Unequally Woked

Matthew Schmitz asks a compelling question: How do opponents of progressive fundamentalism thwart its assaults on free speech and common sense? He suggests the best hope is for opponents to unite across religious and philosophical lines. Conservative evangelicals, for example, can join common cause with atheistic professors who likewise reject transgender ideology. While religious and irreligious cannot reconcile their supernatural beliefs, they can form political and cultural alliances based on common enemies within “woke” orthodoxy. Matthew writes:

Despite their differences, an alliance could form between “trads” and the true “nones” who reject religion but may well see it as less of a threat than the growth of woke government power. Trads have all-encompassing beliefs that offend liberal and secular sensibilities. But they affirm the reality of biological differences between the sexes. They believe that your deeds and beliefs are more important than your race. Even when they reject the political formulations of liberalism, most still believe in the virtue of liberality and tolerance. Because they believe in the fallenness of man, they uphold the possibility of forgiveness. Like the “nones,” most “trads” are not utopians. Unlike the woke, they can tolerate those with fundamentally different beliefs. Trads and nones will never agree, but they can ally.

What Matthew says should happen is something I have already seen happening over the last four years within my slice of evangelicalism. Last year I wrote an essay for The Gospel Coalition on the secular backlash to progressive liberalism, and I spoke sympathetically of writers such as Andrew Sullivan, Camile Paglia, and Jonathan Haidt. None of them identify as Christians, and two identify as LGBT, but all have criticized transgender ideology and radical political correctness. Ten years ago Andrew Sullivan was waging a rhetorical war on evangelicals, coining the term “Christianist” (a portmanteau of Christian and Islamist) to describe any and all believers who opposed same-sex marriage. Today Sullivan arguably has more fans within conservative Christianity than in mainstream journalism. As Schmitz says, this speaks to the perception shared between religious conservatives and secular liberals that progressive ideology is a kind of false civic religion.

I think this perception is mostly right. Growing up adjacent to Christian fundamentalism has proven valuable in this regard, as I’ve recognized many of the same cultural practices within progressivism that I saw in performative, legalistic churches. Secular folks are no more enchanted with the fundamentalism of progressive identity politics than they are with the religious kind. And of course, conservative evangelicals see clear problems with woke ideology’s mafia-like enforcement of sexual nihilism. It makes sense that the two groups would find common cause against feeling forced to obey an illegitimate moral regime.

But there are some questions that nag me about the idea of some kind of alliance between the non-woke religious and irreligious.

1) What kind of alliance is possible between secularists and believers, and to what end?

Co-belligerency is certainly possible between people of different worldviews, but co-belligerency is not intransitive. It requires a mutual object. Catholics and evangelicals can fight against abortion together with the endgame being a reversal of Roe v Wade and new laws that protect the unborn. But progressive fundamentalism is more slippery than that. Secularists and Christians can agree about the importance of free speech with regard to gender identity, but many of the “trads,” including Schmitz himself, would advocate broad bans on pornography. It’s not clear to me that free speech is corporeal enough to be a point of alliance between people whose view of human flourishing is grounded in absolute moral norms, and those who are fundamentally libertarian. Both groups can agree to oppose woke ideology, but eventually you have to answer the question, “Ok, so what instead?”

Schmitz rightly notes that defending free speech alone isn’t a viable alternative to the transcendent claims of progressivism. He’s correct that “resisting a crusading creed like wokeism will require more than insisting on freedom of thought and speech. It will require defending a different and sounder set of ideas, a social consensus that is non-utopian.” That truth is itself a reason why I’m skeptical about a viable alliance between believers and secularists. The alliance Schmitz is interested in would have to carefully avoid the foundational conflicts between worldviews of revelation and those of libertarian free-thinking. I’m not convinced such avoidance is possible, much less desirable. An alliance that doesn’t cash out to a positive cultural and political vision does not seem like an alliance that can build in the places it tears down.

2) Do Christians and secularists really agree about the problem? 

I doubt this very much. Schmitz writes, “Liberals who stress the provisional nature of knowledge, resist all-encompassing political claims, and seek space for public error and disagreement, have grounds for agreement with Jews, Christians, and others who believe that men are sinful and fallen.” This is true, but incomplete. All men are indeed sinful and fallen, but a Reformed Protestantism holds that this fallenness has noetic and social effects. For Christians with traditional Protestant theology, the main problem with wokeism is not that it it makes sweeping moral judgments that implicate us, but that its judgments are incorrect and its implications fail. 

Schmitz is right to note that the most radical proponents of progressivism seem to deny any real possibility of forgiveness or humility. Here’s a very strong example of where historic Christianity can engage culture from ahead. In the years ahead believers have a chance to teach and model a good news that the secular world actively disowns: the reconciliation of humanity to God and to one another. It’s not at all apparent to me that atheists and agnostics can herald this kind of good news. More likely, the metaphysical and eschatological commitments of secularism likewise deny the possibility of atonement and new life. Presentism is the besetting sin of wokeism and secularism alike.

