Who Are the Evangelical Intelligentsia?
If you have followed Pulpit & Pen for any amount of time, you’ve heard or seen me use the phrase, “Evangelical Intelligentsia.” The first time I used that term was on Twitter in response to Manhattan Declaration director and ecumenist, Eric Teetsel, in response to his defense of Ed Stetzer’s peddling of heresy and his subsequent attack on Pulpit & Pen. Since then, I and others have used the term to describe a certain segment of American evangelicalism that fits certain criteria, albeit sometimes nebulous, diverse and hard to define.
I pray that the term Evangelical Intelligentsia will catch on, for in the struggle of reformation, words are important. I pray the term catches on like proletariate and bourgeoisie did in the rise of Marxist ideology. Not that this Libertarian arch-capitalist is a Marxist, of course, but you have to admit that the Marxists knew how to throw a good revolution.
I didn’t coin the term Evangelical Intelligentsia. Peter Berger coined that phrase in The Emerging Evangelical Intelligentsia Research Project done for Boston University. The study took thoughts and opinions from self-identifying evangelicals in various fields of hoity-toity (that’s my precise, professional definition) intellectual study and academic achievement. Among those in the case-studies, the description “intellectual,” of course, is self-defined (as it always is among self-identifying intellectuals). Those already self-identifying as “intellectual” get to self-identify what is and what is not intellectual. Members of the Evangelical Intelligentsia typically include scientists, university professors, politicians, policy-makers, journalists, lawyers and professional speakers on the Christian speaking circuit.
The Emerging Evangelical Intelligentsia Research Project was sponsored by the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs (CURA). The director of CURA is Robert Hefner, a sociology professor at Boston University who seems to be primarily interested in how various religions – including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and others – affect social change in an era of burgeoning globalism. From a brief survey of Hefner’s work, including that at UC Berkley’s Christianity and Freedom Project, he seems to focus on the sociological aspects of how religion can help or hinder the goal of geo-political or cultural globalism (source link).
The launch of the research project began with a conference hosting panel discussions among “evangelical intellectuals” in the areas of history, philosophy, sociology and law. Notice, evangelical intellectuals in the field of theology or the local church were not wanted…this is for academician laity in secular fields who self-identify as evangelicals. Non-evangelical scholars were also invited to attend, along with 500 students and faculty from across New England (source link). From the CURA website…
American Evangelical Protestants, both in popular American media and even in their own minds, are often reputed for anything and everything but intellectualism. However, this perception fails to account for the development of an increasingly sophisticated, self-assured, and productive class of intellectuals – an emerging “evangelical intelligentsia.” These evangelicals, engaged in intellectual pursuits in a way that is motivated by and informed by their faith, are exercising a growing influence on American academics, culture, law, and public policy (source link).
Evangelicals are typically considered, you know…stupid. Anti-intellectual, even. Probably illiterate. However, there are some sophisticated, self-assured and productive intellectuals – the “evangelical intelligentsia.” Lost on these sophisticated, self-assured and productive intellectuals might be that the term intelligentsia itself is one that reeks of classism and control, from the annals of the former Soviet Union. Beginning in Poland, the idea developed of an almost-mythical and protected class of citizens who were particularly enlightened and super smart who would help guide the direction of the rest of society and lead to a utopian paradise. This class was the non-fictional version of the Laputans in Gulliver’s Travels, who lived above the realm of Balnibarbi. History, of course, has revealed that the intelligentsia was – in fact – just as mythical as residents of Laputa and equally as capable of solving society’s problems. This fact hasn’t kept many from trying to duplicate the ambition and recreate an intelligentsia in America and in particular, American religion.
Sounding like a conspiracy theory from Info Wars (I know, I know), members of the Evangelical Intelligentsia – like Ravi Zacharias, Tim Keller, and William Lane Craig – gather in places like the European Leadership Forum. Such a place isn’t exactly the Bohemian Grove or some meeting place for the Trilateralist Commission, but needless to say, this is a very small group that seeks to do with the Evangelical Intelligentsia what they attempted to do in Marxist regimes: change the attitudes, cultural virtues, ideas, set the priorities and direct the masses – not from the church house, but from ivory towers.
