The Evangelical Pluralism Problem and its Media Enablers

Image: Gilbert Mercier/Creative Commons

At this critical moment for American democracy our media landscape is doing a poor job in its coverage of conservative white evangelicals. Coverage of this relatively large segment of the population is characterized by, on the one hand, effusive praise for the slightest milquetoast criticism of Donald Trump, and on the other, by a periodic parade of nearly interchangeable unfounded predictions about how evangelical youth are going to change America’s most radically right-wing demographic for the better—any day now. In the words of the great sage Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!”

Our elite media gatekeepers set an extremely low bar for evangelicals when it comes to doling out respect, praise, and unearned trust. Our widespread deference to the representatives of the most anti-pluralist, anti-democratic demographic in the country can only be explained by taking a hard look at the often unremarked on Christian supremacism that pervades our public sphere. This issue is neatly illustrated by the fact that evangelicals often get to cover themselves in our major media outlets, despite the disproportionate political influence they wield, the effects of which are felt by all Americans.

Think of a journalist or columnist in a major media outlet who covers evangelicals. See if you can come up with five who aren’t themselves evangelical off the top of your head (excluding liberal pundits writing think-pieces on how they are oh-so-confused about the hypocrisy of evangelicals supporting an immoral man like Trump). Keep in mind that the New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias, in addition to both Michael Gerson and Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the Washington Post,are all graduates of Wheaton College, an evangelical school whose faculty members are expected to sign a “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose.”

I’m sincerely convinced that unless we allow more voices into our elite national discussion of evangelicalism, including the critical voices of non-evangelical researchers and exvangelicals, we can kiss the possibility of a functional American democracy goodbye, given that white evangelicals are the ones enabling the Trump administration to dismantle our institutions and norms while riding roughshod over the rights of othered groups.

In light of this situation, I’m singularly unimpressed with most critical commentary directed by anti-Trump evangelicals at their coreligionists; Trump is, after all, a symptom of a much broader malady, one in which these commentators are to varying degrees complicit. Where, for example, is Gerson’s accountability for his role in the George W. Bush administration’s lurch into “truthiness”? Here we are, 17 years after the devastating and destabilizing Iraq War was launched on false pretenses, in a U.S. whose Right wing is broken and has largely, including most white evangelicals, embraced the post-truth politics that are a hallmark of authoritarianism. Yet people want to celebrate Gerson for merely being anti-Trump? Sorry, not sorry, but it’s too little, too late.

Commentary that attempts to downplay, obscure, or to some degree excuse white evangelicals’ large-scale embrace of authoritarianism—even outgoing Christianity Today editor-in-chief Mark Galli’s much vaunted editorial calling for Trump to be removed from office—elicits in me, if I’m being quite honest, more contempt than respect. Yes, I know what it’s like to be inside evangelical subculture, how terrifying (and sometimes risky) it is to publicly break with the community’s widely held views in even the slightest way. But when wealthy white men, who will be in no actual economic peril if they take a stronger stance, fail to muster more than the tepid criticisms of the Gallis and Gersons of America, I find it beyond underwhelming.

On the most charitable reading, men like Gerson and Galli may be hoping to change evangelicalism from the inside in a way that I have long since been convinced is impossible. It’s noteworthy that in the midst of these anemic criticisms, anti-Trump evangelicals typically bend over backwards to assure fellow evangelicals that their community’s paranoid fears of “attacks” on their religious freedom are justified, and that their anti-choice dogmatism is a respectable position, and not the proxy for often unacknowledged racism that it systemically functions as. And yet the fact that there are still many evangelicals and fundamentalists who will castigate them for being “too liberal” speaks to what we might call evangelicalism’s pluralism problem.

While I would apply a portion of the criticisms laid out above to some of evangelical historian John Fea’s public comments, I was pleasantly surprised by remarks he made in a recent Salon interview with Chauncey DeVega that’s well worth the read. To give credit where credit is due, Fea, the author, most recently, of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, has been more forthright and steadfast than most evangelical critics of white evangelical support for Trump, and he’s also dug deeper into the problem. In his interview with DeVega, Fea starkly observed that evangelicals “have no model for pluralism. They cannot grasp any idea of a pluralistic society in which there are people who differ from them and question what American evangelicals believe.”

