There is a popular assessment of why both progressives and conservatives felt embattled during the Trump years that is basically correct: while conservatives controlled government and the decisionmaking of major societal institutions, progressives controlled the culture. Conservatives had the power to act, but progressives had the power to narrate.
This same basic dynamic is at play within evangelicalism, but while the Institutional Evangelical Elite are often on the outs of institutional power in mainstream society, they lead the establishment institutions within evangelicalism. Similarly, while Populist Evangelical Elite are derided in mainstream culture, they dictate much of evangelical culture, even within churches and organizations led by Institutional Evangelicals. In general, Trump-wary evangelicals control establishment evangelical institutions, but it’s the populist evangelicals who draw crowds, who pull numbers, who tell evangelicals’ story. As in broader civic life, this is a frustrating arrangement! Institutional leaders have the perspective and the burden of seeing where things are and where things are going, but without narrative power that moves the masses they lead, they’re stuck fending off the sheep from the wolves in their midst. The wolves can be wolves, because they only need to worry about wolves. So long as the leader of the pack has followers, and has the ability to find easy, satisfying prey, he’ll have his pack.
This is why it seems that so many of the Institutional Evangelical Elite, and those who align with them, feel so lonely, so isolated, so uncertain today. They are stuck in between a mainstream elite who so often scorn them because they are evangelical, who require so much hand-holding just in order to attain some level of mutual understanding, only to be met with criticism from Populist-minded evangelicals that they’re too close to mainstream elites. The requirements of institutional leadership, of pluralism generally, require making evangelicalism legible to the broader public for (much more than, but not less than) the sake of evangelicalism itself. And yet, Populist Evangelicals tend to despise the requirements and reality of pluralism. Institutional Evangelical Elites are hampered both by the lack of cultural power of evangelicals in the broader culture, and their own lack of cultural power within evangelicalism itself. Caught in the crossfire of dueling narrations, the Institutional Evangelical Elite can view themselves as seeking to steward the influence they have for everyone’s good, but nobody’s recognition.
In this way, some of the recent spate of critiques of “evangelical elites” have a point. Though of course we must acknowledge that these references to one side being “elite” is a move in the debate, not an objective, sensible delineation.
*Note: In this essay, I’ll be using imperfect characterizations as well, Institutional Evangelical Elite (and those who align with them) and the Populist Evangelical Elite (and those who align with them). I would encourage readers to not think too legalistically about these categories, which are intended only to help us get at certain dynamics in evangelicalism, rather than as a comprehensive, precise taxonomy. The categories themselves only go so far.*
In these articles, “evangelical elite” mostly operates as a euphemism for Trump-wary evangelicals, a group I’ll imprecisely tag here as the Institutional Evangelical Elite. I’ll refer to their critics as the Populist Evangelical Elite. As misguided as their critiques have been about the motivations of the Institutional Evangelical Elite, they strike at a key difference: Institutional Evangelical Elites tend to believe evangelicalism is for the world, while Populist Evangelical Elites tend to believe evangelicalism is for evangelicals.
The point doesn’t go much further than that though. The Populist Evangelical Elite are just as responsive to pressure from peers and “the public” as the Institutional Evangelical Elite, it’s just the circle has a narrower circumference for the populists. It’s not that Doug Wilson doesn’t care whether The New York Times will publish him because Doug Wilson is a man of conviction. Doug Wilson doesn’t care whether The New York Times will publish him, because he is part of a self-sustaining ecosystem in which The New York Times is irrelevant. The key difference often comes down to the fact that the Populist Evangelical Elite believe they will never get the credit and recognition they deserve from mainstream elites, and act out of their bitterness regarding that assessment. “Who needs the New York Times anyways,” he said as he pouted and stomped his feet.
Trump (speaking of people who reject the mainstream media only because he wants their recognition so, so profoundly) did so well among many worship artists and “evangelists,” because these are often people with little to no institutional responsibilities. For them, the “public” amounts to their “fans” or “followers,” and because they are responsible for little, they are not subject to the criticism, aspirations and burdens of the general public. They look out at the crowds of people they attract and think: “how can Trump be hurting evangelicalism when my crowds are teeming with people who love Trump?” The Populist Evangelical Elite rarely notice the people who aren’t right in front of them.
