The Politics of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Dialogue with Chris Schaefer

An old high school friend tweeted: “It’s a Wonderful Life has be the most anti-Tea Party movie ever.” I rakishly tweeted back: “False.” Rather than attempting to hash out this disagreement within the confines of 140 characters, we resolved to do a Gladwell vs. Simmons sort of thing, exchanging long-winded emails to see if we could hash it out.

My friend, Chris Schaefer, has led a peripatetic life ranging from Oklahoma to Morocco. As of late, he seems to have settled in Paris. We agreed to let him have the first word:

Chris: I was being a good American and doing my annual Christmas-time viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life when I had this moment. It was one of those eyebrow-scrunching, lip-twisting, just-wait-a-second-there moments: Conservative Americans cherish Frank Capra’s classic, and yet important parts of the film don’t seem terribly conservative. I wondered if conservatives’ appreciation for family, faith, and community in the movie doesn’t cause them to miss echoes that the original audience would have picked up on immediately.

It's a Wonderful Life It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946 right as the United States was exiting an extremely difficult decade and a half. There’s a reason why Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the greatest challenges that animate the film are bank runs and lack of affordable home ownership–the difficulties of The Greatest Generation in Bedford Falls as it were. These two issues play out in significant ways. George Bailey doesn’t go on his own honeymoon because he has to use his own personal savings to pay his clients who are caught up in the uncertainty of a bank run. And the entire business concept of the Bailey Building and Loan was based on providing home ownership for the poor of Bedford Falls, which was not so much a business as a non-profit social organization if we can take Potter’s critique and the bank-examiner’s presence as any indication.

So what happened between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945? The New Deal. And in the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the creation of two organizations that addressed both of these issues. The Banking Act of 1933 created the FDIC (whose sticker you will inevitably find on your bank’s window), guaranteeing deposits up to a certain amount. The bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life happened just before its creation, and so for viewers in 1946 it served as a scary reminder of how things used to be before the Democrats pushed through the New Deal.

In 1938, Fannie Mae was also created at Roosevelt’s behest in order to increase home ownership and make housing more affordable. Both of these programs were pushed through against Republican opposition, and both would have benefited the residents of Bedford Falls–those who did “most of the working and paying and living and dying” in the community, as George so passionately put it. George’s support for the poor on these issues would have recalled the Democratic rhetoric, while Potter’s heartless commentary on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poor would have echoed the anti-New Deal Republicans.

Don’t take my word for it, though: these leftist echoes scared the FBI. A 1947 FBI memo (pdf, pg. 14) indicated concern that the screenwriters were closet Communists and that the portrayal of bankers and rich people was highly suspect. Now, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wasn’t always the most level-headed of organizations, but the fact that they were concerned about the leftist tones of It’s a Wonderful Life means that some aspects of the film resonate in different ways today.

So what’s your call, Keith? Am I missing something? Or, in their deep appreciation for the film, do conservatives today ignore the historical and political context of It’s a Wonderful Life?

Keith: I am one of those conservatives who loves It’s a Wonderful Life and actually believe that the film encapsulates a lot of my small government, pro-family political philosophy. While I’m glad to have my presumptions challenged, I think that you’re wrong to say that this movie is anti-capitalist.

I will grant your presumption that we should consider the historical situation at the time of this movie’s release to help us understand how certain scenes would be understood. Like Scalia at the movies, we should consider the original public meaning, right? But we’re not merely asking a purely historical question, right? I’m not particularly interested if some FBI agents struggled to separate the idea of a bad banker from the idea that all bankers are bad. I’m similarly nonplussed by the question of whether Republican identifiers would have been torqued by watching the film in 1946.

Political coalitions have shifted quite a bit in the last two-thirds of a century. Back then, it was not unusual to be for both higher government spending and traditional family values. Indeed, as both parties were rather conservative on social issues, the economic divergences played a larger role in determining voting behavior. Today’s political fault lines obscure these differences. Now, if one is for traditional family values, that identity tends to dominate and make differences of economic regulation seem comparatively minute. All that is to say, that it could be that the folks who wrote this film were both “conservative on social issues” in some sense that we can recognize, while still advocating for leftist solutions to some of the economic issues of the day.

However, I don’t actually see how the movie supports left-leaning economic policy. The movie exults in the way the Bailey Building & Loan helps Mr. Martini escape Potter’s rental slums. You suggest that scene would be a comeuppance to those dastardly anti-New Deal Republicans who opposed the enactment of Fannie Mae. Actually, I bet those Republicans supported the end of the policy–getting folks into their own homes–and merely objected to the efficiency or constitutionality of the means. To see it your way is like maintaining that today’s GOP is against children eating lunch and that a movie showing a non-governmental actor providing lunch to hungry kids would be a real dig against conservatives.

