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The temptation of the jeremiad

Kevin DeYoung | Critiques of “white evangelicals” express annoyance rather than a desire to persuade


Flags fly in front of First Baptist Church in Gallant, Ala. Associated Press/Photo by Brynn Anderson

The temptation of the jeremiad

Over the last five years, a specific type of political and sociological complaint has emerged. We might call it the “here’s what’s wrong with white evangelicalism” jeremiad. If a typical jeremiad denounces a community “for its wickedness” and laments the morality of that society “in a serious tone of sustained invective” then scarcely a week goes by in which white evangelicalism is not subject to a sustained jeremiad, often by those who count (or once counted) themselves a part of white evangelicalism.

A case in point is David French’s recent article “Deconstructing White Evangelical Politics.” Before I register some disagreements with French’s article, let me gladly acknowledge that David (if I may) is a fellow believer and a fellow Presbyterian who has served bravely his country and the cause of Christian liberty at many times and in many ways. David is a brother, not an enemy.

Let me also acknowledge that I agree with many of French’s complaints. I, too, am grieved by those who beclowned themselves in minimizing Trump’s sins and in following him with Messianic fervor. I, too, am concerned that conspiracy theories can easily take hold of good, churchgoing people. I, too, lament that many Christians are more deeply catechized by their preferred political pundits than they are by their own church’s confessions.

And yet, there are serious problems with the white evangelicals are ruining everything jeremiad I’ve seen often from French (and several other writers).

For starters, the genre often assumes conclusions instead of reaching them. French, for example, decries the fact that white evangelicals are less likely than other groups to think that poverty, inequality, and racism are extremely serious threats to the country. “This is not the result,” French writes, “you’d expect from a community whose politics is centered around biblical justice.” French’s conclusion begs the question. Maybe evangelicals don’t care about biblical justice. Or maybe they have a different assessment of how bad each problem is and what biblical justice entails.

The jeremiads are also vexing because they are so broad as to be non-falsifiable. In tweeting his article, French argued that the politics of evangelicals are “an often-destructive artifact of a culture that is not always just and sometimes rejects the truth of the scriptures they seek to protect.” The qualifiers in that sentence do a lot of heavy lifting. By the time you get past “often” and “not always” and “sometimes,” the statement cannot be gainsaid. It’s like when Peter Wehner wrote about the nefarious effects of Southern culture, while also admitting that “these cultural attitudes are hardly shared by every southerner or dominant throughout the South.” So is the problem Southern culture and white evangelicalism, or is the problem that Southerners and white evangelicals, like everyone else, are sinners?

If the jeremiads simply lamented bad behavior and bad ideas that would be one thing. There are plenty of both in the church. But the complaints go a (big) step further and mean to indict an entire ism and deconstruct an entire movement. The arguments are less about what white evangelicals have gotten wrong (that is assumed) and more about why they believe such bad things. This is where theories about Southern culture or political partisanship—or, from other writers, patriarchy and toxic masculinity—come into play. Of course, the why questions are not entirely off-limits, but they are much harder to prove and degenerate quickly into markers of out-group and in-group identity. “White evangelical” functions for one side in the way that “Cultural Marxist” or “blue checkmark” or “evangelical elites” function for the other side. It’s a way of communicating, those people are like that because they are those kind of people.

And this is my biggest complaint with the white evangelical jeremiad. It has the same head-shaking “you people” vibe that prompted the “deplorables” to embrace Trump in the first place. It’s one thing to object to an idea or to a set of propositions. It’s another to object to a class of people. Even if French is right, and evangelicals should not have supported (voted for?) Trump and evangelicals should not be skeptical about many of the Covid protocols, there is little sympathy for trying to understand why evangelicals might have behaved in these ways. There is no persuasion, only pique and annoyance.

