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.

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Posted by 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.

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  1. >> But once again, I say this because I think elites are grand …

    I wonder if this is a hangover from Allan Bloom. I went through that phase. Then I found out that this form of elitism is merely anti-bourgeois and isn’t any better than populism so I rethought all that. Rejecting both, I finally learned some lessons about having an epistemology can actually deliver.

    “Anti-bourgeois ire is the Opiate of the Last Man.” -Allan Bloom

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  2. Dude. Watch the top 10 goals by Steven Gerrard on youtube and tell me you can’t like soccer. (Or watch the North London Derby this weekend between Spurs and Arsenal. :) )

    Seriously, go to an English pub, have a Newcastle, some fish and chips, watch the match and tell me it wasn’t a fun experience. This I will fight over. Liberal/conservative stuff… eh, whatever. ;)

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  3. I think Caplan’s article is a very confused on both elitism and Libertarianism, but on elitism generally and the “wisdom of the common man”, see Stephen Davies lecture “Visions of History: Ways of Seeing the Past” starting at the 42:30 point. http://mercatus.org/video/visions-history-ways-seeing-past

    “… bad news sells … being told that things are in a desperate state … is more interesting and exciting, not least because it typically makes your own generation historically very significant in a unique way … people are interested in thinking their own immediate lifetime is going to be the pivotal culminating event in world history, and so there is an enormous interest in what is called the “Apocalyptic Narrative” – the idea that we’re living in the end times, that things have never been worse and that they are about to go completely … “pear shaped”. There is something about human psychology that leads people to be receptive to this.

    … a lot of people, particularly intellectuals, do not like the modern world. … their ideal is that they live in a world where they enjoy the comforts and privileges of modernity, but they live in a world that is rather more like the past. Why is this? … I’m afraid intellectuals feel typically that they are undervalued … people who regard themselves as being an elite, superior to the common herd, find this infuriating … regard modernity as something to deplore

    … finally the role of government education … one of the purposes of which is to inculcate a particular vision of the past in the minds of students … the aims of which is to make them loyal subjects of the state … history is one of the most important ways in which ruling groups around the world build a mindset in the minds of many of their subjects that leads them to identify their own interests with the interests of the state that rules over them and the people that control that state … that’s why although I am a historian, I am not depressed or suicidal about the historical ignorance of the great mass of the public. Because given the kind of view of history they are supposed to have imbibed, I think it is actually good they haven’t, and I think it is a credit to their intellectual capacity for resistance.”

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  4. It still seems that you are stretching to find some merit in populist evangelicalism. I was raised in a mainline church, but my theology tended to become more orthodox in my 20s. But I never had any radical conversion, or adopted the experimental piety of the neo-Puritan types. I was theologically orthodox, but I was still a mainliner in terms of subculture. After spending a few years in evangelical (PCA) churches, I went back to the PCUSA. I just couldn’t deal with the populism and the cultural resentment that accompanies it. But honestly? Does it take an elitist to recognize that manufactured outrage and alarmism are not a good thing?

    So, I left the Olasky/Dobson/Colson world of populist evangelicalism behind. I didn’t leave because I’m an elitist. I left because I’m a Christian, and because I believe that faith in the risen Christ is inconsistent with the resentment-driven celebrity culture of populist evangelicalism.

    Maybe a lot of younger, college-educated evangelicals have realized the same thing.

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  5. >> It still seems that you are stretching to find some merit in populist evangelicalism.

    Do you think there is NO merit in it? It’s pretty extreme if you found this strange, whether it is true or not. Looking for merit in widespread movements, whatever their flaws, is wisdom. In my view the excesses of populism aren’t any worse than the excesses of its opposite. But we should avoid these execesses. Both extremes are political in nature.

    >> I left because I’m a Christian, and because I believe that faith in the risen Christ is inconsistent with the resentment-driven celebrity culture of populist evangelicalism. … Maybe a lot of younger, college-educated evangelicals have realized the same thing.

    If you think you went from a resentment driven church to one that isn’t you should invite an unbiased observer. I can see both sides of it and it isn’t that black and white. I’d say it’s more likely you just favor the resentments of your present church to the one you left. And if you think populist evangelicalism uniquely engages in outrage and alarmism I think you’re mistaken. If you found an extraordinary church then good for you, but I’m not buying that the categories are as stark as you claim, and each type also has a shallowness of its own so pick your poison.

    Many Evangelicals leave because they find the liturgy and such provides structure and meaning that Evangelicalism doesn’t have in churches with a tradition. I could very easily be one of them.

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  6. […] 7)  Elitism, Tea Parties, and the Evangelical Left:  This one didn’t make many people happy, so make sure you see the followup post I wrote on it as well. […]

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