An Evangelical Imaginarium

Russell Moore accuses and places blame

Dr. Russell Moore would have us all understand that, as a 15 year old boy, he seriously contemplated suicide. His despair, he says, was driven to a large degree by his childhood perception that evangelicalism was plagued by hypocrisy. You can read about this in the transcript linked to at the bottom of this post.

Now, I'm in no position to dispute Dr. Moore's characterization of his early teenaged despair. But I do want to observe that any teenaged boy who is so concerned with the hypocrisy of others that he wants to kill himself is, at once, precociously self-absorbed and shockingly disturbed.

I was a 15 year old boy once, and one who was serious about his faith to boot. But I had concerns that were rooted rather closer to home than in the random evangelical hypocrisies that appeared in the newspaper from time to time.

I needed work. I needed to save up for car insurance which, if I was going to drive in a few months, I had to pay for myself. I also wanted to play my guitar. And, whenever I could, I spent my Saturdays playing basketball, or tennis, or sometimes even tackle football in the grassy expanse of the median on Brawner Parkway. I can confidently say that neither myself nor my friends were too concerned about the hypocrisies of people we mostly didn't know. Good heavens, the antics of distant evangelicals were irrelevant to our faith, much less did they carry any implication for the contemplation of suicide. In hindsight, Jane Austen's character, Miss Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, best described our own worldview at the time (I paraphrase):

"We were only resolved to act in that manner, which would, in our own opinion, constitute our happiness, without reference to any person so wholly unconnected with ourselves."

Some of my friends did have concerns closer to home. Not every home was intact. As a group, we were familiar with all of the cultural challenges of 1970's youth. But what was happening all around us was far more significant to us than anything else. Happily, there was no Internet.

To whatever extent I had any temptation at all towards despair, it tended to be over my own failures and not over the failures of others. But I am prepared to take Dr. Moore at his word, that the failures of others, so obvious to him even now, caused him to despair of life. I have no reason to doubt Dr. Moore's boyhood struggles just because his alleged reason for them is peculiar.

But whatever the veracity of Dr. Moore's characterization of his childhood concerns, there is an essential incoherence to his use of them to bolster his current complaint regarding evangelical hypocrisy.  On the one hand, he suggests that the hypocrisy of evangelicalism was of such momentous significance that he was tempted to take his own life. But on the other hand, he says he himself had been surrounded by a community of people beautifully modeling their faith.  He shares a relevant story of how he came into possession of a copy of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity:

I know that the reason I even went looking for C. S. Lewis is that I had been taught the Bible, in a good, loving church. I had seen genuine love and community and authenticity, week after week in Sunday school and Training Union and worship services and Vacation Bible Schools – I knew that it could exist, and what it would look like when I found it.

So the reader is left with the impression that, though the community of faith around him was beautiful and loving, nevertheless the hypocrisy of perfect strangers nearly drove him to suicide.

Dr. Moore's childhood crisis is more than slightly relevant to his purpose because he himself bookends the totality of his remarks with reference to his childhood mental state. Dr. Moore's present thesis is that young evangelicals are losing their faith because the adults in their churches have been hypocritical, most notably by their commitment to this or that conservative political policy. Also by their willingness to vote for morally flawed candidates. Such voting Moore believes stands in hypocritical contrast to the way evangelicals responded to, say, Bill Clinton.

What Moore is engaged in here is the construction of what I'm calling an "evangelical imaginarium".  (Here I borrow from Carl Trueman's explication of the "social imaginary" in his stunning book.) Moore is painting a picture and telling a story but not really in any way that can actually be substantiated.  Making broad-brush characterizations about social phenomenon is a popular thing to do these days, but it is almost always fraught with superstition. The fact is, a person like Russell Moore can offer anecdotal vignettes in support of his belief regarding why young people are leaving "the church", but reality is almost certainly far more complicated than that.

To be perfectly honest, I think what Dr. Moore is really doing here is less about understanding, and more about accusation. There are apparently evangelicals with certain political commitments who have gotten under Moore's skin, and he has concocted this imaginarium as a way to pin the blame on them for something: the apparent declining engagement of young people with their faith. This is something, of course, which almost everyone considers to be a tragedy. Dr. Moore would like to place the blame on evangelical conservatives.

The narrative Moore has concocted goes like this:

  1. When I was a kid I wanted to kill myself as a consequence of the threat to my faith prompted in part by the hypocrisy of evangelicals.
  2. Happily, kids aren't killing themselves over evangelical hypocrisy today but they're certainly leaving the church over it.
  3. These young people are repulsed by what they perceive as their parents' and grandparents' conflation of the gospel with "conservative" politics.
  4. Also, these young people are repulsed by the hypocritical inconsistency of their parents and grandparents, some of whom actually voted for Trump after decrying the sins of Bill Clinton in the 1990's.
  5. And, by the way, characterizing CRT and "social justice" as having Marxist roots is misguided - these ideas are just reflections of God's concern for justice and "social responsibility" - and anyone who "labels" them otherwise doesn't really even believe what they're saying.  (i.e. they're hypocrites)

(I urge the reader to check my summation of Moore's narrative by reading for yourself the transcript of his remarks.)

