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Newsletter #76: A Critical Shortfall of Courage
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“Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.” - Peter Thiel
I had not planned to write about the shameful treatment of evangelical pastor Josh Butler, the target of a recent online hate mob, until I saw that he was fired from his church.
Of course, Butler says that he resigned - but so did that CEO who said he wanted to spend more time with his family. His own letter makes it clear that the elders of his church wanted him gone. The church almost immediately scrubbed his name and bio from its web site.
I don’t judge Butler for his decisions. The shock and pressure of being the target of a wave of online hate and a media firestorm is something few of us have experienced. Rather, I want to highlight those in authority around and over him who cowardly failed him.
Josh Butler was a pastor at a church called Redemption Tempe. He is the author of a new book titled Beautiful Union: How God's Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything. He was also named a fellow at the brand new Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics at the Gospel Coalition, named after Tim Keller and announced right at Collin Hansen’s new intellectual biography of Keller was released. (Hansen is also the editor of the Gospel Coalition).
In what I believe was the very first ever post from the Keller Center, Butler published an excerpt from his book. It received immediate criticism, led by a some female evangelicals, that turned into a huge social media hatestorm against Butler and TGC. The Gospel Coalition shortly thereafter unpublished the article, announced that Butler had resigned from the Keller Center, and that he would no longer speak at the TGC conference this year. The article link was replaced by an apology from TGC president Julius Kim, who explicitly noted he was writing after discussing the matter with the organization’s board of directors. He wrote:
To our fellows and our readers, please forgive us…To ensure greater accountability with our fellows, we will develop better review systems for our work together. We will also review our publication processes more broadly at TGC and develop plans to ensure greater accountability to you, our readers. Again, thank you for your patience with us. At TGC, we want to provide a venue for healthy dialogue and robust debate on important matters that affect us all. We want to model grace-filled conversations, and we want to learn from one another. In this case, we failed you and hurt many friends.
I read the original Butler article (link to the Wayback Machine) and found it to be, as they say, cringe. It’s a highly eroticized analogy between sex and the relationship of Christ and the church. Although this type of writing doesn’t resonate with me, there is a long pedigree of it in the church, as Rod Dreher notes, posting some choice quotations from church father John Chrysostom. He could have posted a vast array of other similar material. Clearly Butler was operating within a well established, legitimate genre. (Dreher also posts samples of the tweets attacking Butler should you be interested).
But even if there were objective errors in Butler’s piece, there were other ways to address matters than unpersoning him and issuing groveling apologies to the mob. The Gospel Coalition itself has done that in the past when coming under conservative pressure. They’ve just made corrections to articles and left it at that. I see nothing that justifies this treatment of Butler.
What is particularly bad about this situation is that the people involved had a responsibility to Josh. Many were senior to him in age and influence. They brought him on as a fellow. They published the article under their imprimatur after they edited and reviewed it. Tim Keller allowed his name to be stamped on Butler. The church hired him as pastor.
They should have had more skin on the game with him. If this article was really so outrageous as to merit this kind of treatment, then Julius Kim and the TGC board of directors should also have resigned for their failures. But of course nothing like that happened. Instead, they saw the wolf coming and fled to save themselves.
[ Update 5/15: A reader wrote in to tell me that I had missed that Julius Kim is actually out as president of the Gospel Coalition as of 3/31. Perhaps this is related to the Butler situation - AMR ]
After this, it’s hard to see how anybody could ever enter into a relationship with the Gospel Coalition or these other folks and sleep well at night. We have seen their lack of courage. They’ve revealed through their actions that they will abandon those under their care in the moment of crisis. As Dreher correctly put it:
Well, that's it for the Keller Center. Maybe it had to take down Butler's piece and apologize in order to keep its funders, but boy, what a terrible sign for them. Who can take them seriously now?
Indeed. And of course we can assume it’s very likely that this sort of thing will happen again in the future. Why? Because, as Jake Meador notes, it’s works.
Situations like this are clarifying. They are revealing of the character of the people involved. Some people failed the test. But others passed it. One is Butler’s publisher, Multnomah, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Having contracted for, accepted, and approved the book manuscript, they rightly moved forward with its publication. A number of people also stood behind their endorsements, like Jen Pollock Michel. It couldn’t have been easy for these folks to refuse to cancel Butler, so those who stood firm should be commended for their courage.
