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Ecclesial Realignment After the Culture Wars

November 15th, 2021 | 15 min read

By Jake Meador

Last summer, the recently retired minister Ray Ortlund announced that he had been appointed a canon theologian, a teaching office in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). That a recently retired minister who held a PhD and had taught in evangelical seminaries would be appointed to such a role is not terribly surprising, save for one thing: Ortlund has not been an Anglican for a day in his life, nor was the church he attended in any way affiliated with the ACNA, nor, so far as I can tell from publicly available information, did Ortlund have any intentions of moving to an ACNA church.

When he retired, he pastored Immanuel Church, a non-denominational church in Nashville. Prior to that, he had served for a number of years in the Presbyterian Church in America. Nevertheless, Ortlund is now a canon theologian in the ACNA.

Even as this strange announcement came from Nashville, another announcement, seemingly no less strange, came from Chicago. Esau McCaulley, a canon theologian in the ACNA, New York Times contributor, and bestselling author of Reading While Black would be attending the Progressive Baptist Church, a centuries-old black church on the south side of Chicago. (Despite its name, Progressive Baptist is not a theologically progressive church. The church had actually been part of the Southern Baptist Convention briefly, though they left in 2020.)

These moves both happened against a broader backdrop of much turmoil within America’s traditionally white denominations as all appear to be plausibly headed toward division or other significant transformations in the near future. Thus both Ortlund and McCaulley’s moves suggest something more general about the state of American religious life, and especially Christian life. They provide a picture of American Christians reckoning with the rapidly ascendant secularism of post-Obergefell America and the racial politics of post-Obama America.

In short, in a time when the conflict between our faith and our nation is abundantly obvious, many Christians are choosing who they want to be in their foxhole; they’re searching for the group where they have the greatest hope of fruitful ministry during a time of adversity and testing. The relationships and affiliations one maintains during seasons of plenty look quite different from those we desire during drier periods. And many of us are finding that the more obvious traditional dividing lines within the American church do not necessarily reflect the coalitions forming during this time of upheaval.

For black Christians in particular, the pull toward the black church is understandable as participation in white churches could be exhausting even under relatively more favorable conditions. In many cases, black Christians moved into traditionally white denominations due to theological commonalities, only to find themselves alienated as the racial dynamics of white denominations made addressing problems of justice practically impossible. The realignment now under way flows from both the obvious dissonance between Christian faith and the American regime and differences within the church as to the nature of that dissonance.

Negative World America

In a 2014 essay in The Atlantic, Alan Noble asked if Christian morality was still acceptable in American society, particularly Christian teachings on sexuality and gender. The answer to that question is complex, of course, given the passing of anti-transgender laws in a number of red states as well as the wave of pro-life laws passing in those same states. But in the culturally and socially elite institutions which broadly shape American public life and the American social imaginary, the answer to Noble’s question at this point appears to be “no.”

Indeed, conservative urbanist and cultural commentator Aaron Renn has suggested that, as of 2015, Christian identification shifted from being a basically neutral characteristic relative to one’s standing in American life to a negative influence. To be a traditional Christian in today’s America is a mark against you if you desire to rise to mainstream positions of social prominence, power, and influence. And where that leaves the white American church, which has little historical experience on the margins of American life is a yet-to-be resolved problem.

Understanding the centrality of this problem, or perhaps of this fear, helps to make sense of divisions that, at first, look rather odd. The forces driving today’s ecclesial realignment are not immediately recognizable as theological in the way that the causes of other ecclesial ruptures throughout history have been. The 16th century Reformation concerned the authority of the church and how individual people are made right with God. The 19th century modernist controversy questioned the possibility of miracles and of the supernatural more broadly.

The recent divides opening up in the American mainline concern the place of people living in same-sex relationships in the life of the church, which implicates theological questions concerning sexuality, ethics, and the human body. In each case, the theological stakes of the debate were clear and the reasons for division were similarly clear.

Naming the Divide Within Conservative Protestantism

Today’s divisions within evangelicalism, in contrast, can seem almost aggressively non-theological. No one on either side of this culture war fight amongst conservative Protestants, for example, is taking the mainline’s position on LGBT individuals and the church. Even the far “left” of the debate makes affirmation of Christian teachings regarding sexual behavior and marriage central to their public witness. Nor is there some broader theological downgrade that sees one side or the other drifting away from Nicea or even the broadly shared elements uniting theological documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the 39 Articles, or the Baptist Faith and Message.

The things driving Ortlund into the ACNA or Russell Moore and Beth Moore out of the SBC do not seem to be primarily about agreement or disagreement with a church’s theological confession. Indeed, the theological questions that historically divide various species of Protestantism or even Protestants and Catholics seem to be dissolving into the culture war ether, replaced by politics. (Compare the cultural coverage of Catholic discernment blogs with Baptist discernment blogs sometime.) Yet to describe these divisions as non-theological is not actually correct.

