Critiques of Populist Christianity are needed and should be heeded, adopting a “Thou Shalt Not Question” attitude puts Orthodox, Biblical and Historical Christianity at risk and damages the witness of Christ.
I want to start this piece by acknowledging the role that Carl R. Trueman has played in the development of my thought life as both a Historian and a Theologian. His book: “Histories and Fallacies” was essential in being able to identify Historical Fallacies such as Presentism. I also recently used his critique of Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” titled “The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” I have a lot of respect for his body of work and for his mind in general. However, since his article in First Things responding to Mark Galli’s CT Editorial both of which came out last December I have been sadly disappointed by both the lack of care in his response and the descent of First Things (which I still subscribe to, perhaps as a vain hope) as a serious enterprise into populism. In doing this, in my view, Trueman has not only made Noll’s point, that there is no Mind in Evangelicalism, but also his own, that there is no Evangel in Evangelicalism because we keep outsourcing it to groups outside Christianity.
I have always found both critiques entirely accurate 80% of the time and I had to chuckle at the irony of Trueman, in one line on a keyboard proving both correct. What little mind there is to Evangelicalism has sounded a lot like Mark Galli over the last four years and what little Evangel is there has been severely hindered and damaged by the cultural populism that claims to be Christian, yet neither has a mind or an evangel and has chosen to let the rich and powerful speak for them in the public square thinking that the government of man can save them before, over and against the kingdom of God because they have told that this is the only way to protect Christianity.
I have noted many times that this approach is not protecting Christianity but is in fact feeding it and the Christians who daily practice what the bible says, to the wolves. Trueman meanwhile, seems to imply that any critique of Christian Populism is the: “lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.” By the way, Galli does not do what Trueman is accusing him of, instead he calls them to “Remember who they are” and to consider how supporting someone who is as Immoral as President Trump does to their Christian Witness. Trueman’s point is that Galli and other Evangelical Elites are “out of touch” with the evangelical populists. Trueman points out that he lives in Trump Country and that most of the people he knows who voted for him did so with noses plugged because the alternative is no better. He asks the serious question “was the alternative any better?” and of course, it is true that the answer was no. Neither option was good, both required us to give up our moral high ground and get dirty and both demanded complete and total loyalty to their platforms Something Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian noted actually means we as Christians cannot support either party because 100% buy-in is required. A point that Keller has doubled down on in his recent New York Times Editorial. For my part, I agree with Keller, the church should not be associated in totality with any one political party for theological reasons, most importantly being that Party-Spirit is expressly forbidden within the church by 1 Corinthians 1. That means to say that you follow anyone other than God in Christ first and foremost is to violate the spirit of unity. That means the identarian expectations of both the right and left are off limits to the Christian because they require us to identify ourselves wholly and completely with the party and the party leader. Taxes and to be paid to Caesar, but sole loyalty belongs to God (Matt 22:15-22). The Church then should not be aligned with the powers and principalities of this world but with the Kingdom of God which every Earthly Kingdom will one day bow to. Every time we have aligned with the kingdoms of this world (which in First Samuel God equates to rejection of Himself) it has never ended well for the Church going all the way back to Israel’s days as a Kingdom.
Trueman also commits the unfortunate mistake of reversing the order laid out in scripture for where every Christian should receive their instruction from. In Trueman’s world it seems the theologian should be taking their cues from the populace and so I as a preacher and thinker should just confirm the biases and opinions of my congregants on matters of politics. Yet, Acts 2:42 lays out for us the direction our instruction is to come from: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” If we are going to testify to the authority of scripture, it needs to inform our discourse and be the place from which our discourse begins. If we are to “Devote ourselves to the teachings of the apostles” then that means we should today be devoted to the teachings of the apostles and listen to those whose job it is to pass down those teachings to us, our pastors on the front lines, our seminary professors and our scholars, the mind of Christianity. Trueman, who would likely affirm the Apostolicity of the church, should understand this and direct the populace to listen to the mind of Christianity and weigh that against what the mouth is saying to see if it reflects the truth of scripture.
Now, that is not easy in our time when the mind is seriously divided over politics, but the mouth has given up listening to the warnings of either part of the mind altogether and the result is a Christianity that is schizophrenic and divided. Mark Galli expressed in writing what so many of us have been thinking over the last four years. Not just what Trueman calls the: “the sanctimonious subgenre of self-regarding anti-Trump noise created by hokey-wokey evangelicals—those who tweet endlessly about white privilege and misogyny in between writing checks for their children’s elite private schools and knocking back Martinis and Manhattans at the country club or the art gallery opening.” An insult to someone like me who has been a #NeverTrumper from the beginning, retained the name “Evangelical” because it is a global movement, not a strictly American phenomenon, who also does not tweet in this way, or cut checks to my children’s Elite Christian School. This insult serves to do exactly what Trueman is accusing Galli of, deepening the divide within Christianity as he takes a shot at more liberal or centrist Christians who have their own cultural Christianity to deal with. Galli expressed what a large swath of younger Christians have been asking for four years, if we had this standard for Clinton, why do we not have it for Trump? This is why I found Franklin Graham’s critique of Galli’s editorial amusing, those of us who have been unable to support Trump or right-wing politics (I cannot in good conscious right now support either party) have watched as over and over again Christianity Today has played it safe on the right, we have been waiting for someone on the right to express what many of us have been thinking and finally Galli has done that.
