The Resistance Will Be Organized
Anti-Trump evangelicals are very organized and well-funded
I just finished reading Tim Alberta’s interesting new book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. I am going to be reviewing it for the Claremont Review of Books.
One of the things I found interesting is Alberta’s behind the scenes look at the evangelical “resistance” movement. That is, those who vociferously oppose the evangelicals who support Donald Trump.
While I don’t think it’s any surprise to people, and has been reported on elsewhere in part, this book makes clear with new details I had not seen before that this is a very organized movement, and one funded at least in part with non-Christian financial backing.
Anti-Trump evangelicals started getting organized at least as far back as 2015.
In the fall of 2015, [Russell] Moore met with “The Outliers”, a group of friends and fellow high-profile believers: Tim Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City; Pete Wehner, the former head of strategic initiatives in the George W. Bush White House; Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health; and David Brooks, the New York Times columnist.
They discuss the GOP primary, and the attraction of Trump and their differing views of how things would play out when it came to evangelical support for him.
A few things are interesting here. First, this group of people gave themselves a name, “The Outliers.” So they were probably gathering or talking even before this meeting to have reached the point of giving their group a name. Note that Russell Moore is portrayed as a guest of this group.
Second, they are meeting in Fall 2015, a time at which very few people believed Trump would win the GOP nomination, much less the presidency. I did a podcast with my father (on my old feed which is no longer online) at the end of October 2015 saying that based on my interactions with folks back home, Trump was a serious candidate. This actually got some attention from people, so unusual was that at the time. The fact that this group was in existence so early makes me wonder when it was formed and if they actually predated Trump and were already alienated from the mainstream of evangelicalism.
Third, note the presence of elite journalist David Brooks. He quoted every attendee of this meeting other than Francis Collins in his 2022 essay on “the dissenters trying to save evangelicalism from itself.” Brooks was clearly not just writing as a columnist or sympathetic observer; he’s part of this movement.
I think it’s fair to say that Alberta, too, if not an official member of this movement, is certainly at least a fellow traveler, playing a role in the elite media similar to Brooks.
Fourth, this illustrates how a lot of high level evangelicals have applied the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter. Hunter argues that overlapping elite networks at the cultural center are what drive cultural change. We see here that these “high-profile” people are networked with each other, and also with people in the elite media.
I think it’s fair to say that this efforts has produced no change in American culture as a whole, but it has given the people at the top of those networks immense power over what sociologist Brad Vermurlen called the “evangelical field.” They very much have had a powerful impact on major evangelical institutions.
Additionally, their relationship with the elite media gives them the equivalent of a nuclear arsenal they can use to bomb to their evangelical opponents, who have no such vehicle for retaliation. Very few people in mainstream professional society or major institutions are capable of standing up to the elite media, which is why I call this a nuclear weapon.
For example, these relationship likely saved Russell Moore’s job with the SBC back in 2017. After his attacks on Trump voters in the New York Times and elsewhere, his job was in danger. An article broke this story in the Washington Post, and the reporter called Moore aligned black pastor Thabiti Anyabwile for a quote. Anyabwile said Moore getting fired would have a “chilling” effect and that, “The fallout will be the denomination signaling to African American and other ethnic groups that they’re tone deaf and disinterested in that membership.”
In other words, if the SBC fires Russell Moore, the Washington Post, and other major publications that subsequently covered the story, were going to call them racists for doing so. Realistically, almost nobody or no institution can handle being called racist by elite media. So no surprise Moore kept his job. (I think there’s a good chance he was actually the original source of the story).
While there were reports about various “what to do about Trump” meetings, such as one at Wheaton in 2018, I had never before seen a reference to this “Outliers” group. I couldn’t find anything when Googling about it, but it’s a hard term to search for. But the report of this meeting shows some of the details you can get from reading Alberta’s book.
By the way, I think everything above is completely legitimate. People should get organized to pursue their goals. James Davison Hunter is a very smart man, and leveraging his insights is likewise very smart.
Alberta also devoted an entire chapter to efforts by Russell Moore, David French, and others to take on their evangelical opponents. He writes, “The events of the previous few years haunted each of my companions in unique ways. All of the vowed that they would spend the next few years fighting the contagion inside the American Church.”
