Like many a wayward daughter of middle-class America, when I was in college I took up academic culture’s invitation to throw off the moral restraints of my Christian upbringing. I experimented with all manner of substances and licentiousness—even with feminist theory, which almost proved intellectually fatal. I was at work on a term paper excoriating the patriarchal and oppressive Promise Keepers movement when an encounter with the Lancelot-Grail awoke my long-anesthetized conscience.
The Lancelot-Grail is a thirteenth-century Old French literary cycle that relates the legend of King Arthur, with particular emphasis on the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere and the search for the Holy Grail. Our assignment was to show why later, secularized Arthurian cycles, which presented the Round Table’s greatest knight as a star-crossed lover rather than a lust-filled sinner, were artistically superior. Only, when I read the religious rebukes of Lancelot’s entanglement with Guinevere, I did not find the thirteenth-century cycle less powerful than its successors. I found that the hermits’ diagnosis of Lancelot’s failings—“[The Lord] gave you such good fortune that success has crowned your every undertaking . . . And you were so careless of your trust that you basely forsook Him”—was equally apt as a diagnosis of my failings.
I saw with clarity how entitled and dissipated I had become. The rejected lessons of my childhood came back to me. I got on my knees in my disheveled bedroom and prayed to a God I was no longer sure I believed in: “Help.” Nothing more specific than that. I soon started going—for the first time in my life without being dragged by my parents—to church.
It was a large, mainstream evangelical congregation in Phoenix. The pastors and staff told me hard truths, necessary for both my salvation in eternity and my flourishing on earth. In my time at that church, I became a new person. I met my husband there. I began attending classes consistently, and achieved my long-delayed graduation. That church not only set me on a path to sanctification, it also equipped me to be what I had never been: a productive citizen, capable of pursuing a career and paying bills; a person fit for self-government. I hadn’t sought out the church for this purpose, nor was this the purpose of its pastors in ministering to me. But it was an effect of their ministry.
This is exactly the role America’s Founders expected churches to play in the system of government they were creating. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People,” wrote John Adams. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” All the architects of our republic shared his sentiment. Alexander Hamilton wanted to form a “Christian Constitutional Society” whose first objective would be promoting the Christian faith among the people. George Washington wrote in his farewell address,
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.
Thomas Jefferson called religion the “best support” of good government. Churches that bring men to Christ and spur them to good works in accordance with their profession of faith allow a democratic society to flourish.
Adams encouraged pastors to “preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted.” But too many of today’s prominent evangelical leaders and ministries are, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, crying out against those vices of which our generation is least in danger; they are running around with fire extinguishers in the face of floods.
The president of the Southern Baptist Convention suggested in 2019 that the Bible whispers about sexual sin, whereas today’s Christians shout about it. He has argued that churches need to show more hospitality to people who believe they are transgender by using preferred pronouns. Russell Moore, editor in chief of Christianity Today, warns of overabundant masculinity in our churches. But women outnumber men 55 to 45 percent in evangelical pews, and are more likely than men to volunteer in ministry. Rather than consider why our churches are less compelling to young men than Jordan Peterson lectures, our leading lights contemplate marginalizing men even further. Professors at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have taught that their theology curriculum needs to be decolonized, purged of “whiteness.” The provost has confessed that as a white man, he is and always will be racist because he is “immersed in a culture where he benefits from racism all the time.”
It is important to note that these leaders and ministries are not generally understood to be exponents of progressive Christianity—far from it. The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents some 45,000 churches in dozens of Protestant denominations, provides another example of the startling progressive drift among evangelical elites. In 1983, the NAE was so influential among evangelicals that Ronald Reagan delivered his Evil Empire speech to its national convention. The organization is currently led by a well-known pastor in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. On August 29, the NAE released a report on climate change titled “Loving the Least of These.” In order to love God through obedience, says the NAE, Christians “need to severely cut greenhouse gas emissions.” We need to “advocat[e] for government and corporate action” and pass “legislation that helps speed up the transition to renewable energy” and “decrease[s] the use of fossil fuels.” The NAE bases many of its climate commandments in the authority of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body that has been awash in corruption scandals for suppressing study results and faking research findings. But if you do not agree that climate change is predominantly anthropogenic, you are not “loving the least of these.”
