Category Archives: Conservatism
If you have been paying attention to the media hype about Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Laudato Si’, you might be forgiven for assuming that the pope’s 180-page encyclical is devoted to the issue of climate change. In fact, the encyclical devotes relatively little attention to the phenomena of global warming: as little as 2% of its text, according to climate change skeptic Calvin Beisner. It offers but a cursory summary of the scientific consensus, calling the faithful to accept that consensus and take steps to curb global warming. But it offers nothing in the way of an argument that would persuade a climate change skeptic to change her position on the issue. The only way that might happen is if the skeptic in question is a Catholic Christian – or otherwise admirer of Pope Francis – who is committed to following papal direction for its own sake.
The danger, however, is that a thoughtful, theologically insightful, and morally helpful statement of the Catholic Church’s teaching on creation will be ignored by many conservatives because of its conclusions regarding climate change. This danger is all the greater given the valid economic critiques that have been raised against the encyclical by Catholic intellectuals such as my friend Sam Gregg, not to mention the criticism from climate change activists and scientists that Pope Francis significantly understates the threat of global warming.
You might be surprised, then, to learn that Laudato Si’ is first and foremost a theological document whose assertions regarding policy are presented cautiously and tentatively – as proposals for debate and discussion – rather than as conversation stoppers.
The pope is quite clear on this point:
[T]here is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions . On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair .
It is worth emphasizing that when the pope speaks of “this situation” which requires a solution he is not primarily referring to the problem of climate change. Rather, he is talking about ecological deterioration in general. We are wrecking our planet in more ways than one, and the pope’s fundamental thesis is that in doing so we are failing both to love God and our neighbor by failing to live as stewards of the creation that he has given to us as a gift.
The solution, Francis is at pains to stress, cannot consist simply of changes in laws or regulations. What is required is nothing less than “ecological conversion” away from the self-centered, consumerist-driven, technocratic paradigm that dominates modern society and that leads modern society to dominate [i.e., ruthlessly exploit] creation. (It is the same sort of dominating attitude, the pope points out, that characterizes modern attitudes toward the embodied human being, giving rise to moral catastrophes ranging from abortion to rampant confusion about gender.) On this central point, as I hope to argue in forthcoming posts, Laudato Si’ is a praiseworthy and helpful document. I would even go so far as to say that it is one that all serious Christian leaders should read.
But why, you may ask, is the pope taking a position on global warming, a point on which there are “honest debate[s]” and “divergent views.” Here, it is clear, the pope must defer to the experts. But he obviously believes that there is a meaningful consensus that the church is obligated to take seriously.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as a Reformed Protestant I do not believe the pope has any divine authority within the church. Just as important, following Calvin I would argue that the church has no authority to offer official pronouncements on matters of academic debate or public policy. Its public authority is tied up with, or contained within, the Word. When the church attempts to use its spiritual authority to “come down” on matters of controversy or disagreement it almost always ends up undermining its own credibility. The exceptions – areas on which scriptural teaching is relatively clear – merely prove the rule.
So while I am an admirer of the tradition of Catholic social teaching, I think that teaching is at its best when it avoids pronouncements on specific policies.
On the other hand, I believe the document’s clear theological teaching on what evangelicals like to call creation care is desperately needed within conservative evangelical circles. We tend to be dangerously and irresponsibly suspicious of environmental concerns. To be sure, as the pope notes, there is a radical sort of environmentalism that is in sharp conflict with Christianity. But too many conservative Christians have gone to the opposite extreme of turning environmentalism into a whipping boy. How many times have I heard pastors drop off-handed remarks dripping with scorn for “environmentalism”? How often do our writers list environmental concerns as one of those areas on which Christians need not work towards any substantive agreement? It’s as if stewardship for creation were no more important than what baseball team you root for or what style of music you like.
In part this dismissive attitude arises from an unhealthy skepticism toward science and the scientific community. It is true that within certain strands of society there is far too great of a deference towards science. But too many evangelicals go to the opposite extreme.
