(Note: Following this article, Tim Keller published a Twitter thread that included some implicit responses to the arguments outlined by the author. Lucas has now replied to Keller’s thread at The Bias)
Last week, popular Reformed pastor John Piper shocked the world by coming out against sexual immorality, boastfulness, vulgarity, and “factiousness.” Also: “baby-killing, sex-switching, freedom-limiting, and socialistic overreach.” If the latter list seems a tad more specific (not to mention hyperbolic) than the former, the reason might be that they are part of the latest Evangelical effort to say something mean about Donald Trump without naming him. “This article is probably as close as you will get to an answer on how I will vote in the upcoming presidential election,” Piper reports in the opening sentence, before immediately clarifying that he, a pastor who has advised women to submit to just a soupçon of spousal abuse, would never do something as overbearing as “dictat[ing] how anyone else should vote.”
On the question of which septuagenarian candidate to endorse, Piper offers no specific exhortation. He merely wishes us to know that both of the aforementioned lists—personal vices in one column, policies in the other—are deadly to the nation. Love God and do what thou wilt. Just remember the baby killing.
The article communicated an unmistakable message to Trump’s acolytes, one more pointed than Piper has previously dared. His not-too-broadside, which declares that “when a leader models self-absorbed, self-exalting boastfulness, he models the most deadly behavior in the world,” did disturb one of the pastors of the rather literally named Patriot Church, a fledgling denomination that is exactly what it sounds like. For some modestly sized segment of the faithful, Piper’s stab at blasting Trump while avoiding the word “racism” may be enough to prevent them from pulling the lever for their rock-ribbed Cyrus.
For the majority, however, Piper’s language reinforces the idea that Donald Trump’s personal sins (not the policies of the Republican party) are to be weighed against the infanticidal, androgynous, Stalin-worshipping Left. If one perceives that the scales of evil are perfectly balanced, and thereafter washes their hands in the manner of a dyspeptic Roman governor, it can only be after averring the eternal truth: verily, both sides are terrible.
An entirely different article could be written on centrism in the Democratic party and how it displays an almost supernatural obliviousness to what the GOP has become, but smarter minds than mine are already on it. Meanwhile, there’s a healthy body of literature calling out the disfigured doctrine of stridently pro-Trump Evangelicalism. However, I see a lack of reflection on religious “moderates”’ ongoing inability (or is it deliberate refusal?) to identify the influencers to their right as the problem. John Piper’s article represents the latest salvo from what I’ve come to think of as the Evangelical both-siders, the religious leaders whose false equivalence all but guarantees that, regardless of who wins next Tuesday, Christian nationalism is here to stay.
To grasp the stakes of both-sides piety, look no further than these actual illustrations from Eric Metaxas’ “children’s book” Donald Builds The Wall, which lionizes Donald Trump as a specimen of blonde-haired heroism defending his people against a caravan of “swamp monsters.” I put “children’s book” in quotes because, as blogger Libby Anne points out, it’s about as suitable for kids as Nazi children’s books that depicted Jews as similarly subhuman. Indeed, asylum seekers and the people who support them are not even human in Metaxas’s book, but rather imbecilic dinosaurs, whose attempts at scaling the Aryan chieftain’s racist fortress evoke the ineptitude of bumbling villains in a Pixar movie.
Metaxas’s book came out last year. Since then, he has expanded his brand to include sucker-punching a peaceful protester (whom Metaxas predictably vilified as the Real Bully) and praising his Lord and Master Trump with the language used to describe the Beast of Revelation.
It may seem like I’m not really talking about equivocating moderates anymore, but Metaxas, a self-styled Christian public intellectual who has his own syndicated radio show, is surrounded by them. His milieu is not the heartland landscape of Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, or Piper himself, but the urbane, thinking-man’s-believer establishment of Manhattan’s Redeemer Church, the King’s College (where Metaxas is a “Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Large”), the Veritas Forum, and Metaxas’ own Socrates In The City, an ongoing event in which he solicits deep thoughts from Christian or conservative-leaning intellectuals, philosophers, and former talk show hosts. In these settings, Metaxas’ unapologetic Trumpism is an exception; contrary to popular belief, a sizable percentage of this crowd wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a MAGA hat.
But if Metaxas’ friends harbor reservations about his zealotry, they’re keeping it to themselves. His own radio show website doesn’t list Donald Builds The Wall alongside his other accolades, so it’s unlikely that his compatriots at the Veritas Forum are going to cite it when introducing his lecture on Jesus: The Free Market Libertarian. Still, I don’t think those colleagues are about to organize to knock his seminal work of xenophobic children’s literature from its current perch at #28 on Amazon’s Best Sellers in Emigration and Immigration Studies.
One obvious reason is simply that well-connected people protect other well-connected people. However, another reason is bound up in the story “moderate” evangelicals tend to tell each other: a guy like Metaxas might be going a bit far, but hey, what about those softly totalitarian authors of picture books that humanize gay couples? Aren’t they just as bad?
