How We Drive Christians Away From The Church
On Friday, I posted something about how Jerry Falwell, Jr., is breaking Liberty University with the heavy-handed way he and his team run the school. In the post, I raised the prospect that some students are leaving conservative Evangelicalism for the progressive variety, or leaving the faith altogether, as a response. Pushback took one or both of these forms:
- Liberty is a private university, therefore Falwell Jr. can do what he wants
- People who leave the faith over the sins of religious leaders are weak, and were probably looking for a reason to leave, and blame it on somebody else
In the first case, of course Liberty is private, and has the freedom to operate by different standards. Nobody denies that. At issue is whether the standards Falwell imposes on the school are moral, just, or even wise. Some of the complaints about Falwell and LU’s administration are about the way it treats faculty. Stories are common, though no one still on faculty will talk about them on the record, because tenure doesn’t exist at Liberty, and they’re afraid.
The second point is valid in some cases, but mostly amounts to whistling past the graveyard — a meaningless gesture meant to tamp down fear.
I’ve been through this before. Once again, I’m going to explain it, though I’m going to try to be succinct.
When I left the Catholic Church in 2006, I caught a lot of hell from Catholics who accused me of weakness. I expected that; four years earlier, I would have said the same thing.
First, it is simply untrue that everyone who leaves a church or a form of the faith was just looking for an excuse. I fought hard for three years to keep my Catholic faith, in the face of scandal. It didn’t work. I’ve known people who weren’t ever serious about their Catholic faith, and who used the scandal as an excuse to formalize their exit, and to valorize it — I don’t know this writer personally, but it sounds like that’s what she did — but that was not me, and that was not some others I know. Remainers who tell themselves that all those who left weren’t really believers in the first place are lying, most consequentially to themselves. Consequentially, because that becomes an excuse not to do anything about the problem, which goes on.
More seriously, it is technically true that the sins of religious leaders don’t obviate the truths of a particular religion. Falwell Jr. might be a bad example of a conservative Christian leader, but all that proves is that conservative Christian belief can be professed by compromised leaders. It does not disprove the beliefs themselves.
What it does, though, is make it harder to take those beliefs seriously. People are not logic machines. When a Christian has to live in a social environment in which abuse (sexual and otherwise) is tolerated, hypocrisy is rife, and lying to protect the institution is standard operating procedure, it becomes more difficult to take seriously the moral and theological claims of the religion embodied by that institution and its leaders. To put it plainly, you start asking yourself, “If I am required to affirm these people, or to keep my mouth shut and pretend that this isn’t happening, for the sake of being faithful, what, really, am I being faithful to?”
You can put on your philosopher’s cap and poke holes in that all you like, but it’s not going to matter to the people who are on their way out the door, having lost their belief, or their will to believe. I had the will to believe, until one day, I woke up and realized that I did not. If this has not happened to you, well, count yourself fortunate. I mean that. If you are happily married, imagine that you discovered one day that your spouse had been cheating on you all along, and imagine that for years, you’ve heard your spouse admit that they had done this, and swear that they had repented, but you learned over and over that they were lying. Imagine losing the ability to trust your spouse at all. That’s how you go from having a happy marriage to waking up one day to discover that you’ve lost the ability to carry on with this liar. You want to be married. You’ve tried to be forgiving. You want to trust your spouse. But you can see that your spouse is so corrupt, and so self-deceived, that there’s no hope of recovery.
Even so, you might manage to stick it out. But if you do, you’re going to have to answer the question: Why?
Most of you know my story, so I won’t repeat it here. Most of you probably don’t know the story of William Lobdell, a Christian who was assigned to the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times. He covered Catholic scandals, Protestant scandals, and Mormon scandals for the paper — and it cost him his faith. In this must-read 2007 article, he described how it happened. Early on, he was hard hit covering a particular case:
As part of the Christian family, I felt shame for my religion. But I still compartmentalized it as an aberration — the result of sinful behavior that infects even the church.