The core question dividing many Christians in America right now is this: When did America become hostile to Christian faith and practice? For those on the right of the contemporary debate, the answer is “recently.” Renn plausibly dates the change to 2015 with the Obergefell ruling and the intense backlash against Indiana’s and Arkansas’s religious freedom restoration acts. Though he develops a broader and deeper critique in The Benedict Option, which takes a more Milbankian approach to the problem, Rod Dreher’s more recent book, Live Not By Lies, favors a narrower reading, starting with the ascent of “wokeness” in the United States or what Wesley Yang has called “the successor ideology.”

For these thinkers, the pre-Obergefell world certainly wasn’t idyllic. Many of these same figures are harshly critical of the second Bush administration, for example. But prior to Obergefell there was a broadly shared set of cultural assumptions that left room for Christian identity as an acceptable lifestyle option, at the very least. There was something lingering in the air that still spoke of a day when America’s elite institutions were more friendly to some Christian concepts and ways of thinking or even were explicitly Christian themselves. In the aftermath of Obergefell, the ascent of President Trump, and the growing acceptance of transgenderism, that space which allowed traditional Christians to maintain standing in elite American cultural institutions has been dramatically shrunk, if not eliminated altogether.

On all of this, the “left” side of the divide is likely to have little disagreement. Certainly, Russell Moore has written extensively against Obergefell and transgenderism. His former colleague at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Karen Swallow Prior, recently wrote against abortion and in favor of the highly restrictive Texas anti-abortion law in the pages of the New York Times. Meanwhile, McCaulley’s Reading While Black, is, amongst other things, an attempt to retrieve and explain the conservative theology of the Black church in America for both progressive black academics and conservative white evangelicals. McCaulley’s new colleague at Progressive Baptist, the Rev. Dr. Charlie Dates, is of much the same mind as the other figures.

This conservatism is reflected in the preaching of Dates, who routinely preaches for 45 minutes to an hour and whose sermons frequently exhort his congregation to repentance over personal sins, prayer, Bible study, and many other elements you’d sooner find in white conservative churches than white progressive churches. This conservatism also reaches into the debates over sexuality and gender issues.

After Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke suggested that non-affirming churches should lose their tax-exempt status in an LGBT townhall event in 2019, Dates, responded from the pulpit saying,

Anytime a Democratic candidate for president can go on a CNN panel and say that any church or tax-exempt organization cannot speak prophetically even into the sexual ethics of our culture without having their tax-exempt status taken away, then I can’t stand for that cause that ain’t true! Take my tax-exempt status back. I tell you one thing you can’t take back from me, you can’t take the Word of God out of my heart!

Dates is not unique in taking this view. Retired Redeemer Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller, regularly viewed as representing the “left” wing of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), was one of the primary authors of the PCA’s recent study report on sexuality, a report which condemned hook-up culture, gay marriage, and the sexual revolution while endorsing a strictly conservative vision of marriage and family life. Meanwhile, the ACNA’s January 2021 pastoral statement sounds many of the same notes as the PCA’s report, suggesting the emergence of a consensus on sexuality shared amongst the PCA and ACNA. You will not find defenders of the successor ideology amongst the “left” of the contemporary debate within evangelicalism.

So what divides the factions, if not opposition to recent cultural changes in American life? To find an answer, we need look no further than Dates’s sermon in which he condemned O’Rourke’s comments on CNN. Minutes before attacking O’Rourke, Dates also condemned those who would establish too-strong bonds between the Republican Party and American Christians, saying:

Don’t you let nobody think that if you’re going to be Christian in America you got to be a Republican. There ain’t nothing intrinsically Christian about being a Republican. We cannot marginalize women. We cannot be misogynistic. We cannot go grabbing women by any parts of the body we want to grab them by. We cannot leave the poor on the fringes and alone and broken and without programs to help them. We cannot ignore systemic injustice and racism. There’s nothing intrinsically Christian about that!

Dates’s approach to the problem of the church’s place in American life is both straightforward and complex: In Dates’s framing, America has never really been a Christian nation. The majority of Christian believers in America have, rather, practiced a kind of accommodated Christianity that adjusts itself so as to not disrupt the status quo of American life with its emphases on acquiring wealth and power and status. Even if that status quo involves gross injustice, many American Christians have been prepared to look the other way or even to aid the injustice in the name of ministry. The reason that white Christians such as Russell Moore and Beth Moore and many others in the SBC, PCA, and ACNA have found themselves at odds with predominantly white denominations is, at least in part, due to the fact that they have begun to identify, address, and condemn this spirit of accommodation.

