Galli: Elite Evangelicalism’s Slide
In 2020, Mark Galli, a lifelong Evangelical, retired from his post running Christianity Today, and became a Catholic. In this ,elbow-throwing essay on his Substack newsletter, Galli accuses Evangelical mainline elites of selling out to the world. Excerpts:
Elite evangelicalism (represented by CT, IVPress, World Vision, Fuller Seminary, and a host of other establishment organizations) is too often “a form of cultural accommodation dressed as convictional religion.” These evangelicals want to appear respectable to the elite of American culture. This has been a temptation since the emergence of contemporary evangelicalism in the late 1940s, the founding of Christianity Today being one example. Letters between first editor Carl Henry and founder Billy Graham suggest the desire to be in essence an acceptable fundamentalism: Grounded in conservative theology while gaining the respect of secular academics and other cultural leaders.
Indeed, effective evangelism has been one motive, and in some ways it has proved to be an effective strategy. But I don’t know that evangelicals have been sufficiently self-reflective to admit their basic and personal insecurities. It’s just no fun being an outsider to mainstream culture. We all just want to be loved, and if not loved, at least liked and respected. Elite evangelicals are not just savvy evangelists but also a people striving for acceptance.
I saw this often when I was at CT. For the longest time, a thrill went through the office when Christianity Today or evangelicalism in general was mentioned in a positive vein by The New York Times or The Atlantic or other such leading, mainstream publications. The feeling in the air was, “We made it. We’re respected.” This irritated me, because I naturally believed that CT’s outlook was superior (since it was grounded in the truth of the gospel and not secularism), so I often commented that we had things backward: The New York Times ought to be thrilled when it gets a positive mention in Christianity Today.
This tendency has only gotten worse, as now the mark of a successful evangelical writer is to get published regularly in the Times, Atlantic, 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.
Evangelical columns in large part merely bolster the reputation of secular outlets, as these publications can now pat themselves on the back and say, “See, even religious people agree with us.” Rarely if ever will you see an evangelical by-line in such outlets that argues to protect life in womb or affirms traditional marriage.
We see an ancient dynamic here: When you seek to win the favor of the powerful, you will likely be used by them to enhance their own status. And along the way, many of your convictions will be sidelined. We’ve seen this happen on the religious right in the political nightmare of the last few years. But it happens on the left just as often.
It’s fascinating to read Galli’s confession that CT intentionally avoided taking “liberal” positions on certain issues, but signaled its real stance by never publishing anything that favored the “fundamentalist” position on those issues — positions that would have embarrassed CT‘s staff in front of the secularists. And then there is this:
Another example was [CT‘s] accommodation to a more radical feminist worldview. Once I wrote a draft of an editorial arguing that traditional traits associated with masculinity (like competition, aggressiveness, etc.) were not intrinsically toxic but needed in every human community (and, yes needed to be moderated!). The reactions of three key staffers (one male and two females) was shock and fear; they assumed I was justifying such things as wife abuse, even though in my draft I twice condemned the phenomenon. I put the editorial aside for the time being because it was not worth the staff dynamics I would have had to navigate at the time, since I sensed their anxiety would be shared by many other staffers. I hadn’t recognized how much fear and suspicion of masculinity pervaded the hallways.
That part jumped out at me, because one theme I have heard consistently from both Evangelical men and Catholic men who convert to Eastern Orthodoxy is that they are sick of the feminization of their former churches. These men haven’t been macho or troglodytic, at least not as far as I could tell. They just hate being told, week in and week out, that traditional masculine characteristics are harmful or otherwise unwanted. Some of them don’t like being led by priests they take to be “soft” men — not necessarily gay, but oriented more towards pastoring in a feminine style.
I can’t explain why Orthodoxy is more accommodating of masculinity, but it is. There is a lot that is “soft” in Orthodox worship, but I think the difference is that the Moralistic Therapeutic Deist attitude that Christianity is supposed to be about niceness and personal happiness is radically alien to Orthodoxy. It’s not that Orthodox spirituality is gloomy, but rather that it is serious and demanding, and doesn’t seek to sanctify secular therapeutic strategies. It’s about healing the soul, all right, but not in the way of the world, and of too many churches.
On Sunday morning at my Orthodox parish, we had four newcomers show up, who had driven in from a long way down the bayou. Two were high school seniors, the other two (a couple) were in college. The three young men said up front that they wanted to convert; I think the girlfriend of one of the guys said she was just along with her boyfriend. All four are Catholics who read themselves to the point where they wanted to come to the liturgy. They told me at coffee hour that they had all been raised Catholic, but were tired of it. I didn’t press for details, but they indicated that the spiritual life at their Catholic parish was empty and conformist.
