Embarrassment, Engagement, and Elitism

A former CT Editor with some interesting if not flawed observations about a growing divide among evangelicals

My friend Mark Galli, a former executive editor of Christianity Today made some interesting observations recently in his newsletter about what he considers as a tendency among evangelical elites (whatever this term means) and a kind of reflex he sees in some leaders to position themselves as amenable to a left-leaning culture.

Mark had some good insights worth reflecting on, but first I want to say that while I mildly commended this piece on Twitter, that didn’t mean I didn’t see any flaws in his piece.

First, I appreciate Christianity Today for several reasons. As a young man thinking through ministry and engagement with the world, CT was a shaping force in my early days. What’s more, CT gave me a platform, over and over again, that really helped launch and sustain my writing career. Being able to put, has written for Christianity Today not only was an immense source of pride. This also opened up so many doors. I’ll be eternally grateful for CT and love the fine folks who do good work there. I gleaned more from Galli’s larger critique of a common temptation among evangelical leaders than a direct critique of CT.

Second, his piece kind of throws some friends under the bus whose work I appreciate. One in particular: my friend David French. I don’t always agree with David, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why some conservatives have such deep vitriol for David. I don’t know why folks can’t simply just say, “I disagree with him here, and here is why.”

Third, Galli is a weird messenger for this message for a few reasons. First, he left evangelicalism and became a Catholic so his engagement on this is kind of strange. It’s one thing to be an evangelical leader embarrassed by the people who pay your salary (more on that below) it’s another to be so embarrassed you leave entirely.

Still, there is a kernel of truth in what Galli uncovered and I think people across the spectrum would be wise to heed it. He’s criticizing elitism. It’s important to note that elitism is not the same as being good at what you do, or holding a position of authority, or having a platform of some kind. In my view, elitism is a kind of disdain for the ordinary folks in your movement, who pay your salary, and for whom you want to distance yourself in order to be seen as acceptable by another set of people. It’s a kind of “green room” mentality, where you constantly seek approval from your peers and often at the expense of those you are called to lead.

In other words, elitism is more of a posture than a position. This tendency shows up in a variety of ways and tempts people across the political spectrum. It can be folks who like to broadcast on Twitter or in op-eds or bestselling books about how terrible evangelicals are. It can be furrowed-browed fans of certain Bible teachers who think nobody ever preaches a Bible passage correctly (except for them, of course). It can be “above-it-all” types who rightly eschew left and right extremes but are insufferable in communicating both their own heroism in this and their discovery, after 2,000 years of church history, the perfect model of cultural engagement. For what it’s worth, I’ve yielded to all three of these temptations more often than I can count.

Elitism is thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. It’s a lack of even-handedness. It’s a constant performative self-heroism in public for temporary applause. It delivers critiques of Christians, not with tears and pastoral pleading, but with bitter disdain. I believe this is in conflict with Paul’s command to “make every effort” for unity in the body of Christ.

We should also acknowledge that charges of elitism are often used as lazy rhetorical weapons anytime someone makes an argument we might disagree with. So it should be stressed again that pride is a posture, not a position. There is a way to hold positions of power and prominence in key institutions with humility and a heart of service. There is a way to write for outlets like New York Times and Washington Post and The Atlantic that is both charitable in its engagement and doesn’t project contempt for your own people. We absolutely need faithful Christians to be speaking the gospel truth in these places. We should cheer them on. There is a way to be prophetic, to be discerning, warn and cajole while also being loving and kind. I see good models of this all around. I hope to do this, with my writing in places like USA Today or World Magazine and in my books and other outlets.

One thing I learned when leading a small church years ago is that you can only be prophetic to a people if you’ve first been pastoral. People will not hear your critiques if they don’t sense that you are one of them. I think a good rule of thumb for those of us who write and speak is to ask ourselves: “the people who are least likely to agree, will they feel I treated them with respect?” We won’t always pass this test and there will always be people who misunderstand, even if we’ve been as kind and understanding as we know possible. Still, we should try.

At the end of the day, we guard against elitism, cynicism, and pride, wherever and however it manifests, by refusing to take ourselves too seriously, by engaging in genuine community with people who don’t think we are such a big deal, by immersing ourselves in the spiritual disciplines, and by being willing to admit we may not be right all the time (or even most of the time). Ultimately, we best resist the temptation to “think too highly of ourselves” when we meditate on the fact that we know and are known by God.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash