Category Archives: Culture War
In December 1966, historian Lynn White gave a paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Science arguing that the roots of America’s environmental crisis lay in Christianity and Judaism. White’s paper, which has shaped the anti-Christian animus within parts of the environmental movement for decades, was published in 1967 in Science magazine with the title, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”
White argued that the notion of a God who is transcendent over his creation desacralized nature, turning it into a mere instrument for human purposes. Judeo-Christian theology, which not only gives humans dominion over creation, but (in light of the curse) calls them to struggle against it for their survival, helped to promote a utilitarian and exploitative approach to nature as a mere resource, an attitude that became more and more destructive throughout the modern period.
White’s argument has been refuted many times over the years, but that has not eliminated its force among environmentalists as a general critique of Christianity. The reason for that, in part, is that his argument does have an element of truth to it. There is no doubt that over the centuries, especially after the Enlightenment, many Christians have viewed the creation with precisely the attitude that White describes. In the heady days of exploration, colonization, and imperialism during the 17th and 18th centuries, many self-proclaimed Christians embraced the Enlightenment’s turn to the self, to rationality, and to the scientific method, arguing that it was the white man’s (in the gendered sense) destiny to conquer the world and to exploit its people and resources for human advantage. However much they may have rejected various parts of this view, more orthodox Christians nevertheless often fell under its influence in practice (and even ideology) as well.
White’s argument has been rendered all the more plausible since the 1960s because of the influence of the culture wars on the environmental movement. As Robert H. Nelson argues in his interesting book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, both economics and environmentalism have taken on nothing less than a religious character and fervor in their attempts to explain world possibilities and challenges while claiming full moral authority over human life. For various reasons, one of which is the unnecessary and self-destructive impulse of the environmental movement to demonize business, industry, and capital, and to rely on centralized federal bureaucracy to advance its cause, the Christian Right has tended to ally itself with economic religion rather than environmental religion.
Today, most Americans, including Christians, share broadly in the concern about the environment as well as in the judgment that the federal government should protect that environment by regulating industry, limiting pollution, and conserving natural resources and parks. But despite the encouraging emergence of the Creation Care movement within Evangelicalism, environmentalism remains powerfully influenced by forms of pantheism and other profoundly anti-Christian instincts. In the political spectrum that shapes our outlook on just about everything in this politicized country, the environmental movement remains on the far left.
If there is any area in which a rapprochement would be for the benefit of all, this is it. Eliminating the left’s grip on the environmental movement, and especially on government bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would give it more credibility among the American public, and broaden its influence. It would mitigate the statist impulse that so often informs its political campaigns by encouraging the sort of market oriented strategies that often work best. It would curb conservatives’ tendency to oppose environmental regulation in the name of free enterprise no matter how necessary that regulation in a particular case might be. In short, it would help liberals and conservatives alike to see that Christianity, care for the environment, and commitment to a free market economy need not be, and never should have been, rivals in a zero-sum game.
Is there a way forward? No doubt it will be a challenge to overcome the politicization that plagues more and more of American life as the years wear on, but there are promising signs that at least Christians are increasingly interested in improving their record on creation care.
In a (for the most part) excellent essay in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics entitled “Ecology and Christian Ethics,” Michael S. Northcott demonstrates that the roots of the West’s instrumentalist, exploitative attitude towards nature lie in the Enlightenment, not in orthodox Christian theology. It is not simply a matter of demonstrating that God called the creation good, or that the dominion God gave to Adam and Eve in Genesis is a matter of stewardship and protection rather than exploitation or domination. Much more, Northcott argues, following Oliver O’Donovan’s excellent book Resurrection and Moral Order, Christian theology and ethics is shaped by the central paradigmatic event of Jesus’ resurrection. In Jesus’ incarnation God demonstrated his commitment to save the material world from human sin and the curse. In Jesus’ resurrection God gave that creation a new life, reconciling all things to himself. In Christ’s resurrection, in other words, creation and redemption come together. Both find their goal, their hope, and their telos, in the coming kingdom of God. Every time Christians partake of the Eucharist, as Ben Quash points out, they celebrate – in a profoundly earthy way, by the consumption of bread and wine – this hope.
That does not mean Christians forget about the curse or imagine that Jesus will restore the creation to wholeness before his return to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age. It doesn’t mean they imagine that their actions relative to the environment have eternal material consequences (Jesus builds his kingdom, not us.) It does mean that Christians shouldn’t relegate nature to that which does not matter, to that which is forever cursed, or to that which will end in destruction. The creation groans, as Paul says in Romans 8, because it awaits its transformation. Christians should relate to creation as that which, like them, is destined for salvation.
Although he does not use the term, then, Northcott ends up proposing something like a two kingdoms approach to care for the environment. We should never imagine that our efforts are transforming the cosmos or bringing the kingdom to earth; we should expect to witness to God’s love for creation, and to his promise to transform it, by treating it with care, respect, and justice. We shouldn’t fall under the spell of utopian schemes to return nature to some sort of pristine, untarnished state. We should do our best to minimize the harmful effects of human sin and carelessness, a goal balanced only by the other tasks to which we are called (i.e., the promotion of human flourishing).
