Eric Metaxas’s new bestseller, Letter to the American Church, triggered immediate opposition from the once ascendant but now waning evangelical industrial complex (EIC) associated with superstar NYC pastor Timothy Keller. Metaxas’s book together with Rod Dreher’s 2020 publication, Live Not By Lies, illumine the failed leadership of the Keller movement and the source of that failure — partisan politics.
Metaxas contends that the silence of contemporary pastors amid the Woke revolution in America recalls the cowardice of German pastors confronted with the rise of Nazism and warns that the threat our nation faces is comparably evil. Dreher documents the warnings of survivors of Soviet and Warsaw Pact communism that developments in the United States over the last decade bear the unmistakable marks of totalitarianism. Suppression of free speech, cancel culture, weaponization of the Justice Department and the FBI, politicization of health care, and attacks on the church and the family involuntarily evoke survivors’ memories of life under the Marxist regimes they endured.
The entire Keller movement from the progressive leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America to the stable of writers at the Gospel Coalition oppose totalitarianism. But they also oppose Metaxas and Dreher. Why?
Trevin Wax’s critique of Dreher provides a clue: “I only wish [Dreher] had explored how this tendency toward soft totalitarianism could wind up being as much a feature of a nationalist surge from the far right as it could … from the far left.” Dreher provides abundant evidence to support his alarm at the rise of leftist totalitarian forces. Wax offers no such evidence to support his “only wish” that Dreher would acknowledge that a similar danger might arise from the far right.
Last month at Keller’s The Gospel Coalition, Steve Bateman pooh-poohed Metaxas’s prophetic call in political terms akin to the model set by Wax. Metaxas, bestselling author of a 500-plus page biography of Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, draws heavily on the Lutheran pastor’s resistance to Hitler that resulted in his execution by hanging on April 9, 1945, a mere two weeks before Allied forces liberated Flossenbürg concentration camp. Bateman complains that “[W]hile Metaxas wants us to find in Bonhoeffer an inspiration to resist the church’s enemies on the political left, Bonhoeffer was actually resisting the church’s enemies on the political right.”
Keen observers of political developments in the west reaching back to Christopher Dawson’s enormous output in the 1920s and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism of 1951 argue that the most substantive and urgent political struggle at work in the west is not best construed as a choice between “right” and “left,” but between totalitarian and non-totalitarian options. Russell Kirk, Thomas Sowell, Roger Scruton, Mattias Desmet, and many others have added their voices to this chorus of alarm that finds no receptive ears at Keller & Co.
This odd and increasingly anachronous posture is rooted in Keller’s so-called Third Way theory, unveiled in his blockbuster book of 2008, The Reason for God. There Keller rejects any path forward for the gospel or the church that embraces the partisan political commitments of either the left or the right. Gospel advance should opt for his Third Way, apart from and above political loyalties.
But Keller’s defense of the Third Way depends upon assumption of a rough moral equivalence between the two major political parties that is biased in favor of the left. It was designed to sanctify Christian votes for Democrats. From the beginning, the Keller movement targeted blue communities: college educated, Democrat-voting denizens of the nation’s cities and blue enclaves from sea to shining sea. Winsomeness to that target audience is a stated strategic feature of the Keller movement’s strategy.
Keller’s Third Way credits the Democrat party with just what it wants but doesn’t deserve — compassion for the poor and love for justice. It then caricatures Republican-voting Christians in ways the left is happy to acknowledge and then impugn — they are concerned with eternal souls, the unborn, and money.
Given that Keller’s Third Way targets and caters to blue communities, it is no wonder its partisan character has intensified since the rise Trump and the death of George Floyd. As the so-called Overton window that identifies the spectrum of politically acceptable views at a given time for a given community has lurched repeatedly left, so has what counts as winsome by blue communities. The MLK brand of racial justice rooted in the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and judgment according to the content of character, not the color of skin, has given way to the color-fixated, invisible implicit bias asserting, and systemic racism obsessed views of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. The overturn of Roe v. Wade has precipitated outrage and fear in blue communities where the unborn are deemed to be part of the mother’s body. And winsomeness to Democrats now requires public un-winsomeness toward the GOP.
Committed to the sanctification of Christian votes for Democrats, Keller, though identified as pro-life, recently tweeted this: “The Bible tells me that abortion is a sin and great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which policies are most effective.” Really? So, for Keller, it is possible that support for the party that not only celebrates abortion on demand at every stage of pregnancy, but looks to punish anyone who refuses to publicly celebrate such abortions, might offer “the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country”?
The Keller movement frequently spouts the vacuous political directive against “living by fear.” But the truth is, true love properly and reflexively “fears” and stands poised to protect and act against enemies that threaten harm to the beloved ones. Metaxas, Dreher, Keller, Wax, and Bateman all speak from fear. Metaxas and Dreher fear more harm to come for 330 plus million Americans if the totalitarian tide is not arrested and turned back. Keller & Co. fear not being found winsome by the blue communities with whom they’ve cast their lot.