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Clarifying the Young Evangelical Elitism

November 15th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I've been fascinated by the reactions to my musings about young evangelicals last week.  Most responses have been overwhelmingly negative, and several in ways that have been very helpful.

In the succeeding discussion, it became clear that the piece had several ambiguities (more on those below).  Let me try to bring a little more clarity to the conversation.

1)  Some people thought I said young evangelicals were liberals or libertarians because of their dissatisfaction with populism and their elitist tendencies.  I didn't.  My point was that they are "susceptible" and "drawn toward" those positions.  The language may be overly vague for some people's liking, but it contains a world of difference.  Lurking in my post is the supposition that arguments appear more persuasive to people based on their contexts.  I'm no postmodern, but I don't have to be to think that people who have particularly bad experiences with Christianity  (as an example) in order to find arguments for the reliability of Scripture to be something less than persuasive.  We ignore the sociology of knowledge to our own peril (and the hypothesis I was exploring was more proper to that domain, which is why I pointed out the voting trends at the beginning).

2)  Populism is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we can't hear the word "elite" without immediately associating negative tones to it.  The observation that most young evangelicals think of themselves as elites isn't necessarily a critique.  Descriptive claims are not evaluative claims.  But because people are so quick to assume that "elites" are bad, I think a lot of people assumed I was saying something that I wasn't.

Additionally, my suggestion that libertarianism and liberalism depend upon a sense of elitism isn't itself a critique.  In fact, that may actually provide a reason to be a libertarian.  Either way, the notion that liberalism/libertarianism depend upon elitism is a separate argument from whether and why they might each be right or wrong.  I wholeheartedly accept responsibility for the confusion.

Could I take a mulligan, I'd probably focus more on the anti-populist backlash among young evangelicals instead of "elites."   The question of what counts as "elite aspirations" is tricky, and this is probably one rare point where defining something by way of negation (i.e. elitism means something like anti-populist) is actually helpful.

3)  There was lots of confusion over my association with Ron Paul and Ayn Rand.  As was repeatedly pointed out, Paul is not necessarily Randian or an objectivist.  All true.  But when I read Atlas Shrugged, I felt most drawn to the profligate displays of superiority over the moochers than to the pseudo-philosophical diatribes.  I suspect that if they finish the book, most people are more inclined to set fire to the government than to contemplate the reality that "A is A."  (The rest might just want to set fire to the book.)  While in principle Randian libertarianism might depend on her objectivism, most people will have the latter without giving a thought to the former.

What's more, these things have a way of trickling down (he said as a good Reagan fan).  Someone was reading all those copies that have been sold the past two years.  And besides, a desperate turn to Google to find a friend gives me one thinker who isn't just happy adopting the elitist label as a libertarian.  He thinks its intrinsic to being a libertarian.  But once again, I say this because I think elites are grand, and I'm on record suggesting that social conservatives need to get away from their dependency on democracy.

4)  The weirdest response to me were those who intimated that I thought you had to be a conservative to be a Christian.  I don't.  I think conservative political thought  (Kirk, Eliot, etc. etc.) is the most commensurate with Christian theology, but I also think that's a fun discussion that we can have without tossing out bombs about each other's salvation.

Whether you should hate soccer, on the other hand, is not up for debate.  Sorry, Meador.

5)  Was it my best work?  No.  The ambiguities made it difficult to properly interpret, and I take responsibility for that.  I put it forward as a hypothesis in hopes that people would help correct me or refine it, as I have often done here at Mere-O.  I am grateful for the feedback, and while I suspect these clarifications won't solve all the problems with it, my hope is that they'll move the discussion forward.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.