America Was Never a Christian Nation

In our early days, (white) American Christianity accommodated itself to slavery, even adopting liturgical practices in southern churches that reinforced the logic and norms of the plantation, as Yale theologian Willie James Jennings recently described in his book After Whiteness.

More recently, many white Christians have likewise demonstrated a willingness to tolerate rampant poverty in the name of protecting property rights, sexual misconduct and abuse in the name of protecting a certain depiction of masculinity, and a general indifference to character and virtue in the name of securing political power.

The idea that the Christianity practiced by many in America is an attenuated faith accommodated to socially sanctioned injustice is not a new argument. In 1829, a free black man named David Walker published an Appeal in which he aggressively condemned slavery and other forms of racial injustice in America. Strikingly, he did so on explicitly Christian grounds, arguing that America couldn’t possibly be a truly Christian nation because her own conduct plainly contradicted Christian teachings:

(Defenders of slavery) forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, having his ears continually open to the cries, tears and groans of his oppressed people; and being a just and holy Being will at one day appear fully in behalf of the oppressed, and arrest the progress of the avaricious oppressors; for although the destruction of the oppressors God may not effect by the oppressed, yet the Lord our God will bring other destructions upon them.

Walker was not the only one to make such arguments, either. Roughly 20 years later, Frederick Douglass would say much the same thing in the epilogue to his Narrative on the Life of a Slave, arguing that the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of America’s slaveowners were entirely different religions:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Dates would echo this argument in his sermon given after the murder of George Floyd:

The problem with white supremacy killing black women and black men in America is an error of theology. It is a failure of the white mind and the white power structures to remember from where breath really comes. What is American history if not the thievery of breath from black anatomy?

And so the divide within evangelicalism, even if it might appear to be chiefly affinity based, has an undeniable theological component. Can we isolate the American church’s frequent toleration of gross injustice from the broader question of the American church’s fidelity and commitment to her Lord? Can justice and righteousness be kept separate from one another?

If the divide roiling conservative American Christianity right now concerns the question, “when did America stop being a Christian nation?” it is because one side of that divide now thinks America never really was all that Christian to begin with.

So what will this mean for the future of Christian faith, practice, and communal life in America? That remains to be seen. But it is unlikely that individual congregations and even whole denominations can long endure in the face of such a division. If American Christians are being more explicitly ostracized and excluded from the halls of power and if their status in America is more uncertain and in-doubt, it is only natural that individual Christians and churches would seek out like-minded people with whom they can ride out the storm, to whom they can offer support during this season and from whom they can expect aid and assistance. But to what end will these communities of believers labor?

If the conflict between the American regime and Christianity is of recent vintage, then the task is one of restoration, it is one of enduring a storm and leveraging what power we still have, which is even now considerable. It is the work of regaining our position of centrality and influence in the life of the American republic. The goal, in other words, is to retrieve the post-war era’s functional Christendom that ruled in America from the late 1940s until the past couple decades. Something like this, of course, is precisely the promise of the Trump campaign, with its goal of making America great again.

If, on the other hand, the conflict between the American regime and Christianity is centuries old and implicates not only America’s racial sins, but also many economic injustices, then the work for Christian communities to attempt is not a restoration of a recently lost silver age, but rather a wholesale re-evaluation of the life of the American church, of her moral commitments, and her prophetic witness to a nation that has always been defined by grievous injustice and whose church has, too often, been lukewarm in its zeal for justice and its concern for the poor and the disadvantaged.

Thus the right wing of this debate will continue to embrace Trumpism and whatever policy items and broader agendas that can be linked with the goal of restoration. It is likely that this embrace will probably more and more pronounced as the years pass, even incorporating figures who once held out against it. The left wing, meanwhile, will attempt to embody a vision of the church’s life in America that assumes a sharp divide between America as she has historically existed and the teachings of Christian morality, which is more likely to see America as one of the powers and principalities of Scripture than as a shining city on a hill.

What exactly this will look like in practice is an open question. There are models out there, but mostly they belong to Christian traditions that have been outside the American magisterial Protestant mainstream. The Radical Anabaptists offer one vision. The Black church offers another. Dissident Catholicism would offer still another.

But this will be largely uncharted territory for white Christians in the PCA, SBC, and ACNA amongst others, all of whom are generally far more assimilated into the mainstream of American life. It will mean a trek into the political wilderness, for in this project they render themselves unaccepted to both of America’s dominant political parties. It seems it must be these dissident Christian movements and especially the Black church that will lead here, for they knew 200 years ago what many white Christians have, to our shame, only discovered more recently.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).