But what about Trueman’s assertion that Galli’s critique of “Populist Evangelicalism” is: “ symptomatic of the same underlying pathology” as the “Pharisees” who “standing in the Temple of Twitter, thanking God that he is not like other evangelicals—white supremacists, misogynists, or even this Trump supporter over here.” Does this mean there is no room to critique populism or populist evangelicalism? Is any critique or more accurately in the case of Galli’s Editorial, call to reformation based on Scripture and Christian Identity as well our historic demands that our leaders be moral. Would Trueman have attended the council of Nicea and told Athanasios or Nicholas to “leave Arius alone” over his heretical doctrine that was dividing and destroying the church in the ancient world? It makes sense if you follow the “Thou shalt not question” mentality of many within the upper echelon of the Ivory Tower that is certainly a cancer, and which has become Cult-like in its application. Instead of being like the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 11:17) we have become like the Galatians who have been “bewitched” by the circumcision group and proselytizers who stirred up trouble for Paul and the early Christians. We are more like the catholic hierarchy immediately before the reformation who made the people live off the bread of the pope rather than: “every word that comes from my Father who is in Heaven” (Mat 4:4). We would rather take the steady diet of fear of the world that is being fed to us by the leaders of evangelicalism than the very words of scripture which tells us that those who are in Christ are secure regardless of what the world may do against us or to us. We have been told not to question what we are being told and Trueman seems to perpetuate that fallacy in his response to Galli. If we cannot examine and question ideas and search the Word of God to see if they line up with what God has said, then we have given up our ability to think and reason for ourselves and together. Christians are not called to follow an earthly leader blindly, God made our minds and gave our us the ability to think and reason, we are to learn discernment then, even to discern the things of scripture and how they apply to life or if they apply to life. If we are not allowed to question something happening in the culture and examine it in light of scripture and critique in based on what scripture shows us, then we forfeit our ability to guard biblical and historical orthodoxy that has been handed down to us from the Apostles and the Early Christians. If we are just meant to live on the words of men without questioning them, swearing undying loyalty to them then we risk missing scripture altogether in favor of the gospel of man. I should not have to iterate the dangers of doing this, yet it seems that evangelical populism has opted to do just that.
Now, none of this means that Christians should not participate in politics, there is a long history going back all the way to the early Church of Christians doing just that. But how we participate is what matters. Do we mindlessly give ourselves to a political party? By no means! Nor should our participation be built on pushing an agenda, for the early Christians involved in politics this would have been a death sentence. Our involvement should be that as Stewards of the biblical justice. As Timothy Keller has said at other times it is the Christians responsibility to address injustice when it is seen and to work towards the correction of it. We should ask ourselves, if we are going to be involved in politics, am I contributing to justice or injustice by my actions here. Am I violating God’s mandate to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8)? Is our religion true and unstained by the world in that it is marked by “caring for widows and orphans” (James 1:27)? Or are we pursuing political power to push through an agenda and enforce a system onto a secular world, choosing conversion by Proselyte rather than by genuine belief that can then be discipled. The secular world does not want our morality, day-in and day-out they fight against it and imposing an unwanted morality on a secular society only makes Christians a stench for all the wrong reasons. If we are going to be offensive, let it be because of the cross, not because of our participation in politics or proselytization of a people that do not want it. Let’s make Christianity attractive for the reasons it was attractive in the ancient world, by being an alternative community that cares for the needs of its lowliest members for the sake of the Gospel, a Family on Mission, if you will.
I fear Trueman has proven both Noll and his own critique of Evangelicalism correct. He has shown that there is no mind and has sided with the populists who look less and less like the biblical Christians they claim to be every day. This moment should give us pause but also make us mourn, have we really gone so far that we think that just because our strong man is in office Christianity is going to be great again? Similarly, have we really abandoned and even shown to be a sham our claims that morality matters? We have abandoned our responsibility to think critically and discern what is going on in the world in favor of blind following of strong men who, when the pretense is removed, actually care nothing about you or I outside of keeping them in power. Trueman as a scholar, First Things as a scholarly work should know better. The only thing that can save Christianity is Christ and the only thing that is going to stop the decline of the Church is His people showing the world the blessings and benefits of a relationship with Christ in this life. No strong man, no promises of restored greatness from politicians who do not care about people. The soul of Christianity will only be recovered through Christ Jesus our Lord and living by the Word He has given us to live by out of gratitude to Him for the things He has done.
May God save us and have mercy on our souls.
\Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.