The Left Took Over the Churches, and the Right Never Fought Back

Amid so many historic aspects to the 2020 election, one bit of important history may be getting lost.  While Trump has ushered in a whole new era in politics, changes to American church life during the last four years have been sweeping.  This essay will provide an introduction to the church's present battles, for readers who may not have been following Christian media or who find the situation confusing.

Church, state, and culture

In my first academic book, Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman, I examined the origin of the present-day "conservative" mind.  I did not follow the familiar methodology of Russell Kirk, but tried to look at literature.

I see increasingly that the core of American conservatism blends traditional and unconventional thinking.  (I went over this in detail in this column.)  While many conservative writers like to trace everything back to Burke, I argue that Burke was both traditional and conventional; this left out a huge bloc of the American right that was irreverent, pugnacious, or defiant to everything that came with contemporary conventions: peer pressure, intellectual fads, condescending pronouncements from experts, arrogant social experiments.  Burke took peer pressure seriously but wanted to balance it with longstanding cultural prejudices (he did not see prejudices as a bad thing).  Burke could explain the existence of the National Review, but he could not explain phenomena like MassResistance moms risking their safety to blockade drag queen story hour.

The heart and soul of American conservatism consisted of two powerful elements: the preference for ancient social mores and bold resistance to peer pressure.  In three waves, the traditional-unconventional conservatism of America evolved to become a societal mainstay.

In the seventeenth century, pious Christians came to build communities based on ancient scripture to get away from the political calculations of the Church of England.

In the eighteenth century, the political realm had to be challenged the way they had challenged the Church of England in ecclesiastical matters; we had a revolution to set up an entirely new political system based on liberty and checks and balances.

In the nineteenth century, with the boom in print culture (then, later, broadcast media), this conservatism came to pervade the culture.  Genre after genre drove home traditional convictions blended with defiance toward popular opinion, from Hester Prynne to Frederick Douglass to Henry David Thoreau's retreat into the woods holding copies of his Greek classics.

Our conservatism was built first on the churches, then on the government, then on the culture.  But in the twentieth century, new kinds of leftism emerged.  Blending Darwinism, Freudianism, and Marxism, a new left took shape that favored novel discoveries over traditions deemed antiquated.

We know the archetype of the rebellious leftist, riding a motorcycle and flicking a cigarette at some old wrinkled curmudgeon on Route 66.  At a few moments, this left wing flaunted an unconventional attitude.  By the early 1970s, libertarians were ejected from the left as collective reasoning and social projects made individualism incompatible with leftist camps (critical race theory, the sexual revolution, feminism, socialism).  The left was clearly defined as conventional (as in looking to peer review, expert consensus, and contemporary standards) and untraditional (as in perceiving ancient values as ungrounded).  Socialism is perhaps its apex.

By the late twentieth century, the greatest tug of war would be between a mass of traditional but unconventional people (for the purposes of this article, us) and a mass of untraditional and conventional people.  Bystander offshoots such as anarchists, libertarians, nihilists, and the polite Burkean conservatives (i.e., the "NeverTrumps") might jump into the fray from time to time.

If the right scaffolded itself on three tiers  —  first the church, then politics, then culture  —  the left gained massive ground by taking over those same tiers in reverse order.

First the left won over the culture through its famed "long march through the institutions," coming to dominate in schools, media, art, entertainment, and community organizations.  By the time of Watergate, this was a done deal.

By the 1980s, the left reacted to the Reagan revolution and went to work taking back the government and courts.  The Clintonian 1990s advanced this cause by unifying the left around Clinton's Ivy League network and identity politics.

But the left also won politics by infiltrating the Republican Party and coordinating with libertarians to make Republicanism mean free markets and small government but not traditional social ethics.

By the time George W. Bush took the presidency in 2000, the left had extended its cultural hegemony to the realm of government.  While Bush seemed good for American evangelicals, his presidency saw a radicalized left-wing Democratic Party (the pinnacle being the Obama victory in 2008) and a Republican elite with libertarian priorities, increasingly willing to jettison or even kill off traditional values.

By 2013, Paul Ryan came out in support of homosexual adoption and did so while implying that opposition to it is rooted in some old-fashioned uptightness that had passed its expiration date.  The millennia-old commandment "honor thy father and thy mother" was totally irrelevant to a politician whose "conservatism" consisted of small-government budget policy.  Eventually, CPAC would be kicking out MassResistance for being "antigay."

The hardcore conservatives — the people whose beliefs built America — have lost the battle for the culture and politics.

Unfortunately, there's even more bad news.  While conservatives were busy reading Slouching toward Gomorrah and listening intently to Mark Levin's radio broadcasts, something was happening we didn't anticipate.

The left took over our churches.  It was a slow, stealthy process.  It played out in a top-down fashion, because the left used its overwhelming force in the academy to exert pressure on seminaries and divinity schools through academic associations such as the American Academy of Religion.