Let’s face it, for most of us our conclusions regarding biology or quantum physics, let alone climate change or evolution, come down to who we decide to trust (which, incidentally, is one good reason why the church should abstain from ruling definitively on these matters). For instance, most of us are not experts on the matter of climate change, and it is eminently reasonable for us to defer to the consensus of the scientific community (this book offers a good introduction to the issue). On the other hand, it can be praiseworthy to withhold judgment while continuing to learn from what others have to say. The scientific community has not done a very good job persuading the American public of its concerns about climate change in a measured, sympathetic way. But populists on both sides tend to be dogmatic and even shrill, undermining the trust necessary for thoughtful and open-minded communication. Both sides need to do the hard work of listening and learning in a spirit of humility and respect.
Enough about that. I want to stress that this encyclical is not primarily about global warming. I’ll have more to say about the positive aspects of the pope’s encyclical in the next few posts. For now let me just say: Read it. Reflect upon it. Take its call to Christian stewardship seriously. It won’t do you any harm, and it just might do your Christian sanctification a world of good.
In his well-known book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert P. Kraynak argues that Christianity is inherently illiberal and undemocratic. Nowhere does Scripture prescribe democracy or speak of human rights, Kraynak points out, let alone call for a separation of religion and politics. And while the Bible affirms the dignity of every single human being by virtue of her creation in the image of God, the image of God is conceived in primarily spiritual terms, in which obedience to God is more essential than liberty.
This spiritual view of the image of God, Kraynak argues, implies that human dignity is relative to degrees of human perfection. A more faithful person has more dignity – is higher in the hierarchy of value – than a less faithful person. Similarly, a man is naturally superior to a woman.
Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute. The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promotes hierarchies because it understands reality in terms of the ‘image of God’ which is a type of reflected glory – a reflection of something more perfect in something less perfect. Hence, dignity exists in degrees of perfection rather than in abstract qualities. The dignity or glory possessed by something made in the image of a more perfect being carries moral claims of deference, reciprocal obligation, and duty rather than equality, freedom and rights. (60)
To be sure, Kraynak admits, the New Testament undermines all such hierarchies by asserting the fundamental equality of all persons in Christ, so relegating social and political hierarchies to secondary status. Still, this very relegation, this very separation between the spiritual and earthly cities, means such inequalities can be tolerated as long as spiritual equality is preserved. This is in sharp contrast to liberal democracy, which insists on social and political equality.
Kraynak thinks that the early Christian theological tradition only accentuated the Bible’s hierarchical tendencies insofar as it was infused with Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of the world. According to such Greek philosophical notions, the natural universe is “a hierarchy of beings, ascending from lower to higher substances in an order of rational perfection” (73). The understanding of the universe as a chain of being was integrated with Augustine’s orthodox doctrines of the two cities and of predestination to create a thoroughly hierarchical understanding of both church and society. Thus,
In general, traditional Christians were illiberal and undemocratic because they conceived of God’s created universe as a hierarchy of being and thought that institutions should promote rational and spiritual perfection. (73)
Kraynak admits that the Reformation undermined the church’s hierarchicalism and rejected systematic Neoplatonism, but he claims that in their doctrines of the two kingdoms and predestination Luther and Calvin maintained the theological commitments that lie at the heart of Christianity’s illiberalism. For Kraynak that is not a bad thing. Christianity is not inherently democratic, he maintains, and Christians have been wrong to imagine it so.
It is true, of course, that classic Christian political theology consistently distinguishes between the kingdom of God and earthly political structures (a distinction that has been variously labeled as the two cities, the two kingdoms, the two governments, the two jurisdictions, the two powers, the two swords, etc.). It is also true that this distinction makes Christian political theology a species of political realism. Politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. We must tolerate sin and injustice because only God can set things right. Our task is to maintain a general degree of peace, justice, and order.
