Evangelical Elites, Neoliberalism, and World History

Near the end of his excellent The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, Pulitzer-winner Walter A. McDougall quotes world historian William McNeill on the nature of national mythmaking. What historians create, said McNell, is properly mythhistory. Truth—at least in an academic sense—is hardly exact. One man’s fact is another man’s myth, etc. At national (and imperial) levels mythhistories “are invoked to bind populations and justify wars.” Writing at the end of the Twentieth Century, McNeill wanted to “bury American exceptionalism as an outdated American mythhistory because the United States could only be understood as a part of the pattern of world history.” Pretending otherwise was useless. In 2003 McNeill wrote a sort of update on the history of the world at the beginning of the new millennium. The global population exploded from 2 billion to 7 billion in seventy years. Technology changed rapidly. The average person in 1930 used only about 15 percent of exajoules of energy that someone in 2010 used. There are over 7 billion cellphones in use right now. Over 3 billion people use the internet daily. The problem, McNeill noted, was the modernity created inequalities “unimaginable in past eras” and simultaneously made “even the poorest villagers aware of those inequalities.” How, McNeill (and McDougall) wondered, could that world not “fail to be plagued by violent political and religious rebellions?” Most importantly, how would “the world’s patricians tame its plebeians?”

The most obvious way in which elites have tried to defang plebeian uprisings in our new Twenty-First Century is through “the post-modern equivalent of bread and circuses.” Cheap food, cheap drink, cheap entertainment, and cheap sex “might indeed drain the swamp of terrorism, assuming those things could be provided.” However that solution, McDougall noted, had been tried from the 1960s onward, and there was a catch. “How ‘human’ would the ‘beings’ of that world really be if their global church” also required them to give up all the transcendent aspects of human life? They would have to give up “the symbols and loyalties that give their lives meaning—in effect their cultures”—what R.R. Reno has called the “strong gods” of the West while neoliberal elites offered “nothing in return except ownership of means of consumption.”

This moment in World History has been playing out on a micro level among so-called Evangelical Protestants. Patricians and plebes are stratifying into seemingly ossified castes, and the quickest way at present to move into the patrician class is to publicly denounce the strong gods of the plebes. Respectability and even publishing deals await those who just denounce Christian nationalism, tribalism, populism, American exceptionalism, and a host of social ills that range from racism to homophobia to broad anti-egalitarianism. And while many of those denunciations might be deserved, the fact that these denunciations are performative and not particularly substantive is obvious because the plebes who denounce their anti-egalitarian gods are welcomed–sometimes paraded–into neoliberal cultural, political, and social regimes that are fundamentally far less egalitarian and humane than conservative Protestantism.

Prominent Evangelicals who denounce the old gods to secure their place among the new world elites are quick to denounce their old types of patriotism because they have—suddenly?—discovered that the United States might not be the perfect country they perceived it to be. David French especially has recently discovered the United States’ founding malady of racism; Russell Moore found out that a nefarious Christian nationalism has cancerously corroded Evangelical Christianity in the United States. A cursory reading of U.S. history would have shown both of these truths, and that same cursory reading would show Progressive Christian racists and Christian nationalists! Newly coronated neoliberal Evangelical elites, however, cannot see that history largely because the sacrament of their new caste is routine denunciation of only certain types of strong gods, the conservative Christianity and conservative patriotism they used to practice.

What makes this neoliberal sacramental elitism so problematic is not that it’s knowingly nefarious. David French for example is, I believe, a well-meaning Christian and an obviously caring husband and father. This elitism is problematic because it is so terribly bad at what I will jokingly call Eliteing. Evangelicalism has never had elite social credentials and therefore neoliberal Evangelical elites lack the aristocratic introspection that has seasoned self-conscious elites throughout Western history. Evangelical elites hardly have the sort of brooding hauteur of the restored Ancien Regime, southern planters, Spanish grandees, or Britain’s Victorian aristocracy. Their very Evangelical worldview is one of constant and even cheerful moral progress and eventual overthrow of all forces of evil and ungodly inequality. The Evangelical is therefore by necessity a constant revolutionary whether he realizes it or not. It should not surprise us that Evangelical so-called elites hardly view themselves as elites, but rather as egalitarian moral crusaders. This is nothing new and does not indicate a novel moral deviancy in David French or Russell Moore. Its very much part and parcel of Evangelicalism but not to historic Protestantism. Evangelical elites—conservative or progressive—will always mirror Barras, Danton, and Marat more than Edmund Burke. That, it seems, is something that should give pause to elite Evangelical partisans of neoliberalism, AND to those who would coopt their Evangelical moralism to oppose it.


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