The Rise and Fall of the Evangelical Elite

The Rise and Fall of the Evangelical Elite

It is obvious now, looking back at the post-9/11 and pre-Obergefell era, that the leftward drift of this movement was inevitable. The end of Renn’s “neutral world” and the beginning of a negative world hostile to Christianity began soon after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015  and accelerated rapidly with Trump’s 2016 victory. Changed circumstances undermined the attractive witness model as previously practiced. The neutral-world ethos could not hold in the negative world; the era of open debate was gone.

I converted to Christ in the year 2000, leaving behind my atheistic contrarianism. I entered American Protestantism completely unaware that something unique was occurring. In the 1980s, Calvinism reemerged as a potent intellectual force in evangelicalism, spearheaded by Baptists John Piper and John MacArthur and Presbyterian R. C. Sproul. In the early 2000s, young Gen X seminary graduates and writers who were influenced by these men became a movement known as the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR). New personalities and publishers emerged, and megachurches were formed. Centered on Calvinistic doctrines of salvation, these Baby Boomers and Gen X Calvinists achieved a good deal of theological unity. 

Their cross- and intra-generational unity was most evident in the Together for the Gospel conferences (T4G), which began in 2006 and held every other year. It was organized by four friends, already well-established in their own  circles in the pre-social media days—Mark Dever (Baptist), Ligon Duncan (Presbyterian), Albert Mohler (Baptist), and C.J. Mahaney (Charismatic), along with three invited speakers: Piper, MacArthur, and Sproul. What unified them were belief in biblical inerrancy, male headship of families, and the “five points” of Calvinism, which can be reduced (albeit simplistically) to the traditional Reformed doctrine of predestination. Thus, they were opposed to feminism, modern “critical” biblical scholarship, and the freewill doctrines of Arminianism. The conference grew over the years to include younger pastors such as David Platt (Baptist), Matt Chandler (Baptist), Kevin DeYoung (Presbyterian), Thabiti Anyabwile (Baptist), and others. 

I attended the 2008 T4G in Louisville, Kentucky, seeing the men I had read for several years joyfully sitting on panels together, despite their important differences. This togetherness was real. But it was also entirely a product of the time. It was in the middle of what Reformed writer Aaron Renn has labeled the 20-year “neutral world” period from 1994 to 2014—a world in which Christianity no longer had a privileged status but was not disfavored. Most everyone in these evangelical circles was a political “conservative” or typical evangelical voter, against abortion and homosexual marriage. Nevertheless, on political questions, the YRR leaders approached politics very differently. Piper was an outspoken Christian pacifist who would have even refused to defend his own family against violence. MacArthur regularly proclaimed his sentiment that “government can’t save you.” In contrast, Mohler (along with the
Presbyterians) devoted attention to “engaging” the culture. But in the neutral world these differences were seemingly less pertinent; the glue of their unity was opposition to theological liberalism.

The late Timothy Keller also rose in prominence at this time in communicating the Gospel to coastal elites. His neo-Calvinism spread far and wide among the Gen-X world, establishing an ethos centered on “winsomeness” and a “third-way” politics above (not between, so he claimed) the political left and right. 

Under Keller’s influence, the YRR era was not retreatist but activist—pursuing “cultural engagement” by demonstrating that orthodox faith is the key to a coherent, good, and complete life. The purpose of “public theology” was more evangelistic than political; and most adherents, even if they disapproved of “neutrality” language, still approved of the possibility of debate within a shared public square. That is, entering public discourse offered Christians the chance not so much to win politically as to demonstrate their serenity, through a politics that appeared attractive, heavenly, and pleasantly aloof, and devoid of anxiety, overreaction, and anger. To the urban liberal, this was a quirky but safe political stand that checked the boxes on most “social justice” concerns. 

Hence, Christians who followed Keller’s approach could downplay or overlook questions of political power and focus instead on verbal and aesthetic persuasion. The principle regarding politics, especially for followers of Keller, was that political commentary and activism was an extension of “witness,” not fundamentally a means for good political outcomes. Every decision in ministering this witness tended to defer to whether it resulted in making Christianity attractive to non-believing urbanites. Politics was an extension of cultural apologetics, built around “authenticity” as opposed to the kitschy, suburban “seeker-sensitive” movement of the ’90s. The assumption was that secular people will become dissatisfied with the secular identities on offer and look for a coherent alternative. This approach made sense in that neutral world that no longer exists, where the Christian identity was one viable alternative among competing identities.

The Gospel Coalition (TGC), founded in 2005, exemplified this approach. A “coalition” of likeminded mostly neo-Calvinist churches, TGC served mainly to platform rising stars and to establish an elite evangelicalism. TGC’s long-time (and current) editor in chief, Collin Hansen, who wrote the book Young, Restless, Reformed in 2008, credited Keller’s works on “cultural apologetics” as a driver of the movement. Subsequently, the target engagement-audience for TGC (and neo-Calvinist apologetics in general) has always been urbanites, or at least non-rural residents. Few talked about the need for ministries to rural, working-class whites.

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