We welcome Peter Choi back to the Anxious Bench today. Choi is Dean of Newbigin House, Associate Professor of American Christianity, and a member of the Consortial Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and author of George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire.
To read some pundits, American evangelicals have been going through an uncharacteristically rough patch that will soon be over. It’s hard to miss this perspective, for instance, in Peter Wehner’s latest piece for The Atlantic, which begins by calling people of faith to “embody moral and intellectual integrity” and ends by sounding a more hopeful note than he has in a long time. If evangelicalism has been hit with a virus, it seems we are rounding the corner.
It’s a moment Wehner has been eyeing ever since he renounced evangelicalism. “Institutional renewal and regeneration are possible, and I’m going to push for them,” he wrote in the closing paragraph of his New York Times op-ed in December 2017, when he declared he was no longer an evangelical Republican. Then in February 2019, reflecting on what he “gained by leaving the Republican Party,” he made sure to leave the door open a crack: “If I’m one day able to return, I hope that I’ll bring the compensating gifts of greater insight and critical distance back with me.” With the election looming, that day seems nearer than ever.
The narrative of a pathway to evangelical redemption has become a genre of sorts, fueled by a hackneyed hankering for the recovery of true evangelicalism. An elite cadre of mostly white men, writing for influential publications like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, has carved out a niche writing jeremiads during their self-imposed (and carefully publicized) exile. Expressing dismay and surprise at how far their fellow evangelicals have strayed, the implicit message, for those who have ears to hear, has been: “We are better than this.”
They are now beginning to find the thread, and a coherent narrative may finally be emerging. There’s nothing evangelicals love more than a good comeback story, especially when it’s a tale of their redemption. These days, it’s so close they can almost taste it. And so they are on their tippy-toes, necks craning, ready to take back the cultural narrative.
In the words of their favorite pastor, Tim Keller, who expressed this sentiment in terms of both lament and longing: “Evangelical used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with hypocrite.”
The message is clear: Evangelicalism lost its way during the Trump years, but there is a way back to the true religion of yesteryear. They will take back the hill, they will find their high ground again.
They will accomplish this by doing what they have always done, by insisting on the spotless purity and superiority of evangelical theology. They are, after all, the most faithful bearers of New Testament Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, the Puritan errand into the wilderness, and the righteous fire of evangelical renewal. No one is better prepared than American evangelicals to make Christianity great again.
There is, however, a significant hurdle: the facts of history. With cultural phenomena like The 1619 Project and an increasing number of historians telling the story of evangelical contributions to the problem of race in American culture, evangelicals longing for cultural significance must reckon with the realization they have been on the wrong side of history time and again, long before 2016. In fact, it has been their lot for the better part of American history.
What these histories teach us is that white evangelicals in today’s America are inheritors of a faith decried for its chauvinism and hypocrisy from its inception. Since the earliest days of evangelical origins in the eighteenth century, Native American and Black Christians have marveled at the cruelty and barbarity of their white evangelical contemporaries. (My own George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire provides a critical reexamination of one hero of eighteenth-century evangelicalism.)
Too many white evangelicals act as if this history doesn’t exist. Instead, they regale us with stories of intrepid abolitionists like William Wilberforce, courageous leader of the Clapham Sect. According to leading historians of abolition like Christopher Brown and Manisha Sinha, however, the truth of the matter is much more complicated.
Brown reminds us that when it came to the Clapham evangelicals, most fellow Britons “routinely derided them as censorious, bossy, condescending, and smug” and that historians of antislavery “tend now to treat the Evangelicals as of marginal interest and limited consequence.”
Sinha, who has rendered the inestimable service of writing a history of abolition with African Americans at its center, offers an even more devastating critique of early evangelicalism: “An expression of cultural imperialism even in its most benevolent mode, evangelical Christianity abandoned its commitment to native and black education, especially in the southern colonies.”
And while it is de rigeur for moderates like Michael Gerson to quote James Cone with great pathos, they forget that an entire chapter in The Cross and the Lynching Tree was one long meditation on the failure of Reinhold Niebuhr, a white progressive Christian, to recognize the parallels between Jesus’ crucifixion and the lynching of Black folk in America. In other words, white Christians have long failed to see their part in America’s ugly history of racism.
To extend Gerson’s metaphor, it’s not just Trump who “plays with that fire” of racism. It was evangelicals who lit the original fuse for racialization when they supplied arguments for slavery and segregation with theological doctrines. And yet, they keep rushing to provide answers to the problem without reflecting on the ways their epistemic and theological hubris have contributed to the problem. They hasten to offer solutions without understanding their own complicity and responsibility.
This is how whiteness works: in the very moment it asserts itself, it insists it’s asserting, as Wehner writes, “less of ourselves and more of God.” He is likely sincere in seeing the great task awaiting evangelicals as good public theology. But the irresistible urge to center white evangelicalism should not be missed: “If more followers of Jesus did that, if I did that, it would offer more people a place of repose in a deeply unsettling world.” Wehner may offer a hopeful vision of the world. He also reduces the sad plight of the world to an inevitable consequence of evangelical absence on the world stage.
Sidelined moderate evangelicals can hardly wait to return to business as usual, to put this ugly chapter behind them and declare their innocence: “I knew we weren’t that bad,” and “At long last, our better angels have prevailed.”
Harsh? Wehner says as much himself: “And there are pockets of renewal within American evangelicalism, along with a deep desire among many Christians to close this unfortunate chapter in their history and write a far more enchanting and captivating one next.”
This renewed evangelical agenda may cause excitement for some. Others will cringe. For what has been a brief, harrowing chapter for some has been a long, multi-generational, and unrelenting saga for others. And we won’t be able to wish it away by whitewashing the last few pages.
So many white evangelicals today are eager to find their place to stand in a more just society, not realizing they have occupied enough space, and it may be time for them to cede their ground to others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I want them to go away completely, just to realize that there is life out of the limelight, and it may do us all some good to hear less of their voices. No doubt, these thoughts will be deemed uncharitable by some. But is it so horrible to wonder aloud whether white evangelicals have little to nothing to add at this point? To wonder if their contributions might come by doing less, by committing to acts of subtraction rather than addition?
For now, a survey of principled evangelical writing shows us that they are about to stick their collective head in the sand, once again. We can say this because their sanctimonious, sloppy, yet endlessly self-assured social commentary is as brazen as ever––and very likely, just beginning.