Traditional Christian Belief and Low Social Status: Four Responses

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I never got to work at L’abri , and I blame John Kerry.

See, when I was younger, I aspired to a place on staff at one of the branches of that network of residential study centers founded by Francis Schaeffer.

In 2004, I spent a term at the Massachusetts L’abri. Almost immediately, tensions arose between me and the other students and staff. That fall, George W. Bush was seeking re-election, and Kerry was trying to stop him.  We discussed the politics frequently. The atmosphere was very pro-Kerry.

I was not pro-Kerry. I was no ardent supporter of George Bush, but Kerry’s leftism, especially his vigorous support of abortion, made the thought of supporting him noxious. Many of the Kerry cheerleaders I encountered at L’abri were evangelical Christians who, in spite of Kerry’s devotion to abortion rights, believed their support for him was a mark of superior virtue.

The intervening years have clarified for me how that could be. Understanding what was happening there requires looking at the big picture.

Two Responses

The cultural shift that dislodged traditional Christianity from its place as the foundation of American culture has provoked a number of responses among believers. Though these responses may seem infinitely varied on the surface, the bulk of them can actually be categorized under four headings: accommodation, appeasement, acceptance and aggression.

This applies mostly to American protestants. These responses are likely mirrored in the Catholic church, but someone who knows more can say whether that is accurate. I also exclude fundamentalists whose approach to the surrounding culture is so hostile that shifts within it are irrelevant to them.

With those provisos, I offer the following typology for understanding Evangelical reactions to traditional Christian belief becoming a mark of low status:

1. The Accomodators:

These are evangelicals who have attempted to avoid a loss of social status by accommodating traditional Christian belief to the demands of the prevailing liberal order. They seek to resolve tensions between Christian and liberal orthodoxies by changing the content of the Christian one. Many don’t call themselves liberals. The label they used a decade ago was “emerging church.” The preferred label now is “post-Christian” or “progressive evangelical.”  Many of their leaders are highly visible and identifiable. Much has been said about these people elsewhere. I won’t belabor the point here.

2. The Appeasers:

That the folks I encountered at L’abri should fall into this category is unsurprising given that it represents the dominant strategy within evangelicalism. The appeasers’ project is to demonstrate to the liberal order that traditional Christian belief is not really an impediment to full membership in elite levels of the current cultural hierarchy. They seek to avoid the taint of low social status by emphasizing those aspects of the Christian message most easily interpreted as calls for “social justice.”  Thus, this group has tended to be among the loudest of the NeverTrump evangelicals.

Unlike the accommodators, the appeasers want to maintain traditional Christian orthodoxy. Yet, they tend to assume that society is inherently progressive and that the left represents informed and considered opinion. Their question is “how far left can I go and still be a traditional evangelical?”

The blogger at Reformation 500 captured the dynamics at play within this group in this fascinating post.

The first of these approaches has failed. The second is failing now. The collapse of Protestant Liberalism showed where the accommodationist approach ends. In retrospect, it’s clear that the emerging church movement was little more than an attempt to revivify a movement that had long ago met its well-deserved end. It’s no wonder that one of the most visible leaders of the “progressive Christian” movement now makes her home in  that slowly vanishing ghost of a denomination, the Episcopal Church which, in its day, was the most energetic advocate of the accommodationist approach.

The appeasement approach, while not dead yet, is dying. Trump’s victory proves this. As the blogger linked above points out, the resounding criticism of Trump from most evangelical leaders did nothing to dissuade their supposed followers from casting their ballots for him. The shock of Trump’s election could have been, had they a willingness to see, evidence that those they imagined looking to them for leadership had long ago grown tired of the show.

The appeasers dominate evangelicalism now, but they will fade. At some point, they will see that their attempts to curry favor with liberal elites have failed to garner an iota of real respect. They will find themselves caught between the disdain of those they courted and the distrust of those they ostensibly led.

Two More Responses

Fortunately, two strategies remain. We have yet:

3.  The Acceptors

This is the The Benedict Option. Mr. Dreher’s book gets caricatured as a call for traditional Christians to retreat from society. This caricature of the book is easily dispelled by actually reading it.  Rather than a call to abandon society, the book is a call to regroup, to withdraw from society only when doing so is necessary for traditional Christians to be about the business of building thick communities capable of passing on the faith to generations beset by a hostile and invasive culture.

This strategy is based on accepting that traditionalists and social conservatives lost the culture war. It encourages traditional Christians to accept their low social status and to turn toward one another for mutual aid and support during what the acceptors anticipate will be a dark future.

4. The Aggressors

These are the bad boys of conservative Christianity. They are Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox. This group is small but growing. They represent a strategy untried in recent decades, certainly among evangelicals. This group also accepts the low social status that traditional Christian belief confers but, like bad boys everywhere, they revel in it, seeking to invert their position as the ostracized outsider and make it cool.

In large part, they succeed, and that success accounts for their growth. This group tends to be distrustful of “dialogue” knowing how often those who want to make the church more accommodating to the modern left have opened their offensives with that word.

