The latest outrage to rock social media—and hence our minds—hardly needs a detailed summary. A video that surfaced last weekend, showing teenage white boys in MAGA hats seemingly taunting an American Indian, set off a frenzy of vitriolic tweets condemning them for bigotry and even demanding that they’re punched in the face. But this narrative quickly collapsed when additional videos show not only that the Indian, Nathan Phillips, lied about what occurred, but also that the boys were subjected to demeaning racial harassment from black supremacists for an hour prior to Phillips intentionally and without provocation walking up to the boys while beating a drum. Tucker Carlson describes the events with more detail.

The new revelations led many to delete their tweets, promising to do better next time. Others, doubling-down on their initial reaction, now say that the new videos only “complicate” the original narrative, for after all it’s all about Trump anyway.

It was entirely unsurprising to me that evangelical leaders joined the mob. Thabiti Anyabwile, for example, tweeted that the boys demonstrated “racist incivility.” He retweeted (along with Alan Noble) a tweet implying that the boys’ actions manifested “white supremacy” and a video of Nathan Phillips lying that the boys chanted “build the wall.” Beth Moore tweeted, “To glee in dehumanizing any person is so utterly antichrist it reeks of the vomit of hell.” Karen Swallow Prior tweeted, “I’m sick to my stomach. Lord, help.” J. D. Greear, affirming with “Truly!” retweeted a now deleted tweet (though Greear’s remains visible) saying, “This is hate.” Duke Kwon called the incident “disturbing but not surprising.” I’d praise some for their silence, but it’s not clear at this point who has and hasn’t deleted tweets. Ed Stetzer, for example, suggests that he tweeted on the incident but later deleted them.[1]

After new videos surfaced, some of these evangelicals expressed regret. Greear tweeted that he’s “frustrated.” Karen Swallow Prior tweets that there are “lots of lessons in this whole mess.” Anyabwile seems to have doubled-down and then, with a tu quoque, claimed that “all” responses were ill-informed. I haven’t seen any hint of remorse from Beth Moore whose tweet was the most vilifying of them all.

The regret that I have seen is not that they took part in a social media mob, but that they took part in the wrong social media mob. That seems to be Greear’s “frustration.” And many continue to pull the grand narrative of Trump into this particular event, blaming the “foolishness” of the kids for wearing Trump’s MAGA hats, as if wearing a small (or skimpy) article of clothing justifies anyone’s jeers (or whistling) in response to it. What seems fairly clear is that the response to the perceived event was and is a continuation of the #resistance, and these teenagers are forced to bear upon their shoulders all the things the #resisters despise most about America and, for the evangelical elite, about American Christianity. From the initial reaction to today’s regretful “yeah, but…”, the narrative is still about Trump and Trump’s America, and the personal lives of these kids—who now have received death threats—are sacrificed for the greater good of resisting Trump.

We’ve argued in other articles that the evangelical elite use the same tactics as the world, rely on the same popular sentiment in rhetoric, and have arisen in relevance among evangelicals largely for two reasons: an engagement technique suitable for the new mediums of discourse (especially Twitter) and because they’ve merely Christianized the moral sentiments and ends of the Western ruling class. As I’ve said, they are the evangelical face of the upper-class interest. Being the court evangelicals to the ruling class, they take their cues from the world, and the world cued them on Saturday to join a mob of personal destruction. Their hasty reaction to the initial video was entirely predictable.

Let’s not forget that these people constantly tweet about civility. Jared C. Wilson (who seems to have remained silent throughout this), once tweeted,

The Trumpian mode of angry discourse has infected evangelicalism where we can no longer simply disagree with someone but must “own” them, subject them to “take downs,” destroy them with accusations real or imagined, mock them, objectify them, use them. The impulse isn’t Christian.

The irony of course is that this is exactly what the “civil” ones in evangelicalism did in this case. With the rest of the social media world, they sought to own, take down, accuse, mock, objectify, and use these teenagers. Why? To impute Trump’s America on them and then destroy them. And the later “oops, let’s do better guys” only reveals their blindness to their moral-rhetorical sentiments. Their moral sentiments are so intertwined with the world of social media that while seeing extreme incivility everywhere in their evangelical twitter-opponents, they fail to see just how wretchedly uncivil they are themselves. No member of the evangelical elite, from what I’ve seen, has committed him or herself never again to own, take down, destroy, and use real people in the future for some grand narrative. They are sorry today only because they took part in the wrong mob, not because they took part in a mob. Flowing in the social current, it feels perfectly natural for them to repudiate socially unacceptable nastiness[2] while remaining oblivious to the socially respectable nastiness that they readily employ. And bizarrely, these acts (tweets) of justice, despite being expected of them and without cost or risk, are held up as courageous—as they come to the defense of abstract individuals while real individuals (whose names they actually know) bear the personal cost of their Christian “moral witness.” Still, with unwavering moral authority, they will continue their repudiation of uncivil discourse in others with perfect civility.

