Encore: Evangelicalism in 2020 and Beyond

In November, Christ Over All offered a decade-by-decade engagement with evangelicalism. We would encourage you to go read many of those fine essays. In this two-part “Encore Essay” by Mark Devine, we return to our November theme, Engaging Evangelicalism, because of its many applications for our January theme: Roe v Wade after Dobbs. This article picks up from an earlier piece, Evangelicalism from 2000 to 2020.

While Evangelicals should not define themselves by politics, they have had an outsized role in political affairs throughout America’s history. Therefore, to understand evangelicalism one must grapple with the various ways politics, and especially the Pro-Life movement, have intersected with one another. To that end, Mark DeVine follows the last twenty years of evangelicalism to show the cross currents which have blown through our country.

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Tensions churning within the Keller-led Reformed resurgence among Evangelicals eventually found articulation among the movers and shakers themselves. In March of 2021, North Carolina pastor Kevin DeYoung acknowledged that the once nationwide, cross-denominational Calvinist party was effectively over:

On the other side of Ferguson (2014), Trump (2016), MLK50 (2018), coronavirus (2020–2021), George Floyd (2020), and more Trump (2020–2021), the remarkable coming together [of Reformed evangelicals] seems to be all but torn apart. . . . We won’t be able to put all the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together again . . .

DeYoung accurately identified pressing political realities as key factors in the break-up of the movement. We could add to DeYoung’s list of political flash points: the emergence of critical race theory (CRT), the crisis at the Southern U. S. border, Black Lives Matter, identity politics, and the stunning Biden-supported transgender rights campaign in the nation’s K-12 schools.

More fundamentally, however, are the political sensibilities that precipitated Humpty Dumpty’s fall from his wall. With such a promising start, the movement that put so much stock in being found winsome by its target audience found itself divided over branding strategies that could not please the full spectrum of Reformed evangelicals [1] Indeed, as a winsomeness campaign targeting blue communities not red, it resulted in a politically-subtle “seeker sensitivity” movement and a church growth model that aimed to please the so-called political party of “compassion,” not “conversativism.” In what follows, I will outline the fruit produced by Keller’s “Third Way,” and I will show how it has impacted Evangelicals.

1. The effect of, or the ineffectiveness of, winsomeness as a missional strategy was engaged by James Woods in his two pieces, “How I Evolved on Tim Keller” and “How I Evolved on Tim Keller: A Follow-Up.” In themselves, these articles (and their varied responses) created a dust up that only reinforced the point—things are not as they were.

Keller’s Third Way

Once again, the genesis of this commitment to winsomeness goes back to Tim Keller’s Third Way. As noted in my last essay, Keller encouraged Christian engagement with culture both as the path to clear communication of the gospel and as a necessary protection against compromise of the gospel message through unwitting capitulation to cultural rather than biblical norms. But Keller never called for and never modeled serious engagement with politics. Politics was treated as a dangerous threat to the gospel message and as a temptation to an idolatrous attachment of believers to one political party or to one politician. Accordingly, Keller tried to position his movement between the political parties and above politics writ large in a quest to avoid ongoing responsibility to weigh in on thorny political debates.

The attempt to inoculate his movement from a perceived political minefield appeared in Keller’s first book, the 2008 bestseller, The Reason For God. There Keller outlined for evangelical leaders his so-called “Third Way” whereby Christians could allegedly fly between and above liberal and conservative political loyalties.[2] According to him, Republicans got some things right; Democrats were better on others. Between the two, however, there exists a rough moral equivalence and a freedom to vote as one pleases—or so the argument went.

2. Keller introduces this “third way” in his autobiographical “Introduction” (The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism [New York: Penguin Books, 2018], ix–xxiii).

Nestled in the heart of New York City, Keller’s Third Way appeared to have evangelistic traction in his secular locale. And many young, Reformed evangelicals followed his political example.[3] Unfortunately, Keller’s commitment to winning blue communities with winsomeness broke through his supposed political neutrality. Keller and his followers offered too many reductive caricatures of the political left and right that incentivized critique of conservatives and showed openness to the contemporary social justice movement the Democratic party cherishes.[4]

3. See e.g., David Platt, Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask.

4. See his New York Times Opinion Article, “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t” from September 29, 2018.
 

Keller credits the left with what they want but don’t deserve—the supposed reputation of compassion for the poor and love for justice.[5] He then reductively defines conservatives as primarily concerned with eternal souls, the unborn, and money—a caricature that the left is happy to declare and then impugn.[6] The Third Way means to make it kosher for ostensibly pro-life Christians to vote Democrat while giving an edge to Democrats on the compassion front. Although he identifies as pro-life, Keller recently tweeted, “The Bible tells me that abortion is a sin and great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which policies are most effective.” Really? It is possible that support for the Democratic party might offer “the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country,” when this party not only celebrates abortion on demand at every stage of pregnancy but looks to punish anyone who refuses to publicly celebrate such abortions? I think not!

5. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), ix–xxiii. This, however, is a dubious claim. For a book-length critique, see Wayne Grudem’s Politics according to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture.

6. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), xxv–xxx.
 

The Fruit of Third Way-ism

If Keller’s Third Way is really that problematic, perhaps we need to show its poisonous fruit. To that end, here are a few painful examples of Third Way thinking at work among Evangelicals. In attempting to ignore politics, the dangers posed and harm done by open borders are passed over while the supposedly un-politicized Christian “offering of a cup of cold water” to illegal aliens is celebrated.[7] With an equally pietistic approach, at least one pastor compared the deadliness of Trump’s character flaws over against the killing of the unborn, and others preferenced the multi-issue voting of blacks for Democrats over and above the supposedly single-issue voting of whites for the GOP. Finally, Francis Collins, with Russell Moore, equated taking the vaccine as “love of neighbor” as Jesus commanded. The obvious implication is that not taking the vaccine is disobedience to Jesus’s command—thus binding one’s conscience where the Bible does not. Tragically, as Megan Basham has demonstrated, these two so-called evangelical leaders were used by government agencies to mislead an entire swath of evangelical pastors.