At the risk of seeming biased toward my own profession, I can’t help but notice that the leading voices decrying the moral bankruptcy of white evangelicalism are not pastors but professional writers, academics, and full-time commentators. Given the nature of these vocations—valuable, honorable vocations—it is easier to produce frequent jeremiads against the church than to produce a positive vision for the church. If your natural rhythm is not the whole counsel of God Sunday after Sunday, but another critique of the church in your inbox on Sunday morning, that should tell you something. The Lord knows there is much to criticize in the church, but I doubt that relentless, unsympathetic, exasperated censure against one specific people is the best way to convince them of your criticisms, let alone build them up in Christ.


Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, N.C., and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). Prior to the summer of 2017, he pastored at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich. Kevin holds a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and received his Ph.D. in early modern history at the University of Leicester. He is the author of several books, including The Biggest Story, The Hole in Our Holiness, Crazy Busy, and Just Do Something. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have nine children.

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Salty1

“I, too, am grieved by those who beclowned themselves in minimizing Trump’s sins and in following him with Messianic fervor.”

I think the only clowns around here are the people who make these comments! What are we supposed to do, play into the hands of our enemies and complain about the sins of Trump? This only strengthens the opposition as we tear our political advocate down.

And exactly what sins are we supposed to chastise Trump for? He fought back when his political opponents attacked him? This is the very reason that Christian conservatives like me supported him. He was a fighter who wouldn’t back down like so many of his predecessors did. Being nice is no virtue when you are giving your opponents the rope to hang you by.

Trump was a womanizer when he was younger, but now there is no evidence of this. I don’t think it is Christian to wag your tongue at another’s sins. Maybe my close friends I will challenge, but even here I don’t talk publicly about them but in private. People I don’t know well, I also won’t judge. The same applies to Trump, where while he has been in office he hasn’t been immoral and his life isn’t real sinful.

The left have manufactured all kinds of sins, from him being a racist to him being a liar. Why should I spout off their lies? Here I don’t claim he is perfect but when he is being loyal to our cause and taking serious hits for us because he is fighting our battles, I am going to have his back and protect him.

In politics you follow your candidate with zeal to support him and enable him to succeed. There is nothing wrong with this and this shows that David French really doesn’t understand how our political system works. We wave the flag and cheer our candidate not because he is a messiah, but because he is our political candidate and this is how you support your candidate in our party system.

Calvin says, “This feeling of reverence, and even piety, we owe to the utmost to all our rulers, be there character what they may. (Book Fourth, Chapter 20, 29, Institutes). It seems unfitting to call us “fools” or “clowns” for supporting a ruler who has appointed many godly people to his cabinet and faithfully fought our battles. You support the enemies of God by your babble.

Roger

Very good ! Agree completely!
If you want to get published in Atlantic monthly, NYT or WaPo, the best way to do it is to throw other Christians under the bus under the guise of trying to help them. Non-Christians eat that up.

David Rasmusson

I read David French's weekly "French Press" column because he is a godly man who communicates his positions in a clear and thoughtful manner. I can say the same for Kevin DeYoung as well. Both are men of God who want a healthy, growing, and united church. That said, David's opinions on the modern church have a distinct negative thread that almost always focuses on Christian support for former President Trump.

In 2016, my presidential vote was for some guy named McMullen out of Colorado. At that time I couldn't vote for Trump because I believed he was another liberal in conservative clothing. On balance, his tenure in office changed my mind and I voted for him in 2020. Mr. French is definitely a "never Trumper" and for valid reasons, but I disagree with his broad criticism of evangelical voters who supported him. Where else did we have to go? I pray that former president Trump doesn't run for office again and wisely steps back to allow other conservative voices to rise. Ron DeSantis is my current favorite, but if the 2024 general election choice is between Trump and any democrat, what choice will I have then?

