The Galli Report 10.08.21

The future CT? Tammy Faye redeemed. Monomania. When a feminist is not one. The documentary formula.

New Strategy for GR?
I was surprised and grateful to receive so many “likes” and affirming emails for skipping a GR last week for personal reasons.  I don’t know that I’ve had such a response to anything else that I’ve posted.  So I’ve begun to think that maybe each week for GR, I’ll simply make up an excuse as to why I’m not publishing that week :-)

The State of Evangelical Leadership
The article with the subtitle, “American evangelicalism is at a crossroads: accommodate the culture and politics of liberalism, or embrace the public demands of the Gospel” by Jackson Waters and Emma Posey offers a lot of wisdom, but it tries a little too hard to make something of a coincidence.  The coincidence was a Christianity Today sponsored conversation between Russell Moore and Beth Moore (no relation), and a conference on the politics of sex led by provocateur Doug Wilson, both held concurrently in Nashville, Tennessee in September.

The authors attempt to make the case that these two groups, CT and the constellation of reactionary Reformed conservatives surrounding Doug Wilson, represent the two likely paths evangelicalism can take going forward. The authors are right about CT being one of those. But Doug Wilson and his following are a tiny and inconsequential part of the evangelical movement. Recent accusations of sex and wife abuse in Wilson’s Moscow, Idaho community will only sideline that movement even more.

Still, there is insight in this piece. Like this:

The direction Moore, [columnist David] French, and Moore are walking is not simply traditional evangelicalism, but a form of cultural accommodation dressed as convictional religion. The result is a religious respectability that promotes national unity, liberalism, and wokeism under the rhetorical guise of love for neighbor. While Moore and his guest try to straddle the fence, there is little doubt that their biggest support is now coming from those significantly to their left politically.

Elite evangelicalism (represented by CT, IVPress, World Vision, Fuller Seminary, and a host of other establishment organizations) is too often “a form of cultural accommodation dressed as convictional religion.” These evangelicals want to appear respectable to the elite of American culture. This has been a temptation since the emergence of contemporary evangelicalism in the late 1940s, the founding of Christianity Today being one example. Letters between first editor Carl Henry and founder Billy Graham suggest the desire to be in essence an acceptable fundamentalism: Grounded in conservative theology while gaining the respect of secular academics and other cultural leaders.

You see this also in the doctorates earned by many of Fuller’s early professors; rather than coming from “safe” evangelical institutions, it was clearly important for early professors to graduate from Harvard or Oxford or one of the European universities of some repute.

One also saw this in the strategy of Young Life in the 1950s and 1960s. The key was to find or convert one of the “cool kids” (athletes, cheerleaders, class president, etc.) on the high school campus and encourage them to attend the weekly meetings. Get the influencers, it was said, and you’ll increase the number of kids who attend and eventually give their lives to Christ.

Indeed, effective evangelism has been one motive, and in some ways it has proved to be an effective strategy. But I don’t know that evangelicals have been sufficiently self-reflective to admit their basic and personal insecurities. It’s just no fun being an outsider to mainstream culture. We all just want to be loved, and if not loved, at least liked and respected. Elite evangelicals are not just savvy evangelists but also a people striving for acceptance.

I saw this often when I was at CT. For the longest time, a thrill went through the office when Christianity Today or evangelicalism in general was mentioned in a positive vein by The New York Times or The Atlantic or other such leading, mainstream publications. The feeling in the air was, “We made it. We’re respected.”  This irritated me, because I naturally believed that CT’s outlook was superior (since it was grounded in the truth of the gospel and not secularism), so I often commented that we had things backward: The New York Times ought to be thrilled when it gets a positive mention in Christianity Today.

This tendency has only gotten worse, as now the mark of a successful evangelical writer is to get published regularly in the Times, Atlantic, and so forth. What’s interesting about such pieces is that (a) such writers make a point that affirms the view of the secular publication (on topics like environmental care, racial injustice, sexual abuse, etc.) and (b) they preach in such pieces that evangelicals should take the same point of view. However, their writing doesn’t reach the masses of evangelicals who take a contrary view and don’t give a damn what The New York Times says. If these writers are really interested in getting those evangelicals to change their minds, the last place they should be is in the mainstream press. Better to try to get such a column published in the most popular Pentecostal outlet, Charisma. Ah, but that would do nothing to enhance the prestige of evangelicals among the culture’s elite.

Evangelical columns in large part merely bolster the reputation of secular outlets, as these publications can now pat themselves on the back and say, “See, even religious people agree with us.” Rarely if ever will you see an evangelical by-line in such outlets that argues to protect life in womb or affirms traditional marriage.

We see an ancient dynamic here: When you seek to win the favor of the powerful, you will likely be used by them to enhance their own status. And along the way, many of your convictions will be sidelined. We’ve seen this happen on the religious right in the political nightmare of the last few years. But it happens on the left just as often.