There’s so much more to say here, of course (so don’t blame me in the comments section for not saying something you think I should have said, though feel free to argue with what I have said). In future posts I hope to consider the significance of natural law in all of this, as well as the appropriate balance between environmental and free market concerns. But hopefully this is a good start.
From Collin Garbarino at First Thoughts:
Last week, Russell Moore, president-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, gave C-Span an interview … [T]he host asks Moore if he thinks that he’s on the losing side of the culture war. His answer sums up his approach:
I don’t like to think in terms of culture wars. I don’t think we are at war with one another in this country. I think we have very deep disagreements on issues that matter, but we come to that with civility and in conversation.
Moore recognizes that social conservatives who let the Bible shape their worldview are a decided minority in America. He claims that this minority needs to realize their position and speak prophetically. During the course of the interview, Moore fields questions from callers on both sides of the political divide. Callers from the left are angry with him because of his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Callers from the right can’t understand his position on immigration and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to use the rhetoric of “culture war.” I suppose that these callers have a right to be confused because they probably haven’t heard someone talk like this before. Moore offers an intelligent, cool-headed position, and most Americans have never experienced intelligence and cool-headedness in the context of discussing religion’s role in politics.
Amid all the hand-wringing and the endearing “woe is us – persecution is coming” rhetoric coming from conservative Christians these days, Moore’s approach is principled and refreshing. Read Garbarino’s post, or watch the interview, here.
Evangelical Protestants have done very little thinking about what it means faithfully to engage in a democratic process when you are a religious minority. Indeed, Evangelicals are not used to thinking about themselves as a minority at all. To be sure, many have become comfortable claiming victim status when the opportunity presented itself. There is no shortage of voices proclaiming the decline of America and the imminent specter of religious persecution.
But all of that is quite different from the more level-headed, thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a faithful minority – a loyal opposition, so to speak – that has been second-nature for Jews and various Anabaptist groups for centuries. When it comes to public controversies over matters like abortion, marriage, and even immigration or care for the needy, we are still arguing over whether or not we should base our public appeals on Scripture, or whether we should come up with some other sort of argument.
You would think that the New Testament would be a fruitful basis for reflection on what it means to be a faithful Christian in a pluralistic and often immoral world. But again, for centuries Protestants have been so used to thinking about their public responsibilities in terms of Christendom (for which the scriptures of theocratic Israel have always seemed to be a much simpler analogy than the suffering, serving, and witnessing New Testament Church), that they have developed only the thinnest of traditions of reflection on the new covenant scriptures.
At the First Things blog John Turner writes,
After 2008, I thought obituaries of the Religious Right were very, very premature. Come on, Republican Party. If you want to win an election, you may as well try to ride that horse one more time. I know Romney performed better than McCain among evangelicals, but I still think it’s much easier for the Republican Party to win a presidential election with a candidate with fervent evangelical support (this requires the rather delicate trick of not scaring the daylights out of everyone else in the country).
But in the long run, I tend to agree with Albert Mohler that evangelicals had better get ready for a sojourn in the political wilderness. I remember (but could not find to link) a splendid editorial by the Christian Century’s David Heim (some uncertainty about the author) from quite a few years ago (presumably before the 2008 election) wryly encouraging evangelicals to enjoy their moment in the political and cultural limelight because it would prove fleeting. In a short time, they’d be with their erstwhile liberal Protestant bedfellows in the scrapheap of political history. Very prescient.
It’s time to stop focusing on the theoretical question of whether or not America should be a Christian nation, and time to face up to the fact that it is most obviously not one right now. We need to stop arguing over whether or not religious and moral pluralism is a good thing, and to start thinking hard about how we might be faithful in a nation where religious and moral pluralism is a fact. We need to imagine our political responsibilities not by identifying with those in control, but through solidarity with the vulnerable. And then, of course, we have to continue to stand for justice and mercy, in faithful witness to Christ.
Bitter complaints about decline and gloomy prognostications about future persecution do not satisfy this obligation. The changes in American culture and politics do not mean the world is in decline or that Christ’s kingdom has suffered some sort of defeat, as if premillennial eschatology is being confirmed. Only if we’ve made the mistake of identifying America or the West with the kingdom of God in the first place will we assume that our political fortunes in America have anything like this much significance (see the above figures). Our witness to Christ – even in politics – has to be marked by joyful confidence (theological optimism) grounded in the gospel, not by political despair (cultural pessimism) grounded in worldly assumptions about power. That might involve recognizing that despite our tremendous disappointments about certain matters of basic justice, our country remains the embodiment of some of the greatest achievements in political liberty, equality, and prosperity the world has ever known. I would rather live in this place and time than in any other.