knechod

First, I will say that David French says things that I think in much clearer terms than I do. If that means that I am a "fan-boy", then so be it. The body of his work is not dominated by the tone of acrimony, but of grief and dismay of what has happened to his group, and he speaks to that. I have found little of circular reasoning within his writing (understanding that I might be blind to my own).
As for the characterization of "white evangelicalism," it is serving a dual role as theological and political labels. It is as serious a problem to conflate the two on one side, as it is the other. If you search on "Ryan Burge white evangelicalism", you will see the difficulty with sorting out the difference. As a pastor and political scientist, he studies that duality, and it would behoove DeYoung readers to be aware of his work (https://religioninpublic.blog/2020/12/07/the-evangelical-brand-is-not-as-tarnished-as-most-people-think/). I am aware of Dr. Burge because of French's writings (as well as others).
Pastor DeYoung is doing what he needs to do: he is charged with shepherding a group within the Body of Christ, and he needs to treat his flock as such. The warning of not separating the tares from the wheat is one that assumes the Body's status. However, French is doing what he needs to do: he is observing the character of those both inside and outside the Body (I also cringe at voicing that assessment), yet using the same label. Both men are faithful to their charge, and I am grateful for them.
Finally, I am writing this as I am listening to David French and Skye Jethani discuss this topic, and they make the point that French is not writing to those blinded, but to those who are in their circle of influence: the pastor who does not know where these attitudes are coming from; the relative of a QAnon adherent; the neighbor to the Trump-beclowned. If that qualifies as a jeremiad, then perhaps he should be listened to?

Vanderhoff

Excellent article

Salty1

Overall, Kevin DeYoung’s article is very good but he doesn’t take David French to task for leading Christians astray and he goes along with some of French’s written dribble.

French is pushing Christians in a political direction that will hurt the church where he ironically accepts the cultural narrative of the left as though that dogma is Christian - essentially doing what he claims we are doing.

Is the leftist narrative correct that southern whites (including evangelicals) are racist and xenophobic because they only want legal immigration? Quite the contrary for we see this being an issue of justice. The cartels are making billions off the immigrants by forcing each to pay about $10-15k where the real poor aren’t coming but wealthier people who want the economic advantages. If a poor person does try to sneak across without paying the cartels, then they are likely to be executed on the spot by the coyotes - the workers for the cartels. In other cases, small children have been dropped by the coyotes over the wall in the dark of night with the expectation that the US Imigration officers will find the children and take care of them. Seeing the video of this is heartbreaking where many cases of this have happened! A high percentage (~30%) of the women are raped or sexually abused. People from all parts of the world are coming where many criminals, gang members and even terrorists are coming. American citizens are killed, raped, or stolen from by many of theses bad characters. People infected by COVID are coming and being exposed to American citizens, which is another form of injustice. Slave labor is brought into America and people are forced to work many years to pay for their passage to America. The sex industry brings women into America using the cartels. The poor citizens of America suffer because the wages are driven down due to the surge in unskilled workers at the borders. The open borders are an issue of justice and the allegation that white Evangelicals are racists is itself racist propaganda by both David French and the left!

Even more disturbing is the actual objective of the left in allowing in over two million people. The goal is to diminish the Christian and conservative vote by rapidly giving all illegal immigrants citizenship and the right to vote. This strategy paid off effectively so that Democrats dominate California so they are attempting to make this a national goal. This would have a devastating effect on the church where they are seeking to remove Christian liberties and effectively outlaw deviant beliefs that they find reprehensible. This would include calling out homosexuality as sin and believing in any “fake news”. Of course they would be the ones defining what is the fake news! Examples of other damaging actions against the church would be allowing the government to dictate when churches can be open and what is appropriate speech. Our children would continue to be brainwashed in schools and on the Internet but at a much more destructive rate. Essentially, the left seeks to eliminate the Christian voice from the public square which IS a direct attack on the gospel message which the church is supposed to be propagating throughout our culture in diverse ways as each Christian ministers in his sphere of influence.

Sadly, David French seems blind to what is happening politically so he is effectively hurting the witness of the church by not standing up to the enemies of the cross.

I could write much more on the unfair lies that French propagates, but I will leave it for another day!

