About a year ago, Carl Trueman wrote a piece titled ‘Evangelical Elites Are Out of Touch” and made this crucial point: “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.”
Maybe this shouldn’t be too sweeping of an indictment. I know some very thoughtful academics who are deeply in touch with heartland evangelicals. And the problem also goes both ways. Every reader faces pressure to conform to some culture, and isolation can take place in the ivory tower or on the family farm. It’s difficult to distinguish our own culture, whether academic elitism or heartland populism, from our identify in Christ.
But we have to make the effort and this article seeks to engage the concern Trueman is raising while recognizing that any assessment today runs the risk of doing the same thing to the other side, in this case, lambasting academic elites the same way Trueman claims they do to the little people. We all have the responsibility to understand and sympathize, if needs be, with the other “side” or culture we are assessing. All I see, at present, is bomb throwing from both sides with little progress toward our calling of Christian unity.
Trueman captures, nonetheless, something that is of vital importance. If there is any parroting of the political divide within Christianity itself, the problem of religious elitism is certainly a contributing factor. The academy is isolating and very few Christian academics spend enough time with the laity, in person or on social media, to really understand the people and sympathize with them in their present fears. It’s easy to hit evangelicals for their idolatries, as I have done here, without understanding what drives their fears.
Without a doubt, the culture is running a bus over evangelicals at present. And many heartland populists are sick and tired of their own Christian institutions pandering to whatever the culture pushes them to do as they are further marginalized. I hear the concerns frequently: Why do our Christian institutions go theological liberal? More perplexing, why is the critique always made against us? Why does the Christian academy and the elites seem to always punch right and never left? These are fair questions.
It’s important to understand the pressures Christian institutions face today. There are two general reasons, as I see it, as to why the there is such a distancing from evangelical populists:
1) Social Peer Culture: Elitists are stuck in a web of social peer culture to find acceptance in the broader academic world. As society demonizes populist evangelicals as stupid and uneducated, anyone seeking credibility in the academy must distance themselves from what is generally strafed by the culture if they are to be respected as broader academic scholars. This is especially true if friendships are closer with those on the social left.
2) Social Redefinition: To critique any of the social issues that have been used by political left, i.e. LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, feminism, abortion rights, Black Lives Matter, and so on, would further marginalize, they assume, about half of the population that now cannot identify with a Christianity that is classified as being racist and ignorant due to politically conservative allegiances. It’s a matter of feared association. In this case it’s easy to punch right, and death to a career to punch left.
But here we should offer our protest. This kind of pragmatic compromise evidences its own brand of idolatry. If evangelical populists are called out for idolatry in putting too much trust in Trump and America as a holy nation, again, as I have frequently exposed, especially with all of Trump’s behavioral and moral failing (a fair assessment indeed), evangelical elitists and progressivists deserve the same criticism for refusing to separate themselves from the world in promoting or remaining silent about its idolatrous system. I confess my own guilt in this form of idolatry. Love of the world and a drive to be accepted by it is just as serious an idolatry as “worshiping America.” “Do not love the world” and its values is just as stinging a summons out of idolatry as anything else.
To be sure, Satan has hijacked all kinds of sensitive social justice issues to be used by the social left for political gain. In fact, everyone one of us have, outside of our control, been divided up into the intersectional categories the culture has imposed on us. This has perpetuated the divide we are experiencing in the church today. But none of this should be used as an excuse to release us as believers from speaking the truth.
The reality is that our values, morals, and Biblical convictions all have some amount of intersection with public policy. It can’t be avoided. There is right or wrong, no matter how each political side plays these things to “use” Christians to destroy the other side. But Christians aren’t given the prerogative to close their mouths to what they believe even though they may be pejoratively minimized by the culture. Satan may use incidentals about our persons to segregate us into political and religious camps, but none of this releases us from our much greater, unified, God-assigned identity.
Some might read this and think I’m fighting for political conservatism or Trumpism. They might also say I’m refusing the real injustices people have experienced since they are often categorized to the social left. I am doing neither and the point is being missed. Christians are always on the side of promoting justice and mercy, and pursuing right where wrongs have been made. We have allegiances to a much greater king in a much greater kingdom than the United States.
But there are moral absolutes we have to uphold during our pilgrimage days on this earth. There is absolute truth; there is an identity in Christ believers have above all earthly ones. This identity is to be what unifies all true believers. Together Christians stand on the same moral grounding no matter how we are forced into societal trajectories based on our culturally defined identities.
My concern in this piece is how unhelpful Christians evangelical elites are being to what is a shared Christian identity with those who society attacks as stupid, most often for their moral positions. Trueman is correct that the underlying pathologies of many Evangelical elites sound like the Pharisee Jesus exposed: “God, I thank you that I am not like ‘evangelicals—white supremacists, misogynists, or even this Trump supporter over here.’”
But many positions taken by social conservatives are taken precisely because basic Biblical morality requires the stance. And many social conservatives are indeed beating their chests in grief over what legalized sin has done to them, their children, and to their neighbors–out of loving concern. To hold to the immoral, anti-creational norms adopted by the political left is to adopt the darkness as opposed to the light, anti-Christ as opposed to the true Christ.
To make any progress in stopping, as Trueman says, the perpetuation of the present divide, Christian elites should be careful to not lambast the populist evangelists as a bunch of stupid people. Critique where critique is warranted, but appreciate expressly what is, in any given culture, that which belongs to an identity in Christ.