Evangelicals, the Virtue/Voting Connection, and the Return of Instrumental Politics

Bill Evans head shot

PCA minister Tim Keller’s recent article in The New Yorker magazine excoriates a lot of his fellow evangelicals for their support of the current President, and it has provoked considerable discussion.

Keller’s point about mid-20th century lowest-common-denominator evangelicalism leaving many evangelicals historically rootless has some merit. He writes: “The desire by mid-twentieth-century leaders to foster more widespread coöperation between evangelicals and downplay denominational differences cut believers off from the past, some religion scholars have found. The result was an emphasis on personal experience rather than life in a church with historical memory.” There’s something to that, but the way Keller uses the insight—as an explanation for why many who self-identify as evangelicals vote as they do and support the candidates they support—is rather too cerebral and misses a lot.

Keller argues, in essence, that the problem with so-called “evangelical Trump voters” is that they don’t know enough theology.  This, it seems to me, is yet another example of the sort of disembodied-brains-on-sticks argument for which Reformed types, with their cerebral bent, have an embarrassing weakness. It’s kind of like the old Neo-Calvinist argument that if we just get people’s “worldview” in order all will be well—a canard that has been rightly challenged by philosopher Jamie Smith, sociologist James Davison Hunter, and others.

During the election I talked with a pretty broad range of evangelical voters—ranging from a college professor who voted for Bernie, to a well-taught PCA office holder who was a total Trump supporter during the primaries, to an ordained minister and graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary who enthusiastically voted for Trump in the primary—and I find Keller’s argument less than convincing. Something else is going on, and I’m pretty sure that the answers are cultural/sociological rather than intellectual/theological. And this is coming from someone who was trained as an intellectual historian!  I remember being rather put out with those two evangelical Trump supporters I mentioned, but they were sensing something in the air or water to which I was oblivious.  Apparently a lot of people were!

Two additional aspects of Keller’s article strike me as open to question.

First, his distinction between big-E “white Evangelicalism” (in bondage to conservative politics) and small-e evangelicalism (politically and racially diffuse and characterized by a dogged commitment to the quadrilateral of evangelical identity outlined by historian David Bebbington: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism) really doesn’t work all that well when you examine it closely. In fact, much of the Evangelical institutional establishment (e.g., The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today Magazine, Christian colleges and seminaries, etc.) agrees with Keller on these issues. It’s the more populist Evangelicals who voted for Trump and Moore, not so much because they think those men are paragons of virtue, but because they are looking to the political process for protection from an increasingly oppressive secular establishment.

Keller’s argument sounds suspiciously like a would-be member of the cultural elite bemoaning how the hoi polloi are complicating his efforts to minister to the politically progressive up and outers in Manhattan.  At the end of the day, he seems to be trying to carve out some space for a politically progressive, albeit theologically conservative evangelicalism that reflects his own sensibilities. I understand all that, but he could show a bit more sympathy and respect for the evangelical brothers and sisters who differ with him politically. And there is a certain irony here that should not be missed—Keller wants to affirm traditional sexual morality, but he recoils from those politically active conservative Christians who are trying to protect Keller and other conservative Christians from the secular progressive onslaught.

If Keller read Bebbington a bit more carefully, he would also realize that “activism” is kind of hardwired into the evangelical DNA, and that political and social activism (e.g., abolitionism, temperance, pro-life, etc.) has been more the rule than the exception among evangelicals over the last two centuries.  The exception, of course, was the large-scale withdrawal of evangelicals from politics and cultural engagement from the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy until the rise of the Religious Right, a disengagement that was driven by the cultural pessimism of a dominant Dispensationalism and a strong aversion to the Social Gospel.

Second (and building on the above), Keller’s accusation of hypocrisy rings a bit hollow. To be sure, Keller’s rhetoric is strident. He says that the “doggedly conservative” stance of some evangelicals and their willingness “to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions” has elicited “disgust” along with the “fury and incredulity of many in the larger population.” Those are strong words, and the assumption here seems to be that people should always vote for virtuous candidates or risk being labeled hypocrites.  Frankly, I was surprised by the vitriol of Keller’s piece. Even given the venue and virtue signaling, it was over the top, and was not at all what I expected from a fellow who has written some pretty solid things over the years.

But Keller’s assumption about the nexus of virtue and voting is not necessarily shared by those whom Keller excoriates, and another more charitable explanation readily presents itself. Once again, the people who voted for Trump and Moore are not stupid; nor, I suspect, are they by and large hypocritical. Rather, they are returning to an instrumental view of political process—they vote for the candidate who they think can do the things they want done.

Now I’ll admit that, in light of their rhetoric in recent decades, evangelicals are to some degree open to the charge of hypocrisy, and this situation has not been helped by the more buffoonish Trump proponents like Jerry Falwell, Jr.  We are, after all, the products of our history.  Evangelicals responded to the sexual revolution and the resulting collapse of the family (actually, the collapse of the family is a lot more complicated than just an entailment of the sexual revolution) by emphasizing “family values” and drawing a close connection between personal morality/family values and voting. “Values voting” was a linchpin of the Religious Right/Moral Majority. That, of course, teed up the ball for the Monica Lewinsky/Ken Starr brouhaha involving Bill Clinton, and now many are quick to point out that some of the same people who called for Clinton’s impeachment for soliciting sexual favors from an intern are now making excuses for Trump’s boorish and sexually profligate behavior.

The Religious Right’s “values voting” strategy was inseparably connected with the notion that the culture of the nation could be changed by politics and that America could be restored as a “Christian nation.” But the cultural landscape has changed drastically since the 1980s. As Rod Dreher has rightly noted in his book The Benedict Option, the culture war is over, and conservative Christians lost. Now, in some ways at least, conservative Christians are returning to an older model of voting that is more instrumental.

Some sort of connection between values and voting has always been there, and most people like to think that the person they are voting for is, generally speaking, a decent person rather than a moral leper.  But this connection is increasingly difficult to maintain, and for at least two reasons.  First, this connection works much better when there is a basic societal consensus about matter of right and wrong. That situation no longer obtains.  We live in an age of moral confusion, and I would argue that the general moral incoherence of our culture on these matters is nowhere more evident that in the fact that we have a sitting President who is condemned for his sexual escapades and a sitting Vice President who is roundly mocked for trying to live a monogamous and sexually pure life that is above reproach.  Second, this connection has become problematic in that the virtuous are harder to find, especially in Washington, where it appears that Lord Acton was right about that business of power corrupting.  In an internet age of tabloid journalism, public figures have fewer and fewer secrets.

Interestingly, liberals delinked personal values/morality and voting/policy much earlier, in part because of the Vietnam War (that’s an interesting topic in itself that has been explored by sociologists like Robert Wuthnow) and in part because of their embracing of the sexual revolution. Now, interestingly, that delinking has come back to bite them as a host of progressive icons have been behaving badly! But I digress.

Returning to the present, many evangelicals realize that politics is a messy business, and that they are not electing a national pastor. They know, for example, that a good many recent American presidents have been serial philanderers and worse, and that if one must vote for virtue, the slate will be a short one. They know that Martin Luther King, Jr., whose leadership of the Civil Rights Movement and ability to bring biblical imagery to bear on the contradictions of the American racial situation were both remarkable and heroic, was morally compromised.

This new instrumental politics on the part of some evangelicals may be Realpolitik, but it is a realism that is not only inevitable in the current cultural climate but also may represent a pretty deep intuitive awareness of the ambiguities of the human condition. Perhaps Tim Keller can learn something from them.