I recently called for liberals and non-believers to take the navigation of pluralism seriously, to embrace pluralism as a liberal value, and to engage in discussions of how to fairly and meaningfully achieve equal accommodation in the public square. To do so, to my mind, requires an understanding emphasized by modern social contract theorists like Karl Popper that the toleration of intolerance must have limits, lest the intolerant use the machinery of a tolerant society to take power and end tolerance, as we currently observe Republicans doing in real-time.

As someone who regularly engages in atheist spaces, I’m the first to admit that atheists have a serious pluralism problem, though I consider it less urgent than that found among right-wing Christians, given that the latter have much greater numbers and far more power. Yet, unless we count the evangelicals who’ve been candid enough to simply dismiss pluralism as “heresy,” I cannot think of another case in which an evangelical has so openly and honestly stated that evangelicals don’t deal well with pluralism. For that reason, I asked Fea if he would be so kind as to further unpack and clarify his observation, and he graciously agreed. His comments to RD were every bit as admirably candid as those he made to DeVega:

Many conservative evangelicals continue to think about American identity through a lens of Christian nationalism, or the belief that America was founded as a Christian nation, remained a Christian nation until the 1960s, and now needs to be reclaimed as a Christian nation. As you know, when you believe that Christianity should be privileged over other religions and belief systems you are, in essence, undermining a belief in pluralism. Everyone else is a second class citizen. They are welcome to live in a free society, but they are merely tolerated.

Fea was equally frank about the typical evangelical approach to religious freedom, perceiving a kind of “soft Christian nationalism” in evangelicals’ narrow focus on things like “sexual politics or religious practice in public education.” To which he added:

“I did not see any evangelicals rising up to fight for religious freedom when we learned that Trump’s border wall was scheduled to be built on a Tohono O’odham Nation sacred burial site. Where are the evangelicals standing up for religious liberty when Trump bans Muslims?”

In fact, PRRI documented white evangelical support for some version of a Muslim ban at 72% in 2018.

But how, then, should the healthy management of pluralism look, according to Fea? He says, “As I understand it, pluralism celebrates the deeply held differences of people and institutions in a democratic society,” adding, “I think those on the Left can also do some work here,” a point I readily concede. Fea then cited John Inazu’s book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference, as representing a model he appreciates, though he is not overly optimistic:

Inazu starts his book with the story of Wellesley College, an all-women’s college in Massachusetts. What happens at Wellesley when a woman transitions into a man? How does the school maintain its identity as a women’s college? What does it do about the students who chose to go to Wellesley precisely because they wanted to be part of the so-called “sisterhood” that is Wellesley? (Inazu notes that many of the students who seek this “sisterhood” experience are Muslim women). Should Wellesley “discriminate” against the transgender student? These are tough issues, but as I read Inazu the challenge is for all Americans in democratic society to cultivate a pluralism in which colleges such as Wellesley, as well as Christian colleges who may hold traditional views on marriage and sexuality, can not only exist, but can flourish. Neither the Christian Right nor the progressive Left are interested in advancing this kind of pluralism.

While it’s true that I see little discussion of pluralism on the Left, I think that’s largely because it’s often taken for granted as a core value. And although I myself have published investigative deep-dives into the challenges of LGBTQ students at evangelical colleges, and have promoted student advocacy for greater inclusion and equality in those spaces, I have never said that Christian colleges should be banned, nor am I aware of any commentators who take that position. Where the issue gets trickier is to what extent, if any, such colleges should have access to state and federal funding, so I don’t see how issues at women’s schools like Wellesley are in any way a direct parallel, though the issues there are certainly complex and need to be discussed.

While Fea and I will surely not agree on every point, perhaps related issues should be more openly discussed and debated by people on both sides of the political spectrum. In any case, one thing we can agree on is that representatives of “the progressive Left” do need to be engaging with good faith conservatives about how to build a better post-Trump future.