The Evangelical “Deconstruction Project”: Alisa Childers interview notes

Below are notes from my recent interview with Alisa Childers. The interview is available on YouTube at: “Here’s Everything You Need to Know About The Evangelical Deconstruction Project” or on iTunes.

1. There’s a lot of talk right now about deconstruction in the context of faith. How do you define “deconstruction?”

“Deconstruction” is a very slippery term and people use it many different ways. For example, progressive Christians use “deconstruction” to refer to critically reexamining all your theological beliefs, even very basic ones about God, Jesus, and the Bible. Alisa, you yourself experienced this kind of “deconstruction” and wrote about it in your book. Based on how progressive Christians use this term, a lot of people are very alarmed when they see prominent evangelicals talk about “deconstructing” their faith.

In response, I’ve seen these evangelicals insist that “deconstruction” is just what the Reformers did. In other words, they’d say that they’re just trying to separate actual Christianity from purely cultural or political beliefs. So in the broadest sense, both the progressive Christian and the deconstructing evangelical will say “We’re just trying to separate ‘authentic Christianity’ from later cultural accretions.” And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We should try to distinguish beliefs that are biblical from beliefs that are merely cultural.

But here’s the key question: how do you decide what’s “authentic” and what’s merely “cultural”? The Reformers said, “the Bible is our ultimate authority. We turn to the Bible to determine what ‘authentic Christianity’ is.”  But I see something very different going on in the so-called evangelical “deconstruction project”

2. Ok, let’s talk about the evangelical “deconstruction project”? Where did this phrase come from?

Recent discussion of the evangelical “deconstruction project” originated with an article written by Prof. David Gushee called “The deconstruction of American evangelicalism.” Gushee is a self-described “progressive evangelical” who made waves in 2014 when he became LGBT-affirming. In his article, he says that a number of professing Christian scholars are deconstructing the “intellectual underpinnings of evangelicalism” and he specifically names Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Jesus and John Wayne), Beth Allison Barr (The Making of Biblical Womanhood), Jemar Tisby (The Color of Compromise, How to Fight Racism), Jacob Alan Cook (Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of the Evangelical Faith), Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry (Taking America Back for God) and Robert Jones (White Too Long), Anthea Butler (White Evangelical Racism).

According to Gushee, these books show in various ways that “white evangelicalism is characterized by patriarchy, toxic masculinity, authoritarianism, nationalism, anti-gay sentiment, Islamophobia and indifference to Black people’s lives and rights” and that “white Christian-ism” wants “to drive non-Christians, non-whites, non-natives and non-males back into subordination” and so forth and so on.

What’s most important about this article is that when it was published, it was enthusiastically praised and endorsed by every single one of these authors. So it’s impossible to claim that Gushee is misrepresenting or misinterpreting their work. These authors were happy to endorse his summary of their books and his view of their overall goals.

Now, by a fascinating coincidence, at around the same time and independently of Gushee, I wrote an article for the journal Eikon entitled Sociology as Theology: The Deconstruction of Power in (Post)Evangelical Scholarship. I listed all the same authors (minus Cook) and talked about how they are “sowing the seeds of a deconstruction that goes far deeper than race, gender, and politics.” So if you have two people, one advocate and one critic, independently recognizing that these books share a common “deconstructive” goal, I think that’s significant.

3. What do you see as the essence of the evangelical “deconstruction project”?

Gushee and I would probably agree that the essence of these books is to argue that evangelicalism (or perhaps “white evangelicalism”) has been foundationally shaped by oppressive ideologies like white supremacy, patriarchy, Christian nationalism, and homophobia and that these ideologies were then cloaked in theological language and given theological justifications. So these authors would argue that much of what evangelicals believe to be the “plain teaching of Scripture” is actually a product of historical attempts to justify racism, sexism, nationalism, capitalism and the oppressive status quo. Consequently, “authentic Christianity” requires us to unearth the ways these ideologies have perverted our faith and then to dismantle the theological beliefs that are used to justify them.

4. How do these authors make reach this conclusion? What’s their general approach?

All of these books follow a basic three-step approach:

Step 1: identify a problem, either in history or in contemporary politics. It could be slavery and Jim Crow, or sex abuse scandals in the church or something else.

