The temptation of the jeremiad
Critiques of “white evangelicals” express annoyance rather than a desire to persuade
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.
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