But this doctrine does not make Christianity inherently illiberal. True, the toleration of the status quo has all too often meant the defense of oppressive gender relations, slavery, and tyranny, but this is hardly the thrust of the New Testament. In acknowledging the prophetic roles of women in the church, in maintaining the essential equality and consequent moral reciprocity between master and slave, in calling political authorities to submission to Christ, and in relativizing the spiritual priority of marriage and the family, the apostles set in motion an ethical trajectory that challenged all rigid conservative notions of the way things ought to be. (Paul called each person to be content with the situation in which he found himself, of course, but he also called slaves to seek their freedom, if possible, and he insisted that it is good for a Christian woman to devote herself to the service of Christ and the church rather than to marry and raise children.)
In my view, therefore, Christians have rightly identified equality, along with liberty, as an essential part of the gospel of Christ. This does not mean equality without difference, but it does suggest that Christians should aspire to forms of equality much more substantive than is implied by the bare minimum of political realism.
What about the doctrine of predestination? My friend and teacher Timothy P. Jackson insists that the doctrine of predestination leads Christians constantly to create distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, distinctions that fall all too easily into the oppression of or apathy toward the ‘other.’ The only way to overcome this temptation, he insists, is to eliminate any distinction between the saved and the damned.
The objection has to be taken seriously. No doubt Christians have used the distinction between the saved and the damned, the elect and the reprobate, in just such nefarious ways. But in my view such misuses of the doctrine of predestination actually rely on a caricature of it – one common enough that it is proclaimed by some Christians as the teaching of Scripture (thus rendering plausibility to Jackson’s objection). In this caricature God wills the judgment of the reprobate, and thus no matter what such persons do in their lives, they cannot escape it.
That is not the Christian doctrine of predestination as it has been articulated by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. Christian theologians have generally distinguished between the revealed and normative will of God, on the one hand, and his divine sovereignty, which is hidden and mysterious, on the other.
The distinction amounts essentially to this. God desires that all people be saved just as he desires that all people act lovingly and justly. This is a genuine desire on God’s part. The one who is love does indeed love all persons made in his image, and he does good to the just and the unjust alike. It was out of love for the world that he sent his son to suffer as the lamb of God, the one who is the propitiation not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.
But this does not deny the fact that as the sovereign Lord, God does, in some mysterious way, govern all that occurs. This governance does not take place on the ordinary plane of causality. Without dictating the actions of angels or human beings, God nevertheless governs them according to his sovereignty (or his decretive will). While hating evil and injustice, and while desiring the good for all people, he nevertheless ordains all things according to his purposes. This is not a doctrine that arises from philosophical logic but from faith. It is not a doctrine that we seek to explore to its depths, as Calvin pointed out, but one that we accept based on the recognition that God is entirely different from us, and cannot be measured by our notions of scientific or philosophical causality. Indeed, he cannot really be known or understood at all, apart from his revelation in Christ.
Christians are therefore called to conform to Christ in their attitudes towards all persons, laying down their lives in humility and service. Any other ethical use of the doctrine of predestination is ideological and self-serving.
None of this requires that Christianity is inherently liberal of course, let alone democratic. That would depend both on what is meant by liberalism and what is meant by democracy. But it does suggest that Christianity is not inherently illiberal or undemocratic. Perhaps we can agree on that.
According to yesterday’s New York Times report on the opposition to same-sex marriage in France, a movement that was initially inspired and led by religious figures has been embraced by conservative politicians eager to use the issue to discredit socialist French President Francois Hollande. This has been good for the campaign in terms of numbers. On Sunday some 45,000 protestors marched peacefully in Paris against the bill (which gained final parliamentary approval yesterday).
Unfortunately, the surge in opposition to same-sex marriage has spawned new levels of vitriolic anti-homosexual rhetoric, as well as violence.
