (he must even distrust himself), but everyone must trust non-white narratives, reactions, and feelings.
With great irony, then, Miller proceeds to talk about how identity politics is an “abandonment of any effort to persuade the other side.” Only modern elites could be so blind to such contradictions. He later states that democracy depends on the “institutionalization of reciprocal trust and altruism in political life.” But he and his interviewees have already told us that no one should trust white people. What then does “reciprocal trust” look like? Miller lets us wallow in cognitive dissonance. But here’s the most likely solution, given what was said: white evangelicals can trust themselves only in trusting non-whites. Hence, they trust themselves only derivatively; they must gaze upon another’s credibility. White self-distrust is the remedy for civic distrust. The delightful phrase “reciprocal trust” simply masks a pernicious and psychologically manipulative non-democratic ideology.
What is this but an in-group or tribalist method of undermining the ability of an out-group to act? One tribe engineers doubt and self-distrust in another tribe to render it hesitant, harmless, and compliant. Indeed, “reciprocal trust” in this report is actually a system of trust and distrust designed to reinforce and secure evangelical elite power and control. It is perfect injustice shrouded in the appearance of justice.
The Evangelical Elite Tribe
Miller and the interviewees are clearly part of a tribe, but this is an elite tribe. It has unique features that distinguish it from other tribes. One such feature is a sense of moral superiority over the non-elite, something evident in Miller’s discussion of political theology. The “problem” is that the “lived political theology in the pews does not reflect the academic theology taught in our seminaries and published by our presses.” Miller laments that evangelicals are “taking their political cue from elsewhere.” He continues, the non-elite “cultural blinders are effectively more powerful than biblical principles.” The implicit assumption is that Miller and his collection of elites (and their “marginalized” allies) are above cultural influence and know both the universal biblical principles and their proper application in our situations. The average evangelical however is “unwilling or unable to practice [biblical] principles,” says Emerson. With a handful of quotes, Miller goes on to say that the institutional church, which these men and women lead, must actively “disciple” Christians into “public righteousness.”
But Miller is oblivious to how his own elite culture of moral superiority has blinded his tribe’s failures. It remains reasonable, in my view, for one to refuse to vote for and support Trump on account of his moral deficiencies. I don’t agree with this judgment, as I wrote in detail elsewhere, but I won’t condemn one for making it. Nevertheless, the NeverTrump evangelical crowd must admit that evangelicals in 2016, who voted on the basis of perceived policy outcomes, were remarkably prescient. Still, NeverTrump evangelicals, despite their poor predictions, have shown almost no humility. The non-elites were right and the elites were spectacularly wrong. But to this day, despite a good economy, record employment for minorities, excellent federal judge nominations, national and international support for pro-life and religious liberty causes, the evangelical elite remain firm in their moral condemnatory posture. Miller’s report assumes throughout that they, the non-elite evangelicals, are the problem, while we, the elites, have the solutions.
It’s almost laughable that this report is about how to shape a healthy democracy. We have here the same old story: the failed elite blame the people and, without any self-reflection, proceed with their tutelary instruction, as if the people still have something to learn from them. In form, there is little difference between the evangelical elite and the rest of the American elite class: for the elite, “a healthy democracy” is the people following the dictates of an elite class whose power derives not from the people but from the elite’s own technique in self-legitimation.
Why so tribal?
Why are the evangelical elite so tribal? I suspect that they perceive themselves to be above all the “ideologies” of our time—conservatism, socialism, nationalism, liberalism, left, right, etc.—and so possess, only among themselves, a distinctively Christian view of politics. Miller labels both left and right “political idolatries,” for neither can provide true “human flourishing.” Hence, churches need to conduct “political discipleship,” be “formation centers” for righteous political action, and provide “moral ecology” and “moral formation” to equip Christians to “increase” their neighbor’s flourishing. Christian political life is a top-down, elite-driven, ecclesiastical program.
There seems to be consensus in the report that any principled Christian political theory will necessarily lack what is necessary to enact a Christian civil government. Christians must always remain merely participants and, at best, contributors to a stable and just civil government, but never in the sort of way that would lead to democratic victory. Furthermore, Christian interests must never motivate Christian political action, for this “privileges” Christianity over others. Christians must act in a Christianly manner, but never for distinctively Christian ends. The manner of political action is far more important than achieving the ends of political action. Evangelical elites then have a sort of paternalistic role in maintaining this “moral witness.” They must keep the Christian masses within their limits, not letting them slip into the “political idolatries” that naturally arise in the agonistic realm of politics.
Having this divine guardianship justifies their self-legitimation. Their high station is neither rooted in, nor accountable to, those below, for only they know the proper program of moral witness. And because this is a program (“political discipleship”), they must control the pathway to success in evangelicalism and be the gatekeepers of ideas and influence. From this station, they can declare, with moral certainty, all the godly manners of Christian politics. But resulting from their in-group thinking is the reinforcement and collective masking of their own glaring delusions, cognitive dissonances, and ideology. And while they denounce the “interior darkness” of those who refuse to conform, they remain aloof and seemingly oblivious to their own darkness. Consequently, being a sort of anti-tribalist tribe, they project upon and condemn others for the very things they themselves exhibit.
Their legitimacy, however, does not entirely originate from themselves. In part they receive legitimacy from a reciprocating relationship with secularist elites. This is how it works: national newspapers and magazines, particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post, open their columns to evangelicals (which boosts these evangelicals’ notoriety and respectability) but on one condition: they must attack their fellow evangelicals. But evangelicals don’t even read these papers. So who then is the audience? What are these articles actually for?
Here it is: They signal to secularist elites that there is a tribe of evangelicals fighting in their interest—for the pacification the evangelical voter. The evangelical elites and the securalists have a common project: the disunification of the evangelical voting bloc. The evangelical elites have unwittingly enlisted as agents of a divide-and-conquer strategy. Since evangelicals are not allowed to vote for their own interests, they must concern themselves only with 1) the “marginalized,” which only the secular elites identify and sanctify, and 2) the “neutrality” of the public square, which practically means playing in a rigged system of discourse. This would effectively reconcile evangelicalism and the ruling class. Indeed, this reconcilism explains Miller’s (and the ERLC’s) entire project: The “report” is a blueprint for how evangelicalism can maintain the illusion of separation from the secularist world while in reality be an agent enforcing modern liberal ideology.
The fact that many, if not most, involved in this project have no idea what they are doing only shows how obsolete they are. The incongruities in Miller’s piece, between what he condemns and what he and his interviewees say and do, are too obvious. It is an unmistakable work of projection and a remarkable example of anti-tribal tribalism. But Miller and the “reviewers” listed at the end apparently didn’t catch any of the ironies. Nor are they seemingly aware of their alignment with secularist elite interest.
For the good of evangelicalism, the elites in “respectable” evangelicalism need to break up their bubble, admit their complicity in and contribution to civic distrust and uncivil discourse, show some humility, reach out to (actual) dissenting voices, admit their faults, seek some guidance from below, reassess their alleged civility, stop seeing the worst in the average evangelical, end the psychologically manipulative race-rhetoric, and practice the principles of democracy in their own institutions. Most of all they need to recognize that, for all their talk of separating “evangelicalism” from a particular political program, they are reconciling and in some ways uniting evangelicalism with a pernicious and pervasive political ideology—modern liberalism. Consider me doubtful that they’ll do any of this; they would cease being a tribe.
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.