On the contrary, when I see the Bailey Building & Loan helping folks escape the slums, I see a for-profit company improving the lives of its customers. When I see George foregoing his honeymoon and keeping the Building & Loan afloat through the bank run, I see the entrepreneurial genius benefiting everyone around him. When I see George providing private charity to Violet (or even the otherwise unemployable Uncle Billy), I see a demonstration of how a freer market with less of a public safety net would actually work.

Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you’ve got George Bailey?

But beyond these incidental plot twists, don’t you see how the actual thrust of the movie is conservative? George Bailey denies himself and his desire for freedom and travel, and ties himself again and again to the small town and community. He was derogatory of his “not much a businessman” father, but eventually became his father and, in doing so, blessed everyone in Bedford Falls. Isn’t that conservative? Continue reading

The American Conservative’s Case Against the Suburbs

The American Conservative has opened up a new front in the decades-old War on Suburbia. This attack, purportedly, comes from the Right.

Reagan and Kirk (photo courtesy Annette Kirk, Russell Kirk Center)

Suburban Critics?

In the past month, the magazine has launched two broadsides on this topic. Rod Dreher composed an ode to Philip Bess’ “New Urbanism of the Soul” and Charles Marohn published “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” After reading both articles, I found my conservative soul unstirred. Ultimately, it is unclear if either Bess or Marohn are espousing “conservative” principlesat least how that term is usually defined in the American political discoursefor they oppose suburbs on hierarchical and elitist grounds. Theirs is not an American conservative case against the suburbs. If anything, it may be something of a European conservative case against the suburbs. But, ultimately even if some of their these arguments would have resonated with Prince Metternich, their purchase in the American political debate is lacking.

 

Thomistic New Urbanism

The way Dreher frames Philip Bess’s work begins to highlight this disconnect. Bess is introduced as a Catholic professor of architecture at Notre Dame from where he has focused his urban design efforts on the After Burnham project, which “imagines what Chicago—given its current architectural, social, and environmental order—might look like 100 years hence if the next century is informed by classical humanist urbanism and Catholic social teaching.” Such a grandiose project of central planning sounds exactly like the kind of thing the Habsburgian bureaucracy would undertake.

Dreher also explains that Bess is both a convert to Roman Catholicism and a convert to New Urbanism and that the two conversions are not merely coincidental. Continue reading

The Mark Driscoll School of Leadership

For months now, I’ve been wanting to write something about the Mark Driscoll saga, but I’ve never quite found the words.

I wanted to argue that some of the charges of plagiarism were overblown, but I didn’t want to come off as blindly defending one of my “tribe.”

I wanted to explain why using ResultSource to game the New York Times bestseller list seemed like a permissible marketing practice to me, but I didn’t want to defend something that Driscoll, himself, had since disavowed.

I wanted to shame those dredging up decade-old anonymous message board posts (that had since been repented of) as disqualifying Driscoll from ministry, but I didn’t want to whitewash what were sinfully intemperate statements.

I wanted to question who had appointed Warren Throckmorton as the Grand Inquisitor into Driscoll’s malfeasance, but I didn’t want to come off as defensively attacking the messenger heralding Driscoll’s downfall.

I wanted to chide the Acts 29 leadership team for removing Driscoll under a “totality of the circumstances” test borrowed from Supreme Court jurisprudence and not found within scripture or church confession, but I didn’t want to speak for fear that I was unaware of some truly damning action that justified their decision.

But then I read a description of his actions that crystallized the issue for me.

Before he was deposed, Driscoll had a reputation internally for acting like a tyrant. He regularly belittled people, swore at them, and pressured them until they reached their breaking point. In the pursuit of greatness he cast aside politeness and empathy. His verbal abuse never stopped. From one reported about a half-hour “public humiliation” Driscoll doled out on his staff:

“Can anyone tell me what this initiative was supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, “So why the f–k doesn’t it do that?”

“You’ve tarnished Mars Hill’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.”

One journalist describes Driscolls’ rough treatment of underlings:

He would praise and inspire them, often in very creative ways, but he would also resort to intimidating, goading, berating, belittling, and even humiliating them… When he was Bad Mark, he didn’t seem to care about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions… suddenly and unexpectedly, he would look at something they were working on say that it “sucked,” it was “shit.”

We all knew that Driscoll was nicknamed the cussing pastor, but these behaviors are truly reprehensible. His abuse needed to be stopped.

Just one thing, though, before we rush to judgment. Those lines were not written about Driscoll. Those are the abusive workplace patterns of Steve Jobs.

