Discipline and Punish: A Guide to Power in American Evangelicalism

Discipline and Punish: A Guide to Power in American Evangelicalism February 18, 2021

“Are you going rogue?” The question startled me. It had come from a professor at another Christian university, someone I hadn’t met before. This was in the months before Jesus and John Wayne published, but she was responding to some of my online writings. Behind the question was an implicit assumption that a Christian institution could not or would not stand behind my work. I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t work at that kind of Christian university, but I was left with lingering doubts. Was I going rogue?

The doubts resurfaced not long after when one of my colleagues nonchalantly asked me, “So, is that book of yours going to get you fired?” I didn’t think so. But maybe I was naïve? I asked a colleague to read the manuscript and give me his assessment on the likelihood of my future employment. He was cautiously optimistic. He also gave me some words of encouragement: “Don’t worry, Kristin. We all have your back around here. Until we don’t.” That seemed an apt description of the situation.

Seven months out from publication, I can affirm that Everything Is Fine. I am still employed at my Christian university. I have not received any institutional pushback. Instead, the university has even (cautiously) promoted my work in its alumni magazine. So far so good.

But the very questions I faced reveal the spoken and (often) unspoken constraints that operate within evangelical organizations and institutions. I was aware of many of these as I researched my book. In the last several months, I’ve learned even more about how voices are policed in the world of evangelicalism. Readers have shared with me their own stories, some of whom have found that even mentioning Jesus and John Wayne in public can be a cause for censure. And so, a few thoughts on how power operates in evangelical circles:

Before I go on, it is worth noting that cultural and political polarization runs through white evangelicalism, not around it. To be sure, the strong majority has sided with the conservative Republican agenda on a vast array of issues, even as that agenda has morphed into something that can hardly be called “conservative.” We have, of course, the notorious 81% who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, according to exit polls, and a roughly similar number who did so again in 2020 (those numbers range from 76 to 81%). Even so, that leaves us with approximately 19% of white evangelicals who did not. Some of those dissenters can be found in urban or blue state churches or in organizations of the evangelical Left like Sojourners, but the majority are sprinkled throughout American evangelicalism. They can be found in suburban megachurches and even in small towns in the South and the Midwest. They work at Wheaton College and Westmont and Cru and Bread for the World and a host of other parachurch organizations. They pastor churches attended by those who may disagree vehemently with their politics. They hold views that would alienate close family and friends, were they to make those views more widely known.

Because many have remained quiet, it is difficult to gauge the numbers of evangelical dissenters and the depth of their dissent. Yet evangelicals have good reason to stay quiet. They have seen what happens to those who speak out. Denouncing “cancel culture” has become a rallying cry for those on the Right, but conservatives have a long and illustrious history of their own cancel culture. Within conservative evangelical communities, cancelling has taken a variety of forms.

Yet even before we address cancelling, it is worth taking a step back to reflect on who has the authority to lead, to begin with. In many evangelical spaces, that authority is reserved for white evangelical men. It might be helpful to consider this “preemptive cancelling.”

In terms of more conventional cancelling, many evangelicals are afraid to speak their conscience on hot-button political and theological issues because they have seen what happens to those who do. “Farewell, Rob Bell,” and all that. They have watched what happened to Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker when they questioned the party line on questions of gender and sexuality. They have watched what happens in their own churches and in their own families.

Austin Channing Brown addressed this yesterday. As a Black Christian writer and speaker on racial justice, she is often asked the same question from white Christians: How can I overcome my fear of speaking up?

Before answering, Brown explores the premise of the question:

Dear Nice White People, it’s time for you to honestly answer the question, “What are you afraid of?” because there is a reason you are scared to speak up and it’s not some vague notion of inability.

Let me get you started.

You are afraid to speak up because you know there will be repercussions for doing so. How do you know this? Because you have been watching it happen. You are not afraid of a ghost in the closet or a monster under your bed. You are not a child afraid of some intangible, imaginary outcome. You are afraid of being on the receiving end of the oppression you have witnessed.

You are afraid they will talk about you, the way they currently talk about your Black, female co-worker.

You are afraid that you will no longer be invited to the secret white people meetings where decisions are being made.

You are afraid that you will fall out of the good graces of those with power.

You are afraid that you will be labeled “the problem,” the person who is “not a team player,” the one who is going to ruin a good time.

You are afraid of not being invited, of not being favored, of not being liked because there are benefits for being liked.

You are afraid of challenging the system, the supervisor, the policy, the conversation because you have participated in the destruction of others and now you are afraid that you, too, will be destroyed.

Brown’s synopsis rings true to what I have observed within evangelical organizations.