Instead of engaging in dialogue, they post funny memes on Twitter. They confront leftists on Facebook, baiting their interlocutors into revealing their didactic, controlling, finger-wagging interiors. They don’t debate. They make their opponents look absurd while making themselves look brave. Thus, they attract a following. They have a far better understanding of social dynamics than any of the other groups.

Their leaders are less visible. Many post under anonymous accounts. Others write for right-wing websites that add to the movement’s momentum. This approach offers the most hope for traditional Christians seeking to create cultural space for themselves.

A combination of these final two strategies is necessary for Christians to “engage the culture” fruitfully. The aggressors must be careful not to criticize the acceptors too harshly. A measure of withdrawal and inward focus is necessary. Aggressors should support and encourage those efforts so long as they don’t entail needlessly ceding more ground to the liberal order.

Acceptors must not fear the aggressors. Acceptors must understand that they and the aggressors are working for the same goal: a society with more space for Christian Traditionalists. Acceptors will have to distinguish between what is only bad boy style and what is real sin.

Whatever happens, the future for traditional Christians will be complicated. This will be especially true when the appeasers begin to fall from their perches and power vacuums open within the movement. But, with a bit of awareness, planning and bravery these changes may become opportunities we cannot now imagine and the future a place where the faith can flourish.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I am very surprised to read that the atmosphere at L’Abri in Massachusetts was “very pro-Kerry”. I assume this had something to do with the fact that by 2004 Kerry had represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate for almost 20 years.

    I dispute the association of “Appeasers” with “the loudest of the NeverTrump evangelicals”. There are many NeverTrump evangelicals who were opposed to both Trump and Clinton. I do not know of anyone who opposed Trump “to curry favor with liberal elites”–I’ve only read the unsubstantiated accusation.

    I do know of evangelicals who opposed Trump on Christian principles–principles which are so obvious that one of the most common questions political commentators had in 2016 was: Why are so many white evangelicals supporting a candidate who seems to be the antithesis of everything they stand for?

    Regarding the “Aggressors”: The author says “They make their opponents look absurd while making themselves look brave”. Within the next few sentences he says: “Their leaders are less visible. Many post under anonymous accounts”. If these people are so brave, then why do so many of them post under anonymous accounts? Why don’t they use their real names?

    May I suggest that it doesn’t require much bravery to “post funny memes on Twitter”? Nor to “confront leftists on Facebook, baiting their interlocutors into revealing their didactic, controlling, finger-wagging interiors”?

    I’ve seen the work of the “Aggressors”. I’m not favorably impressed. They are the type of people who love to point out the foolishness and hypocrisy of other people, all the while blithely unaware of their own foolishness and hypocrisy. They arrogantly ridicule other people for being arrogant. Not only do they not raise the social status of Christianity, they lower it. Their obnoxiousness does harm to the cause of Christ without doing any good.

  • Timothy Hill

    I’m having a hard time seeing the difference between being an ‘aggressor’ and being a ‘troll’. And thus of seeing this group as some sort of meaningful future for Christianity. If one is despised, it is of course temporarily satisfying to be also obnoxious, a way of gaining an ersatz respect. But in the longer term all it does is provide the excluding group with apparent just grounds for their original prejudice.

  • Alan Drake

    No mention of trying to become more Christ-like. Of feeding the hungry, treating prisoners better, treating the sick, of welcoming the stranger or clothing & housing those ill clothed or housed.

    Your analysis appears to be utterly devoid of Christianity.

  • Rod Bristol

    Which of the four labels would fit Jesus? Instead of seeking cultural relevance, we should be cultural subversives. The gospel neither fits in nor attacks the culture; it undermines cultural injustice by changing hearts of people, who inexorably reconstruct culture to reflect the Kingdom of God. We can call ourselves “Christian,” while dealing with the world by worldly means, and fail abysmally, as we have done. Traditional Christianity has a familiar feel to it, but it has digressed far from “The Way” practiced by the first followers of Jesus.

  • Riley

    Some of us are just going about our away winsomely subverting cultural institutions for Christ from the inside. http://highplainsparson.wordpress.com/2018/03/23/engaging-the-culture-a-response-to-dean-abbot/

  • Riley

    This environment requires a hefty dose of passive aggression.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    True Christianity is Supposed to be a subversive faith that changes lives. It does this by totally reversing our normal beliefs. Old beliefs are stood on their heads, and we see, then, that they were all wrong. We then learn a new way of seeing the world and human societies, and history. This allows us to actually live in two worlds at the same time. It is a huge tension, because almost all the other people will not agree with us at all. Often we feel totally alone. We so love God that the world often fades and becomes weird. We then see our destiny as spreading this radical belief to those around us.
    I think that God is our destiny ,hope and goal, NOT engaging the culture so as to gain favour with it.. Satan is the God of this world, he is in control of much of it. But we must remember that nothing or no one is more powerful than God. Everything happens with God’s full knowledge

  • Paperboy_73

    This article definitely carries the implicit assumption that it’s impossible to be both politically progressive and a Real True Christian™.

    The last part (item four) in particular treats right-wing provocateuring as synonymous with Christianity. Surely you can see the problem there. You don’t get saved by praying to St. Reagan.