This is the first line of defense, and it is a rational one. But then the Catholic scandal broke, and Lobdell had to write about it. He was at the time undergoing RCIA, the Catholic class to prepare converts for full reception into the Catholic Church:
Father Vincent Gilmore — the young, intellectually sharp priest teaching the class — spoke about the sex scandal and warned us Catholics-to-be not to be poisoned by a relatively few bad clerics. Otherwise, we’d be committing “spiritual suicide.”
As I began my reporting, I kept that in mind. I also thought that the victims — people usually in their 30s, 40s and up — should have just gotten over what had happened to them decades before. To me, many of them were needlessly stuck in the past.
But then I began going over the documents. And interviewing the victims, scores of them. I discovered that the term “sexual abuse” is a euphemism. Most of these children were raped and sodomized by someone they and their family believed was Christ’s representative on Earth. That’s not something an 8-year-old’s mind can process; it forever warps a person’s sexuality and spirituality.
Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.
I couldn’t get the victims’ stories or the bishops’ lies — many of them right there on their own stationery — out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different — the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.
The lifeline Father Vincent had tried to give me began to slip from my hands.
I sought solace in another belief: that a church’s heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God’s house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.
On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, spoke out for the victim.
On Good Friday 2002, I decided I couldn’t belong to the Catholic Church. Though I had spent a year preparing for it, I didn’t go through with the rite of conversion.
I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn’t see these institutions drenched in God’s spirit. Shouldn’t religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?
I found an excuse to skip services that Easter. For the next few months, I attended church only sporadically. Then I stopped going altogether.
He kept reporting on the religion beat, covering scandal after scandal. Until finally he couldn’t take it anymore. He had lost his ability to believe in God altogether.
Read the whole thing. Unless you do, and unless you enter into William Lobdell’s story, and imagine yourself having to see and hear the things he saw and heard, nothing you have to say about him matters. Near the end, he interviewed a Catholic Eskimo who kept the faith, despite having been molested by priests as a boy (and going in and out of prison all his life, because of his alcoholism and violent temper). All the boys who had been victims of those priests lost their faith by adulthood — except this one man. Not long after that, covering a case in the Pacific Northwest (a priest impregnated a woman, who sued for child support; she was too poor to afford a lawyer, and lost the case), Lobdell hit the wall:
My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.
Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. It can’t be willed into existence. And there’s no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.
Sitting in a park across the street from the courthouse, I called my wife on a cellphone. I told her I was putting in for a new beat at the paper.
Yes, faith is a gift. It is a gift that is much stronger with some than with others. Those who have the gift in abundance should work to encourage those who haven’t been so gifted to be stronger with what they have. When I was younger, I assumed that many people who didn’t believe failed to do so in, well, bad faith. That was most of my own agnosticism: I wanted to believe, but I also didn’t want to, because if God exists (the Christian God), then I can’t do anything I want to with my life. I didn’t want to give up that freedom. I told myself that I was just being intellectually honest by withholding commitment to the faith, but the truth was that I didn’t want to be responsible. Eventually my resistance collapsed.
I still believe that many people who are halfway Christians are the kind of people I once was: people who construe all kinds of fake intellectual rationales to hide their own cowardice from themselves.
But I now know what I did not know back then: that there are people who try really hard to believe, but who, for whatever reason, just can’t. I used to react with knee-jerk condemnation of those who say the hypocrisy of religious leaders keeps them away from the faith. I hear the voice of college boys like I once was, looking to Jimmy Swaggart (who was a big deal back in the 1980s, when I was at LSU) as an excuse to justify our agnosticism or atheism. It was cheap, cowardly, and self-serving. I was that guy once upon a time. I imagine that more than a few young Evangelicals who are walking away from the faith, or at least into a form of the faith (progressive Evangelicalism) that is more acceptable to the secular culture, are just as cowardly and self-serving, and hiding this fact from themselves as I once did.
But I also imagine that there are more than a few who have fought hard for their faith in the face of the failure of their leaders and their institutions, and who just can’t do it anymore.