A thoughtful Christian approach to democratic engagement in a pluralistic context has to include careful reflection on the relation between Christian morality and human flourishing, and on how we might bring the wisdom of the Christian tradition to bear in a way that is helpful for people who are suspicious of Christianity. It has to work out the implications of under-appreciated virtues like love, service, and self-sacrifice, using them to counter our own older assumptions about power, piety, and paternalism. And of course, like the New Testament church, the guiding light for our own transformed political witness must be not so much the Law of theocratic Israel but the example of the one who came to fulfill it. Romans 13 finds its place towards the end of Romans, in the midst of Paul’s discussion of our sanctification by the Spirit, not in the middle of Deuteronomy, towards the end of the old written code.
At his blog Bill Evans writes a follow up post to his earlier article on Presbyterian squabbling. Evans worries that Reformed pastors are losing the ability to distinguish between primary, secondary, and even tertiary issues. He also worries that some are coming to view the confessions as substitutes for (or as the source of) doctrinal consensus, rather than as expressions of genuine consensus grounded in Scripture, a phenomena he calls “confessional fundamentalism.”
On the way he makes a poignant argument about the way in which obsession with the culture wars contributes to a skewed view of theological priorities:
[T]he ever-present context of cultural conflict has become the lens through which many theological issues are viewed. Whether it be odd speculation about an “eternal subordination of the Son,” or the rise of the so-called “Biblical Patriarchy” recently and properly critiqued by Rachel Miller, or opposition to the ordination of women even to an office of service like the Presbyterian diaconate, a lot of conservative theology is being driven the desire not to give an inch to the feminists. Likewise, the recent trend in conservative Reformed circles toward literal six-day young-earth creationism is certainly not driven by any new exegetical insights into the meaning of Genesis 1 or any new scientific evidence, but rather by the desire to exclude Darwinism and its cultural implications a priori.
Unfortunately, what has emerged is theology that is often just as “political” as anything on the left, and from this political polarization flows an approach to theological controversy in which there is increasingly little room for complexity and interpretation. Nuance, judgments of charity, the recognition that reality is often more complex than we might wish, and necessary shades of gray have been replaced by the binary logic of black and white, truth and error, faithfulness and compromise. Little wonder, then, that the Balkanized conservative Reformed theological landscape looks more and more like an exercise in Manichaean politics. Little wonder that positions long regarded as acceptable are now suspect and even unwelcome in some presbyteries, or that a view almost extinct in 1960 (except among Seventh-Day Adventists) has become a touchstone of orthodoxy.
As I wrote in an earlier response to Evans, we need to learn that the conservative position is not necessarily the biblical, or Christian position. ‘Liberal’ is not a bad word, and as its usage by an older theologian like John Calvin demonstrates, orthodox Christians used to think of liberality as a virtue. Jesus and his apostles, like the reformers, were as liberal as they were conservative because they understood that their obligation was to the word of God, not to the status quo. Our allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom, not to the way things once were.
Read Evans’s whole post here.
Most Americans do not fall on either the extreme right or the extreme left of the political spectrum. Despite the rhetoric of politicians, pundits, and demagogues, most people are either apathetic, pragmatic, or – ideally – eclectic, leaning left on some issues, right on some others. My sense is that this is even the case for those people liberals tend to dismiss as ideological conservatives, or that conservatives tend to dismiss as ideological liberals. Most of us want solutions, not ideological purity, and given the right set of circumstances, we would be able to sit down with someone with whom we deeply disagree, have an honest and open conversation, and come to the sorts of conclusions that would make genuine policy consensus possible.
That said, there are powerful forces on both the left and the right that make this very difficult. In an interview regarding his latest book, Conscience and its Enemies: confronting the dogmas of our age, Robert George talks about the ideologues of the left (HT: Matthew Schmitz).
Contemporary left liberals are hardly relativists! I often wish they were. They are moralists—moralists on a mission. The mission is to shape political and social life, and, to the extent possible, individual belief, in line with their passionately held moral convictions. One sees this everywhere, beginning with the war waged by the Obama administration on the Catholic Church—the largest and most important institution whose moral teachings stand in conflict with left liberal beliefs about the status of nascent human life, the nature and meaning of marriage, and religious liberty.
These are not people who deny that there are moral truths. On the contrary, these are people who affirm that there are moral truths and are so certain that they understand them correctly that they are willing to impose them on society. What are some of those “truths”? The absolute right to abortion. The right to conduct one’s sexual life however one pleases, so long as one refrains from obtaining sex by coercion or deception. The conviction that “marriage” is the union of two people (or more) without regard to gender. The idea that the state legitimately may and even should use its coercive powers to prohibit whatever counts in liberal ideology as a form of discrimination. The idea that anyone who disagrees with them about the things they most care about is a “bigot.” And on and on.
As for liberal claims that science is “on their side,” the aim of Conscience and Its Enemiesis to show why that can only be regarded as laughable. Consider the unwillingness of so many liberals to face up to the undeniable fact that abortion takes the life of a living human being—a fact established not by theological reflection or religious authority but by modern human embryology and developmental biology.
