When and why I first started reading author and journalist Fredrik deBoer is beyond me. I wouldn’t have run into him in my usual ideological haunts: He’s an atheist; I’m a Christian. He’s—per his own description—a cradle Communist and a thoroughgoing leftist; I’m a political libertarian and temperamental conservative. We overlap on some policy and social critique, and I’ve found him thought-provoking on topics including preserving humanity in our digital age, the “tyranny of affirmation,” AI, and even Christian faith. But the gap between us remains wide.
It’s unsurprising, then, that deBoer’s second book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, was not written for a reader like me. Still, I found it useful on two levels. One is deBoer’s extension of his longstanding critique of his own political side, which offers insights that right-wing attacks tend to miss. The other is his assessment of what makes for a healthy and effective ideological movement. Though deBoer is interested in honing and advancing the cause of contemporary leftism, his analysis struck me over and over as applicable to a very different movement: American evangelicalism.
The spirit of 2020
The book starts with 2020, which deBoer calls “a remarkable year” marked by “the spirit of possibility” for radical political change, even if it produced fairly few lasting policy shifts. “The term ‘reckoning’ was invoked again and again, and yet we don’t seem to have reckoned with any of our problems in any meaningful way,” deBoer argues. “What happened? This book is an attempt to answer that question.”
To that end, deBoer takes readers through elite dominance of the Black Lives Matter movement; the short-lived, digitally constrained “meme politics” of #MeToo; and an often-scathing examination of contemporary liberals, particularly of the white, well-educated variety given to virtue-signaling online.
He’s concerned with tactical questions too: What do mass protests accomplish? Does rioting produce positive change? Are activists pursuing material progress for the poor and oppressed or merely policing fellow college grads’ language and manners? What are the downsides of domesticating activism via “the nonprofit industrial complex”? And what movement dynamics and messaging—especially around class and identity policies—will build the most powerful version of the progressive Left?
Though his political ideals are as lofty as they come, deBoer is stubbornly practical in this strategic realm. “We have to accept the frustrations and insufficient pace of doing things the old-fashioned way,” he urges. “That will mean, unfortunately, going slowly when justice demands speed, accepting less than what we want when what we want is reasonable and right, working with people we would prefer to avoid, and accepting that being right and doing good are very different things.”
From the concrete to the symbolic
It’s rare for me to prefer the blog version of an author to the book version—most writers do better work with more time and more editing. But here I’ll make an exception. Book deBoer gives glimpses of the angry, sparkling prose he produces at his best online, but the overall effect is that of a man just slightly uncomfortable in a little-worn suit.
Still, the book’s writing is cogent, and deBoer is willing to “call nonsense nonsense” in a way many of his peers on the Left are not. And though not without his ideological and contextual blind spots—for instance, his Brooklyn memories of COVID norms are not what a Texan’s would be, and it’s not evident how much he realizes this—deBoer is admirably clear-eyed about political and social realities, including the failings of his allies. The Left is right, in his view, but that does not mean it is doing good.
The core critique deBoer levels is that the modern Left is no longer a worker’s movement that materially improves the average American’s lot in life. Instead, it is disproportionately steered by college-educated elites who inexorably “drift from the material and the concrete to the immaterial and symbolic.” They are eager to denounce all the Deplorables and their Bad Ideas, eager to display “a benevolent, quietly condescending love for minority identities,” and much less eager to get on with the mundane work of tangible political change.
To put it in different terms he wouldn’t use, deBoer’s charge is that his movement is helmed by people who love to pray “on the street corners to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5), people who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24).
“We have gone from marches on Washington to demand jobs and demonstrations to support striking Black garbage workers to millions of decent white liberals clutching ‘anti-racist’ books on the subway, reading about why they’re wicked and should feel bad, ensuring that their next interaction with a Black coworker will be strained and awkward,” he seethes. “Meanwhile, in cold apartments lined with lead paint, hungry Black children hide from the violence that grips their neighborhoods.”
It makes sense, deBoer grants, that a movement under the sway of the laptop class would be so fixated on language choices, interpersonal relations, and mental hygiene to the neglect of pragmatic action. The elites who ate the social justice movement focus on words because many of them—journalists, professors, and so on—work with words.