And thus Moore constructs his imaginarium - an intuitional/conceptual model for how to think about the rift within evangelicalism. It's an imaginarium because it isn't rooted in anything particularly verifiable. It's really more of a sentimental narrative supported by anecdotes.  He means for the narrative to establish a set of sentiments and axiomatic assumptions in his listener. But the narrative mostly just reflects, I'm afraid, Moore's own disposition and inclinations, which he has synthesized into an overarching explanation of reality where present evangelical struggles are concerned.

So far, I have taken no position on whether Moore's imaginarium is accurate or not. I only mean to point out what is actually going on here. Moore is constructing, for his listeners, a mental model for how to think about the perceived rejection of evangelicalism by Gen-z's and Millennials. The model he proposes is to imagine it as related to their disgust at what they perceive as the hypocrisy of their elders. Moore is sympathetic with the views he attributes to them, and makes that clear by framing his imaginarium in the context of his own similar youthful revulsion at the hypocrisy of others. The emotional heft of his personal teen suicide ideation is put in service to his accusations.

My own reaction to Moore's argument is that it is a slyly crafted polemic against conservatism in general, and Trump voters in particular.  

Why do I say that?

Well, for one thing, he attempts to tar evangelicals who voted for Trump as hypocrites by assuming the moral equivalence of Bill Clinton's actions as president, and Donald Trump's actions in the years prior to taking office.

Twenty years ago I watched people suggesting that it was liberal Baptist theology that allowed many to wave away a president’s sexual behavior as irrelevant to his office. Then I lived long enough to watch the same people suggest that those who did not wave away such behavior from another president might not be “real Christians.”

I am no fan of politicians. I strongly incline toward the view of the Psalmist who wrote, "put not your trust in princes". But it doesn't take much imagination to perceive that there's a reasonable argument to be made against the moral equivalence of a sitting president who has sex with an intern in the oval office, and one who came to the presidency with a history of moral failures prior to his assumption of those duties. I'm not defending Trump here. But Moore's charge of evangelical hypocrisy in this instance rests upon the moral equivalence of Clinton's oval office antics and Trump's pre-presidential antics as they related to the question of political support. He is glossing over any possible distinction between someone who abused the powers of his office and someone who, as far as we know, did not. A person doesn't have to be a Trump fan to observe that maybe one of these things is not like the other.

Moore decries what he sees as the tendency of evangelicals to conflate conservative public policy prescriptions with the gospel itself. But it is not conservatives who have lately been expanding the meaning of the gospel to encompass every trendy interest of the political left. How many times have we heard, these past few years for example, that "social justice is a gospel issue"?

Don't mistake my point here. I am not saying that conservative evangelicals have never larded up the gospel with other concerns. I am saying that Russell Moore is not being remotely even-handed in his analysis. He is not providing anything like a fair account of the propensity of both sides to steal the valor of the gospel by putting it in service to passing political concerns. The perceived politicization of the gospel, which Moore is so eager to condemn in evangelical conservatives, he ignores in evangelical progressives. Moore assures us that any concerns about the progressive pursuit of race essentialism (i.e. CRT) or collectivism (i.e. social justice) are misplaced. They merely reflect the biblical God of both justification and justice, along with a proper concern for social responsibility.  Nothing to see here. Innocent as lambs. Move along.

Moore is putting his thumb firmly on the scales in favor of progressivism, and not really owning up to the fact that he's doing that. That is what I object to.

I'm afraid the obstacles to standing firm in their faith, being faced by young evangelicals, are far more dire than Russell Moore's concerns of whether this or that evangelical voted for Donald Trump, or advocated for whatever conservative public policies. These things may exercise Dr. Moore, keen as he seems to be to detect hypocrisy in others, but I fear that he is engaged, metaphorically, in papering the attic while the basement is on fire.

Young evangelicals are being indoctrinated - not by other evangelicals, but by their teachers, social media, their friends and, they'll soon discover, their employers - that it is unkind and unloving to tell the truth where certain subjects are concerned. They are about to find out that they will be excluded from gainful employment by a growing number of companies if they do not affirm, for example, that women can be men, and men can be women. And if they do not profess their allegiance to the new moral order by openly uttering untruths along these lines, they will find their ability to provide for their families impaired.

Theodore Dalrymple observes that the implications of such compelled lying has a long history in totalitarian societies and carries unhappy consequences for anyone who succumbs:

When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed.

To the extent that young evangelicals have been ill-served by the evangelical community, it has been due to the lack of moral and economic imagination which has caused their forbears to fail in guiding them toward alternative approaches to education, and toward the development of essential skills that would have armed them better for these emerging threats to their faith. If nothing changes, the coercion they are going to experience over moral issues in the public square is going to dwarf anything ever experienced by their parents or grandparents. And it will have precisely zero to do with whether some evangelical somewhere once disparaged Bill Clinton and later voted for Donald Trump.

Surely the enemies of the cross of Christ, and the spiritual forces of evil the apostle Paul talked so much about, have at least as much to do with our current struggles as the political concerns of those evangelical Christians whom Russell Moore finds so offensive.

Integrity and the Future of the Church
Russell Moore discusses the future of the church in our increasingly secular world and why young people are losing their faith.
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