I want to stress that most thoughtful liberals are nothing like those Robert George describes here. But again, George is not caricaturing his opponents. There are plenty of people – influential people – just like those he describes here. The question is, are the more pragmatic and pluralistic among us willing to stand up to the ideologues on the far left (the same question could be asked in reverse of conservatives)? For the sake of our country’s future, I sure hope so.
In Generous Justice, Tim Keller describes what he thinks Christian engagement in the public square should look like:
I propose that Christians’ work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.
Christian believers have many temptations to be neither humble nor cooperative with others. Believers have many of the criteria for a righteous and just life laid out in the Bible. How easy it would be to disdain all non-Christian accounts of justice as being useless, just as many secular people dismiss religious belief.
However, Christians’ own theology should lead them to appreciate the competing views of justice that Sandel outlines [in his book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?] in our society because they know from the Bible that they are all partly right. (158)
As John Calvin often wrote, truth comes from God’s Spirit and should be accepted as such wherever it is found. Older Reformed theologians generally talked about this principle in terms of general revelation or natural law. Contemporary Reformed theologians often prefer the term common grace. Yet the principle is one that has been obscured by forty years of culture war – forty years of the breakdown of public trust. As one gay friend described to me in a refreshingly open and honest conversation about same-sex marriage, there is zero trust in much of the gay community towards conservative Christians right now. The same, obviously, is true in reverse.
In these circumstances we need to work all the harder to build trust and find common ground with our neighbors in the public square. Why? To show that we love them, that like our Father in heaven, we seek to do good to both the just and the unjust. One way of doing this is reminding ourselves that even those we regard as our most intractable foes – pro-choice activists, fervent secularists, etc. – have insights on life and politics from which we can learn, and which we need. As Keller writes,
The implication of James 1:17 is that God scatters gifts of wisdom, goodness, justice, and beauty across all the human race, regardless of people’s beliefs. Christians see all skill in science, scholarship, crafts, government, art, and jurisprudence as being from God. This grace is called common because it is given to all, not just those who have found salvation in Jesus Christ, yet this grace ‘provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with, and learn from, non-Christians,’ as theologian Richard Mouw points out. In short, the Bible warns us not to think that only Bible-believing people care about justice or are willing to sacrifice in order to bring it about. (160-161)
For those caught up in the culture wars, I might add that the Bible warns us not to think that only Republicans or conservatives care about justice and are willing to die for it.
The point is not that we should avoid disagreements or that we should compromise our fundamental commitments. Heaven forbid. The point, rather, is that we need to work hard to conduct our disagreements, to wage our political campaigns, and to convert our cultural opponents with a spirit of love and respect – to allure them rather than to defeat them. Such love and respect involves the recognition of truth wherever it appears alongside the sort of honesty that allows us to communicate our deepest concerns. It also requires, I believe, the acceptance of the particular political virtues on which our governmental system depends – equal regard, commitment to deliberative processes, and a willingness to compromise within the constraints of basic justice and morality.
There are certainly lines we will not be able to cross. We cannot support the state’s refusal to protect innocent life nor can we endorse its moral affirmation of same-sex marriage. But even in a society in which the state stubbornly pursues such policies, we can maintain the sort of social and political commitment to our fellow citizens that makes trust possible, whether by helping to carry the enormous burdens faced by single mothers or by seeking to alleviate the fears of tyranny among those committed to the sexual revolution, whether by supporting legal recognition (and its consequent privileges and benefits) of non-marital relationships or by demonstrating to gays and lesbians our unshakeable and sincere commitment to their equality under the law.
My own experience suggests that this approach is conducive of the sort of trust that enables us to communicate the love of Christ to those with whom we profoundly disagree, as well as to those who, sometimes with good reason, feel severely threatened by us. In short, it helps us actually to communicate the gospel such that the message received is the same as the message proclaimed. And that, after all, is our fundamental task.
According to Larry Ball, a retired Presbyterian (PCA) minister in Florida, Christian Reconstructionism, or dominionism, is thriving, poised to make a comeback as “America continues to decline, and as the Church continues to be unable to speak to the issues of our culture.” I’ve interacted with Ball’s arguments before, you may recall. After the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act Ball complained that Christian pastors weren’t doing their job of preaching against it. As he put it, “The only answer to the modern political debate on health care is a return to biblical law.”
By ‘answer’ Ball seems to mean that the government should remove itself from regulating or overseeing health care provision and that it should leave the task of providing for the poor exclusively to the church. As he puts it, the problem is that “The State has become their [churches'] partners in the ministry of mercy.”
