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How Partisan Politics Captured And Fractured The Evangelical-Industrial Complex

The rise and fall of the Evangelical Industrial Complex call into question whether theology and politics should be treated as enemies.

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Ed Litton’s decision not to seek the usually perfunctory second term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) will not surprise keen observers of the evangelical world. It marks just the latest effort by elites to salvage a collapsing evangelical movement bent on capturing the largest Protestant denomination in North America. Damaged by his insistence that “sexual sin is only whispered in the Bible,” and exposure as a decade-plus plagiarizer of others’ sermons, Litton’s usefulness to the woke evangelical cause has collapsed.   

For 20 years, a resurgence of evangelical vitality associated with superstar New York City pastor Timothy Keller sparked waves of new church plants among Gen Xers, Millennials, and Generation Z. Its tentacles penetrated the largest evangelical publishing houses and the largest protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church in America and the SBC. By 2012, Christianity Today’s Skye Jethani justly called the phalanx of luminaries and institutions involved the “Evangelical Industrial Complex (EIC).” 

But according to one of its brightest lights, North Carolina pastor Kevin DeYoung, the party is over:

 . . .on the other side of Ferguson (2014), Trump (2016), MLK50 (2018), coronavirus (2020–2021), George Floyd (2020), and more Trump (2020–2021), the remarkable coming together [of reformed evangelicals] seems to be all but torn apart. . . . We won’t be able to put all the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together again . . .

DeYoung accurately identifies hot political realities as key factors in the break-up of the EIC. We should add to DeYoung’s list of political flashpoints critical race theory (CRT), the crisis at the U.S. border, Black Lives Matter, identity politics, and the recent totalitarian suppression of truckers by Canada’s prime minister. Left unidentified is the political party whose sensibilities precipitated Humpty Dumpty’s fall from his wall.

The EIC fell under the spell of what theologian Karl Barth called an “alien norm” — the capture of the church’s message by an external, and therefore, illegitimate pretender to spiritual authority. The alien norm, in this case, was the political proclivities and antipathies of “blue communities” — college educated, Democrat-voting denizens of the nation’s cities and blue enclaves clustered across the fruited plain.

From its inception, the Keller movement vowed to find winsome ways to reach blue communities. Keller recognized that cultural ignorance and captivation by culture endangers faithful proclamation of the gospel and harmony among the faithful.

But not to worry; unity within the burgeoning EIC was to be rooted in core doctrines, not in politics or church-planting strategy or anything else. The previous president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, spoke for the EIC when he invoked that ancient, oft-repeated aphorism: “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” 

So what went wrong? How did “the remarkable coming together” of these doctrine-bonded evangelicals fall apart? The short answer is the politics of the blue communities.

What counts as winsomeness in any community is determined by that community, not by those looking to be found winsome to them. In blue communities, partisan political preferences proved increasingly non-negotiable.

Since 2014, the so-called Overton Window has repeatedly lurched left and altered blue community sensibilities in the process. Named for the late policy analyst Joseph P. Overton, this “window” designates the range of politically acceptable views held within a given community at a given time. As the blue community Overton Window moved left, winsomeness to them demanded not only accommodation of an ever-more Squad-pleasing Democrat Party, but also un-winsomeness to the un-woke.

That new demand sheds light on Keller’s penchant for charging conservatives with living by fear, of making an idol of conservative political loyalties, and of his recent commendation of conservative-bashing comedian Stephen Cobert’s musings on how his faith influences his work. Recently leaked audio records National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, a self-declared evangelical, in an interview with former SBC chief ethicist Russell Moore employing a southern accent to mock vaccine-wary conservatives and chuckling over threats posed to their jobs should they shun the shot.  

After Never Trumper evangelical David French identified ordinary conservative pew-sitters as America’s “most dangerous political radicals,” DeYoung called for a halt to French’s constant “white evangelical jeremiad.” The pattern of EIC hostility reaches back years and reached a clarifying crescendo in 2018 as SBC elites wooed Texas celebrity pastor Matt Chandler to stick with the SBC despite his views expressed to star Baptist pastor John Piper and others that he finds conservative evangelicals and Southern Baptists to be “fools” and “morons.”

An EIC cancel culture emerged that produced the nameable and explainable fragments comprised by the “coming apart” DeYoung laments. Megachurch pastor John MacArthur found himself out of the loop after he spearheaded the Dallas “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” which expresses views shared by much of the large majority of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump. Black Southern Baptist best-selling author and preacher extraordinaire Voddie Baucham achieved persona non grata status when he refused to affirm the racism narrative about the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

After Old Testament Hebrew scholar Russell Fuller signed the Dallas Statement and dared question the CRT dogma of systemic racism, he lost his job at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Theologian Wayne Grudem’s decades of service to reformed evangelicals and authoring of the perennially best-selling “Systematic Theology” failed to shield him from EIC non-personing. Protective of blue community sensibility, EIC gate-keepers found no place for Grudem’s widely hailed Townhall piece, “Why Voting for Trump is a Good Moral Choice.”

Platform controllers at the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville last summer thwarted black Southern Baptist best-selling, award-winning author and expert on race Carol Swain when she tried to speak against CRT.

Although once a major force within the EIC, the president of the flagship SBC seminary Albert Mohler reversed himself to support Trump in 2020. In response, woker SBC elites successfully tapped unknown pastor Litton to scuttle Mohler’s candidacy for the SBC presidency. Denominational resources and mobilization of the vast SBC bureaucracy were deployed on behalf of Litton, the wokest candidate in the field.

As president, white EIC-backed Litton declined to invite newly elected un-woke black SBC first vice president Lee Brand to take part in a highly publicized denominational conversation on racial reconciliation. Meanwhile, for six years, evangelical never Trumpers of all colors retained membership in good standing in EIC circles.   

Within 24 hours of Litton’s announced withdrawal from the race for SBC president this summer, Florida Pastor Willy Rice, also white, announced his own candidacy for the post. Like Litton, Rice speaks passionately about the need to platform African-American voices but has no persons of color on staff at the church he leads. He also ignores all un-woke voices including that of Brand, who occupies the highest SBC office of any elected black Southern Baptist.

Like Litton, Mohler, Keller, and Moore, Rice assiduously protects himself from the threat posed by un-woke blacks smeared as Uncle Toms by blue communities. But Rice was happy to platform and nod approvingly before blacks invited to his church to tout Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling CRT manifesto, “White Fragility.”   

The EIC fell into the trap Keller had resolved to avoid. Keller warned — “if we are not deliberately thinking about our culture, we will simply be conformed to it without ever knowing it is happening.” To blue communities, un-woke evangelicals became, as Hilary Clinton taught the nation to view them, “a basket of deplorables.”

The EIC hoped to strike a less political posture. But the blue communities to which the movement tied its branding, messaging, and platforming dictated terms of winsomeness incompatible with that aim.

The arc of the EIC’s rise and fall calls into question the assumption that theology and politics can or should be treated as separable enemies. Religious belief or lack thereof, moral convictions, and political loyalties inevitably penetrate one another within communities whether colored blue, red, or purple. Efforts to spread the gospel that imagine otherwise risk unhappy and potentially shattering collisions with reality.