Rusty Reno has concluded that I am a “respectable evangelical,” an appellation which he does not intend as a compliment. His comments come in response to my article for America Magazine, on the relationship of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals under and beyond Trump. Reno suggests that whatever insights the piece has, the “rank-and-file are invisible” in my description of evangelicalism’s political landscape, “neglecting the obvious fact that [‘old guard’ evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Jr. are] leaders because so many people follow them,” and adopting “a New York Times analysis of the great bulk of evangelical voters who voted for Trump.”

Reno’s conclusion is the deep roots of evangelicalism’s (political) populism will prevent “prevent respectable evangelicals like Matthew Lee Anderson from assuming leadership over the unwashed,” an unwashed that Reno himself claims to be closer to representing through his defense of Trumpism and his critique of ‘respectable evangelicals’ like myself. I implied, Reno suggests, that those ‘unwashed masses’ are “Islamophobic” or “xenophobic and anti-immigrant,” that they’re ‘clingers.’

Now, Dr. Reno has no reason to know anything about my writing or my history of evangelicalism. He assumes, for instance, that I’m among those who “become evangelical Anglicans” and “can’t help but look down on those who populate the crazy-quilt of conservative Protestant churches in this country.” It is true that I am attending an Episcopalian church at the moment — but what Reno might not understand about me is that I opted to not attend the ACNA parish in town in part because it has more than a hint of the anti-evangelical reaction that I have long resisted. I’d wager that I’ve sung “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” more recently than almost any other writer about evangelicalism, and that I spend more social time with members of the lower classes than most (admittedly, playing basketball, but still!).

The first essay I ever published was a defense of traditional evangelicalism over and against its softly progressive iteration many of my peers were taking up, an essay that included a defense of the kind of patriotic sentiments Reno suggests ‘respectable evangelicals’ like me are averse to. I have never repudiated that essay, nor do I see any reason to. I spent the 2008 election defending Mike Huckabee against the far more respectable Mitt Romney, for many of the same reasons that Reno now defends evangelicalism’s embrace of Trump. Even more radically, I spent that election defending ‘rank and file’ evangelicals’ aversion to supporting a Mormon candidate (though I disagreed with them). While I now find Huckabee’s willingness to impale himself on the altar of Trump reprehensible, it is not because I am averse to evangelical populism: I just want it to remain evangelical. (I opposed Newt Gingrich in that same election cycle because of its significance for evangelical’s witness on marriage — how quaint it seems now, and how naive I was then!)

And while I have not written directly about evangelicalism, immigration, nations, global capitalism, or the like…my actual intuitions are nearer Reno than my strident opposition to Trump indicates. (I’m pleased to be associated with a website, for instance, that published this — and to be on a podcast with the author!) My silence on such matters has more to do with a sense of my own limitations and expertise, and the fact that I’ve never been asked to write about them. But I have at least once defended the Trump administration in its attempt to prioritize Christian refugees over and against the vast hordes of progressive Christians who opposed it. And an old essay from a now defunct sub-blog (on evangelicalism!) at First Things about the value of borders and the difficulties of enforcing them also deserves a rereading in this context.

I offer this background and context only to highlight the impossible position that Reno’s critiques put a conservative evangelical like me in. Consider Reno’s depiction of ‘respectable evangelicals’:

The respectable evangelicals are pro-life, to be sure, and they often reject same-sex marriage, though they work hard not to be seen as judgmental. More often than not, they vote for Republican candidates. But they’re also likely to give priority to racial justice. The respectable evangelicals are “less nationalistic and considerably less anxious about Islam and immigration than many leaders on the religious right.” As Anderson observes, they are “social-justice-oriented evangelicals.”

One wonders what’s wrong with that list. Should evangelicals not work hard to be seen as ‘judgmental’? Should we not give priority to racial justice? (I’ve been clear about the need to prioritize abortion politically, and will continue to do so — but that doesn’t preclude being attentive to matters of race as well.) Note that Reno frames the latter as in the negative side of the ledger, after grudgingly admitting that we still mainly vote Republican. While I have concerns about the way in which identity politics and ‘racial justice’ are construed these days, it seems clear to me as well that evangelicalism as a movement has a particular kind of reckoning to undertake on those questions that Catholicism might not be equally responsible to. (The differences between evangelical and Catholic conservatism are, I suspect, founded upon their diverging histories regarding such matters.)