The tactics of spiritual manipulation used by evangelical leaders to promote the left’s climate agenda were honed during their earlier championing of the Covid-19 propaganda of Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health and a prominent evangelical. Loving your neighbor required wearing masks, shutting down churches for months, and receiving an experimental genetic vaccine. Failure to do these things was failure to obey God, and those who resisted this commandment were damaging the witness of the Church to a watching world.
Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, exhorted Christians in an interview with Collins: “Wearing a mask is the great commandment: love your neighbor as yourself.” New York pastor Tim Keller opined that churches that continued to meet in defiance of lockdown measures represented “the bad or the ugly” of Christian responses to the virus. And Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center, warned that Christians who spread “conspiracy theories” (such as the idea that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China) needed to “repent” and “consider taking Christian off [their social media profiles] so the rest of us don’t have to share in the embarrassment.”
Collins never talked about the small business owners forced by the lockdowns to close their doors or about the children who fell behind when their schools shut down. Likewise, the NAE report on climate action does not mention the poor families who struggle when food, housing, and gas become more expensive due to environmental regulations; or the Dutch farmers whose government has told them they cannot continue to earn a living as they have always done; or the people of Sri Lanka who protest food and power shortages caused by the green policies their government has enacted at the behest of global elites. Are these people our neighbors? We should be skeptical of those who are quick to theologize policy judgments, especially when those policies have such evident human costs.
The NAE has issued a lengthy report and expansive update on climate, four resolutions on environmental issues, and innumerable op-eds and essays on the creation care mandate. It has issued no reports on the transgender social contagion capturing the minds of adolescents and children; no resolutions on how trans ideology conflicts with the Bible’s teaching, “male and female he created them”; no op-eds or essays on the erasure of women and girls as a class of persons. What to do about the environment, or about Covid, is not an easy question to answer. But Christians surely should stand united against an ideology that directly contradicts Scripture.
In Paul Kengor’s book The Devil and Karl Marx, an ex-communist describes how he and his comrades infiltrated mainline Protestant denominations in the 1940s to win them over to the Soviet cause. The Communist Party learned to ape biblical terms. They were atheists adept at using pious jargon to dupe churches into adopting their political causes. Today, leftist political priorities—from white privilege to open borders—are disguised in tortured Christianese and given the weight of gospel truth. Evangelical leaders are being deceived, creating an extra-biblical class of sins defined by progressivism. They are selling indulgences, which we purchase with our activism and compliance.
The hard truths my pastors in Phoenix told me were the biblical truths that inform conservatism. When it addresses individuals, conservatism does not offer utopian fantasies about achieving perfect fairness in this world. Nor does it coddle us by suggesting that our pain absolves us of responsibility for our actions. When it addresses societies, conservatism considers the fallen nature of mankind and formulates political, cultural, and economic systems that restrain our worst impulses while rewarding virtue, diligence, and self-control.
The left has captured virtually every influential cultural sphere in the nation, save one: the Christian churches. About 35 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelicals. Among Americans who describe themselves as conservatives, evangelicals are the single largest religious bloc, by 17 percentage points. As go evangelicals, so goes conservatism—and so goes the United States. If the communities sustained by pastors faithfully preaching the Word really do provide the best support of good government, then pastors who abandon the Word for the left are among good government’s most effective saboteurs.
American self-government cannot survive apart from a strong Christian culture. The Church’s future is secure, of course; she is and will be victorious in Christ. It’s the here-and-now that’s uncertain. When the next prodigal Megan walks through the door of an evangelical church, will it transform her life? Will she hear the gospel preached—or the latest progressive crusades couched in pseudo-biblical language? Will she, in the strength of the Christ they teach to her, become a responsible and resilient woman, a devoted mother and wife?
If not, we can imagine the reproof our republic will deserve, founded as it was on Christian and civic virtues: The Lord gave you such good fortune that success has crowned your every undertaking. And you were so careless of your trust . . .
Megan Basham is a culture reporter for the Daily Wire.