As I pointed out in my interaction with Ball a few months ago, it is odd to hear a Presbyterian pastors speak so confidently about the implications of biblical law for contemporary politics when his assumptions are directly contrary to those of prominent reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and those who so admired what they accomplished in their own churches and cities. Calvin, who believed it was the state’s obligation to enforce both tables of the Ten Commandments, also argued that it was the state’s responsibility to establish hospitals and provide funds for the care of the poor, not to mention to pay the salaries of ministers and establish schools for the training of future pastors. For Calvin what Ball describes as the problem with today’s pastors was precisely the case: “The State has become their partners in the ministry of mercy.” And remember, most Reformed leaders in the 16th Century looked to Calvin’s Geneva as the great example of a godly society (including, most famously, the father of Presbyterianism, John Knox).
Even today, of course, it is by no means clear that most Christians agree with Ball’s understanding of the teaching of Scripture. Not to mention Christians living outside of the United States, within this country most Hispanic Christians, African American Christians, and even the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, support further government involvement in health care (and certainly support government provision for the poor). Of course, they might all be wrong. The question is whether or not they are wrong because the Bible says so.
In his newer article Ball suggests that many people are disillusioned because of the reelection of President Obama but points out that Christians “must tell them that there is purpose and hope in Christ, even on this earth.” The kingdom will still come on earth as it is in heaven; Christians will still take political dominion, before Christ’s return.
It’s worth paying attention to how Ball makes use of the various motifs in Scripture about conquest and suffering. He parodies Christians who take seriously Jesus’ (and the apostles’) repeated exhortations to believers to expect suffering and to embrace it with joy and hope, storing up treasures in heaven as they conform to the image of their Lord in this age:
There is no hope in the Christian faith, except as a way to get to heaven. Our only hope on this earth is the joy of suffering persecution, which, if we are honest, we are wont to do. Forget about what our grandchildren will have to face. Just get me out of here as quickly as possible.
In place of the New Testament’s driving motif of life under the cross in conformity to the example of Christ Ball points the church to the example of Israel on the eve of its invasion of Canaan and genocide of the Canaanites:
The modern Church reminds me of the ten spies who reported to Moses that taking the Promised Land was just impossible. Let’s just be real and practical here – right? The enemy is just too big and too powerful. They are like giants and we are like grasshoppers. Anyone who speaks of victory is just a dreamer….
What we need is revival in the pulpit and a message of hope. Joshua and Caleb’s message to Moses was basically that we are not afraid of them, but they are afraid of us. The enemy has heard about the great things God has done for us, and their hearts have melted in fear. We have the Living God on our side. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
I’m not sure if Ball thinks we’re supposed to imitate Israel’s commands uncompromisingly to kill their enemies or to put to death those who commit thirty odd religious and moral crimes. Given his constant emphasis on biblical law it’s not clear to me how we can assume otherwise. If Ball doesn’t speak for all Reconstructionists here I’d be happy to be corrected. But note how Ball talks about our enemies being afraid of us as he urges us to take dominion in God’s name. He invokes Romans 8:31 oddly here, but note what in context that passage actually says:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
In all these things. What things? Evidently tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and sword. Paul doesn’t tell us that if we endure all of this we will conquer and take dominion. He promises that in these things we are conquerors already. Like the lamb who was slain we are conquerors in our very suffering witness (Revelation). By conforming ourselves to Christ’s image we testify to the fact that we have all things in him and are waiting for his return to set all things right (here on earth as well as in heaven).
For the record, I’ll be much more hopeful about my children’s future if the Christian Reconstructionists do not take dominion over this country, and I suspect the same is true for most Christians. America is by no means the kingdom of God (who ever said it would be, except perhaps the Reconstructionists or other social gospelers) but I would not want to live in any other place or time. God has blessed us immeasurably and it is by no means evident to me that America is in decline (just remember Jimmy Carter’s famous speech; he thought we were in decline too). With that in view I’ll take Paul’s approach to civil government as a model rather than Caleb and Joshua’s attitude toward the Canaanites.
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
We can all point to the decade when things really began to fall apart. Conservatives were distraught; liberals were exuberant. Anti-war sentiment, labor strikes, racial tension and ethnic conflict were provoking urban riots that led to a level of violence few people had ever seen before. The new emphasis on equality was exacerbating a breakdown in social, political and family authority. College campuses were descending into chaos, with mass expulsions the only way that school administrators knew how to respond. Church attendance, which had been high for most of the century, was plummeting, with especially the intellectual elites turning skeptically against the country’s religious heritage. Perhaps the most obvious expression of it all was the new sexual libertinism. As young people pushed the age of marriage back further and further sexual immorality, adultery and prostitution were noticeably on the rise, with illegitimacy rates reaching a level the country had never seen before. More and more women were simply abandoning their marriages, giving expression to what one historian calls their “unprecedented social and sexual freedom.”
The 1960s were clearly a turning point in American history. And yet there is no going back. Older conservatives, those children who claimed for their parents the title of the “greatest generation,” are constantly annoying younger conservatives by their appeals to the way things once were. Younger conservatives tend to see that sort of attitude as a dead-end form of nostalgia at best, a culturally, politically, and theologically off-putting pessimism at worst. They are interested in looking forward, not backward.