At the margins, the demonstrations have also become more violent and homophobic, with a series of nightly demonstrations last week around Parliament that resulted in clashes with riot police officers and a number of arrests. Even opposition leaders have bemoaned the way harder-right groups have infiltrated the demonstrations, and there has been a small surge in violence against gay men and lesbians, with some beatings and angry, offensive words on social media.
Two weeks ago, a Dutch-born man walking with his partner in Paris was beaten up. The man, Wilfred de Bruijn, posted a photograph of his bloodied face on his Facebook page, calling it “the face of Homophobia.” It has been shared thousands of times. Last week, two gay bars, in Bordeaux and Lille, were attacked, and a same-sex couple was attacked Saturday in Nice outside a gay nightclub.
These sorts of developments are a nightmare for conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage but who believe gays and lesbians bear the same rights and the same human dignity as do all human beings. There is no better way to discredit a moral tradition than to show that it inevitably leads to bigotry. Unfortunately, when a religious tradition is embraced almost universally on a cultural and political level, it is inevitable that that tradition’s teachings will be directed in ways hostile to its fundamental character. Although Jesus associated with the sexually deviant and taught love for one’s enemies, throughout Christendom people and societies who claimed the name ‘Christian’ have responded to those deemed ‘sinners’ with precisely the opposite attitude.
The problem has become all the more acute during the modern era, as societies that still conceive of themselves as broadly Christian are shaped by forces and ideologies that have little to do with historic Christianity and that are often openly hostile to it. Inevitably Christian teachings and symbols are politicized or hijacked for other purposes, often with tragic consequences, but generally with the cooperation of many Christians themselves. Bewildered, those who understand the true teachings of the faith, or the example of Jesus, mourn the perversion of the faith. Yet far too often the efforts of such individuals and groups to reclaim their faith comes too late.
Perhaps the best example of this is antisemitism. As I argued in a recent essay at Patheos, many Christian pastors embraced Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 because they believed that he would restore Germany to its national glory and to its Christian heritage. These Christians associated liberalism, democracy, socialism, and Jewish emancipation with the decline of Christianity. Though they had no desire to return to the violent persecution of false religion that characterized Christendom through the 16th and 17th centuries, they did want Germany to be a ‘Christian’ nation, in which national identity, political power, and Christian faith went hand in hand.
As Jonathan Steinberg writes in his powerful biography of Otto von Bismarck,
The impact of the defeat of Prussia in 1806 and the occupation of the kingdom by the ‘godless’ Napoleon had driven many of the great Junker landlords back to Christianity. They rejected Enlightenment rationalism, the horrors of Jacobin fanaticism, the doctrines of equality, the guillotines, but also Frederick the Great’s cynical contempt for religion. (57)
One of these men, Friedrich Ruhs, declared in 1816 that “a Christian state can therefore absolutely not recognize any other members than Christians.” In a speech in June 1847 General Ludwig August von Thile, president of the Berlin Mission to the Jews, an evangelistic organization, rejected talk of granting full political rights to Jews on the basis that the state had to remain Christian:
I have also heard today that Christianity and even religion should play no role in the discussions of the state; but one of the Honor delegates put this in words which I could heartily endorse when he said ‘Christianity should not be constituted within the state. It should be above the State and should govern it.’ With this I heartily agree … He [a Jew] may be the born subject of another nation, he may out of private interest or out of a feeling of general love for humanity make great sacrifices to the circumstances in which he lives, but he will never be a German, never be a Prussian because he must remain a Jew.” (80)
Such sentiments are properly understood in relation to older (though not so old as Jesus!) Christian convictions regarding the nature of the state rather than to later figures like Hitler. Unlike their Nazi descendents of the next century, 19th Century German antisemites accepted that conversion enabled a Jew to become a Christian, and therefore a German. Nevertheless it is easy to see how this sort of Christian antisemitism could easily evolve into a more radial antisemitism in the context of secularization, modernity, and human sin.