DMAR2624

Discerning World readers who are unfamiliar with the David French article referenced in this Opinion would benefit by taking the time to read it. I didn't find it to have a "head-shaking 'you people' vibe." To the contrary, it's French's identification with his own faith community that makes his writing on this subject so impassioned. He's speaking to his own people, arguing persuasively that a large portion of his own tribe is compromising biblical fidelity in pursuit of political expediency and ecclesiastical harmony. It's disappointing that this Opinion piece takes aim at French's vernacular and vocation rather than addressing the substance of his argument.

lnbl2021DMAR2624

If it was just this article, your critique may have some validity, but over the last year or so, French has written several articles very critical of almost everything associated with "white evangelicals." Let me make it clear, I have no affection for Donald Trump and I think January 6th was despicable. However, I have gone from a fan to a critic of David French for what I see as an his unfair "broadbrush condemnation" of his fellow believers.

Salty1DMAR2624

Yes I read it and David French gave very broad brushstrokes implying we are southern hillbilly racists because: we don’t accept open borders; we don’t believe racism is the greatest problem in America; we don’t automatically accept all the pandemic dogma coming out of Washington; we don’t want radical Muslims allowed to freely come to America; and we think that the election was stolen.

Meg I

Recently I have had to "study -up" on narcissism and especially those in the church with strong narcissistic ways that leave a trail of "dead bodies behind." One thing I have learned is that many with what is deemed "narcissistic personality disorder" had something happen in their lives that was a type of trauma - even as an adult this moment of severe trauma is still deeply effecting your life. French has revealed in the not too distant past that he was raised in a "southern evangelical home" (I forget if he also used the adjective "legalistic") . Something must have happened to him, the trauma issue, and it explains his crazy hyperbolic calling out of "white evangelicals". We need to pray for inner healing by the Word and the Spirit. Reverend DeYoung, you are gracious to him as always in your piece.

Shelley TuttleMeg I

That's a theory that may be partly why he's writing with such vehemence against many. For some reason his greatest nemeses are Christians.

Meg IShelley Tuttle

Exactly. Think of an iceberg in the ocean….we only see the tip but the majority of it is under the ocean and not visible to our eyes.

James Meadows

When we will hear criticism of "black churches" or "Hispanic charismatics" or some other racially qualified religious grouping in the same way we constantly hear about all the alleged faults of "white evangelicals"? We won't. Because that would be considered racist by the same people who have no problem doing it to "white evangelicals." That tells me everything I need to know about these people.

And as far as supporting Trump, there were three real options - vote Trump, vote Hillary/Biden, or throw your vote away (third party, write in, don't vote). Trump was obnoxious and a degenerate, but it was likely he would support good policies a significant percentage of the time. Hillary and Biden were less obnoxious but also degenerates who would support good policies practically none of the time. Voting Trump was a no-brainer once I was able to get over my personal dislike of the guy. Amazing that all these geniuses like French can't figure that out.

LROB4976

Hmmm, I’m wondering if all those “evangelicals” out there really are evangelical.
As I see it, most who claim to be evangelical in this day don’t have a clue. For myself I have just considered myself a Christ follower, sinful but repented and repenting. A lot of people have jumped onto the evangelical wagon but are they Christians. Besides that, where in Scripture is the word evangelical?

IOLA COXLROB4976

Evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means Gospel. Technically, it is in the Greek bible.

DEHR2778

Well balanced writing . We now have in the White House someone who supports sex change mutilation for 8 year olds

greentravelgal

I for one, am heartened in some ways by this reaction. For too long Evangelicals as a group have just assumed that the way we are operating is both biblical and aligned with the gospel - rather than influenced by other forces. Ruffled feathers are at least an indicator that someone is hearing. Lord give us ears to hear, hearts to understand and spirits willing to be corrected where needed - and continue to bring messengers who lead us examine ourselves.

