Post-Partisan Evangelicals and the Culture Wars: An Attempt at Clarification

David French has posted an “open letter” to post-partisan evangelicals that’s bound to get a lot of attention because, well, that’s what “open letters” are designed to do.  The whole piece tells his story of becoming a card carrying member of the “religious right” after his early days of thinking that the previous generation had gotten it wrong.  The payoff:

So, “post-partisan” Christians, please ponder this: First, as the price for your new path, are you willing to forego any effective voice at all for unborn children?  Are you willing to keep silent when the secular world demands your silence?  After all, that is the true price of non-partisanship — silence.  Second, if you believe that a more perfect imitation of Christ (more perfect than the elders you scorn) will lead to more love and regard for the Church, consider this: No one was more like Christ than Christ, and he wound up on a cross with only the tiniest handful of followers by his side.

Follow Jesus, yes, but don’t think for a moment that will improve your image, and don’t be surprised if He takes you down much the same path He took the generation before you.

I tend to agree with my friend Jonathan Fitzgerald that framing discussion around waiting for the “kids to grow up,” so to speak, is the wrong way to go.  Like Fitzgerald, I have no interest in moving on from the idealism of my youth.  It’s idealism, as Chesterton pointed out, that gets things done.  The real difference between my idealism and Fitzgerald’s is that my ideas happen to be true and his, well, you can fill in that blank (wink and nod, Jonathan!).

In fact, I’m not really joking about that.  And that is the plane on which this whole discussion should go forward and why I enjoy talking with those folks like Jonathan and having respectful and invigorating disagreements.  It’s not that I’ve no interest in listening to the voice of wisdom:  I have and I do.  And I’m wary of the sort of media-centric caricatures of the “religious right,” as though the whole thing could be summed up in the person of Jerry Falwell.  And I actually agree with most of the substance of French’s piece, like how if you talk about abortion too much you’re going to get labeled as a “culture warrior.”   But the more important question is what the appropriate shape of Christianity’s public witness should be in a political arena where things are amiss.

What’s missing in all this is clarity.  So let me try to bring some.

Jonathan Merritt advocates for leaving behind the culture wars and the political parties that make them go in law and government.  French rejects that by wholesale affirming the “religious right,” suggesting that the only path forward is going to be the path we’ve already trod.  And therein lies the binary that everyone depends upon for their angst and frustration at the other generation.  Either your a culture warring conservative or you’re (ostensibly) above the fray.

There is at least one more option, though.  Ross Douthat recently wrote a book that critiques the culture wars.  But his solution isn’t political independence:  it’s repudiating what he has called “the partisan mind” while holding on to party affiliation because, well, parties happen to be how things get done in government.

Can someone be a partisan without being infected by “the partisan mind?”  I think so.  We’re trying around here.  And Douthat is himself a good model:  he’s willing to critique his own side (as in the aforementioned essay) but no one thinks he’s going to come out for Obama anytime soon.  No one, anyway, who hasn’t already given their brains over to the debased sort of partisanship that currently drives our political process.  And therein lies the trouble:  the danger with the “partisan mind” is that people have to continually demonstrate their credentials in order for everyone else to feel sufficiently confident that they’re on the “team,” and if they criticize too much they lose their voice.  Which is to say, trying to be partisan without the “partisan mind” may not win someone awards at conservative dinners even if they’ll happily take our donations.

The new path forward for evangelical engagement in politics will often share the political conclusions that the religious right came to.  And it won’t be timid about saying things that the culture not only disagrees with but is downright hostile to.  But it shouldn’t go, I don’t think, the path of “independence” that Merritt prescribes.  I am not convinced that Republicans are quite as committed to, say, overturning Roe as French is.  In fact, I’m more of the opinion that social conservatives are viewed as the idiosyncratic, slightly embarrassing uncles in the Republican world.

Which is why the better path of partisanship is not a wholesale defense of partisanship but rather the understanding that we have a strategic alliance that will break the moment the Republican party ceases to be friendly to our concerns.  We can take that approach, I think, while recognizing that there are substantive differences between the party platforms and their their environments (blessings on you few pro-life Democrats, but the failure of Stupak effectively killed their prospects for the season), differences that justify partisanship without captivity to the “partisan mind.”

