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Church, State, and the Future of Evangelicalism

American evangelicalism is at a crossroads: accommodate the culture and politics of liberalism, or embrace the public demands of the Gospel.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Dr. Russell Moore during a meeting with faith leaders in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 2014. (Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images)

Evangelicalism, American Protestantism’s most vibrant and committed religious movement, is in a bind. Overwhelmingly, self-described evangelicals supported Trump; yet almost as commonly heard as the 81 percent who made up that statistic were the 19 percent of evangelicals, many of disproportionately higher economic status, who opposed him (some of whom have now disavowed the title “evangelical” altogether). Over the last year, the division between evangelicals and their leadership has only grown, raising the question of who is driving the movement.

In early September in Nashville, Tennessee—the emerging epicenter of conservative evangelicalism—the magazine Christianity Today launched its Public Theology Project with a live podcast recording of the Russell Moore Show, with guest Beth Moore. Russell Moore emerged as a conservative Calvinist voice helping purify Southern Seminary back in the early 2000s, but became a critic of Trump-supporting Southern Baptists, leading to his recent resignation from the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Shortly thereafter he announced his departure from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) altogether, citing ongoing issues of racism and sexual abuse.

His guest, the famous women’s pastor Beth Moore (no relation), was a bible study teacher whose ascendancy led her to take a leading role in the SBC’s Lifeway Christian store efforts. She too opposed Trump vocally on social media, and she left the SBC less than two months after Trump left office. Together, the two Moores exchanged feelings of surprise at their departure, disgust at the SBC backlash, and encouragement to evangelical observers to stay in their churches, offering helpful pop psychological tips on how to navigate church conflict. It’s worth noting that Russell Moore welcomed David French to the event as an esteemed audience member, an apt representation of the Moores’ political disposition.

Meanwhile, across town, Doug Wilson and the Fight Laugh Feast Network opened their annual three-day conference, “The Politics of Sex,” with a “beer and Psalm sing.” Wilson, a pastor, has been simultaneously one of the most controversial and most productive Christian leaders of the last 40 years, due to his contributions to the classical Christian education movement, outspoken paleo-libertarianism and cavalier attitude, and countercultural community in Moscow, Idaho. Also headlining the conference was Voddie Baucham, a fire-and-brimstone black American pastor and missionary to Zambia who has unabashedly taken to task mainstream evangelicals leaders for their equivocation about and sympathy for critical theory.

Each gathering represents a distinct path forward in American evangelicalism, each challenging the longstanding status quo of the movement. Ostensibly, neither group is primarily partisan in its aims or interests; the focus of both is the purity and permeation of Christian witness and the church. While not all evangelicals fall into these extremes, these two groups provide the bookends of respectable evangelical opinion, punch above their weight in the church, and have an outsized influence on conservative Christians in America, and so their gatherings, and what they shared and where they differed, merit further consideration.

The juxtaposition of the two perfectly illustrates the crisis of identity currently dividing contemporary evangelicalism. Both met to showcase their public theology, but the form and substance could not have been more different. Russell Moore and Christianity Today epitomize the best and most articulate evangelical rejection of both Donald Trump and the politicking of Southern Baptist leaders. Doug Wilson and the Fight Laugh Feast conference repudiate neutrality in the public square, and champion the church as an explicitly political entity, citing Scottish Covenanters and the Reformed resistance theology.

At the onset of the Russell Moore Show recording, Beth Moore addressed her dismay at evangelicals who readily embraced Trump with dismissive regard for his sexually explicit conduct. “I expected Trump to be Trump, but I did not expect us to be us.… There is a big difference between sexual immorality and sexual criminality.” Moore and Moore almost exclusively focused on institutional sexual abuse, harassment, and misogyny in their discussion, whereas Doug Wilson and Fight Laugh Feast emphasized humanity’s inevitable perversion of sex apart from Christ. In response they touted the Christian’s call to absolute faithfulness to one’s spouse and family, without which all efforts to reform and rebuild one’s church and society ultimately fail. Republicans and Democrats were condemned not for infidelity to party lines, but for adulterous affairs perpetrated while in power.