I saw this accommodation dynamic as CT managing editor and then editor in chief.  We said, for example, that the magazine did not take a stand in the complementarianism or egalitarianism debate. But we rarely if ever published an article that endorsed complementarianism; we did offer many that assumed egalitarianism in family and church life (not to mention the many women pastors who we published).

Then there was the six-day creation/evolution debate, in which again we said we took no stand.  But try to find an article in the last three decades that argued for or assumed six-day creation. And yet we published several pieces that simply assumed a billion-year time span for the history of the earth.

It’s not a coincidence that complementarianism and six-day creation are anathema to secularists, features of a religion out of touch with reality.

Another example was accommodation to a more radical feminist worldview. Once I wrote a draft of an editorial arguing that traditional traits associated with masculinity (like competition, aggressiveness, etc.) were not intrinsically toxic but needed in every human community (and, yes needed to be moderated!). The reactions of three key staffers (one male and two females) was shock and fear; they assumed I was justifying such things as wife abuse, even though in my draft I twice condemned the phenomenon. I put the editorial aside for the time being because it was not worth the staff dynamics I would have had to navigate at the time, since I sensed their anxiety would be shared by many other staffers. I hadn’t recognized how much fear and suspicion of masculinity pervaded the hallways.

To be fair, I suspect no one of reading The New York Times and then deciding what they believe about such matters. Staffers came to these conclusions in their own ways, and I do not doubt their sincerity. But one reason they found themselves at CT and comfortable there was because the magazine was in sync with mainstream media regarding many social issues.

Pro-life, of course, would be a great exception, as was the magazine’s stand on the morality of homosexual unions. But as the years have gone by, we’ve seen more CT articles about “how complex” such issues are, and that “there are no easy answers.” And I couldn’t agree more. At the same time, anyone who has studied the decline of mainline Christianity knows that such are the first signs of ethical retreat on an issue. It starts with “no easy answers” and moves to “here’s an exception” to eventual full acceptance. But history is not a one-way street, and this is hardly an iron law. I’m not saying that CT or these other evangelical orgs are racing toward liberalism. I’m only saying that the temptation to be accepted by the larger culture is immense, for reasons both evangelistic and psychological.

That being said, authors Waters and Posey falsely imagine the source of liberal drift in such institutions: It’s due to their being financed by radical liberal donors, like the infamous George Soros. I can say with confidence, to the degree that CT has liberalized, it has nothing to do with liberal donors. The opposite, in fact, is at play. One example among many: My infamous editorial about Mr. Trump was hailed by moderate and progressive evangelicals and deeply scorned by many of CT’s mostly conservative donors, causing the administration no end of headaches. This dynamic was also at play at Fuller Seminary in the 1970s—the faculty was moving left in some ways but the donor base was solidly right.

I suspect that this is the main financial dynamic of every major evangelical institution that wants to move, however slowly or modestly, in what is perceived as a more liberal direction.

As for the alternative group to lead evangelicals in the future? It will have to be a group with some intellectual and psychological backbone, like Doug Wilson’s, but not so idiosyncratic. I’d offer the Gospel Coalition. It is a major force that someday could supplant Christianity Today as the major intellectual voice of conservative Christianity. (Despite the sheer number of populist, religious-right evangelicals, I don’t take them seriously as a religious phenomenon; it is political with a religious veneer). The Gospel Coalition has the finances and, more importantly, a substantive theological foundation to better resist the enticements of the cultural elite. Naturally, as a Catholic, I disagree with some of Calvinism’s distinctives; still one has to admire its architecture and depth, and Calvinists’ stubborn faithfulness to tenets that offend the surrounding culture.

Evangelical religion has become theologically pluralistic and incoherent; as such, it is too subject to the changing winds of secularism to stand erect in the hurricane of our times. The challenge for an organization like CT is that it aspires to lead the evangelical movement when “there is no there there.” Currently, CT continues to do amazing work. Given the talents of the current editorial staff, administration, and board, I have no doubt it will continue to survive in these confusing times. Who exactly it will minister to and how large and influential that group will be is hard to say.

Of course, like every pundit, I will likely be proved wrong here and there, and perhaps more than that! But as someone embedded in the movement for five decades, I thought my views and experience might bring some clarity to the conversation.

Comments welcome in the comments section of the newsletter. (Click on the square speech balloon at the bottom of the newsletter to leave a comment. I ask that conversations remain civil; strong opinion is fine, but no personal attacks, name calling, etc.)

More Links that Might Be of Interest

The Redemption of a Televangelist: For decades, the mascara-laden Tammy Faye was relentlessly mocked. Maybe America got her wrong. Jonathan Merritt at The Atlantic.

Monomania Is Illiberal and Stupefying: Educational institutions have a duty to oppose monomania and to lead students out of its stultifying embrace. Jonathan Haidt at Persuasion.

When is a feminist not a feminist? Paula Wright at Critical Thinking Not Critical Theory

A Video Suspicious of Videographers
Even documentaries are not as objective as they appear. There are tried and true ways to manipulate viewers, as this satiric video reminds us.

Grace and peace,

Mark Galli