Are Trump’s Evangelical Critics Elitist? The Pietist Schoolman Reflects on Evangelical Populism

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After Mark Galli published a Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump, several pundits accused Galli of betraying the populist roots of American evangelicalism.  Galli, in other words, is an out of touch elitist.

Read court evangelical Johnnie Moore’s recent piece at Religion News Service.

Read Carl Trueman’s recent piece at First Things. (I responded to it here).

Read Matthew Schmitz’s piece at The New York Post.  (I responded to it here).

It is worth noting that these articles have little to do with the merits of Trump’s impeachment.  Nor do they address any problems with Trump’s character that might lead evangelicals to reject the president.  Instead, these articles try to interpret the editorial, and Galli, through the lens of class.  Galli and Christianity Today do not represent ordinary evangelicals.  As a result, we can’t take the editorial seriously.

Chris Gehrz, the Bethel University history professor and author of the blog The Pietist Schoolman, has written a nice piece on evangelical populism that is worth your time. It engages with Moore and Schmitz.
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Here is a taste of “The Problems and Possibilities of Evangelical Populism“:

2. Which populace defines populism?

Donald Trump likes to present himself as a populist, but he has generally been one of the least popular first-term presidents in American history. Even after a recent bump, he’s still 10 points more unfavorable than favorable in Five Thirty Eight‘s composite poll. He’s particularly disliked by certain groups within American society, including women and persons of color.

If evangelical populism is meant to empower ordinary evangelicals, then it had better address the concerns of three of the most important, most often ignored groups within evangelicalism: women (55% of all evangelicals in America), persons of color (22% and growing fast), and non-American evangelicals (the lion’s share of the world total).

Rather than just reflecting the passions of the white men who compose Trump’s base of support, genuine evangelical populists would join CT president Tim Dalrymple in lamenting that evangelicals are “associated with President Trump’s rampant immorality, greed, and corruption; his divisiveness and race-baiting; his cruelty and hostility to immigrants and refugees; and more.” They would stop waving aside Trump’s misogyny and ask how much it taps into the sexism too often found within evangelical communities.

Finally, truly evangelical populists would look beyond the American nation to recognize that most evangelicals live elsewhere — often in places already being affected by the climate crisis that the Trump administration and its Christian enablers casually deny. “If we shift our gaze from the U.S. political right,” writes David Fitzpatrick, to look at evangelicals of color in this country and beyond it, “we can see an alternative tradition of evangelicalism that embraces social, economic, environmental and racial justice.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is *First Things* a Populist Magazine?

FirstThingsCoverI check the First Things website every day and often link to pieces I find interesting.  But I stopped reading First Things regularly after Richard John Neahaus passed away. (I used to subscribe and read each issue cover-to-cover).

On Friday,  I responded to Carl Trueman’s piece at First Things suggesting that Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, was an “elite” and “out of touch.” Read it here.

Last night I read a piece at The New York Post by First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz.  It is titled: “Elite Evangelicals once again belittle their pro-Trump co-religionists.”  Here is a taste:

Evangelicalism has always been a populist movement, and its piety has always been closely tied to suspicion of religious and political elites. Movements as various as circuit-riding Methodism, Bible-thumping Baptists and black churches all encouraged the very American idea that the common man knows best.

This populist energy helps explain evangelicalism’s broad appeal, but it causes problems for the evangelical leadership class. It makes the phrase “evangelical elite” almost a contradiction in terms, like “Bilderberg proletarian” or “blue-collar Aspen attendee.” Those evangelical leaders who are recognized as leaders by the evangelical base possess a populist streak. They tend to have gained prominence through electoral politics, mass media or entrepreneurial forms of evangelism — all activities that require a sense of the crowd and a common touch.

By contrast, evangelical leaders who have come up through established institutions tend to acquire the training and tastes of the wider American elite. They often disdain the religious and political populism of the base. Whatever their theological convictions may be, these elites have ceased to be evangelical in a sociological sense. And evangelicalism is more exactly defined sociologically than theologically.

Christianity Today is a case in point. Ask an editor there what she thinks about Israel, Trump, feminism or Fox News, and you will get a very different answer than you would from most American evangelicals. The magazine’s young contributors more ardently desire to freelance for The New Yorker than to appear on Tucker Carlson, despite the fact that their parents would be more impressed by the latter.

These people hold less sway among evangelicals than the editors of liberal publications do among their constituencies.

They also have functionally ceased to be evangelical. There is no dishonor in that. As a former evangelical-turned-Catholic, I am well aware of the drawbacks of the evangelical movement. But writers who trade on an evangelical identity that they no longer really share ought to do the decent thing and admit it.

Read the rest here.

