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Evangelical Elites, Fighting Each Other
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Evangelical Elites, Fighting Each Other

As the culture war changes, there will be new divisions and new alliances.

Let’s start with a story. It began in 2011 when Vanderbilt University issued an ultimatum to religious student groups—affirm the school’s nondiscrimination policy or face expulsion from campus. While the groups universally condemned invidious discrimination (“invidious” is a legal term that means “arbitrary, irrational and not reasonably related to a legitimate purpose”), they did engage in creedal discrimination. In other words, they required their leaders to share the religious beliefs and values of the religious organization.

The university, by contrast, demanded that religious groups open membership and leadership to all-comers, regardless of religious beliefs. 

Not only was the policy inconsistently applied (fraternities and sororities didn’t have to open their doors to women and men, respectively), it was nonsensical. Let’s remove the religious dimension for a moment. Should College Republicans be open to Democratic leadership? Should gun control activists be open to leadership by gun enthusiasts? The very notion is absurd. 

At the time, I was a full-time religious liberties litigator, but in this instance my role was to advise the ministries, not sue the university. Vanderbilt is a private university, and so we knew that litigation was not only certain to fail, it was a bad idea. Private institutions should be free to fashion policies that comport with their values. If those were the values Vanderbilt wanted to uphold, then it had the right. Our goal was persuade Vanderbilt to respect freedom of association and religious freedom.

That effort was led by a remarkable advocate, a campus minister named Tish Harrison Warren who is one of the kindest and most intelligent Christians I know. We were profoundly different in many ways, I was a Christian conservative lawyer, Reaganite in my outlook, and neck-deep in Republican politics. Tish was far more progressive. I was an Iraq War veteran. She was a pacifist. As she wrote, years later:

I thought I was an acceptable kind of evangelical. I’m not a fundamentalist. My friends and I enjoy art, alcohol, and cultural engagement. We avoid spiritual clichés and buzzwords. We value authenticity, study, racial reconciliation, and social and environmental justice.

So she hoped, when she approached the administration, that she was the “right kind of Christian,” the kind of person the administration would accept. I was the wrong messenger, but she was the right messenger. We thought she had a chance to persuade. 

We were wrong. She was wrong. In 2014 she told the story in a viral article in Christianity Today.  Here’s the key excerpt:

But as I met with other administrators, the tone began to change. The word discrimination began to be used—a lot—specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, “Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.”

Feeling battered, I talked with my InterVarsity supervisor. He responded with a wry smile, “But we’re moderates!” We thought we were nuanced and reasonable. The university seemed to think of us as a threat.

For me, it was revolutionary, a reorientation of my place in the university and in culture.

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

As we fought to keep a Christian foothold on campus (Vanderbilt held firm, but creative workarounds helped ministries maintain a presence), we were constantly reminded of a plain and simple fact: It doesn’t matter how winsome or humble you are, if you seek to hold biblical truth, you will face direct opposition, and not all of it will be kind or just. 

Christians, after all, are in the world, but we are not of the world. As Jesus said in John 15, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

What is Tish doing now? Here’s the twist. She’s the same kind, orthdox Christian I’ve always known. She’s also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and a writer for the New York Times, where she publishes a weekly faith-based newsletter that’s one of my favorite reads. 

Me? Well, I hung up my litigation spurs after 21 years of courtroom fights and now I’m here at The Dispatch, and a columnist for Time. I’ve had the privilege of writing for all the publications I grew up reading and admiring from afar—including The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal

What happened to us? I guess we sold out. We craved the applause of the elite just too darn much. Or, just maybe, something else is going on. 

I wrote that long intro because the Evangelical intellectual world is in the midst of a days-long fight over the new world we live in. It’s a fight that looks like it’s over one thing—the convictions or accommodations of a slice of the Evangelical elite—but it’s really over another, the fundamental disruption and transformation of the American culture war. 

A bit of background is in order. Last weekend, the Evangelical internet erupted with a biting critique from a surprising source. Mark Galli, the formerly Evangelical (he’s now Catholic) former editor of Christianity Today, arguably the most “elite” journal in American Evangelicalism, wrote an essay condemning “elite Evangelicalism.” 

The essay referenced various named “elite” Evangelical institutions (including Christianity Today) and prominent former Southern Baptists Russell Moore and Beth Moore, and me. According to Galli, we represent “a form of cultural accommodation dressed as convictional religion.”

