Is Evangelicalism Too Nice?

Responding to Rachel Held Evans recent post on CNN’s Belief Blog, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Daniel Darling dismisses the idea that evangelicalism has a millennial problem. Offering a critique of the “false gospel of nice,” Darling reasserts the strength and stability of orthodox faith, with a confident forecast for future growth. There are reasons to doubt his optimism. But more than that, there are reasons to question his easy conflation of “Orthodox Christianity” with culture war politics. Darling’s knee-jerk reaction to the kindness of progressive Christianity positions his orthodoxy as something unkind—even cruel.

Early in the post, Darling cites Christian researchers Bradley Wright and Ed Stetzer to counter the popular narrative about millennials leaving Christian faith en masse. But those who click on his links and read their contents will notice that Wright and Stetzer only support his claim in very particular ways.

Though he rejects the idea that Christianity is in crisis, for instance, Wright confirms that evangelical identification in the 18-29 age bracket is in descent, currently at a 40-year low and dropping. And though Stetzer downplays the findings of that 2012 Pew Research report, he also acknowledges that there is “great cause for concern.”

These judgments do not square with Darling’s smugness. “One might argue that young evangelicals aren’t fleeing core conservative institutions, but flooding them,” he writes.

Indeed, one might argue that. But then, one might argue a lot of things.

Like many of his fellows at the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Darling writes with a sort of masculine bravado that scoffs at criticism. This is not a characteristic of orthodoxy itself, as Ross Douthat’s thoughtful Bad Religion demonstrates. But it is a common trait of orthodox reaction to progressive critique, and it rarely strikes a Christ-like chord. In this instance, Darling practically sneers at concerns raised by Rachel Held Evans, ignoring her points as orthodox male writers routinely do. Here as elsewhere, her sincere compassion is trampled upon by men with aspirations to political influence.

But it needn’t be this way. In terms of orthodoxy, Evans and Darling are not significantly different. Both subscribe to Christ’s divinity, death, resurrection, etc. Both believe the Bible to be the Word of God, though they may quibble about its inspiration and interpretation. Both believe that Christian faith requires action in the world. But while Evans emphasizes the “nice” elements of the gospel, Darling fixates on the mean stuff. He then insists that the mean stuff be manifest in policy.

The conflation of orthodox belief and discriminatory social policy is likely to be detrimental to Christian witness in an increasingly tolerant age. There’s absolutely no reason why the one should necessitate the other. But culture warriors like Darling can’t seem to fathom belief without imposition, a blind spot that discloses the pleasure they derive from the fight. This is something to keep in mind whenever discrimination is advanced in the interest of “freedom” or “truth” or something else—it’s also advanced for the thrill of it.