By David Brooks
Feb. 4, 2022
image above: Concept by Jason Sfetko, Illustration by Justin Metz
WN: The article is outstanding! It is at once hard-hitting, and immensely hopeful. Near the end, we read:
Karen Swallow Prior [has become an outspoken critic of the evangelical establishment’s toleration of abuse and an advocate of change, and] said something that rings in my ears: “Modernity has peaked.” The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis and people just being nasty to one another. Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning.
Tim Dalrymple is president of the prominent evangelical magazine Christianity Today, which called for Trump’s removal from office after his first impeachment. “As an evangelical, I’ve found the last five years to be shocking, disorienting and deeply disheartening,” he says. “One of the most surprising elements is that I’ve realized that the people who I used to stand shoulder to shoulder with on almost every issue, I now realize that we are separated by a yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension. I would never have thought that could have happened so quickly.”
Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a professor of history at Calvin University, a Christian school in Michigan, and is the author of “Jesus and John Wayne,”1 about how rugged masculinity pervades the evangelical world. “I’ve had so many moms I don’t know come up to me in the playground,” she tells me, “and whisper, ‘Are you the author of that book?’ They pour out their hearts: ‘This is not my faith. This is not what I was raised to believe in.’ These are 30-something white Christian women. They are in deep crisis, questioning everything.”
Of course there is a lot of division across many parts of American society. But for evangelicals, who have dedicated their lives to Jesus, the problem is deeper. Christians are supposed to believe in the spiritual unity of the church. While differing over politics and other secondary matters, they are in theory supposed to be unified by their shared first love — as brothers and sisters in Christ. Their common devotion is supposed to bring out the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The proximate cause of all this disruption is Trump. But that is not the deepest cause. Trump is merely the embodiment of many of the raw wounds that already existed in parts of the white evangelical world: misogyny, racism, racial obliviousness, celebrity worship, resentment and the willingness to sacrifice principle for power.[pullquote]As an evangelical, I’ve found the last five years to be shocking, disorienting and deeply disheartening. One of the most surprising elements is that I’ve realized that the people who I used to stand shoulder to shoulder with on almost every issue, I now realize that we are separated by a yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension. I would never have thought that could have happened so quickly.–Tim Dalrymple[/pullquote]Over the past decade or so, many of the country’s most celebrated Christian institutions were rocked by a series of horrific scandals. If you’re not evangelical, you may not know names like Willow Creek Community Church, Ravi Zacharias or Kanakuk Kamps. But if you’re evangelical, these are large presences on your mental landscape, and all have been destroyed or tarnished in recent years by sexual abuse allegations. The former leader of another prominent congregation, Mars Hill Church, has been accused of abuses of power.
Power is the core problem here. First, the corruptions of personal power. Evangelicalism is a populist movement. It has no hierarchy or central authority, so you might think it would have avoided the abuses of power that have afflicted the Roman Catholic Church. But the paradox of decentralization is that it has often led to the concentration of power in the hands of highly charismatic men, who can attract enthusiastic followings. A certain percentage of these macho celebrities inflict their power on the vulnerable and especially on young women. “Obedience to God was defined by obedience to the leader,” Du Mez says. “It’s been incredibly hard for people within that system to confront abuses of power.”
Then there is the way partisan politics has swamped what is supposed to be a religious movement. Over the past couple of decades evangelical pastors have found that their 20-minute Sunday sermons could not outshine the hours and hours of Fox News their parishioners were mainlining every week. It wasn’t only that the klieg light of Fox was so bright, but also that the flickering candle of Christian formation was so dim.
In 2020, roughly 40 percent of the people who called themselves evangelical attended church once a year or less, according to research by the political scientist Ryan Burge. It’s just a political label for them. This politicization is one reason people have cited to explain why so many are leaving the faith.
In 2006, 23 percent of Americans were white evangelical Protestants, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. By 2020, that share was down to 14.5 percent. In 2020, 22 percent of Americans 65 and older were white evangelical Protestants. Among adults 18 to 29, only 7 percent were.
The turmoil in evangelicalism has not just ruptured relationships; it’s dissolving the structures of many evangelical institutions. Many families, churches, parachurch organizations and even denominations are coming apart. I asked many evangelical leaders who are wary of Trump if they thought their movement would fracture. Most said it already has.
…[pullquote]I’ve had so many moms I don’t know come up to me in the playground and whisper, “Are you the author of that book?” They pour out their hearts: “This is not my faith. This is not what I was raised to believe in.” These are 30-something white Christian women. They are in deep crisis, questioning everything.—Kristin Kobes Du Mez[/pullquote]Roughly 80 percent of white evangelical voters supported Trump in 2020. But it is often a minority of this group who spark bitter conflicts and want their church to be on war footing all the time.
“The healthiest people spiritually tend to be the least engaged in these struggles,” Russell Moore says. “The unhealthiest tend to be the most engaged in spiritual life and politics. It doesn’t matter what the numbers are. The people who care the most are going to set the agenda.”
When I was young, I had a weird obsession with people who adopted and then broke with communism around the middle of the 20th century — Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, Richard Wright, Andre Gide and Whittaker Chambers. Breaking ranks was brutal for many of this set; they were ostracized and condemned.
They were also liberated. They began to think new things, find new allies and sometimes embark on new causes. Some of them contributed to an anthology describing their experiences called “The God That Failed.”
I’ve watched a lot of evangelical Christians endure similar experiences. They’ve broken from the community they thought they were wed to for life. Except for them it wasn’t God that failed, but the human institutions built in his name. This experience of breaking, rethinking and reorienting a life could be the first stage in renewal.