Now, I am not simply pointing out their hypocrisy. That’s too easy and usually boring. Rather the point is that their inconsistency reflects something important about both their relevance and the rhetoric they employ, namely, that they have embodied the dominant moral sentiments of our age, along with its rules of civility, which makes their rhetoric effective and catapults them to a sort of social standing. They’ve mastered the technique of our new, social media digital age. This is why their reaction was so predictable: the technique and moral sentiment that maintains their status in evangelicalism requires this sort of reaction. I’m not talking about reactions to fake crises like this one, but about the general requirement to participate in the personal destruction of the dissident that the ruling class doesn’t like.[3] That is, to take part in destroying the lives of people in support of a grand narrative built upon the moral sentiments and vision of the elite culture. The new social order requires this sort of activity, and the evangelical elite will maintain that order with dignified civility, of course.

Even when they make a mistake and join the wrong mob, the evangelical elites will use their own factual inaccuracies and apologies to instruct us in how we all should think, feel and respond in the future. We have to pay attention to this; it’s one of those unique features of the elite. Their failures, causing no damage to their moral credibility, actually strengthen that credibility by providing the occasion for tutelary instruction. Their own collective moral failures strengthens their own collective moral authority. This is exactly what they’ve attempted to do in the last couple days. Like their secular counterparts, no collective failure can dislodge them from their eminent status as evangelicalism’s moral thought leaders. It’s quite remarkable, and since we’re all accustomed to elite dismal failures doing nothing to harm elite credibility, it’s almost imperceptible.

Conclusion

The rest of us must realize that the resistance to the evangelical elite is a matter of deconstructing their rhetorical tricks and disclosing their delusions. As I said, the evangelical elite are best understood when viewed as the evangelical face of upper-class interest. Many of them don’t even realize the role they’ve filled in society because their moral sentiments, which are provided by the cultural hegemony maintained by elites, seem natural to them, despite their contradictions and the violence done by them to real people. So we must challenge the rhetoric and deconstruct the sentiments and thereby point them to the true nature of things.


[1] David French, to his credit, likely did not join his fellow evangelicals in condemnation. Some evangelicals who didn’t tweet condemnation liked others’ condemning tweets. Russell Moore and Ray Ortlund ‘liked’ one of Joe Scarborough’s tweets, for example.

[2] The nastiness that they condemn is usually found in responses to their own passive aggressive tweets. The appearance of civility often masks an underlying aggression, as I demonstrated here.

[3] This includes passive aggressive tweets, i.e., tweets that don’t directly state the object or person of criticism but nevertheless are intentionally posted at a certain time with content (which can include a Bible verse) that clearly implies criticism.

Stephen Wolfe
Contributor

Stephen Wolfe studies politics at Louisiana State University. His writing has appeared in Modern Reformation, Mere Orthodoxy, Chronicles Magazine, and History of Political Thought. He and his family are members of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

4 Comments to: The Covington Kids and Evangelical Elite Mobbery

  1. Avatar

    Mitchell

    January 23rd, 2019

    Hi Stephen,

    First of all, brilliant work–I love the specificity and clarity in your writing.

    I also find it fascinating the way you strategically use the language of the evangelical left against itself. Take, for example, the conclusion of this article:

    “The rest of us must realize that the RESISTANCE to the evangelical elite is a matter of DECONSTRUCTING their rhetorical tricks and disclosing their delusions. As I said, the evangelical elite are best understood when viewed as the evangelical face of UPPER-CLASS INTEREST. Many of them don’t even realize the role they’ve filled in society because their moral sentiments, which are provided by the CULTURAL HEGEMONY MAINTAINED BY ELITES, seem natural to them, despite their contradictions and the violence done by them to real people. So we must CHALLENGE the rhetoric and DECONSTRUCT the sentiments and thereby point them to the true nature of things.”

    From a rhetorical perspective, this is brilliant. Who claims to care more about class struggle than the cultural marxists of the new left (Christian or not)? Who constantly rails against the “cultural hegemony” maintained by elites? Who calls for the “deconstruction” power structures and calls for “speaking truth to power” more than the new left?

    Yet the dominant power structure in contemporary western culture is, without question, political leftism/postmodern deconstructionism. Your use of this language forces the left to play their own game.

    However; do you think it wise for conservatives to dabble with this rhetoric? I’m not denying that the evangelical elite have a position of power, which they have abused. I’m just questioning whether or not that ought to be the focus of our argument. The last thing we want is to simply form another “victim” group whining about privilege.

    Don’t know if you read/respond to comments, but I’d love to hear from you if so.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Anthony

    January 24th, 2019

    Saw you’re a member of the PCA and your article heartened me in terms of strong Christian conviction. Amen to that! Was wondering if you were able to point that high powered perception at our own denomination, you know, wake everyone out of their sleep. I’ve been trying but don’t have the platform. From the “ho hum, nothing to see here” reactions that I have encountered from the men of our denomination, my prediction is that you can kiss the PCA goodbye. May take 5 or 15 years, but count on it, unless good people do something. All of this is referring to Revoice and this article…

    https://warhornmedia.com/2019/01/15/covenant-theological-seminary-and-the-decline-of-the-pca/

    Reply

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