I converted to Christ in the year 2000, leaving behind my atheistic contrarianism. I entered American Protestantism completely unaware that something unique was occurring. In the 1980s, Calvinism reemerged as a potent intellectual force in evangelicalism, spearheaded by Baptists John Piper and John MacArthur and Presbyterian R. C. Sproul. In the early 2000s, young Gen X seminary graduates and writers who were influenced by these men became a movement known as the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR). New personalities and publishers emerged, and megachurches were formed. Centered on Calvinistic doctrines of salvation, these Baby Boomers and Gen X Calvinists achieved a good deal of theological unity.
Their cross- and intra-generational unity was most evident in the Together for the Gospel conferences (T4G), which began in 2006 and held every other year. It was organized by four friends, already well-established in their own circles in the pre-social media days—Mark Dever (Baptist), Ligon Duncan (Presbyterian), Albert Mohler (Baptist), and C.J. Mahaney (Charismatic), along with three invited speakers: Piper, MacArthur, and Sproul. What unified them were belief in biblical inerrancy, male headship of families, and the “five points” of Calvinism, which can be reduced (albeit simplistically) to the traditional Reformed doctrine of predestination. Thus, they were opposed to feminism, modern “critical” biblical scholarship, and the freewill doctrines of Arminianism. The conference grew over the years to include younger pastors such as David Platt (Baptist), Matt Chandler (Baptist), Kevin DeYoung (Presbyterian), Thabiti Anyabwile (Baptist), and others.
I attended the 2008 T4G in Louisville, Kentucky, seeing the men I had read for several years joyfully sitting on panels together, despite their important differences. This togetherness was real. But it was also entirely a product of the time. It was in the middle of what Reformed writer Aaron Renn has labeled the 20-year “neutral world” period from 1994 to 2014—a world in which Christianity no longer had a privileged status but was not disfavored. Most everyone in these evangelical circles was a political “conservative” or typical evangelical voter, against abortion and homosexual marriage. Nevertheless, on political questions, the YRR leaders approached politics very differently. Piper was an outspoken Christian pacifist who would have even refused to defend his own family against violence. MacArthur regularly proclaimed his sentiment that “government can’t save you.” In contrast, Mohler (along with the
Presbyterians) devoted attention to “engaging” the culture. But in the neutral world these differences were seemingly less pertinent; the glue of their unity was opposition to theological liberalism.
The late Timothy Keller also rose in prominence at this time in communicating the Gospel to coastal elites. His neo-Calvinism spread far and wide among the Gen-X world, establishing an ethos centered on “winsomeness” and a “third-way” politics above (not between, so he claimed) the political left and right.
Under Keller’s influence, the YRR era was not retreatist but activist—pursuing “cultural engagement” by demonstrating that orthodox faith is the key to a coherent, good, and complete life. The purpose of “public theology” was more evangelistic than political; and most adherents, even if they disapproved of “neutrality” language, still approved of the possibility of debate within a shared public square. That is, entering public discourse offered Christians the chance not so much to win politically as to demonstrate their serenity, through a politics that appeared attractive, heavenly, and pleasantly aloof, and devoid of anxiety, overreaction, and anger. To the urban liberal, this was a quirky but safe political stand that checked the boxes on most “social justice” concerns.
Hence, Christians who followed Keller’s approach could downplay or overlook questions of political power and focus instead on verbal and aesthetic persuasion. The principle regarding politics, especially for followers of Keller, was that political commentary and activism was an extension of “witness,” not fundamentally a means for good political outcomes. Every decision in ministering this witness tended to defer to whether it resulted in making Christianity attractive to non-believing urbanites. Politics was an extension of cultural apologetics, built around “authenticity” as opposed to the kitschy, suburban “seeker-sensitive” movement of the ’90s. The assumption was that secular people will become dissatisfied with the secular identities on offer and look for a coherent alternative. This approach made sense in that neutral world that no longer exists, where the Christian identity was one viable alternative among competing identities.
The Gospel Coalition (TGC), founded in 2005, exemplified this approach. A “coalition” of likeminded mostly neo-Calvinist churches, TGC served mainly to platform rising stars and to establish an elite evangelicalism. TGC’s long-time (and current) editor in chief, Collin Hansen, who wrote the book Young, Restless, Reformed in 2008, credited Keller’s works on “cultural apologetics” as a driver of the movement. Subsequently, the target engagement-audience for TGC (and neo-Calvinist apologetics in general) has always been urbanites, or at least non-rural residents. Few talked about the need for ministries to rural, working-class whites.
It is obvious now, looking back at the post-9/11 and pre-Obergefell era, that the leftward drift of this movement was inevitable. The end of Renn’s “neutral world” and the beginning of a negative world hostile to Christianity began soon after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015 and accelerated rapidly with Trump’s 2016 victory. Changed circumstances undermined the attractive witness model as previously practiced. The neutral-world ethos could not hold in the negative world; the era of open debate was gone. Christianity as a viable, alternative identity was placed under serious strain, as acceptance of LGBTQ+ became mainstream, with mandatory celebration of alternative sexualities in nearly every institution. The #MeToo and racial justice movements that emerged in this era likewise demand that everyone atone for alleged misogyny and racism.