In alignment with popular evangelical theology, Moore and Christianity Today emphasize pietism and prioritize an individualistic faith, focused on the relationship between an individual and Christ, over any denominational or familial commitments. This contributes to the largely un-institutionalized practice of faith that enabled Beth Moore to attribute her decision to depart from the SBC “to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in [her] heart.” Nonetheless, despite this anti-institutionalism, Moore and Moore’s individual departures from the SBC reveal new developments within the wider realm of evangelicalism.

As Russell Moore described his decision to leave the SBC, he revealed a prioritization of a conflict-adverse theology of “peace” as the highest good. “I could have won the conflict that needed to happen,” he said, “but I didn’t want to be the person it would make me.” Despite the Baptist reputation for “Bible thumping,” it is worth noting there was a lack of scripture employed by either speaker to explain the decision to leave. Fueled by culturally accommodationist language such as the repeated use of the phrase “safe spaces,” both Moores publicly shied away from activist or political action and instead advocated for a distinct separation of the Gospel from any political party.

Meanwhile, loud a cappella Psalm and hymn singing led by a single cantor preceded each speaker at Fight Laugh Feast’s conference, while children sprawled out with their bouncy balls, Playmobiles, and coloring books on almost every aisle. Addressing “The Politics of Sex,” session speakers defended biblical patriarchy, nearly quoting Russell Kirk’s line: “Veneration may be the product of a patriarchal social outlook. When it is eradicated by sophistication, Providence has a way of returning us, rudely, to patriarchy.”

In the words of one speaker, Toby Sumpter—who like Wilson is a pastor in Moscow, Idaho—the only governmental alternatives for society are “pathological patriarchy and biblical patriarchy.… The question is not whether men will rule, but whether they will rule according to their fallen nature, or God’s.” Wilson’s keynote sermon went even deeper:

We sometimes focus on the fruit of perversion, which is where homosexual practices would be located, instead of looking to the root of all our modern perversion, which would be egalitarianism. And the thing that every form of egalitarianism has in common is its dedication to fruitlessness. So, for my purposes here today, gay means fruitless. And as believing Christians, we take our stand against gay economics, which hates the fruit of wealth for work. We take our stand against gay education, which hates the fruit of honors for real study. We take our stand against gay heterosexuality, which scrapes wombs bare of the children who were seeking refuge there. We take our stand against gay gays and gay lesbians, who want a strict guarantee that their orgasms will be always and forever fruitless.

A harder line could hardly be taken against the dominant culture. But true to their evangelical heritage, speakers argued that cultural transformation begins with individual repentance: “We are not up against the left, but God and his judgement. We must all cry out to the King in repentance,” closed Sumpter.

That language, while once common in American political and religious discourse, faded from view over the 20th century, as evangelicals were pushed from mainline denominations onto the cultural fringes. No sooner has evangelicalism returned in force, than it has begun to divide along the lines of J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism. Baylor sociologist George Yancey has pointed out that it is liberal evangelicals, or ex-vangelicals as some prefer, who have exchanged their theological identity for a fundamentally political one. David French recently illustrated this divide when slamming Wilson’s biblical model for cultural engagement, specifically praising Russell Moore’s “empathetic” solutions as the alternative.

The direction Moore, 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.

Amidst this impending crisis in evangelicalism, Fight Laugh Feast offers a refreshingly sophisticated bulwark: a Puritan theology paired with an expectation of resistance. Whether such defiant Calvinist teaching can sufficiently permeate evangelicalism remains an open question, but where it takes root, it will not quickly recede. Wilson and Sumpter’s disinterest in social status makes them invulnerable to social pressure, a lesson that rank-and-file evangelicals have internalized but evangelical elites such as Russell Moore and the editors of Christianity Today continue to miss. The long-derided “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” with its restrained separatism and parallel culture seems to have reached its most advanced stage at FLF’s base in Moscow, Idaho. For evangelicals frustrated with lack of biblically based political leadership within their church, Wilson is one of the few serious games in town.

Jackson Waters is a graduating senior from Union University. 

Emma Posey is the coalitions manager of American Moment.

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