John Piper Should Consider Retiring as a Public Intellectual

The controversy over a recent John Piper blog post on Covid-19 vaccines shows why some older evangelical leaders like Piper should consider stepping back from their public intellectual role.

I’ve avoided much commentary on the pandemic because it’s not my lane. But since I’m talking about what Piper wrote I should first put my own cards on the table. I am vaccinated and would encourage other adults to get vaccinated unless they have a medical issue that indicates they shouldn’t. I do think whether or not to get vaccinated is a choice people have to make for themselves. I won’t think better or worse about anyone one way or the other. I do oppose vaccinate mandates or vaccine passport type rules.

Now Piper’s post is aimed at a specific group of people: those who want to get vaccinated but have not done so because of peer pressure from people opposed to vaccines. He encourages them to use their Christian liberty in order to follow their conscience and get vaccinated.

I agree with Piper’s take on this. And it looks like his stance on vaccines is actually the same as mine or close to it.

Nevertheless, his post represents a maladroit reading of the moment of cultural moment we are in. It is this inability to discern and contextualize their message to the times that makes people like Piper increasingly ineffective in today’s world.

How many people fall into the category Piper is writing about? There are surely some. I expect to get blowback from some readers who are very antivax on account of this post, for example.

But far more people fall into the opposite camp. They are people who don’t want to be vaccinated, but are facing significant and escalating legal, economic, and social pressure to do so.

Some people are facing the real and immediate prospect of losing their job because they are following their conscience and not getting vaccinated.

To his credit, Piper explicitly rejects government vaccine mandates, and says people who don’t want to be vaccinated are free to do so. (Though he undermines this statement by linking to a video on vaccines and abortion from Curtis Chang, a former pastor who had just recently written in the New York Times that there should be no religious exceptions to vaccine mandates). But the stated purpose of his post is for those in the other situation.

Many Piper fans who are under pressure because they don’t want to be vaccinated reacted badly, probably because they feel he sold them out. He seems to agree with them, but won’t do a big post on that, preferring to address a more niche case.

Piper has long had odd takes like this. For example, I wrote about how he portrays women in combat in the military as resulting from cowardly men who don’t want to fight shoving women into combat in their place. This is a ludicrous take.

He’s got a sort of square, old fashioned view of the world. I think most of us have viewed this as a quirky affectation, similar to how we might affectionately regard an older uncle or something.

But as these strange takes migrate from peripheral items to more primal hot button ones in the center of today’s debates, they are generating more controversy and damaging his reputation.

I don’t think he cares to tickle the ears of men. That’s not the issue. The problem is not that his takes are controversial or unpopular in certain quarters, but that they seem to stem from a misreading of the cultural moment.  I also don’t see a lot of evidence they are that effective.

It’s definitely possible to stay around too long. Think about New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who was viewed as the prophet of globalization at the turn of the century. Now he’s treated as a joke by most people, who mockingly talk about what their cab driver told them in Hong Kong and the like. He’s still a Times columnist and has fans I’m sure. But his stature has massively diminished and is not relevant anymore.

Or think about former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. Lugar may be the greatest public servant from Indiana in my lifetime. He was a visionary mayor of Indianapolis who set the foundation for the city’s rebirth through a city-county merger. He was highly respected by everyone of both parties in the Senate, and played a key role in securing nuclear materials after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet he insisted on continuing to run for reelection far too long, and was ultimately defeated by a Tea Party insurgent in a Republican primary. The man who was so popular Democrats didn’t even run a candidate against him ended his political career in ignominious defeat because he tried to hold on too long.

Some of these older stalwart evangelical voices are in possible danger of the same sort of thing happening to them. It’s not because they changed or drifted left or whatever.

In fact, it’s maybe maybe for the opposite reason: the times have changed but they haven’t.

For whatever reason, people like John Piper have been unable or unwilling to take stock of the current cultural moment and figure out how to speak to it in a compelling way.

Younger guys like Kevin DeYoung have figured that out. DeYoung has sensed that something has changed in the world, and has changed his approach to try to address today’s conditions. He’s also been controversial, but unlike Piper’s speaking into niche situations, DeYoung has been taking aim squarely at the major issues of the day in a compelling way.

I’m not endorsing everything DeYoung says, but he’s clearly pivoting into the new reality in a way the older generation like Piper has not been able to figure out how to do.

Just as Piper retired from his pastorate at a smart and reasonable time, he should give thought to stepping back from his public intellectual role in favor of building up younger voices like DeYoung. I’d hate to see him end up like Friedman or Lugar. A man as faithful as he has been deserves to go out on top.

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