3) Should believers feel more solidarity with the unbelieving anti-woke than they do inside a diverse church? 

This last point is perhaps the most urgent one. I am absolutely convinced that American Christians are destroying the power and witness of their testimony through their sociopolitical intuitions. Many evangelicals in particular talk, write, and preach as if they have more meaningful things in common with politically conservative non-Christians than with, for example, black Christians who vote differently. When black Protestants testify by the hundreds about their frightening encounters with police, too many evangelicals weigh this testimony against the punditry of people like Ben Shapiro. But with whom do white evangelicals actually have more in common? With whom will they spend eternity? With whom are they brothers and sisters? 

The New Testament does not pretend that all true Christians agree about everything. But if the gospel means anything at all, it means that people united to Christ by faith are united to each other in a way that they are not united to anyone outside of Christ. The weightlessness of this truth in much Christian culture is a sign of weakness and error, not strength and orthodoxy. 

Here’s a simple plea. Before we Christians form alliances with secularists who confirm our politics, let’s build our churches around the historic creeds and confessions. Let’s weigh the doctrines of Scripture properly. When believers who have different approaches to the city of man can experience and feel a deep sense of unity around Christ and his kingdom, and when this unity so shapes us that we cannot but prefer one another, then we can and ought to think about joining cause with unbelievers against destructive and utopian civic religion. 

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

8 thoughts on “Unequally Woked”

  1. Thanks for addressing this. There is so much more to the Catholic and Evangelical alliance to end abortion. The 40 days for life campaign is s spiritual alliance , not just civic. It is an exercise of faith alongside a false religion. The end game is ending abortion as well as conversion of the clinic staff and parents on two levels,: pro choice to pro life. And unsaved to saved (either through Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. The leadership of the organization has personal testimony of conversion to Roman Catholicism from Protestantism. The exchange babies for losing of a soul.

    The evangelicals and Catholics together statement is a clear indication of what is intended with greater and greater yoking. Now I’d ask, would the Protestant Church partner with an Islamic mask under an Imam in America to pray together for pro life causes? Would we allow them to lead the organization ? What would our response be to conversions from Protestantism to Islam within that context ? Why would there be a difference?

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  2. To be clear. Here is where President Trump stands on the legality of abortion. May 2019 tweet:
    “ As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions – Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother – the same position taken by Ronald Reagan. We have come very far in the last two years with 105 wonderful new…..”
    https://mobile.twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1129954110747422720

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  3. The alliance between hard-right Evangelicals and hard-right secularists is indeed very worrying and to someone from outside the USA (and thus your utterly toxic culture wars) it is a profoundly disturbing trend, with Evangelicals clearly putting politics ahead of faith (some truly wonderful articles on this on The Gospel Coalition website that argue this very well indeed). Of course there are many issues upon which Christians and atheists can be co-belligerents but it would be great if these could be on issues such as racial justice as well as free speech? Being on the same side here in Cambridge as Germaine Greer is an odd experience, but when you look at the vicious verbal assaults against her and JK Rowling you can see areas in which Christians and atheists can work together – but with care! Thank you Samuel James for another wonderful post! And I should say that some of the most vicious things I have seen online are “Evangelicals” attacking the fabulous work of 9Marks and Mark Dever, which gives a truly terrible impression of what Evangelicals are like to Christians outside the USA. Thank God for Samuel James, Crossway, Mark Dever, TGC and 9Marks!

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      1. You are sadly mistaken! These are real Evangelicals living in the real world actually getting genuine Christianity out there as a vital Christian witness in troubled time. Thank God for them! How much of Mark Dever have you actually read or listened? If you had you would know that these conspiracy theory misrepresentations are sadly mistaken. Praying you see the light brother! These people are the friends of Gospel Christianity not its enemies.

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  4. I think there’s a similar (and in my view more profoundly disconcerting) alliance between well-intentioned Christians and secular “woke ideologists” — those believers who naively accept the latter’s social justice lip-service while ignoring or discounting the anti-Christian elements pervading their secular agendas. This seems to be an obvious parallel that would make a good second installment: I would suggest a follow-up article with the same title but with slightly modified sub points: (1) What kind of alliance is possible between “woke ideologists” and believers, and to what end? (2) Do Christians and “woke ideologists” really agree about the problem? (3) Should believers feel more solidarity with the unbelieving “woke ideologists” than they do inside a diverse church?

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    1. Humble permission for a British Evangelical who has known Mark Dever since his student days to say that this is absolute rubbish! I have known Mark over 30 years and you misinterpret him, CHBC and 9 Marks totally. I have known Don Carson nearly 50 years and the idea that TGC is false gospel is pure nonsense.

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