What I am not saying is that those I refer to as Evangelical Intelligentsia are involved in the movement or group related to Boston University and CURA. What I am saying is that there is an aspiring bourgeoisie class of evangelicals who seek to change the attitudes, virtues, ideas, set the priorities and direct evangelicals – not from the church house, but from ivory towers. The following is what characterizes them.
1. The Evangelical Intelligentsia (EI) is primarily comprised of those not employed by the local church. There are exceptions, but most of the EI are academics employed in Christian colleges or seminaries (think Karen Swallow Prior or Alan Noble, for example), journalists working for Christian publications, speakers on the Christian lecture circuit (think Ed Stetzer, for example), directors of para-church ministries (think The Manhattan Declaration or The Gospel Coalition, for example), directors of denominational entities (think the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, for example) and those directing the Christian publishing world and merchandising of books (think Thom Rainer and Lifeway, for example). The EI is convinced that the answers to evangelicalism’s problems will not be found in the local church, but by academia and among the Intelligentsia, who then must give (or sell) those solutions to the local church.
2. The Evangelical Intelligentsia thinks it is smarter than you. Regardless of whether or not Karen Swallow Prior has ever done any real-world work except help direct the humane society or if church planting expert Ed Stetzer’s personal church plants keep failing abysmally, they know more than you. It doesn’t matter if the majority of Southern Baptists paying the 7 million dollar bill for the ERLC is opposed to illegal immigration, grandstanding on abolishing the Confederate flag or attending gay wedding receptions, it doesn’t matter – they know more than you. It doesn’t matter if Heaven Tourism is tearing apart your local church and leading people into chasing after myths and fables, Thom Rainer knows more than you. If he wants your opinion, local church pastor, he will sell it to you at Lifeway for $19.95.
3. The Evangelical Intelligentsia does not answer to you – and they know it. Many of the EI are academics with tenure and there is no level of crazy they could say and not get away with it. Many others operate under a trustee system in which they hand-select known rubes who are happy enough to be given finger sandwiches and a free plane ride twice a year not to do their job of overseeing the “ministry.” Many have literally millions of dollars squirreled away from their success on the speaking circuit and plush denominational entity salaries and can withstand a critic or two. Or thousands. You’re not their boss, and they know it. I’m reminded of Ed Stetzer’s tweet shortly after #the15 and the open letter to Lifeway from Alex Malarkey that made its way around the world and embarrassed Lifeway internationally – in which he thanked Lifeway trustees and said that he was so glad he answered to them (implying that he answers to no one else). Stetzer’s passive aggressive and metaphoric middle finger to his critics (who are comprised of Southern Baptist pastors and laypeople) is par for the course for Evangelical Intelligentsia.
4. The Evangelical Intelligentsia insinuates you are stupid if you disagree with their argumentation. A member of the EI, Joe Carter – who works for both the ERLC and The
Gospel Coalition™ – accused me of having no “reading comprehension skills” when I brought up his Ode to Ecumenist and crafter of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Chuck Colson or The Gospel Coalition™ inviting non-Christians to sit on a panel with them to discuss how we can help racial reconciliation. From Ed Stetzer to Alan Noble to Eric Teetsel to Joe Carter to Thom Rainer and beyond, when they respond to you, their first insult is catapulted toward your intelligence. When you point out the confusing, disgustingly compromising language of Karen Swallow Prior, the accusation is that you just are too stupid to understand the “nuance,” you cro-magnun caveman. Who taught you to read, anyway?
5. The Evangelical Intelligentsia cross-pollenate their institutions, conferences, and industries. The EI is a very, very small group. They speak at the same conferences together over and over and over again. The journalists in the cabal are easily accessible and readily report what they’re told, when they’re told to report it – as though it were news. They tweet out quotations from each other’s books (1) as though they’ve actually read them, which is doubtful and (2) the favor is returned when the other’s book comes out. Often, they work as “advisors” or “consultants” or “fellows” in each other’s organizations, just as Joe Carter works for both the ERLC and The
Gospel Coalition™, just as The Gospel Coalition™ recently put Russell Moore (director of the ERLC) on its board of directors. This is why when one of these individuals is criticized, they all swoop in to defend. I’ve seen this time and again. It’s not so much a fraternity as a union.
