Hi and welcome back! It sure seems like scratching an evangelical leader reveals a bleeding racist, doesn’t it? That sure seems to be the case for Josh McDowell. Last month, this high-ranking evangelical apologist and author got himself canceled by evangelicals over his remarks at a recent meeting of Christian counselors. But this news isn’t the surprise. The real surprise is that a white evangelical racist got canceled at all. Today, let’s check out the charges against Josh McDowell — and see, in real time, a big-name white evangelical leader being cast out of his tribe.
(Previous Josh McDowell-related posts: The Christian Solutions That Really Aren’t; White Evangelicals’ Crony Network; Justifying a Failing Evangelism Strategy. We covered his inept son, Sean McDowell, far more extensively. Also, I don’t use scare quotes or add emphases to quotes without specifically noting it.)
Everyone, Meet Josh McDowell.
Josh McDowell is a mainstay of white evangelicalism. His main claim to fame is apologetics. In 2006, he made bestseller lists with Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Though non-Christians found it unpersuasive, poorly (even “sloppily”) researched, and deeply flawed, evangelicals loved it. Almost immediately, Christianity Today declared it #13 on their list of “Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals.” Their summation of it:
Who says faith is only for the heart and not the head? Not Josh McDowell.
Indeed, evangelicals think of Josh McDowell as a sort of thinking evangelical’s apologist. They mistakenly think his terrible writing, nonstop logical fallacies and errors, and dishonest quote-mining presents real live PROOF YES PROOF that their beliefs are based on facts. (Here’s a representative review that demonstrates the incredible power of motivated reasoning.)
For years now, he’s aimed his ministry at young adults for the most part.
It’s hard to imagine modern evangelicalism without Josh McDowell. His bad ideas have infested white evangelical thinking in particular, molding and shaping even the newest generation of true believers. If you run into an evangelical insisting that Christianity is totes for realsies objectively true and here’s PROOF YES PROOF, chances are they’re recycling Josh McDowell’s bad scholarship.
Josh McDowell as A TOTALLY REAL EX-AGNOSTIC.
Naturally, Josh McDowell claims an oh-so-trendy past in ex-atheism (his variant is “agnostic,” probably because — at a guess — he fully participated in Christianity with his family). From his own website:
As a young man, Josh McDowell considered himself an agnostic.
He truly believed that Christianity was worthless. However, when challenged to intellectually examine the claims of Christianity, Josh discovered compelling, overwhelming evidence for the reliability of the Christian faith.
The conversion testimony he gave to Campus Crusade for Christ, now called Cru, confirms my guess:
Where I was brought up, everyone seemed to be into religion, so I thought I might find my answers in being religious. I got into church 150 percent. I went every time the doors opened – morning, afternoon, or evening. But I must have picked the wrong church, because I felt worse inside it than I did outside. From my upbringing on a farm in Michigan I inherited a rural practicality that says when something doesn’t work, get rid of it. So I chucked religion.
In reality, it doesn’t sound like he ever examined his beliefs, much less formally rejected Christianity as an ideology.
Josh McDowell then describes himself in college as a thrill-seeking party animal. But y’all, he was actually secretly totally miserable. Indeed, it was the happiness of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ that drew his attention to them and their religion.
In other words, his period of “agnosticism” looks exactly like what evangelicals imagine atheism looks like, right down to imagining that agnosticism is Atheism Lite.
Josh McDowell and the Evangelical Crony Network.
In 1964, Josh McDowell began working for Cru. Cru is Bill Bright’s organization, which he founded in the 1950s. We talked about him just the other day. He also shows up in the endorsements to a Lee Strobel book, probably because Bright had a professional association with Strobel’s then-boss, the now-disgraced megapastor Bill Hybels.
The entanglements I’ve described right here are just a glimpse of the evangelical crony network. The men in this network are all big-name white evangelical leaders. They support each other to the nines — helping each other find work, endorsing each others’ books, setting up conference panel spots for each other, and most of all protecting and defending each other from their inevitable sex and abuse (or sex-abuse) scandals. Once someone’s become part of this network, they don’t leave it very easily.
That’s why I’m really surprised to hear that Josh McDowell has finally become a bridge too far even for his tribe. As howlingly dysfunctional and riddled with biases and -isms as they are, Josh McDowell finally handed them a situation that even they couldn’t abide.
The Very Racist Speech.
Recently, Josh McDowell gave the final speech at a meeting of The American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC). It sounds like this was their big “Way Maker World Conference,” which they held in Orlando this past September 15-18.