7. Russell Moore is a good example of someone misusing Scripture to support his views of immigration. Mark Coppenger, in turn, reminds us why we need think more carefully about how we apply some of these very same Scriptures to this difficult subject.
 

Thinking historically, Democrats, since the 1930s and FDR’s New Deal, have usually managed to cast themselves as the party of compassion. As Joseph Epstein learned from Shelby Steele, “[liberals] have, or at least feel they have, cornered the market on virtue. To put the liberal story in two words: They care.”[8] But Democratic compassion now comes with burning a police station justified as an “act of pure righteousness” and a SCOTUS nominee who cannot define the word “woman.” Likewise, many Democrat mayors tried to defund the police while George Soros-funded District Attorneys are loath to detain, much less to try thieves and violent offenders in a court of law. Finally, President Biden says “transgender discrimination is the civil rights issue of our time,” as parent-uninformed, teacher-facilitated sex change surgery is encouraged for freshly identified transgender children. Can these examples accurately be called compassionate?

8. Joseph Epstein, Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits (Axios Press: Edinburg, VA, 2020), 165. 

As all of this nonsense goes by uncontested, Keller congratulates an atheist appointed to supervise chaplains at Harvard and commends conservative-bashing comedian Stephen Colbert’s musings on how his faith influences his work. In leaked audio records, NIH Director Francis Collins, in an interview with Russell Moore, employs a southern accent to laugh at vaccine-wary conservatives. David French also identified conservative pew-sitters as America’s “most dangerous political radicals.” And this was before French went out to defend the so-called “Respect for Marriage Act,” which has no respect for God’s definition of marriage.

Finally, in the Southern Baptist circles, two black best-selling, award-winning authors, Carol Swain and Voddie Baucham, have been ignored by SBC entity heads beholden to the Third-Way ethics and ethos championed by Keller. Meanwhile, in response to Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler’s support for Trump in 2020, SBC leaders successfully tapped unknown pastor Ed Litton to scuttle Mohler’s candidacy for the SBC presidency in 2021. Although the SBC has moved on from this presidential election, it is another reminder of how Keller’s Third Way has infiltrated the approach of SBC leaders.

Assessing the Present and Anticipating the Future

When we look at Keller’s approach to culture and politics in particular, it becomes clear that the fruit is bad, and the root, which has taken time to see, is not much better. Indeed, Keller’s Third Way denies political bias with sleight of hand, but in effect it has been repeatedly deployed to censure conservatives and sanctify Christian votes for the Democratic party. All of this has been done while winsomeness has been urged towards urban, blue communities.

How do we assess all this? Between 1994 and 2006 Reformed theologian David Wells published four volumes that track and analyze how church growth movements, despite their formal assent to orthodox, evangelical doctrinal statements, have nevertheless compromised the faith. Unfortunately, Keller’s Third Way, despite its stated determination not to do so, has often done just this, producing terrible ethical fruit.

What most distinguishes the Keller-led Reformed resurgence from the other major church growth movements among evangelicals over the last half century? Is it theology, or something else? The “seeker,” “church growth,” and “purpose-driven life” movements targeted predominantly white suburban communities. Comparatively, the Keller movement aimed to reach the more ethnically diverse blue communities located in urban centers. Each movement labored to remove as many stumbling blocks to the gospel in order the reach their respective targeted communities.

Measured in buildings, bucks, and bodies, each movement was successful, at least for a time. Yet, looking over the last twenty years, it becomes clear that Keller-movement Evangelicals built platforms, brands, and messages in order to be found winsome by the blue communities they sought to reach. As with the old-line liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, exquisite sensitivity to target audiences will shape the message delivered far more than its deliverers intended. Only in this case, winsomeness has elicited complaints and thoughtful retractions from Reformed evangelicals who once flew the Keller flag. All of this suggests that once again, the gospel once has suffered distortion in the otherwise laudable quest to avoid unnecessary violation of unbelievers’ sensibilities.

Such a result of Keller’s Third Way is disheartening, but not surprising. The message of the cross is foolishness to the world, and yet it is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18–25). Doctrinally sound evangelicals have too often been enticed to package the product of the gospel in cellophane for the consumer, yet wisdom, or its opposite, is proven by her children. Over the last decade, many children of Tim Keller’s Third Way have imagined that formal adherence to an orthodox confession is sufficient to protect the gospel message from distortion. But it’s not.

As the seeker-senstive and purpose-driven movements of the 1980s taught us, branding and ongoing messaging exert powerful influence on how that confession is received. And now the same is being seen with Keller’s politically-subtle, blue-community-sensitive seeker model. In each of these iterations, the fruit of these sincere efforts to advance the gospel have found themselves making friends with the world at the expense of the intrinsically offensive gospel that the world so desperately needs.

May the Lord help us to see this clearly, and to walk in his light accordingly.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark DeVine

Mark DeVine

Mark DeVine serves as Associate Professor of Divinity at the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham where he teaches historical theology and doctrine. Dr. DeVine is the author of Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus as All Costs, RePlant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again, Shalom Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Embracing All Three Dimensions of Creation and Redemption, and is an author at The Federalist, American Spectator, The Western Journal, and American Thinker. DeVine served as a missionary to Bangkok, Thailand, and has pastored churches in five states. While his home church is Hunter Street Baptist in Hoover, Alabama, he currently serves as Transitional Pastor of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Smoke Rise, Alabama. He and his wife Jackie live are the parents of two grown sons.