I introduced them to our pastor, who welcomed them warmly, but gently warned them not to think that we are without our own problems. I’m glad he said that, because it’s important that converts not put their new church up on a pedestal. But I encouraged those young people by telling them that I understood exactly where they were coming from with their frustrations, and that for all the real problems we have in US Orthodoxy, they will find in Orthodoxy a depth that will astound them, challenge them, and ground them. I pointed out how many young people we had at coffee hour. Our little mission is growing because so many young adults are finding their way to it since Covid. I don’t know what Covid had to do with it, but this is something more Orthodox priests are seeing. In the conversations I’ve had with these newcomers to our parish, nearly all of them are coming out of Evangelicalism, and they want to be in a church that is more traditional and stable — that is, not susceptible to the Zeitgeist.
In his essay, Mark Galli says that:
Evangelical religion has become theologically pluralistic and incoherent; as such, it is too subject to the changing winds of secularism to stand erect in the hurricane of our times.
He is no fan of Douglas Wilson, but he says whatever successor emerges to the dissolving Evangelical mainstream is going to have to have the “intellectual and psychological backbone” like Doug Wilson’s, but not be so “idiosyncratic.” He proposes that the Calvinists of the Gospel Coalition might be the ones to take over.
What about Catholics? Catholic ecclesiology is very different, of course, but it seems clear to me that in the West, there is no future for liberal Catholicism. But what kind of conservative Catholicism will inherit the shrunken institution? I think the Latin Mass movement, which I respect and wish to encourage for Catholics, has the idiosyncratic feature that limits its appeal. My guess is that there won’t be a particular faction, but rather the orthodox Catholics — that is, those who openly affirm the teaching authority of the Roman see, and who are more traditional in their liturgical preferences — will eventually be the only ones left standing by mid-century, and will inherit it by default. This is the way France is going.
As for American Orthodoxy, there’s no doubt at all that it’s going to be dominated by converts. The latest research shows that Orthodoxy is shrinking in America. I welcome correction by readers who understand the numbers better than I do, but based on these findings, and what I have observed in US Orthodoxy over the last 15 years, assimilation into the American middle class is causing the sons and daughters of the old ethnic stalwarts to drift away. The Greeks are by far the most populous of the Orthodox churches in the US, but only 22 percent of their people go to church on Sunday. The second rank of jurisdictions — the OCA, Antiochians, etc. — are much smaller, but we have twice as many people on Sunday. This is the convert effect, I reckon. American Orthodoxy is going to continue to lose more in raw numbers, but the parishes that remain will be more dynamic and committed.
The question for us Orthodox is this: are we too “idiosyncratic,” in the same general way as Latin mass Catholic parishes, and Douglas Wilson’s Kirk, to appeal broadly? Mind you, the word “idiosyncratic” is doing a lot of work there. Latin mass parishes are chiefly set apart by worshiping in an ancient language. Doug Wilson’s Kirk’s idiosyncrasies have more to do with Wilson’s pugilistic character, and the robust authoritarianism within the Kirk’s culture. For us Orthodox — the ones who worship in English — our idiosyncrasy in the US context has to do with our elaborate form of worship, which seems exotic when you first see it. Even if it’s in English, it’s so different from most of US Christianity that some people don’t know what to do with it. And then, once you get used to that, getting used to a demanding way of Christian living (especially fasting periods) can be off-putting.
On the other hand, that is Orthodoxy’s strength. It is different. It is countercultural. And it is deep. For young Christians, and not so young Christians, who are seeking to satisfy a craving in themselves for something old and serious, Orthodoxy is a magnet. As we are seeing.
Any form of Christianity that yields to wokeness is taking poison. Once more, here’s Galli, saying that Christianity Today was a good place for a certain kind of Christian because it didn’t often take positions at odds with the secular mainstream:
Pro-life, of course, would be a great exception, as was the magazine’s stand on the morality of homosexual unions. But as the years have gone by, we’ve seen more CT articles about “how complex” such issues are, and that “there are no easy answers.” And I couldn’t agree more. At the same time, anyone who has studied the decline of mainline Christianity knows that such are the first signs of ethical retreat on an issue. It starts with “no easy answers” and moves to “here’s an exception” to eventual full acceptance. But history is not a one-way street, and this is hardly an iron law. I’m not saying that CT or these other evangelical orgs are racing toward liberalism. I’m only saying that the temptation to be accepted by the larger culture is immense, for reasons both evangelistic and psychological.
This is so good. I hope that American Orthodoxy can resist and rebuff the pressure by certain voices — especially academic ones in the Northeast, where Orthodoxy is dying — within it to liberalize. This is another area, though, where our weirdness helps. An Evangelical friend pointed out to me the other day that taking the step to convert to Orthodoxy is such a leap for your average American Christian that they are already a bit used to doing something radically outside of the mainstream.
Readers, I welcome your take on Galli’s essay in the comments section. But I hope you will also venture a guess as to which people, schools, or factions within your broad religious tradition will inherit the future of your church or tradition. And don’t forget to subscribe to The Galli Report, Mark Galli’s newsletter, for free.