Leading Like Jobs

Mark Driscoll is not the first chief executive who has been known for dressing down his subordinates. Steve Jobs didn’t allow personal niceties or corporate inertia to prevent him from focusing on turning out the best possible product on schedule. He would upbraid partner companies for falling behind schedule. He offered to hire people with abrasive faint praise like, “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit so why don’t you come work for me.” He fired people on the spot in front of their teams for failure to get a program up to snuff. Continue reading

Young, Restless, and Reformed Homeboys on Lenten Fasting

Last spring, I wrote about my skepticism about the newfound trendiness of lenten fasting among Evangelicals of my generation. The trend continues apace. Here’s Glenn Packiam, pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs (it’s a “parish” of the more famous New Life) explaining why his charismatic and low-church congregation is holding an Ash Wednesday service today:

So, no, you don’t have to observe Ash Wednesday. You don’t have to have a service or even go to one. But it is a beautiful way to join with the Church—for the past 1200 years—and with the people of God—for thousands of years before that!—and humbly repent and seek God’s face. It is the beginning of a fast season, Lent. Lent—like every other season of the Church Calendar—is about marking time around the life of Christ. We tend to mark time around our own events; there’s nothing evil about that. But there is another way to keep time. Christians for centuries have marked time in way that reminded them of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, in short, this is about being centered on Christ and being connected to the Body of Christ, historic and universal.

Packiam is endemic of how most Lent-adopters talk about church history: They denigrate (explicitly or implicitly) their low-church Evangelicalism as unmoored from tradition and underscore how adopting the liturgical practice connects them to the historic church. But what if the best way to express trans-generational solidarity with the millions of believers who have walked before you is by eschewing Lent? That’s the argument I want to support below.

Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy

Here’s the thing. Evangelicalism has been around for centuries and its practice is strongly rooted in the past. In the churches I’ve attended over the past decade (sometimes called Young, Restless, and Reformed), most worship songs are rearrangements of lyrics penned by eighteenth-century figures Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley. And what’s true of the songs is true of the theology, long-dead folks like John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon are revered, a phenomenon summed-up by the famous Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy t-shirt on the cover for Colin Hansen’s article describing this movement. In their sermons and theological treatises, these YRR Homeboys said quite a lot about keeping the season of Lent. Here’s a sampling of takes from the sixteenth (John Calvin), seventeenth (John Owen), eighteenth (Jonathan Edwards), nineteenth (Charles Spurgeon), and twentieth centuries (Martyn Lloyd-Jones).

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.20 (1536)
Calvin is clearly hostile to describing lenten fasting as an imitation of Christ.

Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven. And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him. . . . It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ . . .

John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656)
Owen is a very interesting case because he wrote extensively on the Christian practice for mortification of the flesh. However, he was very clear to differentiate the gospel practice of mortification from practices of “popish devotionists.”

That the ways and means to be used for the mortification of sin invented by them are still insisted on and prescribed, for the same end, by some who should have more light and knowledge of the gospel, is known. Such directions to this purpose have of late been given by some, and are greedily catched at by others professing themselves Protestants, as might have become popish devotionists three or four hundred years ago. Such outside endeavors, such bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit, are varnished over with swelling words of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as discover a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and mystery of the gospel.

Later, in the same piece, he specifically condemns the practice of abstaining from “sin for a season.”

And herein is the Roman mortification grievously peccant; they drive all sorts of persons to it, without the least consideration whether they have a principle for it or no. Yea, they are so far from calling on men to believe, that they may be able to mortify their lusts, that they call men to mortification instead of believing. The truth is, they neither know what it is to believe nor what mortification itself intends. Faith with them is but a general assent to the doctrine taught in their church; and mortification the betaking of a man by a vow to some certain course of life, wherein he denies himself something of the use of the things of this world, not without a considerable compensation. Such men know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Their boasting of their mortification is but their glorying in their shame. Some casuists among ourselves, who, overlooking the necessity of regeneration, do avowedly give this for a direction to all sorts of persons that complain of any sin or lust, that they should vow against it, at least for a season, a month or so, seem to have a scantling of light in the mystery of the gospel, much like that of Nicodemus when he came first to Christ. They bid men vow to abstain from their sin for a season. This commonly makes their lust more impetuous. Perhaps with great perplexity they keep their word; perhaps not, which increases their guilt and torment. Is their sin at all mortified hereby? Do they find a conquest over it? Is their condition changed, though they attain a relinquishment of it? Are they not still in the gall of bitterness? Is not this to put men to make brick, if not without straw, yet, which is worse, without strength? What promise hath any unregenerate man to countenance him in this work? what assistance for the performance of it? Can sin be killed without an interest in the death of Christ, or mortified without the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives, as seldom they do, yet they never reach to the change of their hearts or conditions. They may make men self-justiciaries or hypocrites, not Christians.