Think about it. If you emphasize too much 1) the hostility of Christianity to a particular religion or practice, and 2) the necessarily Christian character of the state, it is inevitable that people devoted to the welfare of the state, whether Christian or not, will turn themselves in strident opposition to the religion or practice in view. Once Christian views have been thus politicized within a broader culture, the results are entirely unpredictable. If it turns out well, expect Christians to take the credit. But if it turns out tragically, as in the Holocaust, or in the cases of anti-homosexual violence mentioned above, don’t expect nonbelievers to let Christians off the hook. Nor should they.
As Christians we need to be aware that any principle we bring into politics – any idea or symbol we seek to integrate into a broader culture – will be politicized and manipulated for other ends. This should caution us against being too quick to slap the label ‘Christian’ on a movement or policy we happen to support. We must always carefully distinguish between the principles of our faith (i.e., Jesus is the Messiah long promised to the Jews; sexual intercourse outside of marriage is unjust) and political policies deemed by some people (perhaps including ourselves) to be logical extensions of such principles (i.e., non-Christians shouldn’t have the same political rights as Christians; homosexuals should be punished).
Just as importantly, we have to make sure that we are as committed to defending the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings as we are to opposing what we regard as unjust or unrighteous. We are, at least to a certain extent, responsible for the ways others abuse our arguments, especially if we are silent at the abuse. We should be horrified by the violence committed against homosexuals in France. We should be wary of any religious rhetoric that so denigrates other human beings, turning them into such ‘Others’ that we no longer see them as those whom we are called to serve and with whom we are called to suffer, after the example of Jesus.
Christians convinced that the true religion must be advanced by the sword have done inestimable damage throughout the turbulent years of Christendom and modernity. That’s not what Jesus called us to do. Let’s heed the warnings of the past.
On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist (HT: Aquila Report) Bill Evans offers some insightful reflections on the declining influence of conservative Presbyterianism (or of the confessional Reformed tradition) in America. I don’t agree with every word Evans says, but I do agree with his general perspective. What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.
Presbyterian and Reformed Christians seem to view unity and solidarity as a luxury or utopian dream rather than as a command of Christ. They tragically underestimate the way in which this division and intramural conflict is destroying their credibility – and therefore their survival.
As Evans writes,
There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K. The list goes on and on. Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality. Not every issue requires that one go to the mat… when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside.
Evans isn’t arguing that none of these issues are important. He is suggesting, rather, that they have inappropriately become all-consuming. What helps blow the various controversies out of proportion is the way in which they become tied to institutional turf wars.
Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market. But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.
Evans is talking about seminaries here but he later extends the point to denominations as well. Far too many of us are concerned about our denominational identity and traditions, rather than about the gospel and church of Christ.
Perhaps Evans’ most insightful point, however, is not the pervasiveness of narrowing vision and consequent intramural squabbling. Perhaps his most penetrating suggestion is that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have had their sense of mission and faithfulness distorted by their impulsive conservatism. Evans doesn’t say it this way (and I don’t think he would want to), but have theological liberalism and the cultural turn away from Christendom confused far too many Reformed Christians into thinking that their calling is to be conservative, rather than to be Scriptural?
To be sure, most Reformed conservatives would insist that those are one and the same thing. But that, it seems to me, is precisely the problem. The legitimate recognition that theological liberalism has seriously undermined the orthodox Christian faith, and the determination to defend that faith, has evolved into the assumption that the conservative position is always the biblical position. No longer do we confidently witness to the liberal (i.e., generous and earth-shattering), powerful and transforming work of the resurrected Christ; now we batten down the hatches, bolster the fortress, and try to hang on to our posts for dear life. As Evans writes,
What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation. To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed?
Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.
No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.
