There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by treating those with whom we differ as if they were tribal objects in a quasi-anthropological investigation. Are those who differ from us merely stupid, or perhaps venal, or even evil? Were they simply dropped on their heads as infants? Or do they have something to say to us?
The American evangelical world is divided, but being divided is almost its normal state. Yet what perhaps is new is the depth of ruptures and animosities it has engendered. Some recent careful articles have tried to analyze and illuminate this breakdown, but they are often one-sided, which means that they may simply exacerbate the very tensions they lament.
In a much-discussed New York Times article, “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself,” David Brooks suggests the analogy of 12 old, close friends and imagines the situation of one side: “If six of those people suddenly took a political or public position you found utterly vile…(and) those six people think that your position is utterly vile. You…had actually been total strangers all along.”
Brooks suggests this illustrates what has happened to American Christians, especially evangelicals. This divide is very much more than simply pro- or anti-Trump positions, although this can function as a handy shorthand, since support for Trump may have revealed the cleavages that were already there.
He chooses several people he describes as wanting to save evangelicalism from its frailties and failures — from itself. However, the people he interviews — such as Russell Moore, Tim Dalrymple and Kristin Kobes Du Mez — largely represent only one side of the division. We are told about but do not hear from their separated brethren, such as Al Mohler or Robert Jeffress, who might also have something to say from their opposite side of this gulf. Might they have correctly anticipated some of the perils and failures that have arisen with the Biden presidency? Sadly, they appear not as discussants but as objects of discussion, like Prufrock, “formulated, sprawling on a pin.”
An earlier important article by Peter Wehner in the Atlantic, “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart,” addressed these same divisions in a similar manner. His range of interviewees was wider than Brooks’ and included several of my friends and others I admire. Still, it didn’t include people from the 80% of White evangelicals who supported Trump.
Both articles are like reading a description of a marital breakup that quotes only one of the broken parties.