Dear Timothy Keller: The “Evangelical” Problem isn’t Pollsters

In response to the public identity crisis voiced by some white evangelicals since Donald Trump’s victory and Roy Moore’s loss—elections in which roughly 80% of white evangelical voters supported each candidate despite multiple sexual assault accusations against each—Timothy Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, took to the New Yorker to offer a rose-tinted historical gloss to the turmoil and looks to a multicultural future.

First, Keller couches the contestation surrounding the term “evangelical,” and who and what it signifies, as a problem of public perception rather than an opportunity for reflection and change. Rather than acknowledge that there may be good reasons for white conservative evangelical leaders to listen and think about the substance of the simmering internal and external critiques, Keller shifts the blame and sets his sights on pollsters instead:

When [political pollsters] survey people, there is no discussion of any theological beliefs, or other criteria. The great majority of them simply ask people, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” And those who answer ‘yes’ are counted. More than eighty per cent of such people voted for Donald Trump, and, last week, a similar percentage cast their ballots for Roy Moore, in the Alabama Senate race. So, in common parlance, evangelicals have become people with two qualities: they are both self-professed Christians and doggedly conservative politically.

There are many problematic statements in this summation of why white Christians are questioning whether or not they want to self-identify as “evangelical,” and why Christians and non-Christians alike are publicly critiquing white evangelicalism as a theological-political formation. Keller proposes that evangelical identity is too complex to be shorthanded for the sake of quick-to-digest exit polls, as though everyone else is aptly classified by such categories. He goes so far as to lament the fact that pollsters do not use theological criteria to discern “authentic” from “fake” evangelicals, which signals a desire to distance himself from critique by otherizing “those” white evangelicals who continued to vote Republican despite the obvious moral failings of Trump and Moore. Keller wishes to declare the vote of “those” white evangelicals as inconsistent with the “Moral Majority” vote, when in fact it remains consistent with the trends of partisanship during the days of Jerry Falwell’s rise. White evangelicals were not designated “self-professed Christians” and “doggedly conservative politically” by outsiders just recently; what Keller deems a recent “redefinition” of identity has been long cultivated by white evangelical leaders such as Falwell to political, cultural, and economic gain.

Second, Keller erases a brutal chapter in contemporary white evangelicalism to which he contributed, one which continues to haunt those it directly affected—namely, the abusive ministry of the anointed evangelical bad boy Mark Driscoll, formerly of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and currently of The Trinity Church in Scottsdale. White evangelicalism’s callous present is on display for all to see as Driscoll continues to teach in the national spotlight while blogging and promoting the rebrand of his ministry under the “Evangelical” banner of the religion and spirituality site Patheos. At Mars Hill, Driscoll bullied staff and preached a misogynistic doctrine while training men and planting churches with the blessing of Keller and to the benefit of The Gospel Coalition (TGC), which Keller co-founded in 2005 with Driscoll as a Council member. Keller, D. A. Carson, John Piper, and other Reformed TGC leaders not only profited from Driscoll’s pugilistic posture, but also ignored warning signs that he was not fit to be a pastor.

In an interview about Driscoll during Mars Hill’s decline in the summer of 2014, while allegations of administrative scandals and spiritual abuse made national and international headlines, Keller remarked:

He was really important — in the Internet age, Mark Driscoll definitely built up the evangelical movement enormously…But the brashness and the arrogance and the rudeness in personal relationships — which he himself has confessed repeatedly — was obvious to many from the earliest days, and he has definitely now disillusioned quite a lot of people.

White evangelical leaders have a history of sacrificing principles and turning a blind eye to manipulative practices for the sake of growth and celebrity. Keller permitted Driscoll’s spiritually abusive but technologically savvy ministry to sexualize and undermine women, bully and exploit men, demonize religious and racialized “others,” perpetuate an ongoing sense of future threat, silence and exile dissent…sound familiar? Keller admits no accountability for Driscoll’s rise in prominence as the vulgar mouthpiece for white evangelicalism for nearly two decades; makes no connections between the self-doubt some white evangelicals feel now and the sense of betrayal many experienced as Mars Hill fell apart; and is more than willing to displace blame for what he frames as recent bad publicity onto pollsters and “conservative leaders” besides himself.

Third, Keller seeks to redraw the boundaries of who counts as a “real” evangelical while chiding those on the outside who don’t see the nuances in identity that he does:

Understanding the religious landscape…requires discerning differences between the smaller, let’s call it “big-E Evangelicalism,” which gets much media attention, and a much larger, little-e evangelicalism, which does not. The larger, lowercase evangelicalism is not defined by a political party, whether conservative, liberal, or populist, but by theological beliefs. This non-political definition of evangelicalism has been presented in many places.

Keller once again deflects from his own political, cultural, and economic investments by denying that they exist, as though theology is a pure domain into which none of these worldly concerns bleed or have any influence. If only theological criteria were such a concern when Driscoll was sermonizing on the biblical imperative that wives sexually submit to their husbands lest Satan enter the marital bed between them.

Of course there are white evangelicals who seldom or never vote Republican, some who vote Democrat more often than not, some who do not vote at all, and a spectrum of theological-political identifications that combine and distinctly align along the conservative and liberal poles. The friends that I made during my ethnographic research on Mars Hill fall into myriad categories, voting-wise. Some are adamant Trump-Moore supporters, some are not; some are questioning their self-identification with what Keller calls “big-E” Evangelicalism, as well as “little-e” evangelicalism, while others are not.

The point is that this inner turmoil within white evangelicalism didn’t begin with Trump’s election and any confusion or circumspection concerning what “evangelical” means today has been long developing and not dictated by political campaigns but rather a crisis of theological leadership within white evangelicalism. When Keller claims that “‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite,’” he refuses to look in the mirror. Instead, he condescends to those “big-E” Evangelicals whom he otherizes and deems theologically deficient in order deflect any responsibility for, and to elide his own culpability in, this political formation.

Finally, Keller turns to the diversity within “small-e” evangelicalism as a method of self-defense. He remarks on “a new multiethnic evangelicalism” that is growing steadily before his own eyes:

Here in New York City, even within Manhattan, I have seen scores of churches begun over the last fifteen years that are fully evangelical by our definition, only a minority of which are white, and which are not aligned with any political party. In my view, these churches tend to be much more committed to racial justice and care for the poor than is commonly seen in white Evangelicalism.

Sadly, rather than suggesting that white E/evangelicals could learn from and collaborate with their “multiethnic” brothers and sisters in projects committed to racial justice and care for the poor, Keller simply uses multiculturalism as a prop to distract from the racism and sexism that African American voters, who turned out in record numbers during the Alabama Senate election, rebuked with their ballots. Devon Crawford, a 24 year-old divinity student at the University of Chicago, traveled home to vote against Moore because his version of Christianity “sanctifies the truth-making power of white men” and is “really just a masquerade for white supremacy.”

Why should white men define the scope of what constitutes E/evangelicalism? Why do black Christians have to fight for equality and justice without the support of, and often in struggles against, so many white E/evangelicals? And why doesn’t Keller just come out and say that white E/evangelicals may want to rethink the relationships between their theology and politics in lieu of casting ballots in such large numbers for the likes of Trump and Moore? Instead of performing linguistic gymnastics in order to save face, and relying on others to do the work of renewal, Keller should openly address the discrimination and violence perpetrated by white E/evangelical leaders that’s led to this particular crisis of identity.