As I commented in 2018, this association brought together religion scholars, church leaders, media influencers, and the FBI since just after the bombing of the Branch Davidians.  Their goal to fight domestic religious "extremism" was from the beginning biased against orthodox Christian churches.  This Leviathan of churches-colleges-spies-journalists-lawyers grew enormously during the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, producing a whole generation of change agents in the seminaries and developing counterintelligence strategies used by the spy agencies.

Why do this?  For the left, this was necessary.  As long as the churches remained a conservative citadel, the left would risk a counterinsurgency forming and amassing to defy the left again.  Church has always been a major part of American life.  Churchgoers put Trump over the top in 2016.  Leftists know this.

Other motives drove the left, too.  The left's slavish obedience to the shifting standards of peer convention combined with the left's refusal to hold any time-honored standards as sacred does not offer people strong odds for fulfillment.  Materialism and relativism make people unhappy.  As this mindset pervades society, suicide rates and addictions climb.  Unmoored, unable to trust anyone, constantly struggling to keep up with the latest shibboleths set down by the experts they revere, the leftists lead a sad life.  It was natural they would want to have the moral anchor, mutual loyalty, and meditative peace one finds in church.

So for these two reasons — political strategy and personal need — the left moved into the churches.  For whatever reason, the right mounted no significant opposition to this at all.  Conservatives had built think-tanks, lobbying groups, nonprofits, independent colleges, alternative publications, and countless action groups to fight the left in the culture and in the political system.  A whole cottage industry of conservatives criticizing left-wing educators had become a staple of American discourse by the 2000s.

But until a few weeks ago, with the formation of a new group called the Conservative Baptist Network, the right wing had never come up with an organized plan to resist the left in the churches.  Had rightists taken the church situation as seriously as they took the left-wing dominance on college campuses, they may have stood a chance.

For a general timeline to make sense of these events, it is important to look closely at the recent history of the Southern Baptist Convention or SBC.

When mainline denominations were becoming liberal on the question of biblical inerrancy (is every word of the scriptures as we hold them 100% true?), the Southern Baptist Convention became the staging of a unique pushback from the right.  A "conservative resurgence" took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at around the time that Ronald Reagan's coalition became a massive political force.  The budding church liberalism fell pretty quickly before Baptist conservative activists like Paige Patterson and Adrian Rogers.

The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. by quite a large margin, so for several decades, conservatives saw it as impregnable.  The LGBT issue arose in the 1990s as the perpetual wedge to split apart Christian denominations: the Episcopalians, the Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, and more recently the Methodists.  But the SBC remained a large contingent (today counting about fifteen million members, or roughly the population of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1500s), and it showed no signs of deviating from conservatism.  People have also looked to the Catholics, the largest Christian group in the U.S., and assumed they would never waver on orthodoxy, either.

Conservatives didn't pay much attention.  But the leftists were busy at work.  In the case of the SBC, one man became a powerful force and had a strong reputation as a staunch conservative: Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1993.  Many Baptists debate what Mohler truly believes since he has left an enormous body of podcasts and writings.  His nuances seem to allow for multiple interpretations.  He was a NeverTrump but guards his reputation as a conservative.  The problem is that Mohler has been the mentor of virtually everyone running SBC entities today.  And the Baptist entities — including six seminaries, the LifeWay publishing company, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the international and North American mission boards, and the executive committee — all show massively alarming trends toward the left.

In an October 2019 article entitled "The Wokening of the Southern Baptist Convention," Capstone Report editor Alan Atchison makes the case that most strains of leftist drift can be traced to Albert Mohler's students and protégés.  This matters because this year, Albert Mohler has entered the race to become the next president of the SBC.  If Mr. Atchison is right about Mohler's behind-the-scenes driving of a liberal agenda, the presidency would give him extraordinary powers.  He would be appointing the oversight boards that are supposed to check his power as a seminary president.  He could tighten his grip further and stack trustee boards with even more devotees of the same clique that's currently forcing a liberal agenda on fifteen million Baptists from the top down.

The twists and turns in the SBC are incredibly complicated and can't be summarized in one article.  My blog offers issue-by-issue analysis and links to other important outlets like Conversations that Matter, Enemies within the Church, Thirty Pieces of Silver, and Capstone Report.  An entire underground Baptist press has formed and gains force each day.  What I should explain, in closing, is that the Southern Baptist Convention is in many ways the last stand for the rooted, complete conservatism on which America was founded.  If it goes fully liberal, as it appears likely to do, the battle for the churches will be lost without conservatives ever having mounted a serious resistance to it.  This means that leftist politics and culture will have no remaining counterweight.

We can lose everything.  This would be a good time to start learning more about what's happening in the SBC and elsewhere in the church world.

Robert Oscar Lopez can be followed at