Conservative despair at the thought of four more years of President Barack Obama has been palpable during the past month, with all kinds of hand-wringing about whether or not America is lurching to the left or even in decline. While these sorts of fears and conversations are inevitable, they often revolve more around high profile elections (i.e., the White House) or court cases (i.e., same-sex marriage, forthcoming) than around underlying fundamentals. For instance, passionate pro-lifers not closely in tune with events on the ground tend to despair about the prospects of the movement because they focus on Supreme Court decisions and congressional legislation, but they entirely miss the dramatic success the pro-life cause has enjoyed on the state level in recent years.
From this perspective the enactment of right to work legislation in Michigan yesterday is breath-taking. Imagine Massachusetts following in the way of Mississippi and passing legislation that effectively drove all abortion providers out of the state. Unthinkable? Not too long ago people would have said the same about Michigan when it came to unions. As the Washington Post reports:
The “right to work” effort illustrates the power of Republicans to use state legislative majorities won in 2010 to pursue their policy preferences, even after losing a bitter presidential election.
The defeat is devastating for organized labor, which for decades has been waging an uphill battle against declining membership and dwindling influence.
But it also strikes at the roots of a Democratic Party that relied on unions for financial support and to marshal voters for President Obama’s reelection….
Proponents call their win in Michigan especially significant because the state is the birthplace of one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, the United Auto Workers. Founded in 1935, the union organized auto workers, winning wages and benefits that transformed assembly-line work into solid middle-class jobs.
“This is really a message to every other state that is a closed union shop, that if you do it here you can do it everywhere else,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity.
(courtesy: Washington Post)
Expect more of this kind of story in the coming years. Although the Democrats will now control the White House for another four years, Republicans dominate state governments across the country. As a result, while Democratic policies may be advancing in certain respects at the federal level, Republicans are having a better time of it at the state level.
Truth be told, state governments have been polarizing, with more states under one party control (either Democratic or Republican) than at any point in recent American history. This allows both conservatives and liberals to push their agendas in their respective states, enabling ready comparison between concrete policies in different places and therefore turning the states into a laboratory for government. Ultimately it’s the long view that matters here, but the early returns suggest that the most important red states are doing much better than similarly situated blue states. Simply compare Texas with the likes of New York, California, and Illinois, and you get the picture.
As the “blue states” continue to struggle economically, more of them will follow the way of Wisconsin and Michigan (and even, to a certain extent, Illinois) and abandon the “liberal” economic policies of the past. In the long run such a shift would certainly have an impact at the federal level.
My point is not that the United States is becoming more conservative, or that the conservative movement is on the verge of enjoying consistent political success. Politics is rarely linear like that. Liberals and conservatives will each continue to enjoy their respective victories. My point is simply that things are not as bad as many conservatives seem to imagine. Neither America nor the conservative movement is in decline. Life is moving on.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the American presidency because he connected with the ordinary American. While the presidents preceding him – especially Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – tended to emphasize the things that government could not do, along with the necessary virtue of patience, FDR approached the Great Depression with a determination to make changes that would actually help people – right away. He was not only the president who spoke directly to the people in his famous fireside chats; he also presided over the most productive Hundred Days (the first three months after a president’s inauguration) in the history of Congress.
There are all sorts of things that can be said in evaluation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The President’s policy was hardly Keynsian (he was motivated more by the simple desire to put people to work than to stimulate the economy) and yet it expanded the reach of the federal government in breathtaking ways. FDR’s approach to the Constitution was cavalier and destructive of the nation’s legal (and ultimately cultural and political) infrastructure, though he was prevented from achieving his worst designs relative to the Supreme Court (about which I hope to write more next week). Economically it was World War II that ended the Great Depression, not the New Deal, and yet the New Deal may well have saved America from revolution. Many of FDR’s policies are widely supported even by conservatives today. Others were thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court already during the 1930s.