Surrounded by children one day, Jesus said:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
That verse has been cited by Catholics to describe the fate of molester priests. I think it should also be understood to refer to we mature Christians, with regard to our responsibility to those who are young in the faith (though they might well be chronologically older). If a young Christian adult walks into heresy, or even apostasy, that is ultimately their responsibility. But do we who are more mature in the faith have to make it so freaking easy for them to do so?
Over the weekend, I received an e-mail from a young man who was raised conservative Evangelical, but who has walked away from that form of Christian faith. He is now attending one of the older churches, but isn’t sure if he still believes in God. I wrote to ask him if I could post this; he has just said yes. So here it is. In it, he shared with me his theory of what’s going on with Evangelicalism, and at Liberty University:
Underneath all the singing and the chest-thumping among Evangelicals, there is a tremendous amount of existential dread. Unlike Catholicism or Orthodoxy, there’s no liturgy, hardly even any traditional Protestant hymns anymore (thanks Hillsong.) It’s purely the culture around it, with some ideas about the Bible borrowed from Baptists who are themselves being transformed by the culture. Therefore, what Evangelicalism is preserving, much more than a religion, is yesteryear’s way of life.
This is why Evangelicals can’t fight battles very well. They seek to defend not only a code of rules and rituals but an intrinsically transient status quo. Because they lack historical consciousness, the older ones confuse midcentury revivalist America with Christianity as a whole. The younger ones, trying with no transcendent values to assimilate to a decadent and nihilistic culture, adopt many of the secular values themselves.
Now here’s what I think happened at Liberty. Jerry Falwell being who he was, the donors from the aforementioned group 2 [the reader earlier described these people as “the Jesus Is A Republican crowd” — RD] flocked to him in greater numbers than anywhere else, except maybe Oral Roberts or Bob Jones. Liberty’s cashflow is therefore more dependent on the old people than almost anywhere else. Because this is a generational issue with the old seeking to preserve a dead society, it is impossible to find leaders under the age of 65 or so that have the right cultural memories. This is why they are Trump’s biggest supporters, and they support Falwell Jr. for similar reasons; he will keep Liberty in line, no matter the cost.
I shared that with an Evangelical who is familiar with the Liberty situation, and who replied that this is a very astute observation. I don’t know Evangelicalism; I leave it to you Evangelicals to decide how well that describes you all, and what’s going on within you.
One last thought: I wonder if things would be different with younger Evangelicals and the church, regarding Trump, if their leaders did not embrace Donald Trump as Falwell Jr. has done — without qualification or reservation — and instead supported him as a kind of tragic choice. What if they explained that in their judgment, the situation facing Christians in America is such that they feel compelled to throw their support behind the kind of man they admit they would have rejected in the past? What if they said to the young that life is complicated and tragic, and that we aren’t always offered clear choices between good and evil? To me, that’s a more comprehensible and understandable rationale for supporting Trump than the rah-rah cheerleading that many in the conservative Evangelical leadership have been giving. It wouldn’t convince some of the young tempted to leave in disgust, but who knows? It might. It would take much of the sting out of the charge of hypocrisy.
In 1998, when so many religious conservative leaders thundered against Bill Clinton, nobody imagined a situation in which Donald Trump — of all people! — could conceivably be thought of as the better choice for religious conservatives, because the Democrats would have become so extreme on abortion and LGBT (which is to say, on religious liberty issues)? But that’s where we are as a country. Me, I understand Christians who plan to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils, and I understand Christians who plan to vote for the Democratic nominee as the lesser of two evils. Who I don’t understand are Christians on either side who offer their votes with unmixed emotion, without any sense of tragedy.
To finish: yes, there are plenty of people who want to leave the faith, or orthodox versions of it, because they want to do whatever they want to do, and believe whatever they want to believe, and want to refuse full responsibility for that choice by blaming it on the corruption of religious leaders and institutions. But there are also people within the conservative churches who tell themselves that people who walk away are only doing it in bad faith. In cases like that, the bad faith rests on the heads of the remainers, whose self-serving rationalizations cause the little ones to stumble.