Jonathan Edwards, An Attempt to Promote Agreement in Extraordinary Prayer (1745)
Edwards ridicules the no-flesh-but-fish rule while discussing how the capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg (on an island named Cape-Breton by the English) during King George’s War heralded the ascendance of the gospel and the downfall of superstitious Roman Catholic countries.

And one thing with relation to the taking of Cape-Breton, though it may seem trivial, yet I do not think to be altogether inconsiderable in the present case; and that is, that thereby the antiChristian dominions are deprived of a very great part of their fish, which makes no small part of the food and support of popish countries; their superstition forbidding them to eat any flesh for near a third part of the year. This they were supplied with much more from Cape-Breton than from any place in the world in the possession of papists. And the contention of France with the Dutch, deprives them of most of their supplies of this sort, which they had elsewhere. When the prophet Isaiah foretells the depriving Egypt of its wealth and temporal supplies, under the figure of drying up their rivers, this is particularly mentioned, that they should be deprived of their fish.

“And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord. And the waters shall fall from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up; and they shall turn the rivers far away, and the brooks of defense shall be emptied and dried up. The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish.” Isaiah 19:4-8.

This is expressed in the prophecies of drying up the waters, i.e. the supplies of Egypt; and this probably is implied in the prophecies of drying up the waters of that city which is spiritually called Egypt. And it may be noted, that this is not only a supply that the church of antichrist has literally out of the waters, but is that part which is eminently the supply and food of their antiChristian superstition, or which their popish religion makes necessary for them.

 Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David (1885) and sermon on Song of Solomon 1 (1886)
Spurgeon expresses general reservations about all traditions of men.

When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, “Is this a law of the God of Jacob?” and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.

He is especially critical of Lent’s call to mourn as if our Lord was taken away.

Come, then, and for your own good hang up the sackbut and take down the psaltery—put away the ashes! What if men call this season, “Lent”? We will keep no Lent, tonight—this is our Eastertide! Our Lord has risen from the dead and He is among us, and we will rejoice in Him!

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, sermon from John 1 (1962)
Lloyd-Jones is blunt in his appraisal.

Lent, of course, is a relic of Roman Catholicism. One can easily understand it in such an organization – it gives power to the priest, and so on – but there is, I repeat, no evidence whatsoever in favour of it in the New Testament, and it simply leads to this show of wisdom and human will power. It is people adding their works to the grace of God, and this is essentially Roman Catholic teaching. Well, my friends, let us get rid of this, let us not waste our time with it. We are to be led by the Spirit always.

Evangelicalism is a tradition too

I’m sure that an Evangelical Lent-adopter would protest that he isn’t going to do Lent in a “popish” way and thus evade the censure of the YRR Homeboys. If that were the case, why did none of these figures advocate for a reformed lenten fast instead of condemning the practice entirely? Furthermore, if the point for the adopters is to participate in an ancient tradition along with saints of previous centuries, it doesn’t make sense to radically alter the practice as traditionally performed.

My point is simple. Evangelicalism is a tradition with attendant folkways and liturgical practices. One of the practices low-church Evangelicalism has long embraced is not participating in lenten abstention. As a traditionalist, I walk in the steps of these historical homeboys and am the richer for it.

Evangelical Theology: A Review (of a section)

Michael Bird has written a new single-volume systematic theology titled Evangelical Theology. His publisher, Zondervan, offered complementary volumes in exchange for reviewing one of the book’s sections. That’s the kind of offer that I find difficult to turn down, and, thus, here we are today.

Evangelical Theology Michael Bird

Given the choice of which section to review, I selected Part 3: The Gospel of the Kingdom, thinking that it would contain some address so-called “Christ and Culture” issues. However, this section is actually Bird’s section on eschatology. In fact, Bird never does address the competing political theologies like two kingdoms or transformationalism in this systematic.

After getting past this misunderstanding, I settled in to explore what Bird says about last things. Bird is a respectable mainstream Evangelical on these matters. He makes cracks at the expense of folks who think Ross Perot or Hillary Clinton are the Antichrist and includes the following general disclaimer:

“[T]he unhealthy theological division created by eschatology combined with fantastical books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Jerry Jenkins and Tom LaHaye’s Left Behind series might make it prudent for us to retreat from the business of eschatology and distance ourselves from the controversy and lunacy that seems to go with the field”

Despite this, Bird believes that it is inappropriate to merely leave it there, say Jesus wins in the end, and call it good. To make this point, Bird borrows a list of seven reasons from Richard Hays:

  1. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to carry Israel’s story forward.
  2. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology for interpreting the cross as a saving event for the world.
  3. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology for the gospel’s political critique of pagan culture.
  4. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to resist ecclesial complacency and triumphalism.
  5. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology in order to affirm the body.
  6. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to ground its mission.
  7. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about death.