This both-sides fairy tale undergirds a recent, and thoroughly predictable, series of tweets from Tim Keller, Redeemer’s former head pastor. Over the past few decades, Keller has cultivated a careful—and quite successful—blend of winsome apologetics and quietly conservative theology. In the approachable prose of books like The Reason for God and Counterfeit Gods, Keller refrains from excoriating the godless for their “baby killing.” Instead, he mounts a serenely confident defense of Christianity for an imagined gracious-but-questioning skeptic. To that end, Keller gingerly steps back from the MAGA folk in his tweets, repeating what has, by now, become a standard line for evangelicals squeamish about Trump: “The Bible binds my conscience to care for the poor, but it does not tell me the best practical way to do it. Any particular strategy (high taxes and government services vs low taxes and private charity) may be good and wise.”
The purpose of this blandly irenic pronouncement, as far as I can tell, is to chastise Republican ideologues in the most inoffensive manner possible. Insisting that the GOP has a monopoly on the Christian vote, as the likes of theological vampire John MacArthur have proclaimed, is a wee bit over the top—but don’t feel too threatened, conservatives, because you can keep your boots on the necks of the poor with a clear conscience! “Low taxes and private charity,” after all, is a “good and wise” method for addressing poverty, even if absolutely no evidence has amassed to support it.
A true Presbyterian at heart, Keller has little use for the emotional gymnastics of Charismatic Christianity, still less for the cheerless dogmatics of uber-fundamentalism. His evenhanded brand of apologetics frames belief in the resurrection as the culmination of a deductive line of reasoning, in which the addressee is tasked with ironing out contradictions: If you believe this thing, why don’t you believe this other thing? Yet Keller tends only to wield this Socratic technique— always gently and calmly— against the prototypical city-dwelling atheist that Redeemer is obsessed with reaching. The intellectual and ethical inconsistencies of God-fearing redbaiters apparently do not warrant the same sort of interrogation. Hence, Keller wrote an admiring foreword to the book for which Metaxas is best known, an extremely disingenous biography of the Nazi resister and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The double standard involved in this “evenhandedness” becomes glaringly apparent in an Atlantic profile of Keller from last year. In the spirit of consistency that Keller has modeled before and again, I find it curious that he critiques moral relativism in one paragraph while implicitly embracing it in another. Here he is, insisting that moral relativism flows inexorably from godlessness:
“Materialism logically leads to at least soft relativism…We teach people in college that all facts and moral claims are socially constructed, and then we demand they give up their power and privilege to lift up the marginalized. But why, then?”
Theism, which provides transcendent grounds for moral claims, overcomes the skeptic’s supposed grounds for dismissing all such claims as “socially constructed.” Great! So, then, a believer like Keller should be able to make moral judgments without fear or favor. Pastor, what say you about Christianity’s toxic role on the right?
“Most Christians are just nowhere nearly as deeply immersed in the scripture and in theology as they are in their respective social-media bubbles and News Feed bubbles. To be honest, I think the ‘woke’ evangelicals are just much more influenced by MSNBC and liberal Twitter. The conservative Christians are much more influenced by Fox News and their particular loops. And they’re [both] living in those things eight to 10 hours a day. They go to church once a week, and they’re just not immersed in the kind of biblical theological study that would nuance that stuff.”
To be fair, it’s true that Keller almost stumbles into an argument about manufacturing consent. Both MSNBC and Fox News do answer to major corporations invested in commodifying information while informing us about commodities. Both do play a role in steering the viewer towards less-than-Christlike patterns of consumption and distraction. However, the structure of Keller’s pronouncement matters as much as their substance. As far as he’s concerned, “woke” Christians imbibe MSNBC, while “conservative” Christians imbibe Fox. Both have thus fallen from Scripture’s absolute in a kind of flawless symmetry, equidistant from the proverbial sacred center.
Framing the networks’ content as an inchoate mass of “stuff,” Keller evades the fact that, 4 years into Trump’s reign, 82% of registered white evangelical Protestant voters (who comprise 2/3rds of all American evangelicals) said they would still vote for him. Their favored network, Fox News, broadcasts wall-to-wall expressions of xenophobic conspiracy theorizing, “ironic” bigotry, seething paranoia, jocular misogyny, Messianic glorification of Trump, and above all, an affinity for wholesale fabrication that heaps contempt on the concept of truth itself. Meanwhile, MSNBC’s commentators compare the now-defunct Bernie Sanders campaign to the Nazi invasion of France, give airtime to conservatives like Eric Metaxas, blurt out right wing misinformation, marvel at the beauty of bombing Syrians, and chastise viewers for momentarily enjoying Trump’s epidemiological comeuppance. You know, typical Antifa propaganda.
That MSNBC and Fox are not actually the Left and Right’s equivalent substitutes for spiritual formation—that they offer, respectively, passive-aggressive and downright aggressive defenses of American empire, and therefore both offend “woke” sensibilities—should not be controversial.
