White Evangelicalism: Witnesses to the Wrong Resurrection – Introduction

by John Ellis

White evangelicals in America have a problem.[1] Well, problems. So much so, in fact, that the fault lines have grown to the point where the white evangelical church in America appears to be on the verge of being rendered irreparably asunder into multiple factions. An argument can be made that these factions have already emerged, and the friction seen, heard, and felt is the product of these factions defining their respective sets. Friction arises because, as Lotfi Zadeh taught, since sets are rarely binary, sets cross. Those intersections create a type of “fuzziness.” While difficult for non-mathematicians to see in math, fuzzy sets in sociology are usually not hard to spot, even for the untrained. Unfortunately, within white evangelicalism, while the things that bind us are (should be) the most important, those things that separately define the various “sets” have an outsized influence on our churches. While calls to find unity in the gospel abound, for example, our present reality reveals that the purported shared intersection of the gospel is not strong enough to compel the sheaving of swords by those who are squared off over definitions of social justice and the Church’s ethics within that arena, to pick one hot-button issue.  

Times of crisis, like the ones we’ve experienced and are experiencing in 2020-2021, go a long way towards revealing the idolatrous reality that our differences not only possess an undo import but, tragically, define and control what unites us and, hence, what divides us. To the point where it’s hard to see any real unity within the larger set termed white evangelicals. The irony is that the divisions, those things we bicker and snipe about, are products of the same Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophies and ideologies. The roots of the white evangelical church in America are being exposed as having been sowed and watered by the Tower of Babel’s architect. By their fruit you will know them, after all.

A few months ago, on my way-out Twitter’s exit door, I was struck by a tweet that predicted a split in the white evangelical church in America (specifically within the set tagged Reformed). The author of the tweet sadly laid out the opposite directions of the already in motion split: one side moving further into a God and country-styled Christian nationalism (a la John MacArthur, Founders Ministry, CrossPolitic, Hillsdale College, Robert Jeffress, etc.) and the other embracing more tightly a Tim Keller inspired Kuyperianism.

While obviously (and intended) hyperbolic and subject to being pulled apart and having the claim’s contradictions, errors, and over-generalized straw men exposed, I do believe that at its core the tweet contains truth. Recently, Kevin DeYoung wrote an article for TGC laying out a taxonomy of white evangelicalism in America. Instead of two categories, DeYoung believes that “Reformed Evangelicalism has splintered: Four approaches to race, politics, and gender.” While I find DeYoung’s taxonomy helpful, to a point, I also, like many others, see an inability on the part of DeYoung to operate from Mikhail Bakhtin’s outsideness. In brief, the great Russian literary theorist/philosopher believed that, “In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding-in time, in space, in culture.”[2] Bakhtin didn’t believe that it was impossible for us to legitimately critique and/or understand our contemporary situation and contemporary trends, thoughts, and works of art. He believed the exact opposite but with the understanding that it requires a cognizant effort to shift our gaze outside our position in order to enter into a potentially fruitful dialogue with the object in question. Kevin DeYoung, like the aforementioned Twitter prophet, reflects a failure to critique from a position of outsideness. As such, his critiques of the categories, especially the one he places himself, are anemic and lack robust historical, sociological, and theological nuances. It also pretends towards an objectivity that doesn’t exist. His four categories, if valid, are not equal in bearing truth. Nor are they equal in influence and potential consequences, both inside and outside the Church. Not to mention, and again referencing Lofti Zadeh’s fuzzy sets, categories are rarely crisp, hence the growing tension.

This doesn’t mean, though, that DeYoung’s taxonomy doesn’t contain insight and truth. It does. With it, he put into words the existential crisis that the white evangelical church is feeling. His article helps corral our anxiousness and provides observant readers the opportunity for a perlocutionary catharsis, of sorts. We get to label ourselves – to add another signifier to our identity, something we love to do. It also coaxes us into believing that we’ve gained empathic understanding of the other categories/identities. And emotional catharsis is the de rigueur of a counseling obsessed evangelical culture. The problem is that taxonomies like DeYoung’s often fail to move us forward in any productive way. A large part of that failure is because of the taxonomy’s inability to see the common through-line-of-action connecting all four categories. All four have the same epistemological, anthropological, and ethical genesis. And all four have endgames at the same point; their paths may momentarily appear to be leading in different directions, yet all four have the same worldview.