Moore started by building networks:
One of the first things Moore did, after quitting the Southern Baptist Convention, was link up with other Christian refugees. They were of different generations and races and political persuasions; they were of different denominational backgrounds and worship traditions. What united them was the hard-earned knowledge that something had gone very wrong within American Christianity. Starting in the spring of 2021, Moore had convened a series of private gatherings about how to rebuild the Church. The first meeting, at a friend’s home in Maryland, counted twenty-five participants. The next convening, at a resort in Vermont that fall, included twice that number. Every time I spoke with Moore over the ensuing year, he reported that the group had grown even larger. Yet its footprint became no more visible. There were no creeds or open letters or mission statements. And that, Moore explained, was the entire point.
Again, we see the focus on elite networks in this passage about how Moore leveraged his “secret society.”
His group aimed to “empower” two different categories of Christian. The first were high level operators, people with deep connections in the evangelical world who were undertaking myriad efforts to depollute their own denominations and affiliated churches. Because these efforts were often overlapping, Moore came to view his secret society, which ran the demographic and ideological spectrum, as being “in charge of directing traffic.”
Based on what I read in the book, if there is any leader to these efforts in the evangelical world, it’s Russell Moore. He seems to have a tiger by the tail with this. Alberta writes, “The demand for Moore’s private network-building seminars had exploded beyond any reasonable supply. He was speaking in four different cities that week alone.”
One particular effort that Alberta highlights was the creation of a curriculum on politics targeting churches called “After Party.” After Party is a venture of Moore, French, and a Silicon Valley consultant named Curtis Chang.
Chang had come out of nowhere to become a high profile voice calling on evangelicals to get vaccinated against Covid-19. He got an op-ed published in the New York Times, for example. One of his videos caused controversy when it attempted to assuage evangelicals who might be worried that the vaccine used cells from aborted babies by saying that the Covid-19 vaccine redeems abortion.
Alberta tells us that at least some of Chang’s work on this was produced under a consulting contract to unnamed government health agencies, writing, “Contracted by health agencies to promote vaccination, Chang worked to build an alliance between evangelical and secular organizations.”
Consulting is a noble profession if I must say so myself. But I suspect very few of the evangelicals who consumed Chang’s materials were aware he was producing them as a consultant for the government. I didn’t know it until I read this book. (By the way, I got vaccinated and boosted for Covid-19).
After Party was Chang’s idea:
One afternoon, while hiking the Grey Whale Cove trail along the spectacular San Mateo coast, Chang laid it all out for French. There needed to be an organized, visible, well-funded effort to counter the work done by the likes of Charlie Kirk, Eric Metaxas, Ralph Reed, David Barton and so many others on the MAGA right. Change didn’t envision some puritanical campaign to banish politics from the Church altogether; what he hoped to articulate was an alternative to the manic, enemy-at-the-gates mindset that was infecting American evangelicalism. This would best be accomplished by a systematic curriculum, something that could be studied by individuals and small groups, something focused not the “who” or “what” of politics… but on the question of “how” Christians are called to engage the culture.
There was just one problem: despite barnstorming the country, Chang was not able to raise much money for the project from evangelical donors. He then turned to secular funders:
Chang began to entertain a strange idea: what if unbelievers footed the bill for the project?
Walking into his initial meetings with secular funders, Chang halfway wondered if he was losing his mind. These were some of the same people who couldn’t fathom vaccine hesitancy among evangelicals; who had zero understanding of the Church’s conflicts regarding politics, policy, and culture. Now they were going to bankroll his Christian curriculum enterprise?
Yes. That’s what all of them said - yes. In retrospect Chang told me, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
I’ll say. Chang himself is on the political left. Russell Moore is a long time Democrat. David French is certainly deeply estranged from conservative evangelicalism. Their project is conceived as a direct competitor to MAGA mobilization. Of course secular leftist funders are going to pay for it.
Their claim that his is about the how and not the who are not credible. If secular Republican billionaires funded a curriculum featuring two conservatives and one hard core anti-woke liberal targeting political engagement in black churches, it would clearly and rightly be seen as an attempt to depress black votes for Democrats. Likewise, we are on solid ground in inferring that this project is designed to reduce Republican voting by evangelicals by providing doing so with a theological rationale. The very name of the project speaks to its partisan agenda.
This project is very consistent with what I’ve seen with the trend of left wing money from groups like Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation flowing into evangelical and conservative organizations.
Again, getting mobilized, raising funds, etc. are legitimate things to do. What’s Alberta’s book helps us to understand is the extent of this organization and mobilization among various anti-Trump evangelicals, and how far it goes back in time. This is a well-organized, well-funded effort. (That’s not to defend the wackier supporters of Donald Trump, just a statement of fact).
These are among the many interesting tidbits of info in this new book that is getting a lot of attention out there.
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