UPDATE: A Protestant, formerly Evangelical, reader writes (I’ve fudged a bit to protect his identity):
This is pretty big news in a certain wing of the Evangelical movement. Had it happened in the late 90s or early 00s, it would have been absolutely earth-shattering.
You may not be familiar with Harris, but his book about (not) dating was sort of the youth group phenomenon of the 90s. It was like the Macarena. Everyone and their grandma was in to this. My youth group in [a Southwestern city] was all in to his book as were other youth groups we encountered all over the Southwest. It was as ubiquitous as Veggie Tales. As I became an adult, that (well-intentioned) silly book was something that Evangelicals of my generation from Tennessee to California remembered. Our worlds would have been shaken to the foundations if he had apostasized in the 90s–even if we thought his book was silly.
At any rate, to see now that Harris has apostasized is no big deal. I virtually expect it from 40-something Evangelicals whom I have not heard from in awhile. Millennial Evangelicals are apostasizing right and left.
I think the hour of testing for Evangelicals has arrived. I can’t say I understand Catholicism or Orthodoxy well enough to know if their moment has come and past, is now, or is still in the future. But for low-church non-denominationals and Baptists, the moment is now. If the congregation is in an urban/suburban area in the South, or if the congregation is primarily made up of university-credentialed professionals, then read the “now” as this very year of our Lord two thousand and nineteen. Sheep and goats are separating as we speak.
(I attend a confessional and liturgical church [deleted] and I think that our moment has passed and we have survived this test.)
But in my Texas city, the “moderate” Baptists are all leaping into sexual confusion. I see progressive churches as basically clearinghouses for future atheists. I also see plenty of bearded young men who were in seminary ten or so years ago who are now some form of post-Christian spiritual activist who haunts the coffee houses/pubs. One acquaintance was a young pastor ten years ago and I recently found out he secretly lost his faith and continued pastoring for a number of years. He moved to a liberal church before giving up altogether.
There is one particular weak spot that the Evangelicalism of the last sixty or so years suffers from that makes it an especially easy conquest for the culture. I think confessional and liturgical churches that have a sacramental perspective on the world have an advantage here, though whether they know how to put it to use is a different matter.
I think most generally, there is a modern blindspot here. Baptists and Evangelicals implicitly buy into a very Modern way of carving up the world. What I am about to describe is philosophical but please understand I am not accusing Evangelicals and Baptists of engaging in overt philosophizing. Rather, I think there is an implicit philosophical frame organizing their thought.
I think for many Evangelicals and Baptists, it is very easy to interpret the world through a series of related dualisms: the “natural” and the “supernatural” and “secular” and the “spiritual” or “supernatural”. Politically this is translated into “public” and “private”. Now this is not an antagonistic dualism, more of a negotiated power-sharing agreement. That is, the secular order presides over the natural world in public Mon-Sat and then hands it off to the church on Sunday to attend to the spiritual and give the supernatural its due in private religious associations.
Much more can be said about the philosophy undergirding this division of the world. It would be okay at some level to blame Descartes for this, but really without a much more complete explanation that would be an oversimplification. We can simply acknowledge that Descartes found dualism a solution to a conflict between the materialism and mechanism of the emerging scientific view of the world and the more enchanted and sacramental view of the world of Christianity.
You can see how on this view, Science could be the authority that tells us how the natural world operates and see how its knowledge is publicly available. But as Christianity is thought to depend upon private revelation, ministering to Man’s spirit and bringing him into contact with the supernatural can only be done privately. So Mon-Sat, you operate in the secular world according to the wisdom of science/business and other secular authorities. Then on Sunday, you remember your immortal soul which is not of the natural and you give the “supernatural” its due.
