The prevailing ideology of Western society—modern liberalism—is incommensurable with evangelical Christianity. Evangelicalism has been, for this reason, increasingly pushed to the margins of legitimacy and thus respectable society. This is apparent not in indicators of widespread economic loss, nor from the elimination of fundamental rights, nor from physical ostracism. It is not even apparent in the ideology’s rejection of evangelical sexual norms. Rather, it is in the power of liberal ideology, as the prevailing ideology, to exclude evangelicals on the rhetorical level from legitimacy. What is distinctive about evangelical Christian morality is excluded from respectable public discourse. Though they remain a powerful voting bloc, evangelicals lack the ideological qualifications to join the ruling class—those who possess the requisite beliefs, tastes, and manners to participate in the particular society that wields power.

The most obvious indicator of exclusion at the level of public discourse is in the effectiveness of question-begging epithets: bigot, homophobe, sexist, transphobe, etc. Wielding these verbal weapons effectively is what I call socio-rhetorical power, and having this power is an unmistakable sign of ideological hegemony. That is, the prevailing ideology of any group will be able to effectively defeat opponents simply by declarative classification, e.g., you’re a homophobic bigot!

Evangelicalism has been opposed to the prevailing, elite ideology for quite a while, but they were somewhat tolerated. They were the heretics that society’s secular orthodox let live. But since the culture wars are largely over (except pro-life causes at the state and local levels) and evangelicals have lost, evangelicals now face increased marginalization and social ostracism. Further toleration is in doubt.

Toleration advocates have always set a condition for toleration: tolerated groups must not act in any way that threatens the political regime. John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, wrote, “no [religious] opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate.” So a precondition for toleration is harmlessness.

But the harmlessness of evangelicalism before modern liberalism is not at all obvious, especially since evangelicals can identify with political-theological traditions that were comfortable with and confident in political power and used it to maintain distinctively Christian features in society. If an American evangelical is unwilling to appeal to the Christian founding fathers (John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman, etc.) or to the evangelical politics of the last 60 years, he can rely on the work of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Althusius and many others for political-theological frameworks to contend with and attempt to defeat the secularist age. These political theologies are dangerous, however, because they call into question the worthiness of evangelicalism for toleration by the modern liberal regime. Again, harmlessness is a necessary condition of toleration.

State Theologians

In the widening division between the prevailing ideology and those on the margins, people arise from those margins who quickly gain notoriety and legitimacy for efforts to reconcile the regime and the marginalized group. The reconciliation efforts attempt to make the marginal groups safe for toleration. They do this by rendering the marginal group harmless to the regime.

In broad evangelicalism, you have different types of reconcilers. Some try to fully immerse evangelicalism into modern liberalism (e.g., Jonathan Merritt). But the most effective and the most common reconciler in evangelicalism does not liberalize. Rather, he or she renders evangelicalism harmless to the prevailing ideology in a more subtle way: the reconciler affirms evangelicalism’s distinctive features (e.g., sexual norms), thereby solidifying his legitimacy in evangelicalism, but then actively undermines evangelicals’ ability to shape civil society though theological re-formulation and a new, more “vulnerable” Christian ethos. What might have been a basis for Christian civil action is neutralized by a reconciling theology. Rendered harmless, evangelicals can now guarantee their “religious liberty” (which is actually toleration), providing them a small space and indeed the only space for exclusively Christian norms.

But this space is decidedly not an assembly ground for the achievement of political ends. The reconcilers lambast the “pursuit of political power.” All political activity and principles must have “moral witness” as their ultimate end. Achieving concrete civil ends is secondary. Our political theology/philosophy needn’t be practical, realistic, achievable etc.; none of that is the point. Political thinking is, in the end, purely apologetical; our politics puts the eschaton on display. The local church within its walls demonstrates “true politics” and “true justice” to the world, but forbids both the formulation of any realistic Christian political program and the use of civil power to shape civil society in accordance with that formulation.