Step 2: show how the church either actively endorsed or passively allowed these injustices.

Step 3: conclude that hundreds of years of participation in white supremacy, patriarchy, and nationalism have warped “white evangelical theology” such that it needs to be fundamentally reimagined.

Now, when we read these books, we can often agree with steps 1 and 2. We can and should absolutely grieve and lament these past (and present!) evils. But then, there’s a sudden leap to step 3 and that’s a big problem. You can’t move from saying “look at how this belief was used to justify a great evil” to saying “therefore, this belief is false.” This reasoning is simply logically invalid, because almost any belief, even a good and true belief, can be used to justify evil.

For example, belief in the divinity of Christ has been used to persecute non-Christians. I could write an entire book documenting historical examples of Christians persecuting non-Christians because of their beliefs about the divinity of Christ. Does it follow that Jesus is not divine? Not remotely. This is terrible reasoning. We can’t use descriptive facts about history or sociology to prove some prescriptive, theological point.

And that’s another commonality among many of these books: an almost complete absence of exegesis or references to Scripture or to theological arguments of any kind. (NOTE: while Tisby’s books are also primarily works of history, I should have commented in the interview that they do stand out in making far more use of Scripture than the others). And that’s why a comparison between “evangelical deconstruction” and the Reformation is entirely inappropriate. The Reformers wanted to reexamine all their religious beliefs in light of Scripture. They wanted to reform their beliefs to the Bible. In contrast, evangelical deconstruction wants us to reexamine all our religious beliefs in light of history and sociology. They want us to reform our beliefs to a particular vision of politics or gender or liberation. These are two qualitatively different projects.

When pressed, these authors will say that they’re “just doing history” or that they’re “just doing sociology” so they don’t have to delve into issues of biblical interpretation. But that’s not true, because all these books make normative claims. They’re not merely describing historical facts about what Christians have done. They all argue about what Christianity “ought” to look like and what Christians “ought” to do in the future. For example, the subtitle of Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne is “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” Think about that for a second. How can you say that white evangelicals “corrupted Christianity” without making an implicit claim about what an “uncorrupted, pure” Christianity looks like?

So Christians need to be very careful when reading these books. We can and should be honest about both our past and our present. But as soon as these authors begin to make theological claims, we need to demand theological arguments rooted in the Bible.

5. What are some other approaches common to these books?

I’d mention two others: the use of broad categories and the use of morally-loaded terms.

First, all these authors define terms in a very broad, and often non-traditional way. For example, both Du Mez and Barr refer to anything other than complete egalitarianism as “patriarchy.” So if you believe that men and women are equally valuable but have different roles in the church or in marriage or in the family, that makes you a supporter of “Christian patriarchy.” Similarly, Robert Jones laments the fact that “white supremacy . . . evokes white sheets and burning crosses” when it ought to refer more broadly to “the way a society organizes itself, and what and whom it chooses to value.” Whitehead and Perry do the same thing with “Christian nationalism” which, on the one hand, refers to “Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation” but, on the other hand, also includes affirming statements like “The federal government should advocate Christian values” and “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”

Using these broad categories obliterates important distinctions. For example, Du Mez names R.J. Rushdoony, who “disapproved of women’s suffrage and of women speaking in public,” as a supporter of patriarchy. But she also lists the Promise Keepers as supporters of “Christian patriarchy” because they advocate husbands’ “servant leadership [through] obligation, sacrifice, and service.” Even if we reject complementarianism, it’s pretty clear that these two positions are worlds apart.

To put it another way, imagine that I defined “Marxism” as “anything except libertarianism” and then argued that Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, and Ronald Reagan all embraced “Marxism” because none of them were libertarians. That’s ridiculous. That definition obscures important differences in their views.

Second, the words they choose are all morally loaded. No one wants to be accused of supporting “Christian patriarchy” or “Christian nationalism” or “White supremacy.” So if you define these terms in an extremely broad way, Christians will be unlikely to oppose you, lest they be accused of “supporting Christian patriarchy, white supremacy, and Christian nationalism.” A better approach is to use neutral labels or labels of self-identification. Best of all, we can jettison labels entirely and just focus on ideas. For example, if one of these authors said “no, I reject the ‘deconstruction’ label” then I’d be more than happy to critique just their ideas. But since they endorsed Gushee’s article, I think we can use it.

