The Galli Report: 10.15.21
Falling from grace into mercy--or Elite evangelicalism, Part 2. The evangelical embarrassment reflex. Catholics and COVID. High culture as counterculture. Bobby McFerrin teaches the pentatonic scale.
Falling from Grace into Mercy—
or Elite Evangelicalism, Part 2
I am both surprised and grateful for the response to the last Galli Report. The affirmations were, well, affirming for me, and the pushbacks were generally on target, forcing me to think more deeply. Just the way conversation is supposed to work.
I want to reiterate what I said in the comments section; it’s not my intent to question the motives of any individual. Nor can one conclude that a by-line in The New York Times by an evangelical author suggests he/she is pandering for acceptance by the secular culture. I was writing in general terms about tendencies that I’ve witnessed in the movement and that have found a home in me as well. Some thought I was throwing my CT colleagues under the bus; I should have made it more clear that I was also throwing myself under the bus!
Furthermore, what’s actually going on in any given case has many layers. I’ll use myself as an example.
After my infamous Trump editorial, I was contacted by all manner of secular media—The Washington Post, The Atlantic, NPR, The New York Times, CNN, etc. As my schedule that week allowed, I tried to accommodate as many interviews as I could. So, what was that about?
For one thing, it was my job to take such interviews, because we wanted Christianity Today to be a part of some national conversations. Most of the time in the course of our work, it wasn’t worth our time. CNN would phone and ask for someone from CT to come on one of their shows. This meant an hour drive into Chicago, an hour or so at the studio, and then an hour drive home. All for five-to-seven minutes of airtime. So, I generally declined and encouraged staff to do the same.
After my editorial, when CNN phoned me and asked for an interview. I explained the above and said I wasn’t interested. That’s when the producer said, “How about if we send a truck out to your home?” That, I said, would work. And so it went for the next few days, media coming to us on our terms. That was a nice change of pace! More importantly, it was a great opportunity for more Americans to get to know Christianity Today.
I certainly recognized that I was being used by the media. Notice how many of those outlets were anti-Trump. Every single one. I knew I was—for them—a happy example of a conservative evangelical touting their party line. Knowing that, I tried to include in the interview something they were not expecting, to suggest how Christian faith transcends the political, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t hear a thing I said along those lines.
As an evangelical, I also did it for evangelistic reasons. By the time the new year rolled around, I was scheduled to be on eight podcasts in one week. I had started declining TV interviews because I was tired of trying to nuance my views in their seven-minute time slot. I looked forward to an hour conversation about the topic. Nearly all the podcasts were hosted by men who made it clear to me that they were not believers. And yet, as I suspected, the conversation sooner or later moved to “So what is an evangelical?” and in the course of my answer, I was able to share the gospel.
Was I pandering after respectability in accepting these invitations to appear in the mainstream media? As far as I can remember, it didn’t play a conscious role. But was I proud to appear on these shows? I’d be lying if I denied that. So why would I be proud if I didn’t think that appearing in such outlets raised my self-esteem and my national profile? Yikes!
The point is this: When any evangelical appears in mainstream media, all these things are likely going on at the same time. So let us judge not lest we be judged.
At the same time, I stand by my argument that this yearning to have the respect of mainstream secular culture is a common and unhealthy characteristic of the movement. One more illustration. When an article in CT was criticized by someone on the evangelical right, most of us just scoffed. It was a badge of honor to have the religious right disapprove of us. On the other hand, we were sensitive to criticisms that came from the left, especially from elite media outlets. Those criticisms would keep us up at night as we thought about how we could make sure not to be misunderstood as sexually uptight or bigots or cultural neanderthals.
In other words, elite evangelicals are addicted to being affirmed by the secular elite and excited by the prospect of dancing with popular culture. This is not a problem of “those kids today” (younger evangelicals) or progressive boomers, as if, as editor in chief, I was simply run over by the zeitgeist, a mere victim of the phenomenon. I pushed back as much as I felt I could get away with and still maintain a productive working climate with colleagues. But one thing about retirement is the time one has to reflect on one’s career, and I see more clearly how much I was willing to go along to get along, and how much I was part of the system. As I said, we’re all under the bus.
Given all this, how should we then live? Simply condemn elite evangelicalism and move on? Look down our noses at those we think are looking down their noses at others? Or maybe we roll up our proverbial sleeves and get to work at reforming the culture?
I certainly am not condemning evangelicalism in bringing all this up, only pointing out some dynamics that plague the movement. I didn’t “move on” to Roman Catholicism because of all this, nor because I thought Catholics have it all together. Hardly. On the other hand, I don’t think there is much hope in reforming many things that course through the veins of elite evangelicals. Let me explain.
In an article in Lapham’s Quarterly on the habitual corruption found in Louisiana politics, Nancy Lehman notes the mid-twentieth scandals of Governor Earl Long, brother of the infamous and power-hungry Huey Long. The populace didn’t seem to care that Earl had had an affair with a stripper and landed in a state mental hospital for a spell, as they elected him to the governorship four times in the midst of such scandals:
The familiar theory . . . was that the people of Louisiana would rather be entertained than served with ethics. Some would call this a Gallic attitude, to be blinded by charm at the expense of integrity, and indeed the culture of Louisiana is historically French Catholic. And as the Catholics might say, the fall from grace is inevitable, a mystery to be endured rather than a problem to be solved.
The Christian faith never tires of reminding us that we are members of the fellowship of the half-hearted and corrupt, and that in some ways this is a mystery to be endured with patience rather than solved immediately with prideful, heroic efforts.
To American evangelical ears, activist and optimistic as we are, this may sound like defeatism. Could be. But it also may be a deep expression of the gospel. No matter where we find ourselves in the Christian world, we’ll eventually see addictions that are endemic to the tradition we find ourselves in. The odds of rooting those out are about as good as completely rooting out greed, lust, or pride from the human heart, or as Jesus said, about as likely as a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven.
Ah, but he continued: All things are possible with God. So, this doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and surrender, letting the worst in us and in our tradition have its way. Of course we will, with God’s help, try to check our less noble instincts and habits. And one check is to name the problem without shaming ourselves or condemning others, knowing that while the fall from grace is inevitable, the mercy of God is remarkable.
Articles that May Be of Interest
At The American Reformer we have John Ehrett’s “The Embarrassment Reflect: Evangelicals and Culture.” He affirms some of what I’ve been saying but explores it theologically and sociologically (my analysis is mostly spiritual/moral).
At The Atlantic, there is “How Is a Catholic Supposed to Think About the COVID Vaccine? The Church’s official teaching on vaccines requires a kind of nuance missing from today’s public life” by Elizabeth Bruenig. She gives some insight into the challenges that Catholics wrestle with.
At The New Criterion, you can read, “Culture as counterculture: On changes in the cultural climate” by Adam Kirsch. An interesting and counterintuitive proposal for challenging pop culture.
Universal Musical Scale?
A delightful video of Bobby McFerrin as he “demonstrates the power of the pentatonic scale.” Maybe this is one cultural phenomenon we all share.
Grace and peace,