Despite making this case for holding a detailed theology of last things, Bird still maintains that these are second order matters of doctrine and disagreements over the details should not be grounds for ending fellowship. In my experience, this position on last things will resonate with most Evangelicals today. In my skimming of the remainder of the book it appears that most of Bird’s positions are similarly broadly held.

Stylistically, Bird’s approach is exhaustive but without becoming boring. He moves quickly past positions he does not embrace, which is an editorial necessity for him to keep the volume under 900 pages.

To illustrate the depth Bird is able to achieve, here is his treatment of the Millennium. He finds the postmillennial view to be “easiest set aside,” as society is manifestly not gradually getting better. He quotes one paragraph from A.A. Hodge and finds it unconvincing. Three pages and six footnotes total. He then moves to amillennialism, which he finds very attractive but unable to sufficiently account for Revelation 20. This also takes him just three pages and six footnotes. Finally, he explains premillennialism and his reasons for holding that position in ten pages and twenty footnotes. Each section is also accompanied with a handy graphic that summarizes the order of events in each millennial view.

—-

I believe Bird has written a very helpful systematic theology. Perhaps the best description of its eschatology section is that it is unobjectionable. In other words, I believe it achieves precisely what it set out to do. While I am not enough of a connoisseur of systematic theologies to compare Bird’s work to its competitors, Bird’s work strikes me as very competent and accessible. I will keep it on my shelf next to Wayne Grudem’s.

GUYS, Some Evangelicals Want a Pullback from the Culture Wars, and the WSJ is ON IT.

This week, Neil King of the Wall Street Journal wrote a front page feature on Russell Moore, “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback From Politics, Culture Wars.” Moore has recently been installed as the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, replacing longtime leader Richard Land. The Journal reports that this generational transition marks the end of an era as the peaceable new tone of Dr. Moore replaces Dr. Land’s stridency and, thus, the Religious Right ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

The opening of the article contrasts Land’s support for a Federal Marriage Amendment with Moore’s opposit…, no, wait… Moore actually supports a Constitutional Amendment as well. King opposes Land’s position to Moore’s call to “Love your Gay and Lesbian neighbors.” I guess that it is possible that Dr. Land opposes Christians loving all of their neighbors, but I would be very surprised.

From that inauspicious beginning, Mr. King proceeds to use the story of Russell Moore’s elevation as an excuse to play the greatest hits of that timeworn genre: “Evangelicals are Surrendering the Culture Wars.”

1. Evangelicals Are Eschewing Strident Language

Mr. Moore wrote [gays and lesbians] “aren’t part of an evil conspiracy”…

Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric…

Here, Dr. Moore is made to sound almost precisely like how the WSJ portrayed Jim Daly as he took the helm at Focus on the Family from James Dobson:

But, Mr. Daly said, he has no use for the sharp personal attacks on politicians employed by Mr. Dobson. “I don’t see evil behind everything,” Mr. Daly said.

Evangelical Group Seeks Broader Tent,” Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 6, 2010.

A change of tone may signal something deeper, but is Dr. Moore really advocating for any substantive changes?

2. Evangelicals Want to Avoid Being Subsumed by Politics

Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,”

Actually, Evangelicals have always been worried about letting the culture wars define them. Indeed, even back when QB Eagles and Tecmo Bo walked the land, Evangelicals were registering their desire to be less triumphalist in tone.

In this major shift in strategy, these groups have taken on a new tone, less shrill and less righteous than their predecessors, less eager to sweep into politics and take over the Republican Party or the government.

“Religious Right Drops High-Profile Tactics, Works on Local Level,” David Shribman, Wall Street Journal, Sep. 26, 1989.

3. The GOP Establishment Wants Evangelicals to be Quiet

[Dr. Moore’s] advice meshes with those in the Republican Party who want the GOP to back off hot-button cultural issues to stress themes such as job creation and education. Party leaders earlier this year released a manifesto calling for the GOP to become more tolerant, welcoming and inclusive.

Again, this story is about as fresh as a New Kids on the Block album:

But some hostility to evangelicals lingers on within the GOP: Former Georgia Republican Chairman John Stuckey argues that “people who have the word and divine direction aren’t really well-fitted emotionally or intellectually” for politics.

“Religious Right Drops High-Profile Tactics, Works on Local Level,” David Shribman, Wall Street Journal, Sep. 26, 1989.

4. Young Evangelicals are Moving Left

Recent polls have found younger evangelicals drifting away from some of the conservative views of their parents and grandparents.