This is how I was taught in a moderate SBC church in the 80s and 90s and the Christian elders were sincere, not cynical. They viewed the world as so-divided into natural and supernatural, secular and sacred: Church and Science/business belonged to two separate realms. There was a division of labor. And even though the kind and gentle folk at [these churches] never articulate this dualism as a thought, this is implicitly how they operate. In Waco, it was very common for [members of a particular Evangelical church where we have mutual friends] to be extremely accomplished in the business world or secular world in some profession and to sort of see it as unconnected with their spiritual life except as a vehicle for sharing the gospel. That is, the gospel is still only for the immortal soul and so the secular and spiritual never truly mix for [members of this chuch], they just tend to work side-by-side a lot. Now, [this church] as a semi-denomination is in no danger of apostasizing, but its membership has a very high attrition rate and the individual members who leave the church often do drift into “spiritual but not religious” or progressive moralistic therapeutic deism.
I think the lie that moderns, whether Baptists or [members of that church], accept is that the natural world is something that is publicly knowable and that we can all agree upon as a lowest common denominator for living together as opposed to the supernatural which requires private revelation. And so they think they can operate Mon-Sat in the secular world as though the knowledge and values ordering the secular world are somehow neutral. (Note, I don’t think the Evangelicals would admit this, and they would point to secular values they don’t share as far as sexuality is concerned, but deep down, they think that whatever the values informing their professions as bankers, salesmen, attorneys, doctors are, they are neutral with respect to the Gospel and that is where the blindspot is.)
I am starting to ramble so I’ll bring this to a close: I think what is happening is that there are implicit values and narratives about who we are and where we are going that the post-Christian secular world must rely upon to get through the day so to speak. And as Christians participate more and more in these professional contexts where secularism is strongest, they are adopting these values and narratives Mon-Fri as frameworks through which to interpret and act in the world. And as these frames rub up against Christian faith and practice, it leads to internal conflict.
How does that conflict resolve? I think Jordan Peterson does a good job of emphasizing that our cognitive beliefs and commitments are stronger the more they are integrated with our motivation. That is, if a belief helps guide you through your life, you will hold on to it even if it has all sorts of defects from a purely abstract detached and cognitive perspective. For what its worth, N.T. Wright has done a good job saying basically the same thing about the importance of praxis and belief–they must go hand-in-hand.
Evangelicals are not necessarily all intellectual slouches. But so long as that scripture knowledge and theology is at the academic level and is not engaging any motivational frame, it ain’t going to win against a counternarrative that does. I have seen plenty of very sharp and knowledgeable Evangelicals all the sudden fall away. Not because their impressive theological architecture was found to have a logical contradiction, but because it was not integrated with the frames they needed to live their lives well. When push came to shove, they went with what helped them to live their lives.
All of us need to work on expounding a Gospel that integrates us motivationally–a story that makes sense out of all our stories so to speak. But if you view the world sacramentally, it is much easier to do this. I worry that the implicit dualism of today’s evangelicals will constrain their attempts and their narrative will never be fully integrated but top out in a dualism of secular and sacred: what is good for the getting on in this life and what is good for the immortal soul in the afterlife. And since that is in fact a false dichotomy, the two frames will not coexist peacefully, but will be in conflict. Except that the secular one has been given the lion’s share of frames with which to integrate. So, we should not be surprised that when push comes to shove, Evangelicals are leaving the faith or reinterpreting it according to secular wisdom as the progressive Christians do.
This is all new to me. I’m eager to hear what you Evangelical readers have to say about this. I have a post about Joshua Harris already written; it will go up Monday morning.
UPDATE: Really interesting comment left by a reader called Northland:
Hi – young (Millennial/Gen Z) evangelical here. Just a few thoughts, coming from my perspective as an undergraduate at a major university in the evangelical tradition and an aspiring professor in evangelical higher education.
The crisis in American evangelicalism, in my mind, parallels the larger crisis in American society, one that has been growing for decades but was thrown into sharp relief circa 2016.
The reality is that (for the most part) the evangelical “elite” and the evangelical “masses” now live and operate in separate worlds, much as rising inequality and concentration of wealth and power is slowly turning America into an oligarchy. By evangelical “elite” I mean the vast network of seminarians at places like Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, publishing editors at evangelical imprints, professors (and some well-informed students) at evangelical colleges, journalists at outfits like Christianity Today, conference speakers, staffers at work in the immense umbrella of parachurch organizations, and pastors at suburban megachurches in the thriving economic centers of our country.