According to Christianity Today, his speech was called, I kid you not, “The Five Greatest Global Epidemics.” (As we’ll see, there were probably actually six.)
See, Josh McDowell thinks there are much bigger problems facing our world than COVID-19. White evangelical “counselors and pastors” are about to become obsolete! But they can save their jobs if they focus on these specific things.
The very first item on his list turned out to be Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Sidebar: Why White Evangelicals Hate CRT.
White evangelicals don’t like CRT because it theorizes that embedded systemic racism causes problems for people of color (POC). White evangelicals would vastly prefer to blame racism on individuals’ sinful behavior (or humanity’s sin nature, meaning an imaginary propensity toward sinfulness; sin, of course, is simply Christianese for anything that offends their mewling, violent, spoiled, easily-miffed toddler of a godling).
By blaming racism on sinfulness, white evangelicals can keep on being racist. Their racism-fostering and racism-supporting systems remain completely safe from criticism and change. And they can still be as racist as they please behind closed doors.
Most of all, white evangelicals rail against CRT because white evangelicals represent a big part of the systems that keep racism in place and embedded in American society. In other words, white evangelicalism itself is a big part of America’s racism problem. And that makes white evangelicals the bad guys in this equation.
Even if they’re not snarling, epithet-hurling racists themselves, white evangelicals seem to resist CRT for this reason alone.
(I liked Warren Throckmorton’s post about why Christians need CRT.)
How Josh McDowell Made This Racism Gaffe Way Worse.
But Josh McDowell goes a lot further than this now-standard white evangelical position. If he’d just stuck to slamming CRT, that might have been okay. But he said the quiet parts of evangelicals’ racism out loud. Twitter user DrAaronNew reports the quote, relayed to him by a friend attending the conference:
“Black people don’t have access to opportunities, they say. But it’s because they weren’t raised to value education and hard work.” [Source]
If you’re curious, here’s the full listicle, taken from this image:
- Social Justice
Yes, that’s six. But that’s what an eyewitness claims happened, so I’m going with that.
It’s very interesting that Josh McDowell didn’t mention conspiracy theories like QAnon. The first two of his items are current culture-war topics, while the last four are just standard-issue evangelical pretend-concerns. (Really, they’ve acted all concerrrrrrned about those items since I was evangelical myself, and probably long before that.) But he completely omits QAnon. That’s very interesting, especially considering QAnon has run laps around evangelical leaders all through the religion.
Instead, he focuses on the stuff that white evangelicals love to rail against these days, then ends with a few things they’ll find more familiar and soothing.
Josh McDowell’s First Attempt to Deflect Blame.
Naturally, this long-time thought leader of the cult of PeRsOnAL ReSpOnSiBiLiTy leaped to take full responsibility and accountability for his remarks. Haha, just kidding. He disavowed his own remarks, claiming they totally did not “reflect [his] own beliefs.”
He issued that statement on September 19. It reads:
There is a statement of mine from the AACC conference that has been circulating on social media. I want to assure my friends, colleagues, ministry partners and the AACC community and conference attendees that I am taking the recent comments and questions about my talk seriously.
My statement as quoted does not reflect my own beliefs and I want to begin by apologizing for my words and the implications they had. My statement started by saying “I do not believe blacks, African Americans and many other minorities have equal opportunity.” I do believe this. Racism has kept equality from being achieved within our nation. When I said that “most (minorities) grew up in families where there is not a big emphasis on education and security,” I made a generalized statement that does not reflect reality. I apologize and reiterate my Christian love for all races, nationalities, and people groups. My desire is that we as Christians would deal with both racism and inequality as the sins that they are in order to restore the unity and equality that God desires for all.
See what I mean? He’s accusing everyone else of totally misinterpreting what he said, then sticking to his guns about blaming racism not on systems but on individual sinful people.
This was definitely not a good look for any white evangelical, but for a big-name leader it was disastrous.
(White evangelicals’ false beliefs about racism being a sin problem are a lot like beach rubble. Neither one can bear much examination before awful things start leaking out of them.)
King Josh McDowell’s ‘Season of Listening’ Apparently Begins.