And after growing up in a “culture where old Protestant values of self-denial and restraint have been replaced by identitarian values of overt support for ‘the Other,’ today’s progressives embrace a different kind of value-laden signaling. They’re still religious; they’re simply studying a different catechism.” Though deBoer is not the first to make this connection between woke activism and the Protestant tradition, the observation lands differently coming from a Marxist.
What about those of us still studying the old catechism? As I mentioned, deBoer himself is an atheist—though I do think of him as something of a virtuous pagan, to echo the recognition of the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr that we may find deep, if partial, resonance with ideas from people outside our faith. (That is, incidentally, part of my interest in reviewing more secular books for CT. This review will hopefully be the first of many.)
So, of course, deBoer is not writing for Christians, let alone evangelicals. He is wholly materialist in his focus and has no spiritual ends in view. He describes having outgrown utopian fervor and apocalyptic expectations. And yet his ultimate political goals are so sweeping they take on a religious tone.
Ours is a “fallen world,” deBoer believes, but “a better world, a far better world, is possible,” a “world without poverty; without racism; without sexism; without rule by an autocratic elite; without domination by the wealthy; without environmental devastation; without vast socioeconomic inequality; without hunger or lack of shelter for the poor; without war.”
Without “death or mourning or crying or pain,” I want to add, “for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Indeed, the concluding chapters’ talk of class solidarity sounds like how Christians talk about unity in the church—a higher purpose bringing us together across demographic divisions (Eph. 2:11–22)—and deBoer ends with what amounts to a call to ordinary faithfulness, albeit in a faithless form.
These similarities make deBoer’s scrutiny of his movement fascinating to transpose to ours. For example, he considers who participates in public discourse on the Left and finds the conversation dominated by “the most well-connected, educated, and rich in cultural capital … people who face the least material depravation.” This creates a gross mismatch between what prominent movement figures talk about and what’s actually needful for the people they ostensibly champion. Is the same mismatch present among evangelicals?
This gap is particularly acute where the white working class is concerned, deBoer contends, and “left-leaning disdain for uneducated white workers and voters results in leftist cultural and communicative practices that seem tailor-made to reject the support of that large bloc.” There’s a diploma divide in religion as much as politics—on church attendance and similar measures, polling shows more educated evangelicals are more religiously engaged. Is that partly because we’re speaking ill of siblings in the faith?
Questions of institutional leadership, structure, and accountability are also in deBoer’s sights. Idealistic activists may eschew a clear hierarchy out of concern over abuse of power. But “perversely,” deBoer warns, “the superficial denial of leadership can make power dynamics in a given group more unhealthy” by leaving the group without a clear path to remove de facto leaders acting against the group’s best interest.
Most churches have a formal leadership structure, but evangelicalism as a movement does not. There’s no evangelical pope. There’s no authority over Christians’ public commentary online, as CT contributor Tish Harrison Warren observed in 2017. What do we do when power in the movement amasses to people who don’t wield it well? How do you oust someone with no official role but enormous practical influence?
On church life, deBoer’s analysis is relevant too. He argues that the #MeToo movement was always limited in its potential “because #MeToo has always been, before and above everything else, a meme.” It generated a rush of online enthusiasm, but “there is no such thing as an online social movement. Political projects that extend no further than a web browser will always be subject to faddishness and burnout.” The internet is useful in many ways, but not every way, and you need real-life, offline commitment and community to sustain tangible change. This is a lesson that politicos are learning the hard way. Will we forget it at church?
Finally, deBoer is adamant that his movement must humble itself (Rom. 12:3), stop showing favoritism (James 2:1), and offer grace (Gal. 5:15). He doesn’t use those words or cite those verses, of course, but it’s the thrust of his critique of a movement culture that blithely claims a monopoly on moral clarity, favors academic language “incomprehensible to ordinary Americans,” and encourages self-censorship by threatening “the wrath of the crowd.” The source of the admonition may be unexpected, but it’s an admonition worth hearing.
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.