First, there are the blatant repercussions that are difficult to ignore. Pastors being pushed out of pulpits because their attempts to preach the gospel interfere with the politics of those in the pews. This happens rarely, but I have heard from many pastors who are actively policing their own preaching in order to avoid this situation. Often this reluctance to speak their truth is also couched in language of not wanting to offend, of not wanting to lose the opportunity to “minister to their flock.” At a certain point, however, one has to ask what sort of ministry is possible when pastors are not free to speak truth in love.

There are stories, too, of journalists having to choose between their conscience and the requirement to support Trump. The pressures on Christian publications, too, are significant. Journalists might be trained to report the unvarnished truth, but editors and editorial boards have other interests to consider. Subscribers and donors vote with their dollars, and for many publications there is a constant tension between appeasing powerful critics and writing the news and editorials that would best serve the church.

Christian universities and Christian schools have always policed what faculty and staff may say and believe. The boundaries established and enforced often include both theological beliefs and opinions on social issues, particularly around issues of gender and sexuality. These expectations foster a larger culture of silence at evangelical institutions. Larycia Hawkins learned that showing embodied solidarity with Muslims by wearing a hijab and by expressing that religious solidarity publicly, she ran afoul of Wheaton’s gatekeepers of Christian orthodoxy. Those acts cost her her tenured position.

I recently learned of a social studies teacher at a Christian school, a graduate of a Christian university, who brought her faith into her classroom in a way that conflicted with conservative political orthodoxies. (She discussed teachings from Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel and didn’t shy away from discussing current events, including the 2020 election the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.) Although she understood it was her job, as a Christian, to do so, she was forced to resign. The repercussion derails her own career and also sends a chilling message to the rest of the school’s staff.

Many organizations find it preferable to avoid any mention of politics, or anything that might be deemed divisive or controversial. Needless to say, this choice serves to strengthen the status quo. Writer and Anglican priest Tish Warren, who has just published a book on prayer, tweeted that a pastor asked her this week if a talk she was giving “contains anything controversial.” Her response: “Saying anything is controversial now.” But the question alone establishes expectations.

Details in the investigation into Ravi Zacharias’s long history of abuse reveal other dynamics at play in evangelical organizations, patterns that are evident in many other scandals that have plagued evangelicalism in recent years (decades, really): the tendency for members of organizations to give cover to abusive behaviors of powerful leaders. This is frequently done to “protect the witness,” when in fact it causes untold harm to individuals, as well as to the witness of the gospel. Those who attempt to speak out are quickly ostracized through ridicule or other dismissive tactics, or through more coercive measures.

Since the publication of Jesus and John Wayne, I’ve watched how for some, even mentioning the book in public can be an act of resistance. I’ve heard from readers who know that posting a positive comment about the book on Facebook, even as innocuous as “we should read this book and wrestle with it,” requires a courage that not everyone can muster. Twitter is a little safer, although I’ve heard of more than one case where a Tweet about the book has led to reprimands from denominational authorities. In certain circles, there are attempts to silence all discussion of the book.

Unlike Warren, when I’m invited to speak these days I’m rarely asked if I’ll be saying anything controversial. The book’s subtitle alone clears that up in advance. But I’m still warned to expect “hostile” audiences. And before one of the few events I was expected to deliver in person, I received friendly advice to have someone accompany me for security purposes. Still, I know that the invitations I receive, many of which come from evangelical churches and organizations, are themselves acts of courage on the part of the hosts. And I receive them as such. Recently, I was invited to speak to an evangelical organization and given the instructions to not hold back: “We know what you do, and we want you to know that you have full liberty to do it. After you leave, we’ll clean the blood off the floor.” It was a privilege to accept this invitation.

Perhaps the most effective silencing mechanism in evangelical circles is the subtle but powerful norm of deference that has been cultivated throughout evangelicalism—a niceness, a deference to authority, an unwillingness to cause disruption or rock the boat. This deference is nearly always lauded as virtuous: humility, submission, respect, politeness. But as Austin Channing Brown makes clear, these supposed virtues mask the self-interest at the heart of deference to those in power:

We can see how you use niceness to make yourself feel better about the injustice(s) you’ve witnessed….We have seen how you manage to find your voice when you are asked to praise the system or enforce the system or justify the system.”

And your weaponizing of niceness is so complete that you get mad at us, when we reject your niceness….You are mad because we see your niceness for what it is—a desire to believe you are good, even as you uphold a system that oppresses.

Ultimately, for evangelicals to find their courage, they must face the ways they have been complicit in creating the systems that silence them. As Brown testifies: “If you are afraid, then you know there is danger in speaking out. And if you [know] it’s dangerous, you have either been complicit or you have been a willing participant in allowing others to face that danger alone.”


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