It’s late, and I still have grading to do, but I got some time last night to write a few tweets about this trend at First Things:

Again, I don’t read First Things regularly.  I have heard things about new editorial directions at the magazine and its new commitment to Christian nationalism.  If the magazine’s move toward populism is well-known among the conservative intellectual world, please forgive my ignorance.  I am just noticing this for the first time.

Maybe I am reading this the wrong way, but it seems like Schmitz is saying that once the people at Christianity Today (or some other evangelical institution) start thinking, they cease being evangelical.

Noll was a longtime contributing editor of Christianity Today. 

 

Is Mark Galli an “Evangelical Elite?” Is He “Out of Touch?”

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Carl Trueman, a theologian who teaches at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania, thinks that Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today and the author of this editorial, is an “evangelical elite” who is “out of touch” with ordinary evangelicals.  Here is a taste of his piece at First Things:

Galli sees the situation as urgent: “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?” Yet, to ask the obvious question, what is the alternative? Now, that question can be used as a lazy, rhetorical way of justifying a vote for Trump—or for any status quo, however wicked. But I intend it as a serious inquiry: When someone calls for Trump to be thrown out of office by impeachment or the ballot box, it is reasonable to ask what the available alternatives are. As Mother Theresa is unavailable for the White House, we are really looking at Biden, Warren, or Sanders. I can’t speak to the personal moral qualities of these people, but would voting for them or their policies give Christians any more credibility? Given the role of abortion and LGBTQ rights in their respective campaigns, this is surely something any Christian has to address.

Trueman’s piece seems to suggest that the reduction of abortions in the United States will happen by electing the right POTUS. The implication is that Christians should tolerate Trump because he will appoint anti-Roe v. Wade justices.  I am not convinced that overturning Roe v. Wade will reduce abortion in America any faster than what is already happening.  I made this case in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Trueman’s piece also suggests that LGBTQ people should not have rights. Is he implying that we should tolerate Trump because he will make sure they don’t get these rights? If so,  I disagree. This is why I, along with the CCCU and NAE,  support Fairness for All.

Trueman continues:

Indeed, he [Galli] goes so far as to say that he believes the removal of Trump “is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” That is an astounding claim for the editor of Christianity Today to make, for it involves him accusing every Trump voter of heinous sin, however reluctant or conflicted he may be.

As noted above, Galli is not playing some sanctimonious Pharisee, standing in the Temple of Twitter, thanking God that he is not like other evangelicals—white supremacists, misogynists, or even this Trump supporter over here. But his editorial is symptomatic of the same underlying pathology. Evangelical elites are clearly as out of touch with the populist evangelical base as is the case in society in general. And lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.

I don’t think Galli is calling anyone a hypocrite or a dimwit.  Nor is he accusing evangelicals of committing a “heinous sin” for supporting this president.  But I have witnessed a lot since Galli’s editorial appeared last night.  Today I saw Trump evangelicals on social media react positively, sometimes with great vigor, to Donald Trump’s Twitter attacks on CT.  I read CT editor Ted Olsen’s call for prayer in the wake of the hate mail and threats the magazine has received from pro-Trumpers.  I listened to Franklin Graham, a man with millions of followers in the evangelical community, claim that Galli’s piece does not contain even a kernel of truth.

All of this makes me wonder if it is Trueman who is out of touch. Earlier in his piece, Trueman says, “I live in the heart of Trump territory and know many who voted for the Donald, almost none of whom took any pleasure in doing so.” Yes, the folks he describes exist.  I have met many of them.  The 81% is a diverse group–men and women who pulled the Trump lever for a variety of reasons.  But Trueman fails to recognize, or at least underestimates, the millions of Trump evangelicals who go to MAGA rallies, think that the president is God’s anointed one, and believe that Trump’s policy on Israel will somehow hasten the return of Jesus.

Let’s not pretend that anti-intellectualism is not at work in the evangelical support for Donald Trump.  I have wrestled with the “evangelical elitism” critique for a long time.  As the product of a working-class family who pursued a Ph.D in American history and became part of the ivory tower, I bristle when people call me “elite.” All of my extended family are Trump supporters.  Like Trueman, I also live in the heart of Trump country.  I am forced to engage with pro-Trump neighbors in my largely lower-middle-class neighborhood and in my church.  As I wrote here yesterday, I have worked hard at being a translator.  I fail often.

But somewhere along the way we need to say, like Mark Galli did, that those who defend this president need to engage in a deeper level of Christian thinking. We need to acknowledge that there is a “scandal of the evangelical mind“and it helps explain why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.  To quote Galli, we need to “call a spade a spade.”  And most importantly, we need to bring attention to the fact that the evangelical support of Donald Trump is hurting the witness of the Gospel.  After spending a year traveling with Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I have collected enough stories to believe that this is true.