By September 22, it became clear even to King Josh that he hadn’t successfully evaded the hounds of accountability. He tweeted a statement declaring he would “step back” from leadership:
At a recent conference, I made comments about race, the black family, and minorities that were wrong and hurt many people. It breaks my heart to know the deep pain I have caused. It has become clear to me, along with Cru Leadership, that I need to step back from my ministry and speaking engagements to enter a season of listening and addressing the growth areas that I have become aware of through this. During this time of meeting with others and learning, I hope to personally grow and better understand how I can help contribute to the reconciliation and unity that God desires for us all.
During this season, Josh McDowell Ministry will continue in its mission with CEO Duane Zook leading all daily efforts.
Can’t stop the gravy train! Also: Is it just me or does it sound like Cru dragged him over a cheese grater for this one?
And I loved loved loved this revision of the statement from Kyle J. Howard:
*I’m going to take time away to deal w/ my racism. I need to repent of my racist views & develop views more consistent w/ how God views the black community than with how white supremacy does. I need to listen to unassimilated black voices in this process.*
Fixed it for you.
Gee. Maybe while he’s totally listening, Josh McDowell can figure out how to write something that isn’t a complete not-pology.
At any rate, the guy went to ground after that. I can’t find hide nor hair of him — except for two things, both of which are quite interesting.
The Sad, Strange, WTF Tweets.
On October 1st, after about ten days of radio silence, the Josh McDowell Ministry account, which is run under the account name “josh_mcdowell,” tweeted Bible verses from Lamentations 3:21-23. The next day, it tweeted the verses from Lamentations 3:25-26. Normally, this account deluges followers nearly daily with rah-rah about Josh McDowell’s business and books. But not this time.
Here are the verses in question:
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. [Lamentations 3:21-23; tweeted Oct. 1]
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. [v. 25-26; tweeted Oct. 2]
Interestingly, the tweeter left out verse 24 between them:
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” [v. 24]
I wonder if he’s saying he’s not a waiting kinda guy. These two tweets almost sound like a coded message to someone. They’re just that far out of left field. I went back to June on this account and could find absolutely no other times this account has ever tweeted any Bible verses (and take that as you like, because I sure did). The closest it comes is constantly quoting one of the ministry’s employees, Alex McClellan. McClellan talks about Bible stuff, but he also doesn’t quote verses.
At any rate, these two tweets got next to no engagement, and the account has been quiet in the days since. (ETA: It’s now November 6th. Still nothing.)
Is Josh McDowell Finished in the Crony Network?
I’ve also seen no other ministers standing up for ol’ Josh here. Even his (inept) apologist son Sean hasn’t said a word in defense of his dad on his own Twitter account.
Even evangelicals are big mad about this whole thing. Maybe worst of all, even fellow vocal CRT opponents, like Al Mohler, haven’t even said a word about the whole thing. That last omission is strangest to me, because Al Mohler absolutely hates CRT. Last November, he literally wrote that it was “incompatible” with his vision of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. You’d think that at least Al Mohler might have given a nod to his suffering brother-in-arms, since Josh McDowell’s racism-is-just-sin messaging is exactly the same as the Southern Baptist Convention’s party line.
When fellow evangelicals don’t stand up for someone in their network, it means that person ain’t coming back. They’ve abandoned him. Even if they did ever cautiously re-allow Josh McDowell back into their good graces, which I’ve sure never seen happen before, he’d never, ever forget this betrayal. They’d always have to be watching their sixes. I can’t imagine they’d want to do that — except for someone very high up the ladder who could return the favor in spades later down the road.
That’s how we know Josh McDowell is out.
The Principles of Power.
In broken systems like evangelicalism, power protects its own — and it tears apart everything else. It’s important, for those watching the group, to keep note of who protects and endorses whom, when, for how long, for what reasons stated, and when that help ends. That’s where we are right now.
Somehow, Josh McDowell left the power structure at some point. Maybe he knew he had, maybe it took him by surprise. Either way, the crony network has discarded him. He very clearly can’t hurt any of them anymore, so there’s no point to coddling him or going to trouble over him. So they’re not.
This whole scandal has been such a fascinating glimpse into white evangelical politics.
And do I need to repeat this? — Somehow, no gods have tipped any of these folks off to the damage they’ve caused or the people they keep hurting. It really is the strangest thing.
NEXT UP: I’ve been waiting to cover the SBC’s sex-abuse kerfuffle because every single day something new happens that blows the story out of the water all over again. We are now on, like, the fifth entire change of water, and things are only getting wilder. So let’s start that roller-coaster examination on Friday. (My main problem now is thinking of a headline that doesn’t sound like clickbait.) See you soon!
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