The Institutional Evangelical Elite who were Trump-wary feel aggrieved by their inability to control the narrative coming out of the institutions and movement for which they have institutional responsibility. In response, some have turned to telling stories not about evangelicalism but about themselves. We now have a rash of testimonials of evangelicals who tell stories of awakening during the Trump era. This awakening, it must be said, is the result of a loss of narrative control, not a change in foundational commitment. What changed under Trump, most fundamentally, was the loss of the pretense of morality. Trump was explicit about things that were previously not explicit. He took things along a logical progression to a point that was supposed to have never been reached. Silence in response to the killing of Sean Bell as opposed to the killing of George Floyd cannot be considered worse (as many seem to think) because of a difference in substance, but because of a difference of narrative context. I’m not raising this dynamic, this responsiveness to narrative among institutional evangelicals, as a value judgment, but as what appears to me to just be a fact of the matter.
It’s this narrative responsiveness which leads the Institutional Evangelical Elite to believe that they are qualified to lead the future of evangelicalism even as they attained leadership in the institutions of an evangelical past that they now insist they’ve moved on from. This is why Trump is so pivotal. For Trump-wary evangelicals who were solid conservative Republicans prior to Trump, Trump was the eye-opener. This is infuriating to the Populist Evangelical Elite because Trump’s case to evangelicals was exactly the case Trump-wary evangelical evangelicals had been making as to why evangelicals must vote Republican for decades. Trump’s political priorities were the political priorities that Trump-wary institutional evangelicals said ought to be the priority. The Populist Evangelical Elite had largely absorbed the “Christian worldview” training the Institutional Evangelical Elite had conveyed. Institutional evangelicals feel betrayed because Trump broke with the narrative—”values voters” no more! The Populist Evangelical Elite feel betrayed because the Institutional Evangelical Elite broke from the line.
There are some interesting figures who sort of straddle these categories and clarify them. Al Mohler, who I’ve written about before, opposed Trump in 2016, but supported him in 2020. This switch is largely explained by the very differences I’ve highlighted above. In 2016, Mohler’s opposition to Trump was based on moral credibility (“When it comes to Donald Trump, evangelicals are going to have to ask the huge question, 'Is it worth destroying our moral credibility’”) and narration to the public (“This election is a disaster for the American people; it's an excruciating moment for American evangelicals”). By 2020, Al Mohler, was endorsing Trump by pointing out his view that evangelical politics will not necessarily lead “to the applause of the world.” In 2016, Mohler was concerned about the message an evangelical endorsement of a man of Trump’s character would send to the world, but by 2020, Mohler had “no means of reading Donald Trump's heart on this issue,” but “could easily evaluate his actions.” Mohler’s flip during the Trump years exemplifies the divide: it’s the story of an evangelist turned inwards, an apologist who would rationalize evangelicals’ political allegiance to Trump back to them. In 2016, he voted differently than a majority of white evangelicals to avoid destroying his moral credibility; in 2020, Mohler was appealing to evangelicals’ own judgment as self-ratifying: “The majority of evangelicals continue to vote in a predictable pattern that reveals evangelical concerns.” This was Al Mohler talking to Al Mohler circa 2016, as well as every Never Trump evangelical: this is what we’ve always done, he was saying. These have always been our priorities, he said.
This claim strikes at the heart of the kind of Institutional Evangelical Elite who is entertaining reparations now, but was advocating against affirmative action in the aughts. If Trump is the wake-up call, an institutional leader who “wakes up” during the Trump years is right on the mark. If Trump’s success was possible because of some of the priors that were propped up by these leaders, if the alarm bell had been ringing for a while, then some of these leaders might not be the best-placed to lead the evangelical institutions of the future. Indeed, how can narrative-minded leadership tell a positive story about evangelicalism to the world when so much of their personal story is wrapped up in a rejection of the very evangelicalism they once embraced?
Perhaps the counter-Mohler is Mark Galli. Whereas Mohler endorsed Trump in 2020, Galli infamously opposed him as editor of an elite evangelical institution. In running for SBC president, Mohler burrowed even deeper into evangelicalism. In converting to Catholicism, Galli did, uh…the opposite.