Additionally, while Reno dismisses my observations as ‘jejune’ — which I’m tempted to suggest is an elitist whistle if ever there was one! — he also doesn’t engage the various examples and data I brought forward for my claims about the evangelical atmosphere out of which ardent Trump support was born. Of that we might simply say that Reno has clearly never read Pulpit and Pen, who cannot abide a Southern Baptist leader signing a statement with Islamic leaders about religious liberty. Before Russell Moore was ever known for his anti-Trumpism, he was opposed by those ‘unwashed masses’ for his willingness to support the building of a mosque because religious liberty matters.

For Reno, ‘leadership’ of the unwashed masses requires that we represent them and defend their claims by endorsing Trump. To fail to do so is intrinsically to aid and abet the elites who are subjugating them, and to join those elites oneself. There is no possibility of exile being a necessary outcome of holding to principles here, and no sense that those unwilling to endorse this latest manifestation of evangelicalism’s political populism might be interested in doing so for evangelicalism’s own good. There is no ability to imagine that an anti-Trump evangelical might be a good and faithful evangelical, attentive to the ways in which populism has shaped the movement but unwilling to give up certain principles regarding character at its altar. On Reno’s characterization, to oppose Trump as an educated evangelical is to embrace elitism and all that is wrong with the world.

It was with interest, then, that I returned to Reno’s own comments after the Roy Moore debacle. Reno notes that evangelicals defended Moore ardently, “despite credible accusations” of repugnant sexual behavior by him. “Like Trump,” Reno writes, “Moore represented transgression, and not just with his blackguard past.” The problem, again, is with political elites, who have opted to “execute offenders” against middle-class norms rather than “protecting their own” as they did with Kennedy and Clinton. Reno isn’t sure where the trajectory ends, and suggests that there were enough “respectable Republicans” in Alabama to keep Moore from winning. “Among the Republican base,” he concludes, “we may see a rising political appetite for outlandishness, obscenity, and scandal — even and perhaps especially among conservative Evangelicals who have come to feel acutely their status as cultural pariahs in the America dominated by Progressivism, Inc.”

We may indeed. Yet one wonders: should our willingness to accept populism lead us to endorse this as an outcome? The evangelical support for Moore was in one way more intelligible than that for Trump: Moore was thoroughly and inextricably evangelicalism’s own guy, a hero and product of the ‘old-guard’ evangelicalism if ever there was one. It’s not clear whether Reno’s comment about the future of evangelicalism’s appetite for “outlandishness, obscenity and scandal” is acceptance or lament. Is the ambiguity, though, sustainable? Is it enough to simply observe the phenomenon of evangelicalism’s growing appetite for scandal without registering a “yes” or “no” to it? And if we are to render a judgment, shouldn’t it be an unequivocal and unhesitating — no? Shouldn’t there be some kind of bulwark against a populism that seems willing to accept any kind of representative provided that will cut the heads off progressive elites and their “respectable evangelical” abettors?

Perhaps I am too sensitive to these matters because I am in fact an evangelical, and Reno is himself a Roman Catholic. What Trump means to his community is very different than what it means to my own. That was what I hoped to show by my article in America: the “81%” is an albatross around the neck of any evangelical in the way Roman Catholics who support Trump will never experience.

By becoming a defender of those ‘unwashed masses,’ Reno and company can gain the benefits of evangelical populism while maintaining sufficient distance from its inner workings that they need take no real responsibility for its problems and its dysfunctions, nor experience the alienation that comes from naming them. Because Reno’s relationship to evangelicalism’s unwashed masses is strictly political, he need not reckon even with the anti-Catholicism that is frequently present in such communities. Reno enjoys the luxury of being able to whitewash evangelicalism’s populism because it secured the political outcome he thinks necessary and because he himself has no practical stake in the movement. It is not a luxury evangelical conservatives like myself enjoy.

I will confess, though, I find it dispiriting to learn from a senior member of the elite Roman Catholic community that I am insufficiently evangelical, despite nearly a decade of defending my own community. Were I as interested in ‘respectability’ as Reno claims, I would have long ago taken the path that many 0f my peers did and become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Or I would have disavowed the label altogether, and joined up with the ‘post-evangelical’ world. But the one thing that I would not have done would be to continue to claim evangelicalism as my own home and mother, and to work as much as I can to reform and renew it from within.

