Encore: Evangelicalism in 2020 and Beyond

Encore: Evangelicalism in 2020 and Beyond

Looking over the last twenty years, it becomes clear that Keller-movement Evangelicals built platforms, brands, and messages in order to be found winsome by the blue communities they sought to reach. As with the old-line liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, exquisite sensitivity to target audiences will shape the message delivered far more than its deliverers intended. 

Tensions churning within the Keller-led Reformed resurgence among Evangelicals eventually found articulation among the movers and shakers themselves. In March of 2021, North Carolina pastor Kevin DeYoung acknowledged that the once nationwide, cross-denominational Calvinist party was effectively over:

On the other side of Ferguson (2014), Trump (2016), MLK50 (2018), coronavirus (2020–2021), George Floyd (2020), and more Trump (2020–2021), the remarkable coming together [of Reformed evangelicals] seems to be all but torn apart…We won’t be able to put all the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together again…

DeYoung accurately identified pressing political realities as key factors in the break-up of the movement. We could add to DeYoung’s list of political flash points: the emergence of critical race theory (CRT), the crisis at the Southern U. S. border, Black Lives Matter, identity politics, and the stunning Biden-supported transgender rights campaign in the nation’s K-12 schools.

More fundamentally, however, are the political sensibilities that precipitated Humpty Dumpty’s fall from his wall. With such a promising start, the movement that put so much stock in being found winsome by its target audience found itself divided over branding strategies that could not please the full spectrum of Reformed evangelicals [1] Indeed, as a winsomeness campaign targeting blue communities not red, it resulted in a politically-subtle “seeker sensitivity” movement and a church growth model that aimed to please the so-called political party of “compassion,” not “conversativism.” In what follows, I will outline the fruit produced by Keller’s “Third Way,” and I will show how it has impacted Evangelicals.

Keller’s Third Way

Once again, the genesis of this commitment to winsomeness goes back to Tim Keller’s Third Way. As noted in my last essay, Keller encouraged Christian engagement with culture both as the path to clear communication of the gospel and as a necessary protection against compromise of the gospel message through unwitting capitulation to cultural rather than biblical norms. But Keller never called for and never modeled serious engagement with politics. Politics was treated as a dangerous threat to the gospel message and as a temptation to an idolatrous attachment of believers to one political party or to one politician. Accordingly, Keller tried to position his movement between the political parties and above politics writ large in a quest to avoid ongoing responsibility to weigh in on thorny political debates.

The attempt to inoculate his movement from a perceived political minefield appeared in Keller’s first book, the 2008 bestseller, The Reason For God. There Keller outlined for evangelical leaders his so-called “Third Way” whereby Christians could allegedly fly between and above liberal and conservative political loyalties.[2] According to him, Republicans got some things right; Democrats were better on others. Between the two, however, there exists a rough moral equivalence and a freedom to vote as one pleases—or so the argument went.

Nestled in the heart of New York City, Keller’s Third Way appeared to have evangelistic traction in his secular locale. And many young, Reformed evangelicals followed his political example.[3] Unfortunately, Keller’s commitment to winning blue communities with winsomeness broke through his supposed political neutrality. Keller and his followers offered too many reductive caricatures of the political left and right that incentivized critique of conservatives and showed openness to the contemporary social justice movement the Democratic party cherishes.[4]

Keller credits the left with what they want but don’t deserve—the supposed reputation of compassion for the poor and love for justice.[5] He then reductively defines conservatives as primarily concerned with eternal souls, the unborn, and money—a caricature that the left is happy to declare and then impugn.[6] The Third Way means to make it kosher for ostensibly pro-life Christians to vote Democrat while giving an edge to Democrats on the compassion front. Although he identifies as pro-life, Keller recently tweeted, “The Bible tells me that abortion is a sin and great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which policies are most effective.” Really? It is possible that support for the Democratic party might offer “the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country,” when this party not only celebrates abortion on demand at every stage of pregnancy but looks to punish anyone who refuses to publicly celebrate such abortions? I think not!

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