Like our nation’s elite, the evangelical elite is concentrated in a handful of (rather wealthy) municipalities. In this case, most of the evangelical elite live in the west Chicago suburbs (where evangelical organizations like Wheaton College, Crossway, Intervarsity, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the Moody Network, Christianity Today, and Willow Creek Church have all congregated) or Southern California (think Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, Fuller Seminary, Rick Warren, etc.). They live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, read each other’s blog posts, write blurbs on the back of each others’ books.
Like our nation’s elite, the evangelical elite have achieved their positions largely through education. Whereas pre-Baby Boomer evangelicals largely wallowed in the mediocrity of sectarian bible colleges and small, tribal denominations, a small, dedicated cadre of Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial evangelicals with the wherewithal to do so have ascended the ladder of education into American culture respectability. They’ve built respectable evangelical liberal arts colleges. Braving their parents’ fears of apostasy, they made the leap and attended Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, the University of Oxford, and many cases survived with their orthodoxy intact, while shedding the “peculiarities” of their evangelical forefathers (i.e. young-earth creationism, complementarianism, hard-edged culture warring, etc). They then returned to staff the colleges, seminaries, parachurch ministries, and evangelical publishing companies that these same evangelical forefathers (Billy Graham and company). They fully embrace the idea that evangelical Christianity can be accommodated to a relentlessly pluralist American society trapped in a sea of liquid modernity, because hey, it worked for them. They, like the broader societal elite, have ascended the meritocracy, playing they system in order to settle in at the very top.
That’s why the Trump phenomenon has broadsided evangelicalism. Just as Trump has exposed (and exasperated) the growing divide separating the elites from the populace in American society, he has exposed the reality that the evangelical elite, for all their pretensions to being in control of the evangelical movement, had actually created networks that had insulated themselves from the rank-and-file filling evangelical churches across the country. The Trump moment has called the evangelical elite’s bluff, because now they’re faced with overwhelming evidence that the movement they thought they were leading (and controlling) is not as compliant or manageable as they had thought.
Into this void comes Jerry Falwell Jr. (among other Trumpian evangelicals) who have actually intuited what evangelicals are experiencing and feeling on the ground. Evangelicals are more rural, less wealthy, and less educated than any other religious group in America. The well-documented catastrophes that neoliberalism, unfettered immigration, and drugs have wrought on rural, less wealthy, less educated America have hit evangelicals particularly hard. No wonder they voted for Trump among them a lot of young evangelicals. Throw in long-standing issues like abortion and religious liberty, and you can rope in a good number of culturally-conservative, upwardly-mobile, college-educated evangelicals too. Falwell Jr. knows this. He knows that the demographics are ultimately on his side, PR be damned. The 81% will have no problem sending their kids to Liberty over the protestations of evangelical elite commentators pontificating in a Twitter bubble that most of the 81% don’t inhabit.
Left standing in the corner, athwart the famous 81%, are the handful of evangelical elite who continue to staff what was until, say, 2014, generally recognized as the leading evangelical institutions. So how do they respond to the Trump moment, when their “leadership,” their seemingly rightful place at the helm of the movement, their entire rationale for existing, is called into question?
One way is to jump ship for the liturgical traditions. This has already been going on for some time. The western suburbs of Chicago are a confessional Anglican’s paradise. Indeed, one might say the ACNA parish is becoming the new suburban megachurch, springing up in whatever upwardly-mobile suburb has a sufficient population of evangelical youth-cum-adults who, with a wink and nod, have dispensed with the peculiarities of their childhood faith while (thankfully) maintaining their orthodoxy. But I guarantee you won’t find an ACNA parish in the charred remains of the Rust Belt or the vast plains of the American heartland, or the hills and hollows of the South – the very places where most rank-and-file evangelicals continue to live and worship. Others in the evangelical elite have gone even deeper, diving into Eastern Orthodoxy or Russian Catholicism. Clearly those evangelical elite who convert to Orthodoxy or Catholicism have left the evangelical tribe. For Anglicans, it remains iffy. Some continue to identify as evangelicals, but in this day and age, with the baggage of Trump, most have left the label behind, trending toward a more Anglo-Catholic identity.