To see that worldview requires outsideness. And that is the task before me: to show how white evangelicalism is witness to the wrong resurrection because white evangelicalism was born and nurtured by a contra-biblical worldview. To accomplish that task is best served by first uncovering the resurrection to which white evangelicalism bears witness. With the remainder of this introduction, I’ll make the assertion that white evangelicalism is far more concerned with bearing witness to the American Dream than to the Resurrection of their professed King and Savior. In doing so, I’ll uncover some of the themes that will be explored and expounded in future chapters. Chapter 1 will flesh out this introduction by giving shape to the state of contemporary white evangelicalism. The remaining chapters will detail the various philosophies and histories that comprise the times, spaces, and cultures that have created white evangelicalism, demonstrating that our current malaise isn’t accidental but necessary and destined for failure (rightfully so, I believe).

These are hard claims, I know. Cynical claims. Dangerous claims, even. But please bear with me. This is just the beginning. And beginnings tend to be violent and often seemingly contradictory. It’s only after the initial turmoil, screams, and agony have subsided that perspective is allowed. And with that I ask a favor: read with outsideness. Read in a manner that allows only truly deserving sacred cows space to graze. If I deny the deity of Jesus, stop reading. If I hold forth a false gospel, denounce me. On the other hand, if I push against long-held cultural assumptions and priorities, interact with it within the contextual framework of the whole. Our myopic gaze often prevents idolatrous cultural shibboleths from coming into view. Fight against that.

The shape of this book (series of articles) first began to form while rereading Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality. A core thesis of Rousseau’s book is his belief that humans are naturally good. While reading, I was struck by the seeming incongruity of how someone who believed in the innate goodness of humans could be so enamored with John Calvin, Geneva, and the Genevan political system. Rousseau dedicated the book to the entire city and was gently reprimanded by the Syndics of Geneva for his embarrassing level of gushing about the city and its citizens. That seeming contradiction – possibly the most influential promoter of the goodness of humanity in Western thought loving a political system so connected to the belief in humanity’s depravity – lies at the heart of what went wrong with post-Reformation Christendom in the West. Rousseau was no idiot, and he was very conversant in Calvinism. Yet, he saw in Geneva the best model of his optimistic humanism in practice (until they began burning his books in the 1760s, that is). Why is that? And, that question is largely what I will be attempting to answer. In short, the answer is found in the syncretism of Enlightenment humanism with the ecclesial and theological products of the Reformation. And the evangelical church in America is the natural descendent of that union.

The Roman Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has convincingly argued that, “We are in fact all acting, thinking, and feeling out of backgrounds and frameworks which we do not fully understand.”[3] Taylor’s thesis is a truism that dominates evangelical life. Poll white evangelicals in America and you’ll undoubtedly find naïve assumptions about the nature of evangelicalism’s relationship with history and philosophy, if not downright ignorance of the topic, as well as entrenched beliefs about America’s value in God’s economy. Yet, a clear view of the history of the Church reveals sharp disconnects between the early Church and white evangelicalism in America. 

Christ’s Church exploded out of the gates. Starting at Pentecost, the gospel swept through the Roman Empire and beyond like wildfire. And it did so within social, cultural, and political environments that were hostile towards Christianity. In the now widely considered classic book Evangelism in the Early Church, author Michael Green reminds us that the intense spread of the gospel among this seemingly infertile soil of resistance, “was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries.”[4] The task of the gospel was picked up and carried by the corporate ecclesial community into the broader community and that cause produced an effect. Contrast that with evangelicalism in 21st century America, and we now find that churches largely ebb and flow based off the consumer habits of church shoppers, a demographic made up of current church goers. As one friend likes to put it, churches mainly see growth only if they’re willing to fish in another man’s pond. Considering the etymology of the name, though, shouldn’t we expect evangelicalism to see, well, evangelism as the main driver of church growth? Unless we’re willing to discount the power of the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the gospel message, it would seem that the lack of impactful community spread of the gospel is a problem embedded within evangelicalism and, hence, a problem of and for evangelicals. The question remains, it appears, what, if anything, is different about the early Church from the contemporary evangelical movement in America?

