Over the last two years, many evangelicals have stood in alarm at what seems to be a concerted effort to shift the direction of conservative evangelicalism towards social justice. Whole conferences have been devoted to it. New leaders have arisen, seemingly from nowhere, as spokespersons for particular issues of justice, and popular evangelical blogs now devote considerable attention to it. Social justice dominates evangelical discourse.
Where are the proponents and logic of social justice leading us? What is the goal of this shift in evangelicalism? The direction seems to be coming into view: identity politics.
The purpose of the shift to social justice is apologetical—to keep the next generation in the faith. This is clearly stated by Colin Hansen, an editor at The Gospel Coalition. After commenting on the significant institutional and cultural changes that have occurred since the inception of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement (YRR), he writes,
If millennials and Gen Y don’t learn from YRR leaders how the gospel equips them to fight the injustice they see as they scroll through their Twitter timelines, will they choose to look elsewhere for leadership, purpose, and belonging?
The big worry is that the older generations will fail to understand our cultural moment and, as a result, fail to address the younger generations’ most pressing concerns. Without equipping them with ways to fight injustice, they will look elsewhere. They will leave the Church.
In the much-discussed Q&A at the 2019 Shepherd’s Conference, Ligon Duncan affirms a similar view. He says, “I don’t want to drive our grandchildren into the arms of the LGBT issue….who are already wavering on a whole host of cultural issues.” This abandonment of Christianity would happen, he argues, if the church fails to get serious about what energizes the younger generations, namely, matters of social justice, particularly racial injustice.
So we have an important council member and the lead editor of The Gospel Coalition affirming that the purpose of the shift to social justice in the last few years is to keep Millennials (Gen Y) and Generation Z in the faith.
The means to some end must always be sufficient to achieve the end. If keeping young people in the faith is the goal and the means is social justice, what sort of social justice advocacy is sufficient to achieve this goal? The manner of the advocacy would seem to matter a great deal. It would have to appeal to patterns of thinking, interpretations of power structures, and social/political goals. Christian social justice would have to show itself able to recognize, explain, diagnose, and eradicate the injustices widely perceived by young people.
But what would this look like in practice? We might look to the identity politics of the Democratic Party for a glimpse at the answer. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who considered running for president in 2020, has now backed out, having observed Joe Biden’s and Beto O’Rourke’s “apology tour“. He said, “Joe Biden went out and was apologizing for being male, over 50, and white….[and] “Beto, he apologized for being born.” Bloomberg is referring to the massive criticism that Beto received for being a woefully unaware privileged white male, which Beto quickly admitted to being. Biden has since attacked America’s “white man’s culture.”
Our cultural moment increasingly questions any role for the straight white male in politics and in society broadly. The only useful straight white male is the apologetic, subservient one. He must always take his cues from those unlike him. The white male can speak on the issues, but only in submission to the dictates of whichever identity can speak to the issue. He can stand firm in self-confidence only in his self-abnegated status as a figurehead of submission.
If the gendered and racialized perspective in the Democratic Party represents our cultural moment, then the manner of evangelical social justice advocacy must conform to it as the only suitable means to its end. It must marginalize straight white men and adopt identity politics. Only those with the proper identity can speak to certain issues and the rest must follow in submission.
Suggesting that our evangelical elite would adopt this approach might seem absurd and offensive. But they have.
In a recent article in The Gospel Coalition, Rebecca McLaughlin, who seems to be enjoying an ascendancy in TGC circles, calls for Christians to “go on the offensive.” But the nature of this offence is quite startling. She claims that we must take “our lead from those with the credibility to speak” and she’s clear on what constitutes “credibility.” She writes,
Likewise, when it comes to other areas of cultural engagement, we need to let our most credible voices speak. In a world where Christians are seen as homophobic bigots, we need to get behind the biblically faithful, same-sex-attracted Christians God has raised up to speak for and to his church. In a world where Christianity is dismissed as a white man’s religion, we need to get behind biblically faithful men and women of color. And in a world where Christianity is thought to denigrate women, we need to get behind biblically faithful, rhetorically gifted women—particularly on issues like abortion, where being pro-life is often (falsely) equated with being anti-women.
None of this means bowing to identity politics. Truth is truth, whoever is voicing it. But God has raised up leaders whose voices can be heard. We need to field our A-team in the public square. And the rest of us must follow their lead.
Only certain voices are “credible” and can “be heard.” Absent from the A-team in the public square is the straight white man—the identity that represents homophobia, racism, and misogyny. McLaughlin is not seeking to elevate marginalized voices so that all can equally speak truth in Christ to the world. Rather she is calling for a sort of reverse marginalization. McLaughlin’s strategy involves nothing less than the marginalization of the straight white man. And if this interpretation of her words seems extreme, she confirms it in an interview with Colin Hansen for The Gospel Coalition:
But in an age where who you are determines what you have the right to say, we also need to stop fielding straight white men.