6. Can you talk about how this works a lot like a kafka trap?

Sure. A kafkatrap is a rhetorical device that presents an accused person’s denial of their guilt as evidence of their guilt. For example, I have a theory that you’re a vampire who denies being a vampire to conceal your dark, dark powers. What are your options? You can either admit you’re  a vampire or you can deny you’re a vampire and therefore prove my theory is true because that’s exactly what a vampire would say!

The books end up placing evangelicals in a similar bind because they argue that particular theological views are mere excuses to justify white, male privilege. These authors attempt to “see through” the supposed biblical arguments for complementarianism or conservative politics to reveal them as thinly-veiled justifications for protecting the status quo. For example, Barr writes: “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.” Butler writes: “[E]vangelicalism is not a simply religious group at all. Rather, it is a nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others.” Du Mez writes “[T]he battle over inerrancy was in part a proxy fight over gender… Inerrancy mattered because of its connection to cultural and political issues [like abortion and same-sex marriage].”

So, if you’re a politically-conservative, complementarian evangelical, what do you do? If you say “here are my biblical reasons for being complementarian and politically conservative” they’ll just respond: “Aha! That’s exactly what we said you’d do! You’re just trying to protect your power and privilege by hiding behind the Bible!”

7. So what is evangelicalism, then? Do you think that it is entangled with political conservatism?

The question “what is evangelicalism?” is complicated and is something scholars have struggled with for decades. I’d want to strongly distinguish between “evangelicalism” as a socio-political group and “evangelical theology” as a set of beliefs.

If we’re talking about “evangelicalism as a socio-political group,” we know from polls that self-identified white evangelicals, even regularly church-going white evangelicals, are very politically conservative. Polls also show that about 20% of white evangelicals today, in 2022, are opposed to interracial marriage. That number still boggles my mind, since I’m interracial and I’ve never personally met a white evangelical opposed to interracial marriage.  But that’s what the data say and surely, that should provoke some soul-searching on our part.

That said, there is a huge difference between “evangelicalism” as a socio-political group and “evangelical theology.” For example, a 2021 Barna survey found that 28% of Americans self-identify as evangelicals. However, within that group of self-identified evangelicals, 65% say “Determining moral truth is up to each individual; there are no moral absolutes that apply to everyone, all the time” and 61% say “A person who is generally good, or does enough good things for others, will earn a place in Heaven.” Ligonier’s State of Theology survey found that 26% of evangelicals strongly agreed that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” and 38% strongly agree that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God”

So when people claim to be “deconstructing evangelicalism” we should ask whether they mean they are merely trying to distance themselves from “evangelicalism” as a socio-political group or whether they are deconstructing “evangelical theology,” which is often just historic Protestant theology. Those are two very different things.

8. Can we take these books as a narrow critique of these particular, unbiblical practices?

Short answer: no.

There are indeed historic examples of evangelicals justifying evils, like slavery or Jim Crow, via appeals to the Bible or contemporary examples of evangelicals going to unbiblical extremes in issues like gender roles. As I said before, we can definitely acknowledge when evangelicals have gotten things wrong in the past. We can recognize when our beliefs or practices contradict Scripture or “go beyond what is written.” But these authors are not trying to offer a narrow critique of a few particular practices. Instead, their aiming at a much broader renovation of evangelical theology.

In White Too Long, Jones asks: “What if . . . conceptions of marriage and family, of biblical inerrancy, or even the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus developed as they did because they were useful tools for reinforcing white dominance?” In Jesus and John Wayne, Du Mez writes that “patriarchal power began to define the boundaries of the evangelical movement itself “ which she describes as including “complementarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement” (p. 204) Barr writes: ““The evangelical fight for inerrancy was inextricably linked with gender from the beginning… Inerrancy wasn’t important by itself in the late twentieth century; it became important because it provided a way to push women out of the pulpit” (p. 191).

As Gushee also recognizes, these books are not merely offering a superficial critique. They really want evangelicals to reexamine their most foundational theological beliefs. And they don’t want us to do so on the basis of an accurate reading of Scripture (which most of these books don’t even attempt to provide), but on the basis of their socio-historical analyses. That’s a big problem.

9. What connection do you see between postmodernism and deconstruction?

Du Mez, at least, is quite explicit about about the influence of postmodernism and critical theory on her work. Just a few days ago, she was asked how an average person can learn more about “analyz[ing] power and cultural systems so that we’re not held captive by them.” She responded: “for me it wasn’t one source but years spent reading social & cultural histories, histories of gender, Foucault, Gramsci, Adorno, Habermas, learning to be curious about how the works works.” Foucault is, of course, one of the most famous postmodernism philosophers. Gramsci was the father of Neo-Marxism, and Adorno was a leading member of the Frankfurt School, which coined the term “critical theory.”

Even though the term “deconstruction” comes from Jacques Derrida, these books seem to be more influenced by Michel Foucault and by critical theory’s analysis of “interlocking systems of oppression.” Foucault insisted that we should apply a skeptical eye to truth claims and should probe the ways in which they are actually bids for power. In the same these authors want to unmask how theological claims are used to justify dominance.

Similarly, critical theory argues that racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism form “interlocking systems of oppression.” You can’t analyze racism by itself because racial oppression intersects with gender oppression and class oppression. A few weeks ago, Beth Allison Barr endorsed Jemar Tisby books on Twitter, saying: “since racism walks hand in hand with patriarchy (‘interlocking systems of oppression,’ as so many have noted), we need to actively fight both if we are ever going to be free.”

That said, I’m not arguing that “these books are making use of postmodernism and critical theory. Therefore, these books are bad.” While these influences as certainly present, I think we should simply analyze the claims made by these books.

10. Denny Burk tweeted, “If your theology is nothing more than a long rumination on who has power and who doesn’t, you’re not doing theology. You’re doing identity politics.” I think he makes a great point here. It seems like much of this deconstruction project has more to do with power dynamics and identity politics than it does an honest exegesis of the Scriptures. Do you agree?

Yes. And let me reiterate: you can’t simply say “oh, well, these books don’t claim to be works of theology or biblical interpretation” because these books are drawing normative theological conclusions. If they were only making descriptive observations about history or about society, then I wouldn’t be raising this objection. But all of these books are urging Christians to do something, to change something, to reform their thinking. They are telling us what we “ought” to believe. And those kinds of normative claims must be subjected to the scrutiny of Scripture.

11. How can Christians respond to all this? Can you give some practical advice for how to think through these issues? 

First, I would emphasize that we do not to reject history or sociology. We don’t need to pretend that slavery never happened. We don’t need to pretend that racism and sexism don’t exist. We don’t need to pretend that everything that gets labelled “complementarianism” is biblical and healthy. We don’t need to pretend that abuse of power never happens. We can be honest about all that stuff.

But second, we need to insist that theological claims must be grounded transparently in Scripture. If people want to argue that divinely-ordained gender roles do not exist or we should be LGBTQ affirming or that penal substitutionary atonement, they are welcome to do so on the basis of Scripture. But evangelicals cannot, must not, accept arguments grounded in nothing more than historical and sociological analysis. Once you accept that line of reasoning, you’re in deep trouble because there’s nothing you can’t deconstruct: “Biblical inerrancy was used to justify slavery; therefore, jettison biblical inerrancy. Penal substitutionary atonement was used to justify harsh judicial sentences; therefore, jettison penal substitutionary atonement.”

Every doctrine has been misused and abused at some point in the church’s history. Yet we can’t simply conclude that every one of these doctrines is false. If you accept this argument, you’ve cut loose your biblical anchor and are just going to drift along with the cultural current into theological liberalism.

Finally, as always, I urge people listen to both sides. Understand what they’re saying. Hear their arguments. But then ask: who is appealing to Scripture? Who is interpreting it accurately and consistently? What are the logical implications of the claims they’re making? And talk to your pastor. They’re called to shepherd the congregation and they should hopefully be able to recognize and correct error, when they see it.

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