Wait, you’re saying that some Evangelicals support leftist positions. And there’s even a left-leaning group called Sojourners now. This is a brand new development, right?

“Something, they say, is happening among Evangelicals themselves: Evangelicalism is rising on the left. A group now exists called the Sojourners…”

“U.S. Evangelicals Begin to Emerge On the Left,” Suzanne Garment, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1982.

As I pointed out in this space just two weeks ago, there were some Evangelicals who supported Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale. But this rump Evangelical caucus is not about to fundamentally transform the contours of American politics.

5. Sometimes, Evangelical Leaders Take Left-Approved Positions

[Dr. Moore] has allied with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups to make the case that overhauling the U.S. immigration system is a Christian goal.

This move by Dr. Moore would be surprising if Evangelicals were mere shills for the GOP platform. But Evangelicals have always pushed and prodded a GOP establishment that has sometimes been reluctant to adopt Biblically-supported positions. No less than the ur-Evangelical himself has ruffled feathers in this way:

Imagine my surprise when I opened the newspapers this week and discovered that Billy Graham, friend of Richard Nixon and most famous evangelist of all, was going to preach in Moscow. Imagine the further surprise on learning that the occasion of his visit was a conference on nuclear weapons, most definitely an issue of the left. What was going on here?

“U.S. Evangelicals Begin to Emerge On the Left,” Suzanne Garment, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1982.

______________

I could go on, but it wouldn’t be sporting.

My beef is not with Russell Moore. Since the article appeared, he has explicitly disclaimed the headline as mischaracterizing his position. He is not calling for political abdication, but for Christians to maintain civility in the public discourse and thus heap burning coals on their enemies’ heads (Rom. 12:18-20). I pray that God would prosper his tenure at the ELRC and that his new tone would bear much fruit.

But the article itself is infuriating. The WSJ, like most other newspapers, has a paint-by-numbers article that they pull out every few years announcing the demise of Evangelical political influence and the rise of a kinder, gentler, and less-partisan religious political engagement. Someone wrote it in 1989 when the Moral Majority disbanded. Someone wrote it when Ralph Reed left the Christian Coalition in 1997. Someone wrote it when Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas called for an end of the Culture Wars in 1999 and someone else wrote it when the late David Kuo complained of GOP hypocrisy in 2006. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It did not matter whether or not Russell Moore believes that he actually represents a sea-change in SBC political engagement compared to the Richard Land era, the template was already in place. Indeed, when Russell Moore retires from the ERLC in 2038, I’ll bet his successor’s “new tone” gets written up as well.

The question is why Evangelicals have been so keen to triangulate away from the way their forebearers did politics? Its easy to say that leaders like Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson were political rubes who earned their reputation as hatemongers (a point Matt made in his New Evangelical Scandal piece). But given the vitriol heaped on their generally irenic successors—folks like Louie Giglio and Al Mohler—could it be that the old guard wasn’t quite as mean-spirited as the narrative portrays them?

It is understandable why a leader replacing someone who has been widely-characterized as hateful and belligerent would try to gain a hearing with critics by saying, “Hey, I’m a nice guy.” But just once, I would love to hear someone say, “Yeah, that guy you didn’t like was awesome, and I hope to be as courageous as him.”

Maybe in 2038.

No, the GOP is Not Losing Young Christians

Monday, Matt Lewis penned the latest in a long line of the GOP is losing young Christians articles. It is actually a superior piece to many of its kind because it considers how the Christian mandate to “live at peace with all men” weighs against unchecked descent into no-holds-barred political combat. Unless care is taken, Christian politicos may become “wise as serpents, but no longer innocent as doves,” Lewis writes, “For what shall it profit a man if he should win an election, but lose his soul.”

But as poignant as that reminder is, Lewis uses it to support his thesis that “many young Christians are choosing to be conscientious objectors in the culture wars” because  they find “political involvement, no matter how pure the original motives, [to be] a corrupting force.” Appearing on Morning Joe to talk about his column, he proceded to explain that some of these disaffected folks may join the Democrats provided they “field candidates like Obama” while others will disengage from political activity altogether. Jonathan Merritt went even further writing that young Christians turned off by “the dumpster fire that is Washington D.C.” were going to make the GOP pay in the coming years.

The reality is that young evangelicals have not actually moved substantially away from the GOP during the Obama era. Indeed, I am so firmly convinced of this fact that I have no choice but to bust out a couple of homemade infographics. (Drastic measures, I know.)

First, extrapolating from the exit polls and final turnout, my first infographic shows how many white Evangelicals voted for Bush, Bush, McCain, and Romney respectively.EvVote

Just to be clear, that’s the Romney bar peaking higher than any other bar. And Obama’s much-touted Evangelical appeal does not look like much of a blip on the trendline. If you’re looking for decline or white Evangelicals abandoning the GOP, I sure don’t see it here.