It may seem odd that I’ve spent so much time scrutinizing the untruth of Keller’s parallelism. But I think it’s worth unpacking how badly the equivalence misses the mark, because, coming from the lips of a Christian minister, it directly undermines the idea that theism provides an answer to relativism. It is a kind of anti-apologetics, one practically designed to make Christianity seem as morally obtuse as possible. You would think that Christian apologists would abandon it. Yet it is characteristic of a persistent reflex amongst evangelicals, and Keller is hardly the worst offender.
Indeed, for further examples of “fair and balanced” reporting, consider the burgeoning ranks of Trump-skeptical Evangelicals seeking to have their communion wafer and (not) eat it too. In a 2019 Rolling Stone piece on the religious right, writer Alex Morris lists Russell Moore and Philip Yancey as fellow travellers with Keller, members of the reverend #Resistance. Yet in the same piece, renegade Evangelical Greg Thornbury notes the limits of Moore’s dissent, describing how “immediately after the election, all of the big Southern Baptist megachurch pastors called [Moore] up and said, ‘You are to shut up about Donald Trump, or you’re out of a job.’ ”
Is it any surprise that Moore now contents himself with timid remarks about “the media’s Biblical illiteracy,” as exemplified in widespread concern about Amy Coney Barrett’s designation as a “handmaid” in the pseudo-Catholic cult People of Praise? Moore’s piece, which presents not a single word about Barrett’s stealth attacks on democracy, features prime examples of false equivalence, decrying a hyper-Calvinist’s misidentifying 1 John 2:2 as an “Arminian prayer” on one hand, a progressive’s describing Galatians 3:28 as “feminist” on the other. That these designations are clearly not identical in error—that the latter is, depending on one’s use of the term “feminist,” not even an error—makes no difference. Under no circumstances must a feminist be allowed to best a Calvinist. Otherwise, people might get ideas.
Lest you still doubt this trend, let’s line up the rest of the both-sides ringleaders all at once. Here’s author Philip Yancey, in 2019, spending the bulk of an interview bemoaning “polarization” and dancing around the terminally unhinged elephant in the room. Here’s Never-Trump scribe Karen Swallow Prior oh-so-solemnly shaking the dust of both parties from her feet, implying that God won’t bless America until it picks godlier candidates, and speciously downplaying the real drivers of abortion rates so that she can cast herself as a stalwart abolitionist. Here’s evangelist Beth Moore pistoning her head like an air traffic controller, urging her Twitter followers to “not look left or right,” but “UP to the throne of grace and DOWN to the pages of scripture.” In short, here’s a group of extremely influential people who have simply not been paying attention.
Speaking for myself, I wanted Bernie Sanders to win the 2020 election. I’m tired of people like Joe Biden. Prior’s article makes some valid points about the latter’s less-than-sterling record on race. In fact, I’ll admit that Biden’s own soft spot for false equivalence suffuses his statement about Walter Wallace Jr.’s murder at the hands of police, a missive that somehow manages to say more about “looters” than about the murder itself. But here’s the difference between reluctant voters like me and the endlessly swiveling equivocators: we support a both-sider for the sake of preserving the Left; they empower the Right for the sake of denouncing both sides. We seek material gains for the poor, oppressed and overworked; they seek a thoroughly immaterial “objectivity” that ignores the cost of holy aloofness.
Like Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Noam Chomsky, and the rest of this letter’s signatories, I believe the Republican Party has to lose, badly and repeatedly, before it completes American Christianity’s transformation into a subsidiary of a white supremacist, planet-destroying cult. The most immediately effective way to ensure this loss is to vote for the Democratic party and its nominee in 2020; and then to relentlessly harangue that party into adopting policies that strip the GOP—and, by extension, the oil companies and predatory billionaires that it serves—of as much power as possible. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a Christian duty.
To the extent that the First Church of Equivocation is unable or unwilling to recognize the urgency of this task, it is using its influence to run interference for the Eric Metaxases of the world, the clerics of the strongman. It is, in terms Evangelicals might heed, providing cover for antichrist. I am not hopeful that Piper, Keller, and the rest will exhibit sorrow unto repentance over their complicity—old habits die hard—but, in a weary spirit of reconciliation, I will try honoring the apostle Paul, who once wrote to Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but speak to him as if he were your own father.” So to all the both-sides members of the Evangelical establishment, I’ll speak to you as a son to a father. Let me close by saying what any dutiful son in the backseat would say to a father who, fiddling with the car radio, is cheerfully speeding the family towards a cliff:
HEY DAD, YOU’RE GOING TO GET US ALL FUCKING KILLED.
Lucas Kwong is a writer, musician, and assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology. He’s written at eschatontwist.substack.com, Journal of Narrative Theory, and Victorian Literature and Culture. He is also assistant editor for New American Notes Online. He makes music at brotherkmusic.com and tweets at @brotherkmusic.