But one thing that made FDR a great president – as his admirer, consistent supporter, and eventually conscious emulator Ronald Reagan appreciated – was that he knew how to speak to and represent ordinary, hard-working Americans without pandering to base desires. For instance, in November 1935 Roosevelt spoke at a homecoming rally at Georgia Tech in Atlanta:
I realize that gentlemen in well-warmed and well-stocked clubs will discourse on the expenses of Government and the suffering that they are going through because their Government is spending money on work relief. Some of these same gentlemen tell me that a dole would be more economical than work relief. That is true. But the men who tell me that have, unfortunately, too little contact with the true America to realize that … most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, which in this case is honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral degradation. I propose to build that barrier high and keep it high.
Note how FDR – like the recent Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – criticized dependency on the federal government. But notice also how – profoundly unlike Romney – he did it in a way that was perceived as respectful and helpful to the people who were most in need.
Or take Roosevelt’s speech at the 1936 Democratic convention, only a few months before the greatest landslide election in American history (until Johnson’s even greater victory in 1964):
Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for. For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution….
Governments can err. Presidents do make mistakes. But the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
Americans didn’t vote for FDR by massive margins because they wanted handouts. They – especially southern Evangelicals (black and white alike) – voted for FDR by massive margins because they knew he would stand for them against the sorts of people who were not terribly concerned about their welfare. While they, like most contemporary Americans, may not have understood the ins and outs of economics or fiscal policy, they could appreciate the significance of having a president willing to err on the side of compassion.
Conservatives need to learn how to communicate this way. To be sure, American voters are much more sensitive today about the dangers of a government that is too “warm-hearted,” living in a “spirit of charity” that results in its own destruction. They are not looking for another New Deal (and they did not – in general – like Obamacare). But they still need political leaders who care about them and who know how to communicate that concern. A conservatism that fails to meet this need forfeits the right to govern, especially in a time as economically uncertain as the present day.
Not long ago on the Aquila Report a certain writer asserted that America is in decline. He did not specify any particular form of decline – moral, economic, or political. He simply spoke of decline. The context was his claim that as America continues its track under President Barack Obama, more and more Christians will turn to Reconstructionism as an alternative worldview. But of course, others with more mainstream views have made the same claim about the decline of America. There are plenty of liberals, conservatives and moderates – people across the political and religious spectrums – who worry every day that as a nation we are coming to the end of the road.
In my response to this claim I noted that it is by no means evident to me that America is in decline. I can agree, as I had said in the context of an earlier article comparing the 1960s to the post-revolutionary era, that in certain respects America has been experiencing decline. In particular I’m thinking of what we might call matters of “sex and social justice” (i.e., the collapse of moral norms, as well as social and legal structures protecting the unborn, women and children). I can also understand the feeling of some that as America abandons many of the trappings and moral commitments of Christendom this bodes a form of religious decline.
On the other hand, there are plenty of areas in which America has experienced tremendous progress: racial, economic, moral, etc. It is by no means obvious to me that people who claim to be Christians and then use their Christianity to justify the brutality of racism and violence are somehow superior (in any way) to contemporary “nones” who abandon any claim to Christianity, or to contemporary liberals who claim to be Christians and then use their Christianity to justify sexual immorality.
Whether or not you think the country is in decline politically depends on your place on the political spectrum. Of course, for conservatives there is Obamacare and the growth of the welfare state, and for liberals there is the Bush tax cuts, the War on Terror, and growing inequality. But we need to be careful about assuming that the Fiscal Cliff is the sort of challenge the likes of which this nation has never faced before. That’s why I referenced Jimmy Carter’s famous 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. There have been numerous times in our history in which things looked pretty bleak, and thoughtful people thought surely the country was in decline.
But I’m not convinced. And the reason is not, as a number of people have suggested in reaction to my skepticism, because I am on the moon. I promise. I am not currently on the moon. The reason is that I am a student of history, especially of American history. And anyone who has read extensively in American history knows that ever since the Puritans got off the boat in New England and observed their inability to establish their new colony as a city on a hill, clergymen, philosophers and politicians have been preaching Jeremiads about American decline.