A Broader Social Problem
The failure and lack of courage displayed by the Gospel Coalition’s leadership here is not a defect specific to them. This kind of behavior is pervasive and in fact the norm in our society society today. In their actions in the matter of Josh Butler, TGC is merely acting in conformance with the world at large.
Another example. I’ve told before the story of Indianapolis civic leader Jackie Nytes. She had impeccable progressive credentials and was arguably the furthest left establishment politician in the Indianapolis Democratic Party. For example, while on the city council she pushed through an anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance circa 2005, a decade before the Obergefell ruling and years before California - yes, California - voted to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. She lives in a majority black neighborhood and rescued a non-profit serving that neighborhood after the previous management ran it into the ground. In short, there’s not a whiff of conservatism in her to get cancelled over.
She was serving as the president of the Indianapolis Library when some employees accused her of racism, saying the library was “run like a plantation.” She was summarily pushed out of her job. Not a single leader in the entire community defended her, even though many of them were her close personal friends and could attest to her character in the matter, and even though her husband had died of cancer less than year prior. In fact, a few of them even piled on her. (Two years later, the library is still in turmoil. It’s become apparent in retrospect that this was basically a garden variety union type labor dispute).
Not only was this grossly unfair to Nytes herself, it’s revealing about civic leadership class in Indianapolis. Like the Gospel Coalition, their lack of courage in this instance will have practical negative consequences for the city. In fact, we are already seeing it.
As with the Gospel Coalition, every leader of a civic organization in Indianapolis now knows that if a disgruntled employee accuses him of racism, he will be fired by his board and abandoned by the entire community. Unsurprisingly, there’s been an exodus of leadership from these organizations in the wake of Nytes’ defenestration. Individually they can be explained away, but collectively the sheer number of CEO departures is eyebrow raising. In particular, multiple of the consensus top aged 40-something leaders of their generation, people in the prime of their careers, resigned plum positions leading major Indianapolis civic groups, moving to either statewide focused positions (i.e., ones far less exposed to the toxic, high risk environment of Indianapolis) or the for-profit sector. That is, we’re seeing a talent exodus. While I don’t know for sure why these people left, and I’m sure there were many factors in their decisions, I can guarantee you that what happened to Nytes factored into their assessment of the risks of continuing in their previous role.
Again, there’s nothing unique in this story either. This is how the leadership class in America behaves today. We’ve all seen this same story way too many times.
The Cultural Conditions for Courage
Clearly, there have been a number of changes in American society, such as metastasizing managerialism, that make it more difficult for leaders to stand firm in these situations. For example, corporate CEOs are incredibly insecure in their positions. Any deviation from certain ESG/DEI type lines threatens their job. Dittos for heads of civic organizations, who would promptly be dumped by their boards if they got out of line. Maybe, as Dreher suggests, TGC’s funders threatened to cut them off if they didn’t dump Butler.
Still, there are at least some people out there who have one or more of the following characteristics: rich, a blue blood, or retirement age. These people have the solid ground to stand on in which to more easily show courage. But how few of them actually do.
This makes the rare exceptions stand out. Michael Bloomberg as mayor of NYC was a rare leader with real courage, one of the few billionaires to actually use his billions to do hard things. Mitch Daniels as governor of Indiana and president of Purdue University also had courage. In fact, he was recently faced with a situation very much like the Butler and Nytes ones when the head of Purdue’s northwest regional campus was accused of racism. The hatestorm came demanding his firing. But Daniels said No. That kind of courage is why Daniels was a massively successful transformational leader at Purdue. If the Purdue Northwest chancellor had been running an Indianapolis organization, he would have been toast.
The most recent Indianapolis Business Journal ran an editorial practically begging the mayoral candidates to come forward with a transformational vision to address the city’s serious problems and develop new ideas for civic advancement. But the cultural environment of America militates against that, save for the rare Bloomberg or Daniels type of leader. As Peter Thiel rightly observed in the quote at the beginning of this newsletter, that kind of courage is in all too short a supply in America.