The politics-as-witness model has, however, remained in place among the evangelical elite. With LGBTQ becoming social dogma, elite evangelicals began shifting hard with the culture to focus gender and race. Thus, in 2016 and throughout Trump’s presidency the evangelical elite apparatus relentlessly attacked Trump and his evangelical voters for being insufficently sensitive to cultural prejudice. For example, Christianity Today editor Russell Moore (promoted early on by Al Mohler) wrote an article, “A White Church No More,” for The New York Times, in which he accuses Trump supporters of “nativism” who will be “shocked” to see the “dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’” on His heavenly throne. Trump’s supporters are not on the “right side of Jesus,” Moore claimed. Since it appeared in a paper not widely read among average evangelicals, it was clear that Moore wrote the article not for evangelicals but for the secularist elite and his leftward social network.
Dozens of political articles appeared from all corners of evangelical elite outlets, including on the TGC website, reflecting the same theme: only racist, angry, sub-Christians would vote for Trump. Also, a bizarre theme of white deference to racial minorities began appearing. One TGC editor, Brett McCracken, tweeted in November 2016, “White Christians in America must partner with, listen to, defer to nonwhite & nonwestern Christian leaders. We need humility, hope, revival.”
Two years later, Moore helped to organize the MLK50 conference, an event supposedly honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., but serving mainly as a performative lament over the sin of white racism. Around this time, Ligon Duncan, a seminary professor and former president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, wrote a glowing forward to Eric Mason’s book Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice by Eric Mason. Racial justice became major themes for Dever, Platt, Chandler, and others. Meanwhile Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, came under scrutiny for his academic hirings, some of whom (such as Jarvis Williams, Curtis Woods, and former provost Matthew Hall) relied openly on methods and conclusions of critical race theory.
In late 2018, however, just after he spoke at the T4G conference that year, MacArthur took a vehement stand against “social justice,” calling it as a distortion of the Gospel. He signed the “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” also known as the Dallas Statement, which denounced left-wing Critical Theory-based methodologies and conclusions. T4G did not invite him back in 2020 or 2022.
By 2021, the social justice movement in the church had fizzled out, partly from the bruising that so many received from it but also from the embarrassment of it all. As expected, many of those who were platformed were indeed influenced by critical race theory and liberation theology. Some began affirming female ministers. On the gender side, academics such as Kristin Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, came to “affirm” homosexual sexual relationships. Many YRR megachurches have seen huge splits over racial justice preaching. And finally, after years of impoverished reasoning and embarrassment after embarrassment, TGC has become irrelevant and unimportant and a well-deserved object of relentless mockery.
The rhetoric and events from 2016 onward have shown that the “witness” approach to politics is nothing but a performance for the secularist liberal establishment. The coastal elites were their sole audience. This explains why on every political issue they pushed orthodoxy to its leftward limits. The concerns of Trump-supporting, working-class white Christians never entered their minds, except as objects of contempt. It never dawned on these elites that perhaps we should “listen to” and “affirm” not only brown people but also the concerns of poor whites, and maybe even the middle-class ones. But taking seriously the concerns of “racist” white people would alienate the evangelical elites from the anti-white liberal establishment they hoped to attract.
By their own admission, many evangelical elites rarely if ever interact with their mostly white evangelical base. In 2018, the then-editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, wrote that his “elite evangelical” crowd were shocked to learn that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. “Most evangelical Christians like me exclaimed, ‘Who are these people? I know hardly anyone, let alone any evangelical Christian who voted for Trump,’” he wrote.
It was the elite evangelical response to COVID that finally destroyed their credibility. It solidified the already widespread suspicion that their role in society is to provide a theological veneer to regime narratives. They exhibited naïve trust in and absurd deference to institutions and the “experts” who openly lied and laughed off charges of tyranny as they closed playgrounds and schools, dumped sand in skate parks, locked people in their homes, and insisted that loved ones die alone. One notable pastor-theologian, Jonathan Leeman, authored several articles against churches that defied COVID restrictions, including against MacArthur’s church. In the height of the pandemic and while his church was forbidden from meeting, Leeman (being very on-brand) attended a crowded BLM protest, even inviting his church to join him.
In 2022, Together for the Gospel held their final conference. The negative world broke them; the coalition is over, and the YRR movement is dying a slow death. It is now plain to everyone that the obsequiousness of the evangelical elite to their hostile secularist counterparts is harmful to the country, to churches, and to the advance of the Gospel. The evangelical elite know that they are in decline.
The energy in American evangelicalism is now on the Christian right, who have become emboldened in their efforts to return America to its heritage of faith. They affirm the goodness of Christian nations, an assertive Christian politics, and the predominate heritage of faith in American history. For them, Christian politics is not loser theology, nor meant only to carve out a safe existence for churches. The goal is the complete re-Christianization of civil society, institutions, and government.
The moderate wing of YRR, represented by such pastors as Kevin DeYoung, want to reaffirm a “center” amid this chaos. But that is pure nostalgia for a neutral world that no longer exists and which will never return. In our age of secularist hostility, you must decide whether drag queen story hour is a blessing of liberty or a license to be destroyed; whether you want pagan nationalism or Christian nationalism; whether degeneracy or righteousness will prevail, and whether Satan or the Lord Jesus will rule over this land.