This is doubly surprising because it isn’t like McCain and Romney were Evangelical dream candidates. McCain once called Evangelicals in politics “agents of intolerance” and Romney was a “Satan and Jesus are brothers” Mormon. But despite these warts, Obama has proven unable to make any significant inroads in appealing to White Evangelicals.

Yes, there are some Evangelicals who voted for Obama but there were Evangelicals who voted for Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale, too. Over time, there has been a persistent—though perhaps slowly evaporating—minority of Evangelical voters who support Democrats in presidential elections. This doesn’t prove that Obama has proven to possess any specific electoral appeal.

Measuring Young Evangelicals Against Their Peers

But the stats in my first graph are about all white Evangelicals as a whole. Isn’t it the young Christians who are being lost by the GOP?

There is an oft-quoted factoid that Obama did twice as well with young Evangelicals in 2008, than Kerry had in 2004. Here’s an infographic featuring that fact courtesy of the New York Times.

This is true, but, as they say, context is everything. We shouldn’t be looking at the young Evangelical shift in a vacuum. Bush’s narrow reelection over Kerry and Obama’s clear-cut victory over McCain were very different elections. Indeed, young people as a whole voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin after only narrowly going for Kerry four years before.

Thus focusing on Obama doubling Kerry’s support among young Evangelicals misses that even at the height Obamamania Evangelical young people were still much more likely to vote GOP than everyone else their age. Behold, here comes another infographic.2004-2008-compare

I’ve listed the Democrat percentage by age group in both the 2004 and 2008 election. White Evangelicals are the dark gray bars and all voters are represented in orange. Thus, the amount of orange we see represents the gap between overall support for the Democratic candidate to white Evangelical support. For example, in 2008, Obama received 32 percent from 18-29 white Evangelicals while receiving 66 percent from 18-29 year olds overall, resulting in an enormous 34-point gap.

As you can see, in both 2004 and 2008, the youngest age cohort has the biggest orange bar. That means that young Evangelicals are the most counter culturally Republican; they are the furthest to the right of the political center of gravity of their peers.

Unfortunately, I cannot update this to reflect the 2012 data. The exit poll consortium did not see fit to supply the necessary crosstabulations for religion and age. However, an election eve poll showed white Evangelical 18-29 year olds going for Romney by an overwhelming 80-15 margin while Obama ended up winning 60 percent of all 18-29 year olds. It is a pretty safe bet that those orange bars wouldn’t be any smaller.

———

It isn’t that any of this is very new to the attentive Mere Orthodoxy reader. Let’s just add this data to all that has been ably said here by Messrs. Anderson, Walker, and Domenech about the political proclivities of young Evangelicals. I still think that Matt Lewis’ piece was a great volley in this conversation and hope merely that my pretty infographics serve to remind that despite all the chatter, young Evangelicals are still very reliable Republican voters.

Spurgeon’s Tea Party Politics

This week, the Reformed Evangelical blogosphere was rocked* by the stunning revelation that their hipster-beard-wearing, homiletical heartthrob Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a pinko Commie.**

(* or at least mildly intrigued)

(** or, to be precise, a “liberal”)Spurgeon near the end of his life.

Jonathan Merritt’s post, Spurgeon: How the politically liberal preacher became a conservative paragon, was very clear in its intent. Merritt, a man of the left himself, wanted to highlight the embarrassing inconsistency of today’s conservative Christians appropriating Spurgeon’s theology as their own, but ignoring his politics. On the authority of two historians, Tom Nettles and Bill Leonard, Merritt presents Spurgeon as a “left winger” who was “anti-war, anti-imperial [and a] poverty advocate” and “loved the American idea of separation of church and state.”

In contrast:

Today, conservative Christians in America often find themselves among those who have a weaker view of the separation of church and state, favor individual responsibility over poverty alleviation by the government, and often support war. It’s not difficult to imagine that Spurgeon would have opposed the political positions of many conservative Christians today–for example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2003 resolution endorsing the Iraq War.

Merritt, satisfied that his point had been neatly made, turned to Twitter to tweak those inconsistent conservatives. “Don’t expect many RTs from my Reformed friends,” he tweeted.

Au contraire! This is precisely the type of article that lights my fire. When you agree with someone 95% of the time, it makes that final five percent fertile ground for exploration and discovery. For me, Spurgeon demonstrates a passion for Christ and very similar theological commitments. Thus, if he held political positions dissimilar to my own, I may be able to discover a blind spot in my own thinking. What could be more stimulating than that?

Unfortunately, Merritt doesn’t actually demonstrate that Spurgeon’s politics would be unwelcome within today’s Evangelical Right. Continue reading

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Modern Literature?