…[pullquote]The proximate cause of all this disruption is Trump. But that is not the deepest cause. Trump is merely the embodiment of many of the raw wounds that already existed in parts of the white evangelical world: misogyny, racism, racial obliviousness, celebrity worship, resentment and the willingness to sacrifice principle for power.[/pullquote]“I think this culture war mentality that we’ve been developing, that I was raised in and am a product of, and I don’t reject all of it, yet, anyway — I think we are seeing the logical conclusion of so many years of a culture war mentality that polarizes us and them,” she says. Prior is still on a journey, but she has become an outspoken critic of the evangelical establishment’s toleration of abuse and an advocate of change.
I’ve seen this same sort of journey among many of my friends who at least at one time identified as evangelicals. Over the past several years I watched my fellow journalists Peter Wehner, Michael Gerson and David French earnestly and in good faith engage with Trump-backing Christians, trying to understand what was going on. Now they are courageously and passionately opposing the Trumpification of American Christianity. They’ve become leading spokesmen for reform and participants in the discussions that are now happening over what needs to be done.
…[pullquote]There can probably be no evangelical renewal if the movement does not divorce itself from the lust for partisan political power. [/pullquote][Eugene Rivers is a prominent Black Pentecostal who] says the churches are the key to racial reconciliation and racial justice. He observes, “You cannot have a rational discussion of evil outside of agape love” — the kind of self-surrendering love for others that is supposed to be at the heart of the Christian life. “Without love, the accused are defensive because they feel guilty, because they are, and the accuser only ends up alienating the people who he is reaching out to.”
David Bailey has been doing racial and other reconciliation work with church and other groups since 2008. He says that 70 percent of evangelicals are open to this work, but that the 15 percent on either end are less so. “The extremes are getting more entrenched, but I don’t think they’re growing,” he observes, before continuing: “We remind people that peacemaking and healing are core to the Christian identity. There is no way to do spiritual formation unless you practice healing and reconciliation.”
Mark Labberton is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, which engages with students from 110 denominations and 90 nations. He says the average student at Fuller is about 31. Many Fuller students, Labberton says, believe in the central creed of Christianity, but not the institutional shroud it has come wrapped in. That is to say, they love Jesus, but they have had it with many of the institutions their elders have built in his name.
The future of the Christian church is not going to look like the past. Today many of the most dynamic sectors of the faith are in immigrant communities — in Korean, African and Hispanic churches, for example. In the decades ahead the American church is going to look more like the global church.
[pullquote][Eugene Rivers is a prominent Black Pentecostal who] says the churches are the key to racial reconciliation and racial justice. He observes, “You cannot have a rational discussion of evil outside of agape love” — the kind of self-surrendering love for others that is supposed to be at the heart of the Christian life. “Without love, the accused are defensive because they feel guilty, because they are, and the accuser only ends up alienating the people who he is reaching out to.”[/pullquote]At the Fuller seminary that future is already here. That changes a lot. For example, after ISIS launched a series of deadly attacks against Egyptian Christians, some Americans at Fuller wanted to hold a memorial service. The Egyptian students said, in effect: “What are you talking about? This is a cause for a celebration. This is about acknowledging what it means to live as a Christian in a context in which you have the privilege of martyrdom.” That idea is foreign to most American Christians, but the Egyptians led a celebratory service, which was followed by communion in the form of a Japanese tea ceremony. This is not your grandfather’s evangelicalism.
…[pullquote]Power is the core problem here. First, the corruptions of personal power. Evangelicalism is a populist movement. It has no hierarchy or central authority, so you might think it would have avoided the abuses of power that have afflicted the Roman Catholic Church. But the paradox of decentralization is that it has often led to the concentration of power in the hands of highly charismatic men, who can attract enthusiastic followings.[/pullquote]There can probably be no evangelical renewal if the movement does not divorce itself from the lust for partisan political power. Over more than a century, Catholics have established a doctrine of social teaching that helps them understand how the church can be active in civic life without being corrupted by partisan politics. Protestants do not have this kind of doctrine.
Those who are leading the evangelical renewal know they need one.
In 2019 the board of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 40 evangelical denominations, had the bright idea of hiring Walter Kim to be its next leader. Kim grew up in the Korean American church. His organization spans the ideological chasms but has miraculously and through hard work been able to stay together. I ask him to describe his priorities as head of the N.A.E.[pullquote]Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.—Lord Acton[/pullquote]His first priority is “grappling with the issue of racial justice and reconciliation.” His next priority is “public discipleship.” “Evangelical churches know how to do premarital counseling and how to do marital counseling,” he explains. “I’d love to see similar programs for the church’s ability to equip people in their public and civic engagement.” It would certainly be a vast improvement if evangelicals were better equipped to separate truth from propaganda, if they had more refined criteria for what a responsible leader looks like, if they had better training for how to be involved in their communities.
These two priorities are related. “We have a lot of things to learn from the Black church,” Kim adds. “They understood their church couldn’t just address personal transformation but also their place in society.”
As Thabiti Anyabwile puts it: “I think a lot of people are discovering that the Bible holds together things they were taught were enemies. You can be a faithful Christian and also believe in justice.” It’s important for outsiders to not impose secular left/right categories here. It’s too simplistic to say these people are moving left. They are quite conservative on many things. But they more readily incorporate justice work into the lifelong process of Christian formation — the renovation of the heart that is at the center of the Christian life, the daily effort to grow in grace and lead a more Christ-like life.
Tim Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Tim is a friend of mine, but a lot of other people would agree that he has one of the most impressive and important minds in the evangelical world. Tim laid out for me an ambitious agenda to renew this community. I’ll just give you the bullet points: . . .
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