It’s only fair. Notice that she takes as granted that we must listen to the sentiments of this age—that we must accept the culture’s rules of credibility. Her strategy is by definition identity politics. Identity politics in our time is not the silencing of straight white men; it is the submission of their thoughts and speech to the dictates of credible identities. The straight white man (which is her phrase) can still speak, but his public confidence in his speech is a borrowed confidence as he parrots the conclusions of those with approved identities and confidence. McLaughlin simply offers a Christianized version of secularist identity politics.
McLaughlin’s view is consistent with other statements by TGC leaders. Here’s Hansen again,
If I might be so bold as to predict the future, I suspect we’ll see minorities—the folks on the margins—used by God to offer and model answers to these questions. For wisdom and direction, we should look to servants of Jesus whose lives reveal the cost of discipleship. Whatever public theology most closely resembles the person and work of Jesus we see in the Gospels will captivate the hearts and minds of young Christians.
Hansen is saying the same in substance as McLaughlin: young people will no longer find the typical YRR type credible, but they will follow the confident minority who has revealed the “cost of discipleship.” And of course this “cost” was exacted by the straight white male. Hansen has subtly adopted identity politics. The difference between McLaughlin and Hansen is that while the former asserts all this in confidence, the latter resigns to his fate, as if the time of the straight white male has passed. In this way, Hansen models a sheepish version the malaise and gaze of the future straight white male.
These two are following the lead of other high-profile evangelicals. Russell Moore, for example, declaring a “white church no more,” cast the “Mayberry of white Christian America” as a place of “murder.” And Tim Keller said that while he sees a role for “ethnic” churches in the future of American Christianity, he sees no role for “purely white” churches. Or, again, a vocal professor at King’s College has claimed that “white evangelicals have never had the gospel.”
Now, I’m not saying that Moore and Keller would fully endorse the McLaughlin strategy, but it does seem that they prepared the ground for it.
The question goes back to means and ends. What are the necessary means to Duncan’s and Hansen’s end of keeping young people in the faith? It seems more and more likely that it must involve racialist identity politics—a politics that actively suppresses the straight white male’s role in contending for the faith and Christian life in the West. McLaughlin states this directly and Hansen strongly suggests it. The whole thrust of elite evangelicalism seems poised to adopt it. In doing so, evangelicalism reflects not timeless Christianity however, but the malaise of the modern West.
Practically, the marginalization of straight white men must involve the active suppression of such voices, which in effect makes the secular world and the Christian elite compatriots of suppression. I’m not being hyperbolic. In order to field that A-team, evangelical elites must act as strict gatekeepers of credibility and legitimacy. After all, we live “in an age where who you are determines what you have the right to say.” There must be an active denigration of unauthorized speakers or perhaps a “gentle” offensive against them, backed by the merciless social forces of the secular age.
I don’t know where all of this is headed. My concern is not that straight white men retain some preeminent power, nor that some churches remain “purely white.” That is not the point at all, and such conclusions cannot flow from a valid deduction of what I’ve said. The concern is that powerful evangelical leaders and organizations are adopting worldly rhetorical strategies. Adopting McLaughlin’s brand of identitarianism is not counter-cultural, no matter how much it is accented with evangelical concerns. The background narrative of McLaughlin’s strategy is the same underlying and fundamental ground-motive of contemporary Western culture. Her alternative to the world is not a fundamental alternative; rather it is a Christianized version of the same pernicious identitarianism arising in secularist Western politics. We can do better.
2. The reasoning here is derivative of identitarianism found in liberationist theologies, such as James Cone who argued that God reveals himself and saves “the community of the oppressed,” as in the OT with the Israelites and Moses in Egypt. Whites have never been oppressed, supposedly. Therefore, whites cannot know God or the gospel or be saved. Nonwhites, however, have been oppressed; and so God becomes their God, He reveals Himself to them and saves them, and thus they possess special insight and knowledge of God that whites do not possess. Logically then, whites should step aside and let nonwhites speak, lead, teach, preach, and so on. Evangelical feminism, and now “thin” forms of complementarianism claim similarly for women.
In this identity-politics theology, the gospel itself becomes truncated and racially particular. The problem in this reasoning is when “the people” are finally freed from oppressive circumstances and gain power, they can no longer be God’s special people, as God only reveals himself and is God to “the community of the oppressed.” So, once you’re saved, you’re damned. It’s a self-defeating theology. And this is the theology woke, social-justice evangelicals call “white evangelicals” to give ear to and let into pulpits, conferences, and seminaries. It is bankrupt from the start.