Another is way is to jump ship from orthodoxy towards mainline heterodoxy or agnosticism (Harris being the most recent and telling example, with scads of exvangelical bloggers and tweeters alongside him). This strategy is almost always the road travelled by members of the evangelical elite who have adopted the LGBTQ+ spirit of the age. Not only do they no longer consider themselves evangelical, many are rabidly anti-evangelical, often adopting a self-righteous contempt toward those evangelical masses clinging to their guns and bigotry somewhere out in the American hinterlands (an attitude akin to Taylor Swift’s bizarre new music video).
For those of the evangelical elite who haven’t jumped ship (either to the liturgical traditions or to the great heterodox beyond), the predominant strategy has been repeating the narrative that they have been telling themselves for years: that we, the evangelical elite, are the real inheritors of Billy Graham’s evangelicalism. We, the evangelical elite, are the rightful heirs of true evangelicalism – an intellectually vibrant, culturally engaging, open minded brand of the Christian faith (I use the word “brand” very intentionally). In their minds, Falwell Jr./Liberty/evangelical Republicans aren’t evangelicals, but fundamentalists, perverters of the great synthesis of Protestant orthodoxy and cultural engagement that Billy Graham and other evangelicals constructed in the postwar era. But this is a false narrative they’ve constructed (with the help of history professors at evangelical colleges), one that places them at the top of evangelicalism. The reality is not that simple. American evangelicalism is much more embodied by a wild-eyed, ecstatic Oral Roberts than a strait-laced, irenic Billy Graham. It’s much more embodied by a ramshackle storefront Baptist church in Louisiana as a polished Presbyterian church in the Charlotte suburbs. It’s much more Jerry Falwell Jr./Liberty University than Russell Moore/Wheaton College. It’s more Tim Hawkins than Tim Keller.
I’m not saying that this newly-discerned state of affairs is a good thing for evangelicalism. I’m just saying that it’s real.
So when certain figures in the evangelical (or exvangelical) elite throw around anecdotes about how the evangelical movement’s obsequence to Trump will lead to a mass-emptying of the pews of evangelical churches, as millions of Millennial and Gen Z evangelicals leave, don’t believe them. I’m sure many of the youth and young adults that live in the tightly-formed circles of the evangelical elite – those college-educated, suburban/urban, upwardly-mobile, evangelical millennials, the “winners” of our present neoliberal oligarchy – will leave. But their exit will be as meaningless as the slight trickle of NeverTrumpers from the Republican Party. They, like the NeverTrumpers, may raise a hue and cry on Twitter, but they won’t be heard by the rest of us.
By the “rest of us,” I mean the vast majority of Millennial and Gen Z evangelicals that will fill the pews in the coming decades. Sure, Jerry Falwell Jr. is a feckless, immoral turd. But how many of us young evangelicals do you think know anything about the crisis going on at Liberty right now? How many do you think would really care if they did know? Tell me why the 19-year-old welder who faithfully attends his small Pentecostal church in Muskogee, Oklahoma would care? Tell me why the 26-year-old nurse in Terre Haute, Indiana, whose newfound Baptist faith has helped her through an abusive relationship, would care? The fact that the Liberty situation has caused certain sectors of the evangelical elite to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy condemning Falwell Jr (even if they are doing so rightfully) shows just how removed the evangelical elite has become from emerging generation of committed evangelicals, many of whom will never earn a four-year degree, never have a Twitter account, and never stray too far from the type of evangelical church they grew up, even as (and probably because) liquid modernity washes away everything else in their society.
For better or worse, love him or hate him, I think Falwell Jr. has read the current landscape of evangelicalism a lot better than the evangelical elite. And I think as the evangelical elite disperses into the the spiritual wilderness, he has the foresight to see the future landscape of evangelicalism.