This past week, Galli wrote a post affirming some of the recent criticism of evangelical elites, and suggested at institutions like Christianity Today, he often found an overeagerness to appeal to, and be validated by, secular gatekeeping institutions. I’ll be honest, outside of this critique, I don’t get much else of Galli’s argument. This is due, in large part, to confusing paragraphs like this one:
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.
So the evidence of a “drift” is the move to acknowledging realities to which he “couldn’t agree more”? Christians should not take cues from the larger culture, but it’s troubling when they acknowledge true things because they happen to line up with the larger culture?
Galli references his op-ed opposing Trump in this article, but only to make some observations about how it was received. I, however, want to make a few observations about the op-ed itself, all of which can be made based on this excerpt:
Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.
To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?
First, note again this distinction here as Galli, writing for an evangelical institution, references explicitly the story evangelical support will tell to “an unbelieving world.”
Second, and most critically, there is a hint here of Galli’s current criticism of evangelical elites (and, dare I suggest, his conversion to Catholicism) in his decision to not just write the editorial on behalf of his own prudential judgment, or even the judgment of Christianity Today, but a matter of Christian dogma itself. And it is this tendency which is one of the primary temptations for evangelicals. The drift from conservativism to progressivism Galli is concerned about is real, of course. But while the stereotypical drift of the Mainline was from theological conservatism to a universalist relativism, the dangerous drift of the evangelical is one of shifting certitudes. That is, they keep the mode of evangelical absolutism, but just apply it to different objects. You see this now among many who are exvangelical or deconstructive. For some, the fact that they now believe their hubristic certitude, their willingness to act as if their opinion was synonymous with God’s, was not well-placed before has not led them to approach matters with more humility, greater ambivalence. No, instead they just redirect their easy condemnations (which suggests that perhaps it’s not “evangelical absolutism” so much as it is a hubris which is taken up by a certain personality type or cast of mind) elsewhere.
The third thing I’ll point out is a misunderstanding about prudentiality. Politics is, with very, very few exceptions, the realm of the prudential. In politics, you don’t directly implement values, you translate values. It’s the translation that is prudential, and it’s the translation that is the work of politics. Galli was wrong to suggest that opposing Trump was as clear as the Ten Commandments. But too many evangelical elites, of any stripe, communicate that Christianity only has something to offer when they can speak with absolute certainty and authority. They offer Christian resources as a mandate or not at all. This leads to either quietism or claiming, as C.S. Lewis observed and as I cite often, that God has spoken when He has not spoken. We need a Christianity that is willing to speak with humility; to say “my faith leads me to…,” without claiming “the faith must lead one to…”
I don’t know if I should be considered an “evangelical elite,” but I know that the only evangelicalism I want to be a part of, the evangelicalism I was introduced to as a high school student, was for the world, not for itself. It cared what others thought, because it cares for others. Of course, evangelical beliefs should not be dictated by the world, but we should also never forget our beliefs are for the world. This is because what we believe are not *just* beliefs. We believe what we believe because we think it is real, and real for everyone.
Some have suggested that “evangelical elite” simply means someone who has written for Christianity Today, and if that’s the case, guilty as charged. I certainly identify more with Institutional Evangelical Elite than I do with the Populist Evangelical Elite, even as I think the former ought to keep in mind that among those influenced by the latter, those who do not have the “right” political opinions, you’ll find individuals who have made great strides toward putting on the character of Christ while the intellects of instititutions so often miss the mark.
A self-interested evangelical public theology is, by my lights, fundamentally flawed. An evangelical public theology which views evangelicalism as for the world is in a much, much stronger place to contribute something positive, something needed, in this moment. One danger to avoid, which is both the motive and the failure of many of these recent articles about evangelical elites, is to view our public witness through only the lens of the Trump Era. If Institutional Evangelical Elites—and those who align with them—fall into this trap, they’ll miss what they must correct that has deeper roots than Trump himself, while neglecting that their witness must not originate from social analysis, but from wells that go even deeper than their prudential errors.