“These evangelicals,” he says, “want to appear respectable to the elite of American culture.” Galli continues:

[N]ow the mark of a successful evangelical writer is to get published regularly in the TimesAtlantic, and so forth. What’s interesting about such pieces is that (a) such writers make a point that affirms the view of the secular publication (on topics like environmental care, racial injustice, sexual abuse, etc.) and (b) they preach in such pieces that evangelicals should take the same point of view. However, their writing doesn’t reach the masses of evangelicals who take a contrary view and don’t give a damn what The New York Times says. If these writers are really interested in getting those evangelicals to change their minds, the last place they should be is in the mainstream press. Better to try to get such a column published in the most popular Pentecostal outlet, Charisma. Ah, but that would do nothing to enhance the prestige of evangelicals among the culture’s elite.

Writing in First Things, respected scholar and author Carl Trueman mounted much the same critique:

Within Christian circles, particularly those of the leadership class and its associated institutions, the desire to appease religion’s cultured despisers has become a powerful force. Like Schleiermacher, those who hold to this vision think that a winning strategy involves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the despisers. This no longer means conformity to the canons of academic discourse, the well-­considered position advanced by Noll and Marsden. It means echoing woke outrage. And, where possible, it means laying the blame for Christianity’s failure to meet elite standards on other Christians, typically on those who stand to the right of the “good Christians” politically and beneath them economically and socially.

He continued with rather biting mockery of people who’ve faced in some cases an avalanche of hatred and threats to their lives and the lives of their families, sneering at how “leading #NeverTrumpers suffered like Shakespearean tragic heroes at the hands of Trumpite Twitter mobs.” 

These attacks represent little more than a variation of the “D.C. cocktail party” critique that’s been thrown in the face of conservative critics of Trump since day one. We allegedly don’t have convictions. Instead, we’re auditioning for membership in an exclusive club. In fact, Trueman calls the “militant” Evangelical support for Trump “a gift to evangelical elites.” 

It didn’t feel much like a “gift” to me. 

Moreover, the attribution of motives is even more mystifying given the actual body of work of most “elite Evangelicals” who write for “mainstream” or “elite” media publications. 

Yes, I’ve certainly critiqued Donald Trump and Trumpist evangelicalism in mainstream media outlets, but I’ve also done that in conservative media as well (reaching exactly the audience that may not care about the Times but does care about National Review). No one can credibly accuse me of speaking only to audiences who want to read or hear what I write or say.

In “mainstream media” and anywhere and everywhere else I write, I occupy the same positions. Just to take a few examples, I’ve argued that the DOJ should have charged Hillary Clintondefended gun rights, defended Trump’s strike against Qasem Suleimani, argued in favor of civil rights litigation to combat toxic wokeness, and critiqued Facebook’s reliance on vague “hate speech” codes to regulate public discourse. 

If we want to dive into the most hot-button of culture war issues, I’ve also sharply critiqued Roe v. Wade, judicial supremacy, and the excesses of the Equality Act. I’ve written more defenses of life, religious liberty and free speech than I can count. 

But my little defensive screed is just an introduction to my real point. The Galli and Trueman critiques miss the extent to which the era of Trump created a disruption that is realigning parts of the right and parts of the left. 

Why would people like me write differently about race than we did in years past? Perhaps because we were exposed to shocking and shattering things that we’d never thought we’d see. We began writing differently about race not because we saw a market opportunity but because we perceived a desperate need. And, if you’re like me, you’re more than a little ashamed that we didn’t see earlier things we plainly should have perceived. 

The deeper reality is that both left and right are changing in important ways. At the same time that parts of the left are becoming more militant and intolerant, another part is becoming more curious and open. The same thing is true on the right. 

Writing on his Substack, Freddie deBoer powerfully described the dynamic on the left. “There’s an island of misfit toys of left and leftish critics of social justice politics like me. And then there’s the great big mass of people who are just scared.” That dynamic also exists on the right. And slowly but surely, as right-wing and left-wing intolerance persists and metastasizes, the different islands of misfit toys—the consistent critics of illiberalism—are finding each other. 

To put it more plainly, the older culture war categories are being supplemented and sometimes supplanted by a new confrontation between liberalism and illiberalism. While illiberal right and illiberal left snarl at anyone not in their tribes, the liberal right and the liberal left are forming new relationships and new alliances.

