Perhaps the price of elite evangelical respectability in the modern academy is adoption of the embarrassment reflex—understood as, in its deepest sense, a willingness to allow the idea of the “social” to displace that of the classically theological at the taproot of intellectual life. Such a displacement demands that evangelicals norm their theological claims against the conclusions of the social sciences, rather than vice versa—or else be tarred with the dreaded label of fundamentalist.
Nearly thirty years ago, Notre Dame historian Mark Noll fired a resounding shot across the bow of his own tradition, declaring boldly that “[t]he scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Ever since its publication, few books have loomed over evangelical intellectual life more powerfully than The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which laid out what Noll viewed as a devastating indictment of evangelicalism’s incapacity for meaningful engagement with disciplines beyond its boundaries.
Over the decades since, a much more comprehensive evangelical intellectual ecosystem has emerged, partially in response to Noll’s critique. New colleges and universities explicitly interested in cultivating the “life of the mind” have been founded. The catalogs of publishers like Crossway Academic and InterVarsity Press overflow with interdisciplinary efforts to place the evangelical tradition into conversation with topics of current interest. A complex of parachurch groups like the Gospel Coalition, with thoughtful evangelical content ranging from popular to scholarly, has sprung up online. And at the K-12 level, the classical education movement has promoted thoroughgoing engagement with the philosophical and spiritual wisdom of generations past. By virtually any metric, the landscape of evangelical intellectual thought is materially more developed than it was in 1994.
And over those years this matrix of institutions has incubated a new sort of public figure: the elite evangelical. The elite evangelical was educated at top-flight institutions and largely eschews the “culture war” language of Moral Majority forerunners like Jerry Falwell. He reads Christianity Today, listens to Tim Keller sermons, and tends to know far more about J.R.R. Tolkien than J. Gresham Machen. Above all, he is proficient in the use of the word “winsomeness.”
The rise of such a class, however, has not led to much of a rapprochement between America’s evangelicals and an increasingly secular mainstream. Nor has it seemingly engendered a healthier and more unified evangelicalism. Indeed, the recent 2021 General Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention exposed publicly what had already been obvious to many observers for some time: an ugly and deepening rift between these post-Scandal “elite evangelicals” and the rank-and-file members who fill evangelical church pews across the country.
The SBC presidential election victory of “moderate” Ed Litton over conservative hardliner Mike Stone (as well as longtime SBC fixture Al Mohler) was widely perceived as a referendum on the denomination’s alignment with ex-President Donald Trump, but the issues in play transcend any single figure. Many observers were caught off guard by the size and vehemence of the coalition backing Stone’s candidacy, a reflection of the fact that a large and growing faction of lay evangelicals are deeply concerned about their movement’s present trajectory. Chief among their targets is the group of elite evangelical figures—the pastors whose op-eds appear in the New York Times, the writers who pen Gospel Coalition columns, the seminary professors who urge greater interaction with secular academia, and so on—that they derisively describe as “Big Eva,” and view as steering evangelicalism away from theology and toward issues like immigration, racial justice, the environment, and so on.
For those firmly ensconced in the elite evangelical ecosystem, it is easy to write off much of this backlash as a result of escalating political partisanship. Kept out of view is the question of whether any of the alarm is warranted—whether perhaps there’s something in the elite evangelical water that actually does merit their concern. What if the worry that manifests—often inaptly—as complaints about “liberalism,” “cultural Marxism,” and “critical race theory”—has an intelligible root?
Over the last few decades, whenever the political right happens to hold power, there have tended to appear claims that conservative American Christians—particularly evangelicals—are closer than ever to establishing something like an American theocratic caliphate. The Bush years had Damon Linker’s The Theocons; the Trump years had Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshipers and Jeff Sharlet’s The Family Netflix docuseries. Such commentary is downstream of the reality that American evangelicals often figure as the villains of modern academic historiography—characterized chiefly by their opposition to teaching evolution in schools, criticisms of various efforts at promoting civic equality, negativity toward environmental legislation, and so on.
For the elite evangelical who inevitably encounters such vilification within “mainstream academia,” the psychological response produced by all these allegations is likely to prove complex. Elite fears of an real-world Handmaid’s Tale are implausible on their face: at the time of this writing, Republican presidents have appointed twelve out of sixteen Supreme Court justices since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, and yet have never been able to marshal a majority to overturn that precedent, let alone revise the American constitutional order more dramatically. The most exaggerated versions of these claims don’t even attempt to persuade anyone not already adhering to preexisting secular assumptions.
Instead, for elite evangelicals, the critiques that cut deepest tend to be those that allege that American Christians have betrayed their own tradition in a fundamental way. Three recent books—all of which have sparked much discussion and controversy within evangelical circles—epitomize this sensibility. In Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry argue that American Christians have bred a toxic “Christian nationalism” committed more to acquiring and wielding political power than to living out Christian ideals. In Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, theologians Gregory Thompson and Duke L. Kwon contend that the complicity of the American church in historical racism is so severe that “the language of White supremacy and reparations, now so unfamiliar and awkward, [should] one day become as fixed in the church’s imagination and fundamental to its vocation as the language of repentance and reconciliation is today.” And in Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, historian Kristin Kobes du Mez posits that twentieth-century American Christianity was colonized by a toxic nationalist-inflected masculinity, one that eventually culminated in the election of Donald Trump.
The crucial common feature of these texts is that all of them are, at least in a sense, addressed to evangelicals (or at least point in that direction): they are calls to action of a sort, urging evangelicals to adopt alternative interpretations of their American Christian tradition, without repudiating it altogether, in the name of progress. At the heart of all three books is the conviction that popular evangelicalism as such is on the wrong track—that it needs to be saved from itself through immediate course correction, or risk falling back into a fundamentalist morass.