Of course, from the perspective of the early Puritans America was in decline because not everyone was upholding the strictest Puritan ideals about church and society. The generation born in America lacked the piety and enthusiasm of the one that had come from England and it was all downhill from there. But that did not mean America was in decline in anything more than a ‘Puritan’ understanding of decline.
Then again, after the American Revolution many New England Federalists (the descendants of the Puritans) thought America was in decline because the broader population was abandoning its former deference to status and authority. The artisans and shopkeepers who swept the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican Party into power in 1800 believed in a form of equality that required the elites to engage their inferiors in political and economic debates on a level of equality that was viewed as nothing less than anarchy by their social betters, and once again, it was all downhill from there. But that did not mean America was in decline according to anything other than a ‘Federalist’ understanding of decline.
Then, of course, there was the Civil War. When Federal troops descended on the South in 1861-1865, setting the slaves free and wreaking paths of violence and destruction, southern politicians, preachers, and ordinary citizens alike were convinced that it was the end of civilization. The best preachers of the day were sure that the abolition of slavery meant the onset of communism, not to mention the degradation of the white race and the whole world that it had built. If America was ever in decline, no doubt, it was when Sherman’s armies marched through Georgia and South Carolina, throwing just war theory under the bus with impunity, or when former slaves were given the right to vote. But of course, America was not really in decline, except perhaps from a ‘Confederate’ perspective.
We can go on and on of course. The Great Depression supposedly hailed the end of capitalism and democracy. The New Deal brought us fascism and socialism. The Cold War was sure to end everything as a result of Mutually Assured Destruction. Desegregation showed the white supremacists that America really was headed for barbarism, and Vietnam and Nixon illustrated the same thing to the New Left. Stagflation and the miasmic slowdown of the American economy in the 1970s led to Carter’s famous speech – a speech reflective of the assumptions of many American intellectuals that America’s days as the world’s great superpower were numbered. But then came Reagan, the end of the Cold War, and the economic prosperity of the 1990s, and we were all optimistic again.
Of course, in each of these cases there was an element of truth to what the pessimists were saying. In each situation there was some obvious respect in which morality or society could be said to be “in decline.” And yet in every case the pessimists turned out to have a distorted vision, an attitude driven by the failure of their own vision or agenda into one of despair. And yet life goes on. In every example I’ve noted above there was some other respect in which America was actually on the ascendancy – economically, politically, or morally. Does the progress outweigh the decline? It all depends on what you are talking about.
Now we are in another downtime. Is this one really so different from the previous eras in which thoughtful, well-meaning people thought we had finally begun to fall? Maybe it is, but I don’t see how we could know that from our position today. What concerns me is the tendency of some Christian conservatives to fall into the sort of pessimistic ranting about decline that makes us look just like those pessimistic Puritans, rigid Federalists, die-hard Confederates, and other grumpy groups whom history has left behind. If you are convinced that we have taken a wrong turn you are entitled to your opinion, of course. But please don’t implicate Christianity in your pessimism. There is nothing particularly Christian about the feeling that America is in decline, any more than there is anything Christian about the certainty that it is in a period of national and global ascendancy (for which a strong argument could be made; see Walter Russell Mead’s excellent blog).
It’s sobering enough that we have to proclaim to the world that the Lord Jesus Christ will hold it accountable for every word and every deed, coming at the last day to judge the living and the dead. It’s hope enough that by preaching the gospel we can give people the confidence that the injustice and sorrows of life do not hold the last word on the matter. When we get to the business of taking up our cross and following Christ, serving our neighbors in love in our various vocations, let’s not pretend we know God’s immediate plans for (or against) American prosperity. Just as importantly, let’s not proclaim that the decline of the United States (and of our neighbors) is somehow good for our cause because it will lead more people to see the light. Our calling is to pray for and contribute to the peace and welfare of our country. We should convey a spirit consistent with that calling.