Reno is right that I shall never be a leader of the unwashed evangelical masses, nor indeed (I suspect) of any other type of evangelical — though not, I think, for reasons he claims. And he is also right that such “leaders” of the old-guard evangelicals will not go away. But he is wrong that those of us evangelicals who opposed Trump’s election did so because we despise the unwashed masses. Those of us who remain evangelicals do so for many of the same reasons Catholics remain Catholic: because we cannot escape the bonds of life and history that hold us, and because those bonds are sources of both joy and pain.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.


  1. I need to simply go on the record and say about the Gingrich/marriage conversation that I was wrong, and you, Matt were right. You were right in a way that presaged this very conversation. You seem to continue to have the right balance between prudence and principles. Would that we all did.


  2. I’m not sure you read Reno fairly, but I am sure I wouldn’t have had it been me. As I am sure you know, those random thoughts in the back section are brief musings on the passing scene. It’s not my intention to defend Reno, as I am edified by you both, but the reflection, “Let’s Rebalance,” just above the “Religious Populism” one includes some thoughts that may well have led to his thoughts on your “America” piece: specifically solidarity.

    After quoting Tocqueville–who, along with MacInytyre–is important to Reno’s thought, he writes: “Shared loyalties unify us, giving us the solidarity necessary to hold the rich and powerful accountable. Multiculturalism is an enemy of those shared loyalties and the solidarity they create, which is why it serves the interests of our globalized ruling class so nicely.”

    I suspect Reno wonders, like you, about the possibilities of any Evangelical and Catholic solidarity in the face of a “solidified” elite. I further suspect, from reading his essays for years, and his book, Restructuring the Idea of Christian Society, that he recognizes the very real threat of “cultural liturgies” (as James K.A. Smith called them in You Are What You Love).

    This, to me, seems to be what he is getting at in his discussion of class and respectable evangelicals. He sees that both those who identify with the Old Guard, and those who do not, do so as a reflection of the secular cultural liturgies each are submersed in in their day to day living in the world and neither can avoid.

    When he writes that FT’s purpose in E&C is “to promote Christian unity” he means it. But maybe he thinks it’s only possible through solidarity with our brothers and sisters on the “outside”, by “sharing loyalties” with them against elites instead of with the elites against them.


    1. Yeah, I think Bo is basically right about this. Reno’s comments seemed to me to be intended more as observations on the way different groups within evangelicalism work rather than direct criticisms. But as so often, his comments have barbed edges to them that leave his interlocutors feeling misread and insulted. Matt is certainly not the first to react in this way. But I must say, I’m surprised he would write so critically and dismissively of a writer who had a blog hosted on his website and who has just published an article on that website this week! Has Reno never interacted with Matt? Does he not know who he is? Does repeatedly writing for First Things not get you some courtesy from the editor-in-chief?


  3. calebroberts811 January 18, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    “By becoming a defender of those ‘unwashed masses,’ Reno and company can gain the benefits of evangelical populism while maintaining sufficient distance from its inner workings that they need take no real responsibility for its problems and its dysfunctions, nor experience the alienation that comes from naming them.”

    This hits the nail on the head, not only regarding Reno’s relationship to evangelicalism, but his approach to politics as such. Reno is ever the distant commentator, a spectator who’s just being strategic with the phenomena that he is in no way implicated in. Not unlike Dreher, he’s basically elevated “hey, I’m just sayin’….” into an entire mode of discourse.


    1. “…a spectator who’s just being strategic with the phenomena that he is in no way implicated in.” Hardly. He has stuck his neck out on both homosexuality and the current papacy. And if you don’t think speaking favorably of Trump in Roman Catholic circles implicates someone in his position, you need to visit a few more Catholic parishes or Jesuit universities. The stakes are quite real, in Catholicism as well as Evangelicalism. Disagree with him as you will, he has proven his integrity.


