One topic which we at Culture Briefing have rarely addressed directly, though which is doubtless interesting and relevant to many of our readers, is the state of evangelicalism in America. After releasing the Vocation & the Common Good podcast and hearing back from some listeners, we’ve decided to bring to your attention two pieces that continue a conversation about the state of evangelical life that surfaced in multiple episodes. Our focus this week is on two related features of the movement: its current political captivity, and its longtime obsession with celebrity.
As Michael Gerson notes in one of this week’s featured articles, evangelicalism is a term that eludes definition—and like many loosely defined categories in our age of identity politics, is often brandished as a weapon or a shield, which makes it difficult to employ respectfully and constructively. What’s clear is that Americans who self-identify as Evangelical Protestants are widely associated with right-wing politics, and not without reason. As Tim Keller recently put it in the New Yorker, whatever strategies evangelicals deploy to differentiate themselves from Protestant Fundamentalists or the Protestant Mainline, their public reputation has little to do with theological distinctives. “In common parlance,” he says, “evangelicals have become people with two qualities: they are both self-professed Christians and doggedly conservative politically.”
This reputation has only intensified since the most recent presidential election. Gerson, a speechwriter in the George W. Bush White House and proud Wheaton alum, argues in his recent cover story for the Atlantic that evangelicals’ unbending support for the current president is “one of the most extraordinary developments in recent political history.” As he puts it:
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers.
On balance, Gerson’s piece does more to express outrage over this alliance than to examine the roots from which that alliance has grown. He nods to the fact that “the moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification,” even calling this “utter corruption.” But evangelicalism, as both as a theological marker and expression of a public identity, is something Gerson wants to reclaim.
Or, in fact, to develop. In tracing the history of evangelical thought and practice in America, Gerson notices that even at its cultural and intellectual peak, evangelicalism lacked “a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action.” This stands in contrast to Roman Catholicism, which, during the same period, could draw on the body of official teaching known colloquially as “Catholic Social Thought.” Whether it be the principle of subsidiarity, the rejection of xenophobia, or an unbending commitment to society’s most vulnerable, Catholic Social Thought functions as “an ‘if, then’ requirement for Catholics.” Gerson explains:
If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and cliches of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.
Gerson’s account of evangelicalism’s failures underplays two essential features of the movement that prevent it from having the kind of public witness he wants. The first is the fusion of revivalism and the “free enterprise” movement of the 1930s and 40s, which Princeton historian Kevin Kruse has recently chronicled in One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. While the details of Kruse’s account can and should be debated, it’s clear that American evangelicals embraced a form of political economy in the middle of the 20th century that made their capitulation to the current regime all the more likely. (On this topic, see Clay Cooke’s review of Timothy E.W. Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure from Vol. 12).
The second fact that Gerson underplays is evangelicalism’s attachment to celebrity, which has always been more feature than bug. The story of evangelicalism in America is a story of the rise (and almost always, fall) of its leading public personalities and the cottage industries that spring up around them. That Gerson fails to make a connection between this pattern and the current president’s power to command the attention of the movement is unfortunate.
Writing for the current flagship blog of evangelicalism, The Gospel Coalition, former Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch takes up a closely related question in a piece titled “It’s Time to Reckon with Celebrity Power.” Prompted by news of recent accusations against major leaders within evangelicalism—and the difficulty those leaders have in refuting such accusations due to their self-imposed isolation—Crouch argues that celebrity almost always creates a dangerous form of distance. As he puts it:
Among the many dark gifts of power is distance—distance from accountability, distance from consequences, distance from the pain we cause others, distance from self-knowledge, distance from friendship, distance from the truth...In that privacy and at that distance, we become capable of acts we would never have imagined.
Echoing Augustine’s argument about the close connection between sin and privacy, Crouch shows that American evangelicalism separates as it elevates. To become a “successful” leader within the movement is, too often, to construct a public platform that projects a personality, while keeping the person behind it mainly hidden from view. (All of us, in the end, may be more interested in being instafamous than we’d prefer to admit.) Crouch concludes his piece with some admittedly ad hoc but insightful strategies for neutralizing the distancing power available to him:
We will, paradoxically, need to expect less transparency from our public figures, less alluring displays of intimacy and “vulnerability,” and more accountability from the systems around them. We will need to put more energy into building systems, including systems that account for the temptations of power, that will last for generations. We will need to somehow quell our lust to feel close to people who can charm the camera and hold the spotlight—recognizing that the half-life of such leadership has always been measured in years, not generations, and now is numbered in something more like months or days.
Whatever one thinks about the particular claims of evangelicalism (or the ongoing utility of the term), we all have a stake in its institutional health. Even if Michael Gerson is right to say that evangelicalism lacks a coherent and widely shared account of public life, evangelicals still express their convictions within the world, for good and ill. Those who identify with evangelicalism, a movement that (as Gerson reminds us) counts radical abolitionists among its founders, have ample reason to heed voices like Gerson’s and Crouch’s: voices that speak from within the movement, but whose words cut against the grain.