I can’t speak for every member of my segment of the so-called “Evangelical elite” (truth be told, everyone in this fight is part of the “elite”) but much of my writing and much of my work these past five years has been dedicated to helping nurture these alliances. And the relationship is mutual. There are people of good will on the left who want to hear dissenting opinions and who want to know what conservatives think. We want to hear from each other.

As a matter of principle, these alliances are dedicated to the rule of law, racial equality, the marketplace of ideas, and the fundamental integrity of our constitutional republic. As a matter of policy, we still have profound disagreements (most importantly over Roe) but also recognize important areas where we can make common cause.

And one area of common cause is, of course, race. In his piece, Trueman writes this:

Let me put it bluntly: Talking in an outraged voice about racism within the boundaries set by the woke culture is an excellent way of not talking about the pressing moral issues on which ­Christianity and the culture are opposed to each other: LGBTQ+ rights and abortion.

Let me respond bluntly: If you’re not seeing how reactionary politics and intolerant “anti-woke” militancy are manifesting themselves on the right, then you’re not seeing how Christianity and large segments of the new right are opposed to each other. A godless and hateful movement is taking root in all too many American pews, often (and perversely) spread in the name of Christ. 

Tish went from leading a ministry tossed out of Vanderbilt to the pages of the Times without altering her fundamental faith convictions. I can say that of any number of elite Evangelicals who are frequent targets of the Trump right.

I’m still pro-life, as anyone knows anything about my writing or my podcasts can immediately attest. I’ve written recently and repeatedly that the Supreme Court should overturn Roe. I’m a longtime supporter of religious liberty (and all civil liberties). 

By the time I joined National Review full-time in 2015, there were few (if any) attorneys in the entire United States who’d successfully sued more universities than me. I haven’t backed away one inch from the First Amendment. 

But I think it’s a tremendous mistake for Evangelicals, including elite Evangelicals, to define their public and political engagement primarily through those issues. This is especially true when a disproportionate number of Evangelical Trumpists are actively harming their communities and neighbors by embracing authoritarianism, conspiracies, and anti-vaccine activism. 

The message that’s sent (and received) in these communities is that their Christian duty is being discharged by their orthodox stances on sex, gender, and abortion. In other areas and in other ways, the Evangelical id runs wild, and so long so long as Christians stay strong on sex, how elitist of you to suggest broader concerns.

But for all their bluster about the courage to confront the culture on sex, there are Evangelicals who have much to explain.

Last week Albert Mohler, the influential president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted this:

What a remarkable statement. First, there are millions of members of “the left,” including believers and nonbelievers, who exhibit extraordinary virtues and reject all the vices above. In fact, wasn’t the #MeToo movement itself a decisive rejection of unrestrained eros, impulses, and power? 

And second, in 2020 Al Mohler urged Christians to vote for a man who paid hush money to porn stars, bragged about groping women, and once appeared in a movie called Playboy Video Centerfold: Playmate 2000 Bernaola Twins. Trump exhibited and personified each of the sins Mohler attributes to “the left.” His unbridled ambition and lust for power would have broken our republic had his plan for January 6 been fulfilled.

It’s not 2011 any longer. Ancient religious orthodoxies are still true, but old culture war categories are crumbling. One set of Christian elites is in conflict with another. Absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we should treat these differences as matters of conviction, not accommodation, and those of us who see the challenges of systemic racism, metastasizing cruelty, and reactionary authoritarianism right alongside threats to unborn life and religious liberty are saying what we believe, not merely seeking the applause of the progressive crowd. 

One last thing …

I’ve spent this weekend at a cabin in Tennessee catching up with the friends I served with in Iraq. They’re great men who’ve done remarkable things for this country. Our conversations took us all back to one of the hardest years of our lives. 

During my deployment there was one hymn that comforted me above all others. It’s called “In Christ Alone,” and this stanza in particular comforted me at a time when life itself seemed so uncertain, and the power of hell felt never closer nor more strong. 

No guilt in life, no fear in death

This is the power of Christ in me

From life’s first cry to final breath

Jesus commands my destiny

No power of hell, no scheme of man

Can ever pluck me from His hand

Till He returns or calls me home

Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand

Here’s one of my favorite renditions, by Shane & Shane. I hope it blesses you half as much as it blessed me:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.