But the description I just provided was not a description of the 1960s. I was talking about the 1790s-1800s, drawing from Gordon Wood’s chapter entitled “Republican Society,” in his magisterial Empire of Liberty. It is arguable that it was post-revolutionary America, not the 1960s, that witnessed the most godless period in American history. Indeed, in their classic The Churching of America 1776-2005 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have pointed out that the rate of religious adherence around the time of the Revolution hovered around 20% of the population. Church attendance rates and the general acceptance of Christian morality was higher, of course, but not as much higher as you might imagine. By Finke and Stark’s math, American church membership has steadily risen from 1776 to the 21st Century, with current rates approximately triple what they were in the days of the founding fathers.
Of course things got better already in the early 19th Century, in significant part thanks to the Second Great Awakening. By 1850 church membership had doubled and church attendance had increased by even wider margins. A plethora of Evangelical organizations and societies sought to combat sin and evil in a myriad of forms, from slavery to alcohol to illiteracy to paganism to poverty. If America ever was a Christian nation, a benevolent empire, it was in this century, the same century that saw Americans who had two very different visions for the future of this country go to war against each other in the bloodiest conflict of the nation’s history.
But there is a lesson to be learned in all of this. In 1800 you could not have predicted the Christianization of the country that would take place in the following century any more than in 1900 you could have predicted the ongoing racial reconciliation of American society that began after the 1960s. In 1980 you could not have predicted the bloodless end of the Cold War any easier than today you can predict that America will stabilize itself financially and figure out how to maintain our democracy and social commitments in the context of the welfare state.
But one thing is clear. It is not by looking back longingly to the way things once were, pessimistically writing off the future of the country as hopeless, that the individuals and groups who helped move the country forward in all of these great moments of the past did what they did. These people did not operate with the sorts of assumptions that told them they had no hope of persuading the country because the rest of the people out there were somehow too morally degenerate to be reached. They didn’t live in a bubble, seeking frantically to hold onto their own little world while the rest of it went to pot.
History is not linear, whether for good or for bad. The only sensible way forward, for anyone, whether Christian or Muslim, white or Hispanic, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, is constructive, inclusive engagement – socially, religiously, politically. There are a lot of people telling us otherwise right now (and there were a lot of different people telling us otherwise in the last decade). We need to show them a better way.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2
How many Evangelical pastors will give thanks for President Obama this Sunday, even as they intercede with God to give the president wisdom and an understanding of justice in his second term as President of the United States? How many Evangelicals will give thanks for all people – all Americans – even after they have just re-elected Barack Obama to a position of authority in this country?
It is far too soon after election day to offer up any objective or balanced interpretation of the significance of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, the future of the Republican Party, or the viability of conservatism in American politics. Pundits and theorists will declare the election to be a clear verdict that the Republican Party has veered too hard to the right and that the Tea Party was like a millstone around Mitt Romney’s neck, not to mention the direct cause of the Republican Party’s failure to retake control of the Senate. Others will try to tease out just what missteps by Romney and other Republicans were most fatal. And of course, there will be a lot of talk about demographics: the old, white, male Republican Party simply cannot win without finding ways to gain the support of younger voters, Latinos, and women.
These are all discussions that Republicans and conservatives need to have. But over and above all of these questions the most striking thing about last night’s election may well be that it took conservatives entirely by surprise. Although the polling and analysis of the mainstream media turned out to be right, numerous leading conservative writers predicted with absolute confidence in the days leading up to the election that despite what the polls said Romney would win. The polls were biased in their methodology, they said, and polls have no ability to capture enthusiasm or energy. Politics is about much more than statistics and predictive models; what matters is what is happening on the ground. Americans are discouraged about the economy and too many don’t like Obamacare. Democratic voters are discouraged and fewer would go to the polls than in 2008.
All wrong. The best conservative minds in the country were out of touch with the sentiments of most Americans and with the reality on the ground. Even after it was clear that President Obama had won many conservatives refused to believe it because they had been told this would not happen. They could not understand why people would vote for Obama and thought that in the end their man – Mitt Romney – represented the spirit of America. But again, it turns out that they were wrong. As Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard:
[Obama] did one thing that surprised the Romney campaign, Republicans, and political writers, myself included. He and his campaign delivered a massive turnout by Democratic voters who were supposed to be unenthusiastic, dispirited, and less inclined than Republicans to go to the polls. By voting in droves, they offset the increased Republican turnout.
Last night the conservative John Ziegler offered an explanation in a column on the Huffington Post, suggesting that many conservatives have become so isolated in the bubble of their own intellectual worldview that they simply tell themselves and their followers what they want to hear, regardless of reality. In many ways this is understandable, he argued, because the mainstream media is openly biased towards the left (if you don’t believe that you were not watching MSNBC last night; there is no way Fox News leans more to the right than MSNBC does to the left). But conservatives failed to distinguish the liberal media from the science and data of polling.
