Are Liberals “Elites”?

One way of telling the story of American Protestant liberalism to fashion liberals as elites and out of touch with the ordinary person in the pew. I grew up on that story, I have read that story countless times, the news media repeats that story ad nauseam … so there must be some truth to it. But one good solid experience in most mainline churches (not the stereotype ones, and there are some of those) and you will discover what I have discovered time and time again: a mix of people, some quite liberal, some intelligently moderate and so not comfortable with the hard edges of conservative thinking, some very orthodox and not a few — surprise to many — who are nothing less than evangelical and conservative but with commitment to that local church no matter what.

But are liberals elites? This is a question Christopher Evans, in his important new book (post one), Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition (Baylor), addresses with admirable honesty. Are they? Well, Yes, they are at times and it hurts the church and it hurts the mainline and it is not genuine liberalism.

Liberals are the populists’ scapegoats, and they are seen like this: “a cultural elitism whereby a small number of arrogant, self-righteous cadres castigate the ‘common person’ in American life” (20). Hence when it came to liberal theology the accusation is that liberal elites are out of touch with ordinary churchgoing people.

Ironically, when progressives distance themselves from liberals they are often furthering this very stereotype while those same progressives are more or less part of the liberal tradition.

At this point Evans makes a golden point: the historiography, or the story liberals tell, is the story of increasing tolerance and increasing pluralism. He asks the important question: Is pluralism an issue of religious toleration or an issue of intense competition in the religious market of ideas? (That’s a big one: the former sees it through one story that discounts the supposedly intolerant while the latter sees it through the lens of genuine options.) America is Christian (mostly) and American religion has an evangelical majority. (He calls it “dominant flavor”.) When liberals sees evangelicalism as for the unintelligent and unkempt they are simply repeating an inaccurate story.

He finishes with an honest reflection: “In short, liberal Christianity has been reluctant to do what all good liberals have done at other moments in history: adjust one’s interpretation of the faith amidst changing historical circumstances” (29).

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