In the wake of his Atlantic cover story, Michael Gerson has been on the interview circuit, appearing on NPR and Face the Nation and lots of other places. You might think that white evangelicals would be happy about this. Look, here’s a white evangelical who has attained elite status and is able to speak to the most pressing issues of the day from his prestigious position as a Washington Post columnist, and now he has a big cover story in one of the nation’s most storied magazines.
The problem, of course, is that Gerson is using his position not only to explain evangelicalism to the wider culture, but to critique it. Most white evangelical media seems to be doing its best to ignore Gerson’s article, but I did manage to find a few responses. It goes without saying that I disagree with these, but I present them here in the interests of understanding where they’re coming from.
Tony Perkins says Gerson gets a platform because the mainstream media is eager to “shame” evangelicals:
“You are going to hear this repeatedly … for the rest of his term [and] you are certainly going to hear it going into this midterm election,” Perkins said. “This is designed to shame evangelicals. Of course, ‘Face the Nation’ is giving a platform to Gerson and any other Republican who will … bash an element of the voting population that has been very instrumental in the president being successful in getting into office and maintaining and continuing his policy, his agenda.”
Perkins said media outlets like CBS are giving these platforms because they want to “shame these evangelicals into the corners of society where they will be quiet and they won’t be involved.”
Michael Brown sees the hypocrisy charge and lobs it back at Gerson:
Haven’t black evangelicals consistently voted for pro-abortion, pro-LGBT candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Haven’t some African-American mega-churches even prayed by name for the election of candidates like Obama and Al Gore? Why then weren’t they called on the carpet for hypocrisy? Why aren’t they guilty of tarnishing the evangelical tradition?
Personally, I believe we all have blind spots and there’s more than enough hypocrisy to go around. And I think leaders like Van Moody and Franklin Graham would profit greatly by spending time with each other, if they haven’t already. Let us hear one another out, let us share our respective perspectives, and let us commit to being holistic in our ethics and concerns, with the help of God.
But I’m a little suspicious whenever left-leaning Christians (and/or the leftist secular media) raise charges against white evangelicals, people who just happen to be strong social conservatives.
Perhaps the bigger issue is not our alleged hypocrisy but rather our counter-cultural convictions? Could this be where the conflict really lies?
Perkins and Brown both seem to unwittingly offer more evidence for Gerson’s claims. But, in a considerably more thoughtful piece, David French says Gerson has underestimated the real changes in recent years that caused reasonable concerns for social conservatives:
While Gerson ably explains that Evangelicals feel as if they’re under siege, he doesn’t give an adequate explanation as to why. He communicates the reality that Evangelicals feel embattled without providing sufficient explanation for that belief, belittling their concerns as hysterical and self-pitying. The effect is to make Evangelicals appear irrational when, in fact, Evangelicals made their political choice in response to actual, ominous cultural and legal developments that jeopardized their religious liberty and threatened some of their most precious religious and cultural institutions…
This is an omission of no small consequence. Until the progressive community understands the gravity of its attacks on Evangelical institutions, there is little hope for understanding — much less changing — an increasingly-polarized American political culture…
Gerson has written a powerful essay, but it understates the justification for Evangelical support for Trump and exaggerates rank-and-file Evangelical perfidy. Evangelicals aren’t worse than other American political tribes. Instead, we’re proving that in politics we’re just like everyone else. In other words, the true sin of white American Evangelicalism isn’t that we’re exceptionally bad, it’s that we’re not exceptional at all.
French has some credibility as a “never Trump” white evangelical who has paid genuine personal costs for his opposition to Trump. (He and his family have been brutally attacked by the white supremacist right). I hope that French and Gerson will talk to each other, because they may find themselves in more substantial agreement than it first appears. If I read Gerson right, he is not concerned with relitigating the political calculation of the 2016 election as much as exploring the dynamic French himself deplores: evangelicals who submit abjectly to Trumpism. Gerson thinks the decay is further advanced than French believes, but they’re not terribly far apart.
And if you meditate on French’s last line, you can quickly arrive at Gerson’s gloom. Because another way of saying that white evangelicals are “not exceptional at all” is to say that they make it appear as though the gospel isn’t true.