If “evangelical elitist” means that I want to think deeply as a Christian about public life and challenge others–perhaps those of another social class–to do the same, then I gladly accept the label. I am, after all, an educator.  Smart evangelicals challenged me to worship God with my mind when I was a young, working-class, new convert to evangelicalism.  I listened to them and it changed my life.  It made me a better Christian.  When we challenge our fellow evangelicals in this way we must always do so with empathy, compassion, and love, but there are other times when such challenges must come in a Mark Galli-like prophetic voice.

Read the Trueman’s entire piece here.

What Looms on the Horizon for Christian Colleges?

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Over at First Things, church historian Carl Trueman argues that Christian colleges need to prepare financially for a bleak future in a post-Christian age.  He writes:

The specific point of conflict is likely to be (once again) Title IX legislation that prohibits sexual discrimination at any institution of higher education receiving federal funding. The law does allow an exemption for religious organizations such as colleges and seminaries, an exemption to which I shall return. What is worrying is the increasing elasticity of the legislation, which was extended under President Obama to include transgenderism. That “Dear Colleague” letter has since been rescinded, but the underlying cultural commitments that made Title IX expansions plausible remain in place.

Some colleges—for instance, Hillsdale and Grove City—stand apart from federal funding. Such places thus seem relatively safe. But are they? There is another point of vulnerability: the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Bob Jones University v. United States. This ruling denied tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University because of policies regarding interracial dating that were judged contrary to a compelling government policy. The text of the decision can be found here, but the key passage reads as follows:

The Government’s fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners’ exercise of their religious beliefs. Petitioners’ asserted interests cannot be accommodated with that compelling governmental interest, and no less restrictive means are available to achieve the governmental interest.

However we may cheer the particular result of the Bob Jones case, the implications unfolding in today’s climate are concerning. Replace “racial” with “sexual” in the paragraph above, and the point is clear. In an era where a close analogy is assumed between civil rights regarding race and civil rights regarding sexual identity, the Bob Jones precedent could easily lead to the revocation of tax-exempt status for schools committed to traditional views of marriage and sexual morality.

Read the entire piece here.

Alan Jacobs offers additional commentary at his blog:

As I have noted in another venue, calls are already being made for Christian institutions to lose their accreditation also. Many Christian colleges will be unable to survive losing federal aid for their faculty and students alike; those that can survive that may not be able to afford their taxes once they lose their traditional exemption; but a loss of accreditation is likely to be the death knell for all of them, because that will dramatically reduce the number of students who apply for admission. Students with degrees from unaccredited institutions are deemed ineligible for almost all graduate education, and for many jobs as well. How many parents, even devoutly Christian parents, even those few who can afford it (given the lack of federal student aid), will be willing to pay to send their children to institutions if that narrows their future horizons so dramatically? Almost none, I suspect.

The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought”. But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world. And this the secular left cannot and will not tolerate, if it can help it, because it rightly understands that Christianity stands opposed to the secular left’s own gospel, which, popular opinion notwithstanding, is not essentially about sex but rather may be summed up as: “I am my own.”

…What does Christian formation — paideia and catechesis — look like in a world in which many of the institutions that have long supported that formation have been shut down or substantively eviscerated? In relation to these issues, that is the question that Christians need to be asking. Because, I am convinced, that moment is coming: maybe not in the next decade, maybe not even in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetimes of many reading this blog post.

These are important issues.  This is why I continue advocate and push for something akin to John Inazu’s idea of “confident pluralism.”

Should Christian Historians Make an Appeal to Providence in Their Work?

More providential history:

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I argued that providence is not a helpful tool when it comes to the historian’s job of interpreting the past.  

Over at the blog of the Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor has written a post summarizing the way that five Christian historians have approached this topic. He apparently saw fit to include me on this list, along with Tom Nettles (one of my former teachers), Carl Trueman, Harry Stout, Timothy Larsen, and David Bebbington.  Thanks!

Taylor’s post makes for some interesting reading. Here is how he summarized my view (which he takes from Why Study History? For whatever reason the book is not listed in the bibliography).

John Fea (Messiah College) shares this perspective. “Providence,” he writes, “is a theological idea that is directly related to the character and behavior of God. History, however, is a discipline that seeks to explain the character and behavior of humans as they lived through time.” According to Fea, “providence is an unhelpful category in the interpretation of the past.” It belongs in the toolbox of the theologian but not that of the historian.
Fea builds his case theologically. God’s providence is an inscrutable mystery, and human interpreters are finite and fallible. Therefore, “Christian historians would do better to approach their task with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand the Almighty’s plans for the nations.”
Fea’s plea is that writers of providential history “resist the temptation to bow to the gods of modernity—gods who want to scientifically decipher the workings of the divine and claim to know, with a degree of Enlightenment certainty, the will of a sovereign God who created the modern world and will end it when he sees fit. Until then, we see through a glass darkly.”