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.