  4. I have to admit, the difficulty I’ve always had here has been with the term ‘evangelical’ itself. Here we have a politically conservative Episcopalian, a branch of the Anglican Communion, and… this is not an evangelical denomination in any taxonomy I’ve ever seen. What does ‘evangelical’ mean here, or what is its content? Is it just a coda for ‘low church’? Does it refer to some package of theological beliefs that exists across denominations, or somehow internally within Anglican traditions?
    I suppose it is just an ignorant question from a foreigner, but I have never fully fathomed the contours of ‘evangelicalism’ as it is understood in the United States. Most of the time in practice, at least over here, ‘evangelical’ seems to mean mean ‘politically conservative, liturgically low’, but that’s obviously not a very precise definition.
    So here is a dust-up over whether someone is or is not sufficiently evangelical – and, since this doesn’t seem to be about whether Matt is sufficiently committed to preaching the gospel, I am left unsure as to what’s being argued or who it matters to.


  5. I agree with your assessment of Dreher and Reno. Both seem happy to let MAGA populism overtake evangelical churches, as long as they can maintain a hypocritical distance. It’s a position that prioritizes short-term political gain over the long-term goal of fitting ourselves for life with Christ in eternity. So, they are happy to benefit from the political gains of white identity politics, as long as it’s someone else’s Christian tradition that suffers. It misses the point that “respectable evangelicals” are not merely trying to preserve a position for themselves at the secular table. No. In many instances, “respectable evangelicals” are seeking to ensure that people place their faith in Christ rather than in the false gospel of political populism. After all, I can’t imaging anything more contradictory to following Jesus than placing one’s faith in MAGA populism.

    That said, some “respectable evangelicals” have been all too willing to resort to populism in internal battles between moderate elites and conservative elites. After all, if elites in evangelical circles had their way, our churches would likely junk the doctrine of inerrancy, begin ordaining women to leadership roles, and permit some form of committed same-sex coupling (although probably not on the model of the secular gay rights movement). In fact, when I first became affiliated with the PCA as a PhD student in the late 1990s, I was told that we were just a few years away from ordaining women elders and that inerrancy would likely go by the wayside soon. But moderate elites are continually thwarted because conservative elites enlist the populists to help them hold onto the reins of denominational power.

    I’m still part of a PCA church, although we are discussing whether it is still a good denominational fit for us. In a recent discussion group, it was apparent that fewer than 20% of members believed in inerrancy, about 80% of members favored ordaining women ruling elders, and about 60% had no objection to the notion of Christians entering into committed same-sex relationships (although many noted that certain such arrangements may be problematic). Even so, in most other respects, members of our church affirm the averments of the Westminster standards and the Canons of Dort. It’s just that we tend to be more libertarian on social issues, and view inerrancy as an unnecessary extra-biblical doctrine (as opposed to infallibility). Our church is in a large metropolitan area, and its members are largely drawn from educated, white-collar professionals ranging in age from 25 to 55.

    If we left the PCA, it would mean aligning with a denomination that didn’t hold as tightly as we would like to Reformed theology. But our efforts to carve out our own niche within the PCA are continuously thwarted by conservative elites who stir up the MAGA wing of the denomination and stall our efforts. So, forgive me if I find it a bit disingenuous for a conservative elites to express outrage at the racist, misogynistic, and homophobic tendencies of the MAGA populists within evangelical churches. Most of you only maintain your sinecures because of these populists. If voting on theological questions were limited to elites alone within evangelical denominations, it’s likely that the conservatives would lose out to the moderates and be pushed out of leadership.

    I’m not sure where this all ends. And I have to admit that I take a certain joy in seeing conservative elites get mauled by the populist dogs that they’ve grown accustomed to sicking onto moderates. It’s probably not ultimately good for the health of our evangelical communions. But, now that the populist dogs have turned on the conservative elites, I can at least take comfort in the fact that the conservative elites will no longer be sicking the populist dogs onto moderates.

    Yes, MAGA populism is a false gospel. But that fact never seemed to bother conservative elites as long as they could command the populist dogs to attack on their command. It’s interesting that conservative elites are only decrying the evil of MAGA populism after they’ve lost the ability to manipulate it for their own gain.


  6. Reno has been a standup voice on issues, and now has to defend Right-leaning positions against the highly politicized theology of Pope Francis and all that overblown Catholic Social Doctrine that sounds so much like it as written by Tony Campolo. So I actually feel for him. Maybe he just has an evangelical envy complex. It would be understandable.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.