Church vs. the white evangelical direct-mail fundraising industry

Church vs. the white evangelical direct-mail fundraising industry November 30, 2015

Someone asked me, on Twitter, why I was picking on Russell Moore in this post.

Well, first of all, I’m not picking on him. I’ve been there and done that, having to help write just exactly the same sort of statement even when there was no way of doing so that didn’t undermine the logic of our then-shared “stance” on abortion and reveal it to be — to ourselves as well as to others — a pose that we weren’t able to find wholly convincing. I remember that — how it made me full of trouble because it forced me to realize, or almost realize, that I was playing double, that I warn’t square. It was unsettling, threatening my identity and all that I’d invested in the world of that pose. But it was also a kind of kairos moment, a place where grace allowed me to glimpse the light that shone through the cracks.

So I’m not picking on Moore, I’m praying for him.

When Moore first replaced Richard Land as the Southern Baptists’ chief public spokesman, I expected a change in tone, but not in substance. But, happily, Moore has exceeded my expectations. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission probably still does more harm than good, but it’s been a lot less harmful since Moore took over. I’ve previously described the difference between Moore and Land by saying that Land was driven by the desire not to be perceived as racist, while Moore seems more concerned with actually not being racist. And Moore even seems smart and self-aware enough to understand that simply not wanting to be racist isn’t enough. (That’s not easy to understand in a white evangelical subculture where ethics are often reduced to personal salvation and thus intent — having a “good heart” — is often regarded as sufficient.)

The biggest change from Land to Moore, though, is that the new face of the SBC seems far more focused on the church-y aspects of evangelicalism. During Land’s tenure, those concerns took a backseat to the louder, better-funded aspects of American evangelicalism — the direct-mail industry and the financial agenda of the largest donors to white evangelical institutions. That’s really what distinguishes Moore’s approach to “racial reconciliation” (an awful, and awfully abused, term) from that of his predecessor and of his mentor, Al Mohler.

KruseTo understand that difference it’s helpful, as always, to follow the money. The Southern Baptist Convention, as a denomination and as a church,* has a financial stake in racial reconciliation. That financial interest should not be, and probably isn’t, the primary motive for the church-ier evangelicals within or without the SBC, but it’s very real. Churches need to grow to survive financially. They need to baptize more than they bury every year, and that hasn’t been the case for the SBC lately. One clear hurdle to the growth of the church here in the U.S. is the nation’s changing demographics. A predominantly white institution catering primarily to white people cannot expect to grow when the white population represents a smaller share of the total every year. If the denomination hopes to thrive and remain relevant in the decades to come, it will need to become more diverse along with the rest of the country.

If this sounds like it closely parallels the briefly considered talk about “minority outreach” by the Republican Party post-2008 and post-2012, that’s because it does.

So from the church-y side of things — in the realm of pastors and congregations and local churches — “racial reconciliation” is a financial imperative. Their financial survival depends on their ability to grow beyond being a predominantly white enclave. This is why that clumsy, a-historical, awkardly un-self-aware effort to create a poll-driven rewrite of the Bebbington Quadrilateral came from folks in the church-y faction of white evangelicalism. The National Association of Evangelicals is a collection of denominations and LifeWay is a denominational pollster. They desperately want a new definition of “evangelical” that doesn’t restrict potential church membership by partisan political affiliation and ethnicity because they want — and financially need — their churches to grow. (Yes, like the GOP, they’re only able to imagine growth among African-Americans, Hispanics, women, etc., on their own white, male terms, which is another vastly huge problem, but they at least genuinely want to see those folks join them.)

But this church-y interest has relatively little influence within or over white evangelicalism as a whole. Its concerns are usually drowned out by the far-louder voices from the much larger platforms of the direct-mail fundraising industry and the donor-devoted institutions. And both of those factions are inextricably linked to Republican politics and thus, in 2015, to being predominantly and almost exclusively white.

Those factions have a financial interest in “stewarding the term” evangelical to mean white Republican Christians. They don’t need to attack the NAE’s “new” definition of evangelical because it doesn’t actually threaten this white partisan identity in the least, but they’ll undermine it by ensuring that the tribe’s gatekeepers continue to purge and exclude unacceptly non-white voices and anyone else who strays from the official required Republican stances on abortion, gays and whatever the other partisan wedge issues du jour might be. Their financial security depends on that.

Again, these rifts and competing concerns within white evangelicalism closely parallel the rifts and competing concerns within the larger Republican Party. The direct-mail fundraising industry — by which I mean all of the institutions we think of as the “religious right” — have roughly the same relationship to the church-ier parts of evangelicalism that Fox News has to the larger Republican Party. Their agendas are closely aligned, but their financial interests are not, and when those come into conflict it becomes harder to tell which is the tail and which is the dog.

Outside of the religious right, the donor-devoted institutions of white evangelicalism play the same kind of role that all the post-Citizens United dark money billionaires have come to play in Republican politics (involving most of the same small cadre of donors, actually). Those donors want to see the Republican Party succeed because they perceive that as being what’s best for their bottom line — for unfettered, unregulated corporate profits, taxes paid by wage-earners and not by wealth, etc. But wherever their personal interest clashes with the long-term health and interests of the party, the party can, like everyone else, go screw itself. The party may refer to these donors as “supporters,” but support really seems to be flowing in the opposite direction. It’s no longer clear who’s really in charge just as it’s no longer clear whether I’m talking about the Republican Party or evangelicalism.

All of that provides the context for poor Russell Moore’s statement in response to the right-wing terror attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood on Friday. As a church-y person, he has to condemn such violence, but as an evangelical who wants to remain in the evangelical tribe he also has to continue to agree with the ideology of that violence — the pretense that abortion is murder indistinguishable from the murder of any other fully human person. Take away that pretense and you take away the assurance that white evangelicals will continue to be a reliably partisan voting bloc.

The direct-mail industry can’t allow that — it’s the essential ingredient to their fear-mongering appeals and to their ability to pretend to represent the moral high ground. And the institutional donors won’t allow that — partisan identification in support of deregulation and regressive taxation is the entire basis and motive for their “support.”

So, again, Bebbington Schmebbington. Doctrinal distinctives are irrelevant. Evangelicals are white Christians who oppose legal abortion and who are never allowed to say or think otherwise. Period. The culture war may be a lie that’s killing the church in the long run, but in the short run there’s too much at stake financially for those non-church-y factions to allow “evangelical” to be defined as anything other than white and Republican.

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* Technically, the SBC is still Baptist, and is therefore neither a denomination nor a church. When I worked in Valley Forge for the American Baptist Churches, nothing would get me in hot water more quickly than failing to stress that plural final syllable in church-es, lest I be seen as implying that our association of congregations of freely baptized believers had forgotten it was a sect and begun acting like a church. You can still find traces of this fiercely Baptist attitude in the SBC, but really they’ve been acting like a denomination and a formal church for decades now. If the mitre fits …

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