In another post Ziegler got at a deeper reason why conservatives were so taken by surprise:
Conservatives like to think that there is a “silent majority” out there that the media/pollsters will suddenly show up on Election Day. There is very little evidence that this actually exists. The 2010 election deludes conservatives because they don’t seem to realize that in presidential elections the turnout is much higher, especially in the states that actually matter. Republicans only have “tides” in low turnout elections. When the “low info” voters get to the polls, Democrats simply can’t be blown out in the key states. I never understood why conservative commentators couldn’t understand that Obama’s turnout would be just fine in the states which would actually decide the election.
Although conservative strategists have long known that white voters are a shrinking demographic, history told them that whites are far more likely to vote than are blacks or Latinos, especially in a poor economy with high unemployment. And while many conservatives have long been warning that the Republican Party is doomed if it fails to win over a substantial number of Hispanics, the rhetoric of the GOP’s primary season was if anything more harsh on illegal immigration than ever before. In 2004 President Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote. In 2008 John McCain won only 31%. Last night Romney’s portion fell to around 27%. Twenty-seven percent of the fastest growing demographic in the United States.
The main point I want to make, however, has less to do with demographics and more to do with 1 Timothy 2:1-2. As I have argued before on this blog, if conservatives are going to earn the right to guide this country politically they have to figure out how to lead by persuasion, not simply by power politics. There is no moral authority in conducting brilliant strategic campaigns and hoping your opponents have low turnout. If you can’t make conservative political theory make sense to millions of hard working Christian immigrants who just so happen to be part of the fastest growing demographic in the country you don’t deserve to win regardless of how skillful you are politically. Your politics have to demonstrate a spirit of solidarity and affirmation toward all people – not simply those who are already like you. You have to learn to speak for all Americans, not just the people you judge to be real Americans.
Former George W. Bush political director Matt Schlapp is quoted as making precisely this point in an analysis offered by Politico:
Hispanics continue to grow in importance, and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: It is simply the right thing to do, and it’s mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments… It’s about simple math and basic moral decency.
Do conservatives get this? Do Christian conservatives in particular accept this as part of their moral duty? Will we continue to view every political divide through the lens of a culture war, writing off entire ethnic or economic groups as part of the other side needing to be defeated rather than engaging them as fellow citizens who might have something to tell us about their own welfare, let alone the welfare of this country?
Note, my point is not to criticize conservatism nor is it to criticize Christian political theology. On the contrary, it is that in a democratic society any political perspective loses its moral credibility if it ceases to take seriously the need to treat other perspectives with dignity and respect. If we can’t explain our moral and political judgments to those who disagree with us even while they often share our faith, if we don’t trust them even while we demand that they trust us, why should we expect them to cede to us any moral or political leadership?
Again, do conservatives get this? I’m not sure. In the National Review Kevin Williamson writes:
The lessons of Ohio are that Barack Obama is a skillful demagogue, that the ancients were wise to number envy among the deadly sins, and that offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This is what Oakeshott had in mind when he wrote that liberty was something that many people simply are not equipped to “enjoy as an opportunity rather than suffer as a burden.”
So according to Williamson Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% were right all along. Most Americans are just greedy and selfish and there is nothing we can do about it.
Or take Matthew Schmitz’s comments on the First Thoughts blog:
Gallup’s recent polling finds slightly more than half of Americans identifying as prolife, and while support for gay marriage continues to increase, the issue motivates far more conservative than liberal voters. There’s a large intensity gap that should continue to tip the issue to the right for some time even if current trends hold.
Hmm … where have I heard that sort of logic before. Most don’t agree with our perspective but we care more so we can defeat them at the polls even if we cannot persuade them.
These comments do not sound like the expressions of lessons learned. They sound like a continued refusal to recognize that the American people, in a free and fair election, chose President Obama to continue to lead this country over the Republican Mitt Romney, chose Democrats to serve as United States senators in states thought to be solidly conservative, and endorsed same-sex marriage despite strong campaigns to prevent it.
Conservatives can view this data as a simple condemnation of their opponents and pat themselves on the back for standing for the truth even as their country (as they see it) falls apart. Or they can take it as a sharp rebuke that calls them to begin again the hard work of re-engaging the American people, hearing and taking seriously their concerns even as they try to make sense of how conservatism might best help address those concerns. The American people are open to persuasion, I firmly believe. Few people really think this country is on a sustainable path to prosperity. But if conservatives are ever going to lead it in a different direction, they will have to do a better job persuading the rest of the country that they actually deserve it.
In a recent column in World Magazine Joel Belz wondered whether churches have become too cautious or fearful in engaging politics. Belz notes that churches rightly steer away from endorsing candidates or political parties, and he agrees that Christians need to make it clear that their “spiritual and heavenly allegiance” is much more important than their “worldly character.” But he suggests that given the “radical secularization of our culture” churches may need to step up the political instruction. As would be expected in this sort of argument, Belz invokes the legacy of the pastor turned Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, along with Kuyper’s ringing declaration of the lordship of Christ over every area of life.