6. The Evangelical Intelligentsia put up an air of fierce orthodoxy, but behind the scenes, galavant with the celebrities from other spectrums of the religious world. Albert Mohler is known for his theological fidelity (and rightfully so). Except, that is, when he’s hanging out and taking photos with Rick Warren. Ed Stetzer was once known for being theologically serious (that’s long faded) and now he’s taking selfies with the darlings of the MystiChicks and female preacher movement and hosting shows on TBN. Russell Moore’s pre-ERLC work was stellar, and now he goes to the Vatican like a giddy school girl who has been invited to prom. Karen Swallow Prior’s affiliation with Russell Moore has left her almost impervious to all rational criticism (in spite of the fact she practically has “liberal feminist” tattooed on her forehead), and yet she takes the smiling selfies with the sodomites on the red carpet at the LGBT fundraiser. This trend is like what you see on CNN of the golf course at Martha’s Vineyard. There are world leaders from completely opposite sides of the political spectrum chumming it up over 9 holes and a cold one. It’s like seeing billionaires who are savage capitalist competitors going on vacation together on the same super-yacht. It’s like seeing the WWE hero and WWE heel smoking cigars and walking out of the stadium doors together. It’s disheartening. Why are they acting that way with people who seem so ideologically opposed? They’re all peers in the same industry. The industry is religion. They’re the big wigs – even if they have opposing sides – and they’re in the same club.
7. The Evangelical Intelligentsia is never clear – about anything – unless it’s about how sinful criticism is. When you read something from the EI that’s meant to be a “hard-hitting” piece on any given topic, you’re typically left with the thought of, “I have no idea what they just said.” Of course, you’re a cro-magnun, illiterate caveman and everything so that makes sense. In all reality, the EI has a job to keep and popularity to maintain. When Russell Moore wrote about the Ferguson riots he did it with so much moral ambiguity one could not tell who he thought was in the wrong, if there was any sin involved at all, or even what he was trying to say. It sounded smart, but said nothing. The EI, on important cultural issues, sound like Joel Osteen trying to discuss hell on Larry King Live. But, of course, it’s not obfuscation. No, no. It’s “nuance,” you boob. And when it’s not nuance, it’s whimsy. Get with the times! However, the EI will tell you in a heartbeat how bad the critical people are, how discernment does the devil’s work, and how most of the problems in the church are probably your fault.
The Evangelical Intelligentsia are those who promote themselves as the think-tank saviors of American Evangelicalism. They’ve got Ed Stetzer down in the basement laboratories of the Lifeway complex doing research on the latest cultural trends, and then Thom Rainer who will write a book about how to be the best leader possible while contextualizing the Gospel based on what Stetzer found out concerning why millennials are leaving the church and why they like dark roast coffee more than lattes. Meanwhile, their friends who host conferences will begin to throw around the word “Gospel-Centered” as a marketing slogan, while 25 new books hit the bestsellers list that can all explain why we should get back to the Bible. If anyone is lucky they can get Tim Challies to propel the book to the New York Time Best Seller’s list with a positive review so they don’t have to use church money to bribe their way on like Driscoll and Furtick did. Then, that latest book will be put into some kind of Sunday School or small group curriculum sold at Lifeway and around and around the Intelligentsia carousel we go. And if it any point you want off the merry-go-round, you’re probably stupid or don’t get it.
Positioning themselves to be savior, promoting themselves as experts in the field of pastoring and the local church – although the vast majority of them are not and never have been pastors – they have been successful in creating massive conferences with strobe lights and fog machines and loud music and exhausting the conference travel budgets from small church pastors. But like the intelligentsia of pre-war Poland, they will prove themselves to be more of a parasite on the system looking for answers than actual solution-givers.
Evangelicalism has awoken to our problem – we are in a state of noticeable decline. Unfortunately, we are looking to smart people (who, frankly, aren’t all that smart) instead of looking to that old, dusty book on the nightstand and the Spirit who inspired it.
A Call To Action
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God Bless, Cody Libolt