Back during the halcyon days of the Bush administration (ha!), I read a piece in Touchstone which bemoaned the dearth of Evangelical modern literature. Evangelical professor David T. Williams surveyed the fiction produced by his tradition over the past century and found a great deal of “schlock and kitsch” but nothing “recognized as having literary value by the literary world.” Williams noted Christian authors from other traditions finding success, specifically Flannery O’Connor, and attributed this lack to several hallmarks of Evangelical doctrine and practice:

Our failure to encourage our people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; and our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate, with our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.

I chafed.

I chafed mostly because I believe that, despite the prevailing stereotype, Evangelical aesthetics are well formed. For example, the musical tradition of Evangelicalism, from Watts and Wesley to Tomlin and Getty easily excels that of other streams of the Christian tradition. Why wouldn’t there be Evangelical writers producing creative works of fiction as well?Chris Tomlin

But while the piece stuck in my craw, I struggled to formulate a reply. After all, I couldn’t name a current Evangelical literary star either. Finally, this month, two articles combined to explain this phenomenon.

First, in First Things, Randy Boyagoda penned a piece with the following provocative beginning:

I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.

These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.

Boyagoda admits that every strain of Orthodox Christianity is batting .000 when it comes to producing a living literary giant. (Paul Elie made much the same point in the New York Times last year.)

Perhaps then, the failure of an Evangelical darling to emerge shouldn’t be so much of a surprise. Maybe the problem lies in the institution of modern literature itself. Continue reading

Why Cities Matter: A Review

My latest post on hating suburbia precipitated a great number of substantive responses. I want to continue the discussion by reviewing the new book, Why Cities Matter by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard. Both men are pastors of Gospel Coalition-ish churches in Boston and Silicon Valley, respectively. They are also aspiring Kellerites. Not only does Keller pen the foreword, but there are nearly twenty citations to his book Center Church, several attributions to his articles like “A Biblical Theology of the City,” and even one reference to his unpublished notes.

The book’s title encapsulates its purpose; Um and Buzzard endeavor to explain why cities are important to the economic and evangelistic future of the world. They do this with both sociological data on how and why cities are centers of power, culture, and worship, and then theological reflection on God’s view of cities.Why-Cities-Matter

Their theological insight takes the form of a biblical word-study of “city” from Genesis to Revelation. It is not exactly the most contextually sensitive of readings. For example, they write that Jesus ministered in an “undeniably urbanized environment” because he makes reference to courts, market squares, and interest-bearing accounts, and they write that Paul’s letters are “even more urban than we think” in that they are “written from cities to cities… [so Paul] does not need to argue for the necessity of ministry to cities.” For those of you scoring at home, Jesus is urban even though he’s in the countryside because he mentions cities, and Paul is urban even though he doesn’t really mention cities because he is in the city. Like proverbial men with hammers, they certainly see a great number of nails.

I wish this was the only absurdity in their biblical study of cities, but it is actually typical. Other exegetical stretches include: “Eden may well have included buildings,” “God is the ultimate, creative, entrepreneurial urban planter,” and “When God’s people’s commitment to the urban mandate fizzled out, he personally took up responsibility for the mission, took on human flesh, and was born into the city (Luke 2: 11).” FACT: According to scholars, the population of the City of David at the time of Jesus’ birth was 300 – 1000. I had touched on this odd exegetical phenomenon in my first piece on Metro-Evangelicals, but the sloppiness continues to amaze.

The remainder of the book contains helpful missiological advice for reaching cities and it is here that Um and Buzzard hit their stride. They counsel avoiding twin temptations of city living: “overadapting” by conforming one’s life to the culture of the city or “underadapting” by privatizing one’s faith in order to be approved by peers. One technique they suggest is to understand the storyline of your city—that is, the dreams and cultural values of your locale—and rewrite it with a Gospel ending.

The gospel doesn’t eradicate a city’s story, but it brings completeness to it. Once a city’s story has been challenged, it must be retold. And it must be retold to show that a city’s story can only find a happy ending through Jesus’s substitutionary resolution and completion of the themes of the city’s story line. The gospel resolves the thickening tension in the city’s narrative, and shows that resolution, relief, and rest are to be found only in Jesus Christ.

This is wonderful advice, but it would seem equally applicable in urban, suburban, or rural environments, which brings me to the chief weakness of the book.

Equivocating on the Meaning of “City”

From the outset of the book there is ambiguity as to the definition of “city.” Keller’s foreword lays out some facts about the increasing importance of cities. He quotes the CEO of Gallup that “as goes the leadership of the top 100 American cities, so goes the country’s economic future.” Continue reading