What is Belz looking for in particular?
When the Bible says that “righteousness exalts a nation,” it seems minimally appropriate for churches and their ministers to help their people understand better in practical political terms what that righteousness looks like. What does “righteousness” mean when we think about tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues?
Belz doesn’t answer the question but he does direct his readers to a course offered by Summit Ministries.
I agree that the church should teach its members the basic principles of Christian political theology, many of which are helpfully summarized on the website of Summit Ministries. Christians should know what Scripture says about God’s ordination of the state in the context of the Noahic Covenant, about government’s responsibility to secure basic justice for the poor and the oppressed, about the obligation to pay taxes and give honor to the civil magistrate, and about the need for the church to obey God rather than human beings when necessary. And it would be very beneficial for pastors and teachers who have the expertise to hold a Sunday School series on some of the principles of Christian political theology as taught by the tradition running from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas to the reformers and beyond.
But Belz seems to be pressing further when he speaks of what righteousness looks like in “practical political terms,” applied in particular to “tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues” (emphasis added). Does Scripture really teach what righteousness looks like in practical political terms in the 21st Century United States of America on a hundred different issues?
I know some pastors who argue that based on Christian principles the government should definitely tax the wealthy at higher rates than it currently does. I know others who argue that anything other than a flat tax rate is virtual theft. Some contemporary Christians think Jesus demands a crack-down on illegal immigration. Others argue that the principles of mercy and of hospitality to strangers should temper such a crack-down. And while many conservative Christians assume that Christianity calls for a limited government that leaves matters like education, health care, poor relief and the church outside of the supervision of the state, they might be surprised to find out that a theologian like Calvin found it quite sensible that the state should have oversight over all of these matters; indeed, in his commentaries he argues that it is within the obligation of the state to establish schools and hospitals, as well as to provide for the poor and pay the salaries of the ministers of the church.
Calvin may have been wrong, of course. But how sure can we be that Scripture provides the answers for which we are looking if Calvin (and all other Christian political theologians prior to the advent of modern liberalism) came to such different conclusions than we do? Belz wants the church to recover its prophetic edge. But if the church’s hearers are not convinced that it is truly the Lord speaking when the prophet says “Thus says the Lord” the effect will be the destruction of the church’s credibility, not the recovery of such a prophetic edge. Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell saw themselves as prophets but outside of their small group of already convinced followers few shared the conviction.
In a thoughtful review of Kenneth J. Collins’s recent book on politics and evangelicalism, my friend and former teacher Jay Green, professor of history at Covenant College, suggests that Collins comes close to conflating thoughtful Christian engagement with libertarianism. Green writes,
although Collins encourages evangelicals to move “beyond ideology” as a solution to our current impasse, the cumulative effect of his own persistent grievances against the modern secular state amounts, in the end, to a book-length argument on behalf of an almost reflexive libertarianism. In other words, the central concern that seems to animate Collins’s book isn’t the divided soul of evangelicalism as much as the moral (il)legitimacy of the modern liberal state. I waited in vain for Collins to advance (or at least acknowledge) some semblance of a Christian case for the state as a God-ordained institution, established to do his bidding, even when its goals and methods are unholy and its thirst for expansive power unquenchable. (Consider the regime the apostle Paul was living under when he penned the 13th chapter of his letter to the Romans.) Treating the robust exercise of state power as little but oppressive, or denying that participation in “power politics” can result in anything but corruption, seems to undervalue or simply ignore the extent to which all such activity is done under a sovereign God as an extension of his good government.
I sincerely appreciate Collins’s admonitions against evangelicals shilling for or baptizing secular political ideologies, as well as his warnings against confusing political movements with God’s kingdom. I do not, however, believe that his persistent libertarian contempt toward government power provides a very helpful path forward. I think he meant to gesture toward a public code for evangelicals leavened by a Wesleyan ethic of love and self-denial, which is attractive in many ways. But his analysis reads more often like a treatise on behalf of what David Brody has called “Teavangelicalism”—an alliance between evangelicals and Tea Party conservatives. If we hope to support a robust Christian vision for public life, we must be properly wary of government propensities toward tyranny. But we must also ingest a healthy dose of realism that understands coercive power not as a unique invention of modernity, but as an intrinsic and complex feature of the human condition.
I share Green’s concern. Although I agree with Belz and many other Christians that the church should proclaim the whole counsel of God, including what that counsel says about political theology, I am not very confident in the ability of most pastors and teachers to engage in “practical political terms” on a hundred different issues while at the same time rising above their own political predilections and loyalties (whether to the left or to the right). If the church wants to maintain its prophetic edge it needs to focus on what Scripture actually teaches, encouraging Christians to work out these principles in citizenship and vocation and in a spirit of service to their neighbors (think Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism). But that won’t happen unless the church steers well clear of practical political matters, on a hundred different issues.