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I Thought Political Capture Was Bad

December 8th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

For much of the past seven years, discourse about Christianity and public life has been fundamentally shaped by false dichotomies, one in particular: Ultimately there are only two theo-political options for Christians.

Option 1 is progressivism. In particular it is a progressivism that is indistinguishable on a policy or moral level from the platform of the Democratic Socialists of America and regards many exceedingly common Christian beliefs, such as the conviction that only men can be ordained to pastoral office or that same-sex sexual acts are immoral, as being inherently abusive and unjust.

Option 2 is Christian nationalism, a right-wing vision defined by neo-fundamentalist moral and theological ideas tied to a consequentialist political theory that effectively mandates Christians to vote Republican and to never criticize anyone to their political right, no matter how noxious or vile the American right becomes.

A lot of books have been sold to preserve this idea. It isn't true, of course. It operates by entirely ignoring the spectrum of belief running from mainstream evangelicals to neo-evangelicals, the spectrum represented by organizations like The Gospel Coalition and denominations like the PCA, ACNA, EPC, ECO, Acts 29, much of the SBC, and many independent churches. So the entire narrative is founded on ignoring huge swathes of Christian communities in this country. And yet it is convenient for many to talk as if opposing the progressive version of belief is inherently to be a "Christian nationalist" or that opposing the Christian nationalist vision likewise means one is automatically a progressive.

It is not surprising, of course, when actual progressives and actual Christian nationalists advance this narrative. It serves their purposes, after all. An undecided person with right-leaning tendencies can be goaded into embracing the hard right if they are made to think that anything short of such an embrace is a capitulation to "wokeness." In the meme: "Christian nationalism gooder than transing kids." Just please don't notice our Nazi pornographer business partner, the white supremacist we podcast with who is indoctrinating Christian school students, or our raging anti-Semite co-author who one of our most influential allies has explicitly linked to his own project.

Likewise, a left-leaning person can be pressured in the opposite direction by the suggestion that political conservatism or orthodox views on sex and gender are, in fact, indistinguishable from "patriarchy" or "fascism" and therefore must be rejected and loudly condemned as being evil and abusive.

This scissoring maneuver, in other words, serves the interests of both flanks—the 1s and the 4s, if you follow Mike Graham and Skyler Flowers's schema. It also does a great deal of damage. It confuses the church's moral witness, mainstreams noxious ideas in the church that will have especially vile consequences for inter-racial families, adoptive families, and racial reconciliation efforts, sows rampant mistrust in Christian institutions, and teaches people to think that all bad leadership is sin and that all sins committed by Christian leaders are abuse.

Christians who are opposed to such political capture and who are keen to preserve a clear account of the faith and its relevance to public life should be actively attempting to frustrate, complicate, and contradict this narrative.

Unfortunately, that is not what happens here:

This film, produced by Rob Reiner, clearly has a specific political purpose. Reiner laid it out quite explicitly in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. It's just a recapitulation of the progressive view described above. Christianity is "inclusive" we are told by people who plainly include progressive ideas about sex and gender in their idea of "inclusivity." It is very hard, therefore, to view a willingness to appear in the film as anything other than remarkable naivety about Reiner's project or agreement with his broad progressivism.

Indeed, after many years of lamenting the right wing's political capture, both David French and Russell Moore appear in this trailer, offering supportive "insider" testimonies to legitimize the progressive narrative regarding Christian nationalism. Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer and his podcast cohost Skye Jethani also make appearances. They speak alongside a number of critics who reject the church's teachings regarding marriage, sexuality, the exclusivity of Christ, and a host of other core beliefs.

What is galling about this is that these men seem to be unaware of or indifferent to the fact that their appearing in this does for the left what they have accused arch-conservative evangelicals of doing for the right; it creates a political Christianity in which God's Word is made subservient to a political movement.

What is tragic about this is that after years and years of conservatives accusing them of doing that very thing (often unfairly, in my view) these men now seem willing to vindicate their critics.

I am reminded of words I first read ten years ago, long before I was editing this journal, when I was still learning to think about theo-political questions. As I was developing my own convictions I read these words in an essay appearing in First Things:

It’s true that the newer generations of Evangelicals are often interested in more than just the culture-war issues of the past. They work on orphan care, ecological stewardship, human trafficking, racial reconciliation, prison reform, economic inequality, and poverty as well as abortion, economic freedom, and marriage. But those who work most on these issues at the congregational level do so with decidedly conservative motivations and strategies—and theologies. Evangelicals concerned about poverty, for instance, rarely mirror the thinking and policy of the Great Society, even when they deviate from the talking points of the Republican business class. They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability, family accountability, and personal responsibility. They are as committed as ever to the sanctity of all human life and to marriage as a one-flesh union between a man and a woman.

Indeed, often the “broader” agenda items reinforce their social conservatism. Evangelicals working with the poor see the devastation of family breakdown, substance abuse, predatory gambling, and so on. Not that this changes the way they’re spoken of in public. When Evangelicals adopt, the secularist Left accuses them of “stealing” children for “Evangelism,” though if they didn’t the left would accuse them of caring about “fetuses” without providing them homes.

These Evangelicals actually go to church and so represent the future. The problem is that “young Evangelical” is a confusing term, especially for a media culture that often defines the concept in terms of marketing rather than theology or ecclesiology. It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak in with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic.

I still find those words inspiring. The author imagines a movement of believers devoted to the church, a movement committed to orthodoxy, to marriage, to the unborn, a movement that rightly recognizes that concerns with authentic justice are not hostile to those commitments, and a movement that knows in its bones that a bland progressivism recapitulating old mainline talking points is a dead end, one deserving of scorn.

The man who wrote those words was right.

His name is Russell Moore.

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).