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.

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  • Matthew Loftus

    Methinks the lady doth protest too much. I mean, I agree with you: like most journalism that is not investigative, longform journalism, I think that it’s silly to indulge canards about prominent Christians who are shockingly not knuckle-dragging idiot loudmouths and may be tumbling headlong into a bevy of culturally approved positions.

    However, I think people triangulate because conservative evangelicals continue to say really terrible things (most recent good example is that Tennessee congressman who was getting millions in agricultural subsidies while quoting the Bible as he argued that we should cut food stamps, but you can just cross-check any anti-Obama-meme-generating group on Facebook against religious preferences.) Rush Limbaugh & Ann Coulter may not speak for urbane, sophisticated conservatives like you & me, but they sure do seem to speak for millions of Christians. I think that we will continue to see this sort of triangulation until there is a broad consensus among evangelical Christians on thoughtful, workable policy prescriptions for issues like healthcare, poverty, & immigration held as tenaciously as our strategies on abortion & gay marriage.

    • Keith Miller

      I know this was merely tangential to your point, but are you really upset with Rep. Fincher for quoting Paul’s rule he gave to the Thessalonians, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” in the context of food stamp policy? His acceptance of farm subsidies, while lame (I hate those subsidies), doesn’t mean that he ought not reason about how our welfare policies should be structured. Right?

      • Matthew Loftus

        Yup, I am upset, because he assumes that millions of people getting food stamps are “unwilling to work.” I don’t think he’s done his hermeneutical (or policy) legwork there, and I think using that verse as such is as foolish, impudent, and dishonoring to God as a pacifist who says that we shouldn’t keep a standing army because Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.

      • http://www.lambpower.com/ Steve Dawson

        My issue is that there are a substantial number of people who do work at Walmart, McDonalds and the like who do receive SNAP because their pay is low and they can’t get the hours. What we should be doing is fining companies when a *substantial* portion of their workforce can’t afford to feed themselves because of low wages and insistence on keeping their workers part time. I’m tired of subsidizing multi billion dollar corporations who could well afford to fork over the extra cash.

      • MorganGuyton

        Wow. So you really think it’s legit to cut food aid for working poor? Yeah you are just as awesome as the old guard evangelicals.

        • Keith Miller

          Come now, Morgan. I said that we should reason about the best way to structure our food aid policies. Surely you agree that there is such a thing as a “helping” program that ends up “hurting” its intended recipients. It isn’t a “more is always better” kind of issue, it is a matter of prudence.

    • r262

      When throwing out names, it is best you know what they stand for. Few Christians would say Coulter speaks for them, given that her tone is more along the lines of Neil King. I am in no way defending Coulter. I often find her shrill and unkind in her approach and I have often disagreed with her lately. It is perfectly acceptable to critique others, but we need to make sure the critiques are accurate. Simply making certain names the proverbial bogey-men to make points is what the media has done to people like Reed, Dobson, etc. as stated in the piece.

  • Demon Teddy Bear

    Good article. The object of the WSJ stuff is simply to wear down opposition, of course.

  • Mark E. Lassiter

    Here! Here! Great post, Keith…

  • Luke W

    Why is the WSJ to blame on this? The end of the post came around to this point at the end — every decade or so when the old strategy has worn thin, newly installed Christian leaders take the stage and promise to “tone down the rhetoric.” The broken record isn’t the media — it’s us.

    Better question: why is it difficult for conservative Christians in America to maintain a caring, welcoming posture in the public square? Even when leaders call for a gentler approach, we can’t seem to stay out of the trenches of culture wars for very long. Why is that?

    • Keith Miller

      Luke,

      Let me put it this way: I believe Russell Moore is displaying a “caring, welcoming posture,” yet will soon be found guilty of venturing in the “trenches of culture wars” by non-Evangelicals who disagree with him. This will happen based on the substance of Moore’s positions even if his new tone never alters. Unless, conservative Christians are willing to stop being conservative Christians, they will be condemned as culture warriors. That’s the way the game is being played.

      • Luke W

        Keith–

        As someone who’s been in the trenches of the culture wars, I have to disagree. I’ll use my experience with the Pro-Life cause as an example. I not only attending several of the annual March for Life rallies in DC, I was on the platform as a musician. I met Nellie Gray and a host of heavyweights in that movement and even knew some of them personally. And while I haven’t changed my mind one iota on the issue of abortion, I believe the approach is misguided. Here’s why: if the movement succeeded and abortion was outlawed today, our churches would celebrate. It would be declared a victory in the battle to bring America back to God. The next uptick in the stock market would be seen as evidence of the God’s renewed blessing. Leaders of the pro-life movement would be honored at special dinners with plaques and applause.

        And tomorrow, just as many broken people would find themselves in a desperate place where abortion seems like the best solution. And isn’t that the real, heartbreaking reality of a fallen world that the church should address: the fact that anyone would ever want an abortion? But I’m confident that the ever-present brokenness of the lost would not dampen our celebration. We would be too busy patting ourselves on the back.

        A quarter of a million people attended the last March for Life rally I saw. What if all that enthusiasm and energy was redirected to helping pregnant teens and investing in adoption services? How many churches bussed people to DC that year but have never volunteered for their local women’s shelter or crisis hotline? What if next year, they did those things instead?

        Our focus on political solutions reveals the smug self-righteousness of our hearts. Sadly, I would sleep better tonight if I knew that other people were compelled by law to live the way I want them to. It’s every Pharisee’s fantasy. But that constant, public finger-pointing at how others live is the ugliness the world finds repulsive. It’s why they take glee when a Christian leader falls. And it’s why, when someone finds themselves desperate and broken in their sin, the church is often the last place they’d go for help.

        We are not labelled “cultural warriors” because we follow Christ. It’s because we’ve taken the role of shrill moralists in the public dialogue who rarely demonstrate the compassion of Christ because we’re too busy picketing sinners.

        • Keith Miller

          I see that our disagreement is fundamental. You disapprove not only of the tone used by Christians participating in politics, but of the very participation itself. In contrast, I believe that Christian political action need not be an exercise in self-righteousness, but can fueled by neighbor love and a passion to see justice and mercy abound in our commonwealth.

          • Luke W

            Just to be clarify, I only disagree with the Conservative Christian movement’s focus on political victory as the ultimate solution. I’m not against Christians working in politics – just the misguided belief that changing laws will turn hearts toward God.

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