 

 

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  • http://danieldarling.com Daniel Darling

    Oddly enough, Matt, I agree with Merritt, French, and yourself on this. Like French, I think we need to continue on in the culture wars insomuch that we fight for justice on things like abortion, etc. However, like Merritt, I think our attitude could be humbler and our lust for power, a “seat at the table” has often hurt our witness and actually hurt the cause. I also think we often go too far in creating enemies out of people and we take up side, partisan issues that are not as important as the main issues. And, lastly, with you I agree that let’s not lose our idealism. I think our idealism, ironically, keeps us from getting so “team-focused” that we drift from the cause we were originally advocating.

    For my money, the best blueprint for this is still Gerson and Wehner’s City of Man. I haven’t seen a better balance than this, though Douthat seems like he’s darn close.

  • Keith

    Matt,

    Nice post. But instead of thinking of the Anderson-Douthat consensus as a “Third Way” forward for Evangelicals, it may be more helpful to realize that there are times and contexts where partisanship is appropriate and others where it is not.

    If we grant that possible solution, then haven’t leading Evangelicals been doing both already? Isn’t that the major takeaway from Shields’ Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right? Sometimes one needs to lead with the “the bad guys are coming” manichean appeal, and other times one ought to reason with his opponents with the utmost of civility. “Culture Warriors” do both.

    So French’s point boils down to “Don’t throw out the appropriate uses of partisan activity to gain illusory reputational gains, besides, your elders are already nuanced.” He’s not really far off from the Anderson-Douthat position; he just doesn’t think it is all that new.

  • http://mshedden.com mshedden

    Granted I’m a Mennonite but why in David French’s post does it sound like a negative thing if we ended up like Jesus?
    Somebody needs a good dose of John Howard YoderL
    Then to follow Jesus does not mean renouncing effectiveness. It does not mean sacrificing concern for liberation within the social process in favor of delayed gratification in heaven, or abandoning efficacy in favor of purity. It means that in Jesus we have a clue to which kinds of causation, which kinds of community-building, which kinds of conflict management, go with the grain of the cosmos, of which we know, as Caesar does not, that Jesus is both the Word (the inner logic of things) and the Lord (“sitting at the right hand”). It is not that we begin with a mechanistic universe and then look for cracks and chinks where a little creative freedom might sneak in (for which we would then give God credit): it is that we confess the deterministic world to be enclosed within, smaller than, the sovereignty of the God of the Resurrection and Ascension.

  • http://notesfromasmallplace.wordpress.com Jake Meador

    Matt – One way of approaching this somewhat obliquely seems to be by expanding our idea of politics beyond the sphere controlled by the two parties and then returning to the idea of the church as a political community. I’ve got more thoughts on that, but I think that’s a place where we really have to start if any discussion about these issues is going to be worth having.

  • William Harris

    You were going so well until the last paragraph. I would encourage thinking this through a little more carefully, especially from the spiritual dimension. Partisanship is a spiritually destructive mindset; it cripples. Talk to your politco friends and see how many get jaded or jump. We really can only participate in politics as we understand it as under the cross, as judged. The moral energy that gives us conviction can easily drive us off the cliff through demonization of the Other. We easily forget that if Christ died for anybody, he died for the SOBs who are our political opponents.

    At a more practical level — far more practical, actually — the reality is that most participate in politics for tribal reasons. I vote D in part because I grew up in a university town, and because my parents came from the prairies hammered by the Depression and rescued by FDR. If that is how people actually vote, then the proximate alliance with one party or the other is simply an erecting of barriers to other “tribes”. And on this eve of Pentecost, it’s hard not to remember that we are commissioned to be witnesses to the Samaritans and Romans, as well as the safe guys in Judea. When evangelicals make the too-easy identification with one party, they shut off the conversation that must go on if we are to be serious about the Good News.

    Partisanship is your deep enemy, a proper Principality (in honor of W Wink). At the same time, some — many– of us will be called to again pick up the craft of politics and policy; there’s no shame in that game. But we do it best, seeing it under the judgement of Christ, who came not to make enemies, but to reconcile enemies by his blood (cf. Eph. 2:13f.).

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