There’s a gently sardonic Catholic joke that goes like this.
At 25: “I can’t believe all the garbage going on in this seminary! I’d better keep my head down and just get ordained, and when I’m a priest, I can do something about it.”
At 30: “I can’t believe the mess in the church! I’m just an assistant priest in this parish, but when I become pastor of my own parish, then I’ll be able to do something about it.”
At 40: “What a hot mess things are in the church! I’m just a parish pastor, but I’ll keep my head down, and when I make monsignor, and rise in influence in the diocese, then I’ll speak out.”
At 50: “Yes, I’m a monsignor, and yes, this diocese is a mess, but what do you expect me to do? I’m not the bishop. But I know a few things about how the Church works, and if I make bishop, then you are going to see things change around here.”
At 60: “What an honor it is to have been made your bishop! I am pleased to step into the shoes of my illustrious predecessor, a faithful steward of the Church in this diocese, a man who was a peacemaker dedicated to moving forward together. I promise you to continue his legacy.”
That came to mind when I read this bruising piece by Nate Fischer, on the occasion of Francis Collins’s resignation from the NIH. He writes:
Collins has long been celebrated by evangelical influencers, and upon his departure those praising him included Russell Moore, Tim Keller, and David French. The well-credentialed evangelicals who populate urban churches like Keller’s have been taught to aspire to a “faithful presence” in elite institutions, and Collins is often viewed as epitomizing this. He succeeded not just at an elite level, but in the scientific world, a domain where Christians have a particularly hard time gaining respect.
Yet Collins’s record over his 12 years atop the NIH shows serious and repeated moral compromises. That he continues to be praised as a model by elite-adjacent evangelicals suggests that what matters is the “presence” in elite circles far more than faithfulness to any clear Christian moral standard.
Collins’s most troubling action was his explicit defence in 2018 of research using fetal tissue from aborted babies, and the NIH’s 2021 resumption of such research under his leadership after a 2019 moratorium. This August, documents were released revealing that under his watch the NIH had given at least $2.7 million to researchers who sought out aborted babies (with a high quota of minorities) to harvest their organs.
Given Collins’s compromise on abortion, it’s unsurprising he also followed secular trends on sexuality. Here he did not just preside over institutional actions, but personally embraced the language of the sexual left. In a June 2021 letter, Collins wrote that the NIH joins “in celebrating Pride Month and recognizing the struggles, stories, and victories of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and others under the sexual and gender minority (SGM) umbrella. I applaud the courage and resilience it takes for individuals to live openly and authentically…”
It’s hard to see how a faithful Christian can personally write this. That evangelical influencers continued to praise Collins as he committed these actions suggests there are few compromises with the establishment they would not tolerate for the sake of worldly status.
Collins’s failures, and the way they were often overlooked by prominent Christians, reveal broader flaws in the approach such people have taken to elite careers and cultural influence. This approach, reflected in James Davidson Hunter’s 2010 book To Change the World and Keller’s 2012 book Every Good Endeavor, tends to celebrate prestigious careers while discouraging conflict over moral and cultural issues. This presence at elite levels was often portrayed as allowing Christians to do more to exert real influence in these circles and institutions than the more provocative approaches evangelicals had been known for.
Fischer points out that this “faithful presence” pretense is a flop, at least in Collins’s case. I think that devout Christians in high places can do good — think of judges — but boy, Collins does not appear to be an example of that.
As the culture — especially elite culture — becomes even more anti-Christian, how are faithful orthodox Christians going to be both faithful and present within institutional leadership? Or are we bound to be compromised? I’m in no place to judge Dr. Collins’s faith, of course, but how exactly would those policy decisions he made, and his progressive rhetoric on LGBT, have been different if he had been an atheist?
As Fischer points out at the end of his essay, if Christians who enter into leadership positions in elite institutions are going to end up compromising their Christian principles on serious moral issues, they shouldn’t go into those jobs — for the good of their souls.