How Populism Corrupts Evangelical Leaders

This post may become a rant. We’ll just see.

A big part of my beef with populism is that it corrupts evangelical leaders, and I choose the verb corrupt for its precision. Populism rots a leader’s soul.

1. Populism substitutes the lowest common denominator for unity.

I’ve said that evangelical populists whip up people’s negative emotions, like resentment and suspicion, using carefully chosen enemies. The problems with “our society” are the fault of “the Hollywood elites” or some other class. I’ve also said that the populist can only evoke people’s positive emotions through sentimentality, using symbols that have nostalgic, tear-jerking potential.

This simplistic emotionalism enables large groups of people to feel united by cheering or booing. It’s easy to feel bonded while we cheer the armed forces or boo the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A leader just has to speak to his audience’s gut, and common cause has been achieved.

But evangelicals in America both need and desire a deep identification with Jesus Christ. They need the unity of the Holy Spirit, which is only attained through doctrinal purity and relational grace, through truth and love — the very highest things anyone can imagine. What sort of leadership tries to achieve any other kind of oneness?

2. Populism substitutes clichés for truth.

The much-touted evangelical passion for the Bible is now largely spent, not because average evangelicals don’t care what the Bible says but because their leaders won’t teach it to them. The vast majority of sermons preached in American churches quote biblical snatches, as if Scripture were a sacred Bartlett’s. Structurally, however, these quotations are not the focus of teaching, but are called upon to support the preacher’s points. They are little better than slogans.

This preaching strategy is unavoidable for a populist, who conceives of his audience as virtuously stupid. He can’t presume to teach The People, who already know everything they need through their vast common sense, and who are sick and tired of the university elites telling them what to think. The only thing he can do is remind them. After all, they don’t need to know the conjugation of Greek verbs, and their attention span is . . .

The average evangelical in America both needs and desires God’s word. In fourteen years of preaching, I have yet to encounter a single stupid person. I have heard a lot of stupid preachers, who use their audience’s education level as an excuse never to master the arts of communication. What sort of leadership ducks the responsibility to teach?

3. Populism substitutes manipulation for leadership.

Manipulation is control. Manipulation is arousing people’s emotions without paying deference to their intelligence. Manipulation is blame-shifting, making other classes responsible for cultural evils. Manipulation is flattering people’s self-regard. Manipulation is the attempt to modify people’s behavior without edifying their souls.

American evangelicals need spiritual leadership — and I am convinced that they’ll respond to the genuine article. What sort of leadership uses the tools of control?

The reason populism corrupts evangelical leaders is this: Populism is a lie. It tells The People that they are virtuous simply because they are The People. It tells them they are one when they are merely conformist. It tells them they have knowledge when they’ve only inherited a collection of Bible verses misapplied. And the worst populist lie of all is that The People are a herd instead of a body.

Can any leader believe such things without his soul rotting in cynicism?


4 thoughts on “How Populism Corrupts Evangelical Leaders

Add yours

  1. As a populist Republican myself, I completely agree with your assessment of “populist” preaching, but I would say that is more crowd-pleasing preaching w/o any Truth at its foundation but I’ve been blessed with a pastor that could care less if he’s popular. I see modern populist politics as strengthening the middle class, fighting the “old money” that says the average Joe cannot be president, and fighting against all forms of oppression. Huckabee was my man in the election because he was a Christian, humble, and not a Ivy League elitist looking down at us from his ivory tower. I see your point on how populism can oversimplify and demonize, but I still believe we should stand up for the poor since even Christ himself tells us the rich (excessively so) will have a hard time getting into Heaven.

  2. Lion,

    No argument about standing up for the poor. But does the American middle class fit into that category? I think Jesus’ teaching that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom explains why the middle class is so decadent.

    But thanks for the comment!


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