The problem here, aside from the shell game of politics and theology, is timing. When Keller adopted evangelicalism as his identity, did he really not know that Billy Graham, the poster-boy for post-World War II neo-evangelicalism and a board member at Keller’s seminary, Gordon-Conwell, had conducted religious services in the White House for Richard Nixon?
What did Tim Keller know, and when did he know it?
That is the question that some readers should be asking after pondering the New York City pastor’s piece in arguably the nation’s premier magazine for journalism and fiction. Keller joins the ranks of those born-again Protestants who want to disassociate themselves from THE EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT!!! of fellow believers who voted for Trump. Keller’s excuse is that when he signed on, evangelicalism was not politicized:
When I became a Christian in college, in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism. Shortly thereafter, I went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. It was one of the many institutions that Graham, Harold Ockenga, and J. Howard Pew, and other neo-evangelicals, as they were sometimes called, established. In those years, there was such great energy in the movement that, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, it had eclipsed mainline Protestantism as the dominant branch of the Christian church in the U.S.
Keller goes on to distinguish big-E evangelicalism from lower-case-e evangelicalism. The former is what everyone associates with politics and the Religious Right, the latter is theological. Here he follows British historian David Bebbington, who regards conversion, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the atonement, and a desire for holiness as the hallmarks of evangelicalism. With Keller, this definition gets slippery because he wants to claim the politics of racial and economic justice found in some non-white evangelical churches for the genuine theological article lower-case-e evangelicalism:
these churches tend to be much more committed to racial justice and care for the poor than is commonly seen in white Evangelicalism. In this way, they might be called liberal. On the other hand, these multicultural churches remain avowedly conservative on issues like sex outside of marriage. They look, to most eyes, like a strange mixture of liberal and conservative viewpoints, although they themselves see a strong inner consistency between these views. They resist the contemporary ethical package deals that today’s progressivism and conservatism seek to impose on adherents, insisting that true believers must toe the line on every one of a host of issues. But these younger evangelical churches simply won’t play by those rules.
In which case, theological evangelicalism (lower-case-e) is still political but not the yucky kind of politics associated with THE EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT!!!