People are hungry for leaders with courage. Two incidents made Jordan Peterson famous. The first was when he said he would not comply with a pending pronoun law in Canada. The second was when he held firm under questioning from a hostile interviewer on the UK’s Channel 4. In other words, it was acts of public courage that drew people to him. Online influencers frequently take advantage of this effect, often manufacturing opportunities for them to show courage (or a facsimile thereof).
Unfortunately, the people who demonstrate this public courage are often provocateurs, extremists, or crackpots. By definition, you have to be out of sync with social norms to do this sort of thing today. This disproportionately selects for unstable or anti-social personalities. Also, this is the path to audience growth as a social media influencer, so a huge chunk of the people we see doing this aren’t actually interested in leading things in the real world, just clicks.
But why can’t the more respectable leaders find the courage to do this?
The leaders of the Gospel Coalition or in Indianapolis aren’t bad people. The ones I know personally are by and large smart and want to do the right thing. But they, like most of us, are mired in today’s unhealthy American leadership culture. They need to find the courage to rise above that, and stop capitulating to these activist mobs (among other things). If they do that, they might well discover that it’s not as risky as they thought.
In a post titled “More Courage, Less Fear,” Matthew Yglesias wrote:
The point of this kind of article is to send a message that this kind of conclusion is not welcome, that if researchers know what’s good for them, they’ll desk drawer that kind of empirical result and focus their energies on other areas. This tactic can be very effective. I know plenty of people who are ensconced in the progressive universe and who have doubts about some aspect of the progressive consensus that they don’t want to voice publicly because they think it will end badly for them. I don’t think those fears are entirely unwarranted and I see why people worry. But as someone who thinks that approach is bad for society’s epistemic institutions, I generally try to send a message that is reassuring and encouraging, that people should not be too afraid of bullies.
I think the most important point to make about this affair is that despite the attempted cancelation, all three authors continue to have good jobs at quality universities, and they’re grinding away with more prison-related empirical work like this paper about how being incarcerated reduces mortality. If you publish an interesting, empirically rigorous paper with a pro-incarceration finding, people will absolutely get mad and yell at you. But you should still publish it! If you want to create an environment that supports better discourse, then you need to encourage everyone to be a little bolder and more heterodox at the margin.
Not everyone can turn into Mitch Daniels overnight, but we can all start looking for ways to become incrementally more courageous. For those in leadership positions in the church and society, this is part of our responsibility.
The Road Back for the Gospel Coalition
The Gospel Coalition clearly flubbed this one. But it’s not too late to correct course. What might this look like?
They could take a page from Roger Ream and the Fund for American Studies (TFAS). The anti-Trump conservative publication the Dispatch published a hit job on a young conservative journalist named Nate Hochman. This was rolled out in a way designed to pressure TFAS to dump Hochman, who held a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship there. TFAS indeed did cancel his fellowship.
But as other organizations refused to follow suit and stood by Hochman, and as more details about the events involving him came out, TFAS - according to my analysis - recognized that they had made a mistake. They ended up paying out Hochman for the rest of his fellowship. Then TFAS president Roger Ream made a tweet publicly affirming a piece of Hochman’s journalism. This, in essence, was a statement reversing his previous decision.
TGC could do something similar. They need to make sure Butler has a fellowship to cover his family’s expenses for at least a year. (This might already have been done - I don’t think it needs to be public). They should also reinstate him as a writer and publish something new by him soon. Butler should accept the offer if they make it. And someone very prominent who is closely associated with TGC should make an affirming tweet or similar statement about Butler.
Some people might say this isn’t enough. But the important thing is to get people moving in the right direction for the benefit of our institutions and society as a whole, not to force them to commit seppuku. Realistically, this is about as much as one could ask from a public institution and its leaders.
But will they do even this?
By the way, I’m confident that Josh Butler and I have numerous substantive differences. But Josh, you’re very welcome to publish with me if TGC doesn’t want you.
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The day is coming when great nations will find their numbers dwindling from census to census; when the six roomed villa will rise in price above the family mansion; when the viciously reckless poor and the stupidly pious rich will delay the extinction of the race only by degrading it; whilst the boldly prudent, the thriftily selfish and ambitious, the imaginative and poetic, the lovers of money and solid comfort, the worshippers of success, art, and of love, will all oppose to the Force of Life the device of sterility.
- George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman