A Response to Tim Keller: We Can’t Live as Though the World is Still Neutral to Christians

By Peter Wolfgang Published on September 6, 2022

In its love letter to celebrity pastor Tim Keller, the Wall Street Journal rightly notes (down in the sixth paragraph) that he is no liberal: “Dr. Keller preaches a conservative Christianity to his cosmopolitan flock, in which marriage is between a man and a woman and abortion is murder.”

Keller, pastor of the enormously successful Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and best-selling author, deserves the love letter. He helps New York City’s hard-boiled skeptics and non-believers understand the Christian message and see how attractive it is. He strengthens the faithful and nurtures other pastors who go out and do the same thing.

Of course, this secular newspaper brings up his politics. To the secular mind, that’s the important part. “Though he is theologically conservative, Dr. Keller is wary of calling himself ‘evangelical,’ largely owing to the term’s political implications. ‘It creates images in people’s minds that don’t fit me,’ he explains.”

It could be uncomfortable to be a serious Christian and political conservative in “neutral world,” but it wasn’t yet dangerous. But we were heading toward “negative world.” The neutrality wouldn’t last.

The Bible teaches we should help immigrants and the poor, but Keller notes that it doesn’t give us directions on the proper size of government or the right level of taxation. He insists that Christians do not have to vote for one particular party. He believes politics is dividing the church. “People are walking away from each other. It’s quite painful,” he told the Journal.

I think he’s half-right and half-wrong about the way the Church should operate in the world. And the half-wrong part is dangerous.

Keller Throws Up His Hands

Keller is right that Scripture says welcome immigrants and help the poor and it does not specify the size of government or of taxes. As someone working full-time in politics for the family and the unborn, I’ve noted the ill effects of approaching politics as if there’s one Christian position for every issue under the sun, in an article here at The Stream and have warned against telling Christians they are obligated to vote for one party.

But when I say it, I am using Catholic distinctions between what theologians call “formal cooperation in evil” and “remote material cooperation” with “proportionate reasons.” That’s a way to discern what we can and can’t do politically in a fallen world. (Former Stream editor David Mills explained these terms here and here.)

I do not see Tim Keller making those distinctions. He seems to simply throw up his hands when it comes to helping Christians discern how to vote. He doesn’t need to use the Catholic distinctions. But he should have some way to figure out what Christians should do. God has not left us helpless in this matter of our public witness.

But he doesn’t seem to even think it’s possible to do that. (I get Keller’s point about politics creating painful fissures within the church. My sense is that Evangelical churches in the Trump/post-Trump era are experiencing this more acutely than are Catholic churches.)

A Necessary Evangelical Debate

But it’s not just me that feels this way about Keller. In May, an article in First Things titled “How I Evolved on Tim Keller” touched off a big debate in the Protestant world. You can read about the debate here and the author’s YouTube response to the debate here.

This was a very necessary debate in the Evangelical world. Because the arc of Keller’s career is a microcosm of forces in play that are much bigger than Tim Keller. Bigger than any one person. I know I’m a Catholic weighing in on an internal Protestant debate, but this Protestant debate has repercussions far beyond Protestantism, and indeed beyond Christianity itself. We have our own Tim Kellers, for one thing.

What forces are in play here? The ones Aaron Renn discusses in another First Things article, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” (You can see Renn’s YouTube responses to his critics here and here.)

Renn’s “three worlds of Evangelicalism” are the “Positive World” before 1994, in which “Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity”; the “Neutral World,” which ran from 1994 to 2014, in which “Christianity no longer has privileged status but is not disfavored”; and the “Negative World” we live in now.

In this world: “Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.”

From Neutral to Negative

I think Renn is exactly right. His description matches almost exactly my experience of having lived through those decades. In the Stream article I linked above, I also zeroed in on 1994: “This was the moment that I think their hatred of us began to harden. It began to harden around the time of Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America and the Christian Coalition. That was when the dominant narrative became liberals vs. Christians, more so than ever before.”

That was still the neutral world. I experienced it in law school. It could be uncomfortable to be a serious Christian and political conservative in “neutral world,” but it wasn’t yet dangerous. But we were heading toward “negative world.” The neutrality wouldn’t last. Our liberal and radical elites allowed neutrality only until they could impose their views on Christians and other people who wouldn’t get with their program. You could feel it coming.

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Renn calls 2014 the start of negative world. I think Obama’s re-election changed everything. He could now afford to challenge not just the right but the center. Remember his change on marriage, from claiming to believe it was the union of man and woman to proudly asserting the goodness of gay “marriage.”

People on the left felt that the world was inexorably changing into the one they wanted — but they had to seize power over others to make it the world they wanted. I used to refer to his second term as the Left’s “drop the mask” era.

Negative world is where we are now. Neutral world is where much of the Christian world thinks it is. If the church stays stuck in neutral world, then negative world is going to run right over it.

Tim Keller, for all his greatness, is still trying to live in neutral world. That’s the only place his throwing up his hands the way he does makes sense. It doesn’t make much sense in neutral world, but in negative world, it’s a recipe for cultural suicide. That is the dangerous half-wrong part of his message I mentioned above.

Living in Negative World

How to live faithfully and effectively in negative world, that’s the conversation we should all be having. Protestants and Catholics both. How do we faithfully follow our Lord in all the realms of negative world, when the forces of the world are playing for keeps?

That’s the crucial question of Christian witness today. Follow Tim Keller’s indifference to politics and the church will be roadkill.


Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut Action. He lives in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife and their seven children. The views expressed on The Stream are solely his own. Aaron Renn, mentioned in this article for writing “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” is a founder of American Reformer and Family Institute of Connecticut is partnering with one of its groups, Courage is a Habit, for its upcoming “Let Kids Be Kids” conference.

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