CMAN2105greentravelgal

Amen! The role of messengers to the body of Christ should be to lead us to examine ourselves, rather than to point the finger at those outside the church.

lnbl2021

Thanks for writing, what I had been thinking more recently about David French, and especially Wehner. They have made tossing verbal grenades at those "clueless, immoral, southern evangelicals," a new cottage industry. I think Carl Trueman rightly identified these type of evangelical elites who write for publications like "The Atlantic" as the "with friends like these, who needs enemies," cohort.

EFLE7071

Shelley, No, when I signed onto WORLD Opinions this morning, there was just the picture of the church and nothing else. I read the two other opinion pieces that were there, and just needed to read this one. Thankful that it has been put up now. Thanks for the extra link to the David French column so I can read and consider the other side of the argument.

Shelley TuttleEFLE7071

Good. So ... what is your take on the article?

greentravelgalShelley Tuttle

This isn't an article - it's an opinion piece.

Shelley Tuttle

I'd say this is one of the best articles, if not THE BEST article, I've read (and I read quite a few a week--Lol) that offers perspective about those decrying "white evangelicalism." The stereotyping of this group of people is short-sighted and lacking in nuance. Thank you, Kevin DeYoung,--you are relevant and hopeful, bringing much needed acknowledgement for, rather than superficial accusation against, some who thought deeply about their Trump support.

greentravelgalShelley Tuttle

I'd love to hear more about your deep thinking that led to Trump support. Seems you are happy to have found a champion in Kevin DeYoung.

Shelley Tuttlegreentravelgal

I've been reading some things by DeYoung lately and align with much of what he says. I appreciated this because he noted that French was a brother in Christ even if they had differing views. I think that is possible. As far as being a deep-thinking Trump supporter, I guess I would say it was a journey. I was not happy with some of what he stood for and was not going to vote for him in 2016. However, this nation needed a "bull in a china closet" so-to-speak to get it back on track. And no other person was up to the task. We had gotten embroiled in "nice" politics for so long that the other side was having its way at every turn. I am hugely pro-life, and Trump provided leadership in toppling Planned Parenthood. He was not scared of the elite bullies that pervade our politics today. He shook up the people in power who have maintained a hold on the discourse about climate change and the decline of morals, mostly having to do with economic issues leading toward socialism that have been bearing down on us like a freight train. He got some of it to stop for a while. Some evangelicals are okay with things the way they were and feel like we can leverage our hopes for bringing back decency in a more pleasant way but fighting takes courage not acquiesance and a willingness to go against the prevailing elitism, and Trump was up for the task.

greentravelgalShelley Tuttle

Interesting thinking. Unfortunately it did not bear out. I think many evangelicals did take a big gamble on Trump against their better judgement as you describe. And now we have the aftermath.

Shelley Tuttlegreentravelgal

Not against their better judgment at all. Wayne Grudem, a well-known biblical theologian who was showcased in World's October 10 (I believe) 2020 issue, supported Trump. In fact, there were many solid, godly evangelicals who did as well. Many! People who don't believe in the urgency of the hour don't realize that it may be that we had a "Churchill" who finally stood against the propaganda and the flagrant evil that infiltrates America and keeps us marching to their agnostic, immoral agenda. God's people need to go against the real enemy, not our brothers and sisters in Christ. French is alienating a lot of good people. He's milquetoast (excuse my French).

greentravelgalShelley Tuttle

No one is suggesting that many evangelicals (even theologians) did not support Pres. Trump. In fact we know that evangelicals were the driving force in electing him. I certainly know that he was lifted up as a Churchill. My point is that we can see in in hindsight that your initial fears in 2016 were true, and our nation was damaged in the process. Evangelicals are just as prone to error as any other group. Especially when our ears are tickled as you describe - with descriptions of how terrible the "enemy" is and that we must "win" by any means necessary. Politics are not our battleground - but we lost sight of that.

EFLE7071

Where is the commentary?

Shelley TuttleEFLE7071

Do you mean this? https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/deconstructing-white-evangelical