The reconcilers are what I call state theologians. They are de facto agents of the regime, working within those on the margin to nullify the threat to the regime. This is their role in shoring up the prevailing ideology. The widening division of secularism and evangelicalism created the role of the evangelical reconciler, a role with no shortage of willing participants. Indeed, this establishes the pipeline and conditions for success in evangelicalism, effectively drawing the ambitious and talented. Most are unaware of their role in securing liberal ideology, for they consider themselves and probably are sincere in their beliefs. So this isn’t some grand conspiracy. However, as many of them would no doubt affirm (given their talk of “systemic racism”), one can be sincere in his beliefs and actions and yet through them unwittingly perpetuate and secure an ideology. The reason for their success—for their teaching positions, book contracts, online publishing, speaking engagements, etc.—is not, formally speaking, of their own making. Rather, social roles were generated and they happened to be the ones who filled the slots.

One important state theologian in the Calvinistic circles of evangelicalism is Jonathan Leeman, author of Political Church and representative of TGC, ERLC, Christianity Today, and 9Marks evangelicalism. Leeman’s view is ecclesio-centric, making the local church an assembly for discipling “ambassadors” for Christ in the broader culture and civil society. Being the true political body, the local church is your ultimate, earthly identity. It is not a forward operating base to establish political rule in the civil sphere, nor to Christianize civil society. Our “threat” to liberal modernity is not in our pursuit of a political agenda, in wielding political power, or in fighting a culture war. The church and its members are “threats” because a faithful Christian life in the world incidentally challenges the nature of fallen civil society. Faithful presence is itself sufficient to threaten the economic, social, and political order. For example, conducting righteous economic activity “threatens” the unrighteous economic order. So the “threat” is passive, not active. Christian politics is entirely a display that disrupts.

But Leeman’s political theology merely pacifies the threat Christianity could pose to modern liberalism. The irony is that the “threats” identified by Leeman are perfectly acceptable to the prevailing ideology. Leeman’s theology reduces Christianity to a weird lifestyle in a variegated society of life-styles. In a world of expressionism, Christianity is just another way of having it your own way. You are merely displaying your identity among other identities. Leeman, of course, does not see it this way, but he has wildly underestimated the ability for modern liberal societies to absorb difference, especially a difference that amounts to a politically weak quirkiness.

Furthermore, the practices that Leeman commends could threaten some political orders, because Christian practices might inject inefficiencies into society (e.g., worship) and the economy (e.g., righteous commerce). But in the modern liberal order such inefficiencies are either practically harmless or their consequences are almost entirely borne by the individual himself, not by society. Leeman’s Christianity is absolutely no threat to the liberal world. If he were an actual threat, he would be silenced. If he were actually dangerous to the system, it would spit him out. But it hasn’t and it won’t, because people like Leeman reconcile people to the system and the ideology that regulates society. He actually eliminates the threat by deluding people into thinking that their presence alone threatens the established order. Leeman is an unwitting agent on behalf of modern liberal ideology.

A whole crop of state theologians (or state intellectuals) has arisen in the last decade. This includes Alan Noble (whose “disruptive witness” follows the same theme and end as Leeman), Mike Cosper (who calls us to “practice vulnerability”), Russell Moore (who regularly denounces the pursuit of power), Daniel Darling, Rebecca McLaughlin (viz. identity politics), JKA Smith, Duke Kwon, and many others. Joining this evangelical class is conditioned on playing a part in pacifying evangelicalism.

Conclusion

But the state theologians are merely doing what the prevailing ideology has exalted them to do. Coming from those on the margins that could pose a threat to the regime, they reformulate the political framework and eliminate that threat. They appropriate terms, such as “threat,” “witness,” and “political,” to new ends. Political activity is reduced to a matter of “moral witness” and securing tolerance (or “religious liberty”) for a space of distinctively Christian norms. But despite appearance and perhaps their own consciousness, they are de facto agents of the liberal ideological regime, created and legitimated by it and for it.

Thomas Bradstreet
Contributor

Thomas Bradstreet is a Ph. D. candidate in political science and teaches at a university in the southern United States.

2 Comments to: The Rise of the Evangelical State Theologian

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    Susan W. Farnham

    May 18th, 2019

    Just a note – I look forward to your articles.
    They are outstanding.

    Reply
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    Zachary Moore

    May 26th, 2019

    This is essential reading. Perfectly encapsulates the evangelical contingent of controlled opposition.

    Reply

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