That question, I believe, as related to my primary thesis, has one main answer (among many others, some of which will be touched on in subsequent chapters) that manifests itself in two competing views and approaches to local church life and her mission (that ironically end up being very similar, if not the same). By and large, white evangelical churches in America have embraced an anthropocentric teleology. On one side, an undo emphasis on autonomous soul salvation leading to an anthropocentric view of sin and salvation dominates. On the other, an undo emphasis on human flourishing in the here and now allows cultural expectations to be the driver of ethics. The embedded anthropocentrism in both comes at the expense of the Bible’s eschatological emphasis and God’s revealed teleology. As alluded to above, this anthropocentrism is not a unique feature of evangelicalism. It is, in fact, at the core of American society. Rewording my thesis, white evangelicalism in America is the natural descendent of the syncretism between the Enlightenment and the Reformation because the United States of America is the logical end of that syncretism. In other words, white evangelicalism, in many ways is America. Contrary to the notion that this country is a Christian nation, however, this means that both America and evangelicalism are far more a product of Enlightenment humanism – anthropocentrism – than biblical Theism.

Both moralism and materialism lead to hedonism[5]. I realize that’s a counterintuitive statement, but the history of the world bears that out; the history of the United States of America is a living, breathing experiment proving it. At its heart, moralism is about me defining what human flourishing looks like and demanding it be adhered to, by myself and others. Once human flourishing begins to be defined within our imminent spaces, the epistemological floodgates of autonomy have been opened. People trained in self-defining and self-corralling habits for their own “good” will naturally apply the same epistemology to their new ethics once they drop their charade of submission to Christ. Adding to that, materialism, especially in reference to the atomism of Epicurus and his disciples, goes hand in hand with moralism. Charles Taylor argues that, ‘The obsession with getting myself to act right seems to leave no place for some overwhelmingly important goal or fulfillment, which is the one which gives point to my existence.”[6]

Moralism, like materialism, denies the eschaton. It’s for the here and now. And it’s difficult to argue that moralism hasn’t undergirded white evangelicalism in America and continues to do so. This makes the many sermons against “secular” America’s materialism ironic. Both moralism and materialism fit under the umbrella of autonomy/individualism. And if you doubt that autonomy/individualism isn’t part of the United States of America’s warp and woof, pay attention to the surprised observations of, “British officers [who] were shocked by the eagerness with which Americans pursued their own interest at the expense of the nation’s. ‘Self, the great ruling principle,’ said one, ‘[is] more powerful with Yankees than any people I ever saw.”[7]

A well-placed quote does not an argument make, though. But if I’m right, it’s hard to see how arguments that make the claim that America is or was a Christian nation, or even that the country was founded on Christian principles, hold water. The American Dream places the autonomous individual on a pedestal that was resurrected by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophies and worldviews that have little if anything to do with biblical theism. What’s worse, the supposed Bride of Christ in the United States of America fights with all her strength to retain her place on that pedestal. White evangelicalism in America bears witness to the wrong resurrection.

(For those interested, here are the upcoming chapter headings: Chap. 1: The State of Evangelicalism in America; Chap. 2: The Triumph of Epicurean Hippies; Chap. 3: The Foolishness of the Cross; Chap. 4: In Locke Step With Epicurus; Chap. 5: Epistemology Wars – Babylon Versus Jerusalem; Chap. 6: The American Revolution Takes the Path of Enlightenment; Chap. 7: The Birth of Liberty Loving Denominations; Chap. 8: Is It God and Country or Country and God, and Does It Matter?; Chap. 9: Conclusion. My goal is to publish a chapter a week. That being said, some chapters are farther along than others. Some chapters may not allow for that publishing schedule.)

[1] I use the descriptor “white” because I am not in a position to adequately (or even legitimately critique) Black, Latino, and Asian evangelical communities.

[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Response to a Question from Novy Mir Editorial Staff,” in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986), 7.

[3] Charles Taylor, The Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 387.

[4] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 243, quoting Adolph Harnack.

[5] Materialism here encompasses both philosophical and scientific materialism that goes under other names like atomism and naturalism, the belief that only the material world exists, as well as the more commonly understood colloquial use of the term meaning a focus on acquiring stuff – bigger and better barns, if you will.

[6] Taylor, A Secular Age, 399.

[7] Donald Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 72.

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