I’m pleased to publish this essay by Susannah Black reviewing Dr. Russell Moore’s recent Erasmus Lecture given last weekend in New York City.
On Monday night I got on the E train in Forest Hills and headed to the Union League Club on East 37th Street to hear Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, announce the end of the Religious Right as a political force in America.
So that was interesting.
This was, of course, the Erasmus Lecture: First Things’ signature annual lecture; a sort of State of the Nation or Setting of the Agenda for politics and religion in America, straight to your computer’s livestream from Murray Hill in Manhattan. It’s been going on for 29 years now, and past speakers have included Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop Timothy Dolan; past subjects have included Islam and Christianity; the crisis of conservative Catholicism in the age of Francis; the development of Catholic moral teaching; genealogies of modernity… the gamut of the topics of conversation that those who can’t help but talk about politics and religion at the dinner table have been talking about for the past quarter century plus.
The Deserved Failure of the Religious Right
Moore’s core point was the failure—the deserved failure—of the 1980s model of the “religious right:” the kind of involvement in politics marked by the Moral Majority; the Jerry Falwell-style activism that was theologically shallow and, often, corrupt. Dr. Moore reminded us of the former world: where American Evangelical churches were used as a power base by the Republican Party; where Christian political analysis was drowned in an addiction to identifying Saddam Hussein as Antichrist: a shrill, populist, irrational, embattled fundamentalist politics that deserved to die.
This is the Christianity that has led us, said Moore, to a situation where Christian leaders have made excuses for Donald Trump; have been so unable to disentangle themselves from the Republican party that they have become its shills; have allied themselves with a man whose alt-right supporters are, many of them, a genuine resurgence of right-wing paganism that ought to lead many left-wing pagans to think very carefully about what they have rejected when they’ve rejected Christianity’s teachings about a common human nature and the duty and centrality of loving one’s enemy.
For what it’s worth, I’m convinced that many of the Christian leaders who have voiced support for Trump have done so not from a general thralldom to Republican politics but from a specific sense of being held hostage by the fact of the Supreme Court. “Vote for our candidate or the baby gets it” is a very real part of the dynamic of individual conscientious decisions to support Trump. For those whose core ethical and activist commitments are to ending abortion, this is not a stupid or naive way to think. But it is a dreadful situation.
The Christian politics that have gotten us here are the Christian politics of Moore’s youth. He was, he said, introduced to a wider Christianity through C.S. Lewis. Here was Christianity that was not Americanist, that was rational, that was rooted in history.
The Invisible Church and Political Questions
Embracing this Christianity, rejecting fundamentalism, Moore also embraced what is essentially a more quietist, ecclesiocentric vision of what it means to be a Christian in the public sphere. This is at its heart a very traditionally Baptist way of seeing the world: To be Christian is to be outside of political questions. It is to be, as a member of the invisible Church, over against the Kingdoms of this earth.
This is the kind of vision of Christianity that in its more radical incarnations includes people like Stanley Hauerwas; the vision that sees all political bodies as, more or less, Rome, which is, more or less, Babylon. The more academically inclined people who think this way talk a lot about Empire, read William Cavanaugh, and like Dorothy Day because of her anarchism. Sometimes they are Mennonites. When they are Catholics, they are the sort of Catholics whom Pater Edmund Waldstein identifies here as radical Augustinians, who “tend to absorb nature too much into grace, leading in the direction of a sort of anarchism that denies the legitimacy of earthly power.”
As well as this radical-Reformation theological ground, though, Moore’s rejection of politics now is, one can see, driven by a fear that all Christian political involvement will devolve into identifying Saddam Hussein as Antichrist. He is happy about the depoliticization of the church:
“There are no twenty-two year-old John Hagees. This is not because of liberalization. The next generation of these evangelicals pack orthodox confessional universities and seminaries, are planting orthodox confessional churches with astounding velocity. The evangelicals who are at the center of evangelical vitality are also the least likely to be concerned with politics. Again, this is not because they are liberal but because they keep a priority on the gospel and the mission that they do not wish to lose. The leaders they read and listen to are also often fairly indifferent to politics. … Those who do care about politics, and who lead populist movements, tend to be theologically vacuous, tied to populist “God and Country” appeals that seem simultaneously idolatrous and angry to younger Christians, and often form a kind of “protection racket” seeking to silence Christian voices as “liberal” who wish to speak about such matters as racial justice.”
Let us grant for the moment that this is an entirely accurate picture of these young evangelicals: It is at least the picture that Dr. Moore wants to see. He likes this picture because he doesn’t want to go back to abrasive and hectoring Americanist Christian politics of his youth. This is a decent and sane instinct. These politics were built on, ironically, something like a mutation of the logic of Baptist revivalism: The whole of the nation becomes a camp meeting, and America, the prodigal son, is called to repent, to return to its Fathers and to the Constitution. The assumption is built in that to return to these fathers is to return to the Fathers of the Faith, and that to return to the Constitution is to return to a text that can’t possibly be in conflict with the Bible. But these assumptions are so wrong that the only return that could even in principle be made is to a superficial kind of good behavior, founded on sentiment and on symbolic affirmations of patriotism—the very things that Dr. Moore is so appalled by, and from which he rightly turns in disgust.
The Polis and Virtue
To say that this civic revivalism is a distortion is not, however, to say that the polis has nothing to do with virtue: It does. And it does to a far greater degree than modern God-and-country Evangelicals would be comfortable with. The libertarian “freedom” to which they are so often committed, which they patriotically call for, is quite often nothing more than a rejection of the common good— a rejection of the genuinely political, and thus a kind of civil antinomianism which corresponds to the theological antinomianism to which this kind of Evangelical revivalism is prone. Part of this comes from a wrong understanding of what it means to be converted: fleeing from what they take to be exclusively Roman Catholic soteriology, Protestants of this flavor have sometimes denied that there is any actual change that takes place in the believer such that we can obey; fleeing from a classical Christian understanding of common grace, they tend to deny that the law of a state can be a teacher of both those who are Christian and not Christian; they tend to deny that the law can or should do much at all.
What the God-and-country abrasive evangelicals reject for libertarian reasons, Dr. Moore rejects for an (attempted) return to a more consistent traditional anabaptist political theology. But the odd thing is that his stance here is actually a rejection of the good he found in Lewis. To reject reasoning together in favor of a bias towards speaking prophetically to power is to reject the vision of the common sense of Christianity that Lewis emphasized. It is to reject the lessons of the Abolition of Man, and to reject the natural law tradition.
It is even to reject politics. Why is this a problem? It has to do with a commitment to how things actually are—to reality as it is described in the Bible and experienced in the world. It has to do with Christ’s claim to be known and honored as the King of New York and not just as the King of Heaven. But there’s more.
To reject politics is also to reject the idea that we can reason with each other—that Christians and non-Christians can do so, that this is something that all humans do. To be sure, Dr. Moore does not consistently reject philosophical reasoning: “We need public arguments,” he says. “We need philosophical persuasion. We need political organizing.”
Christian political speech cannot be exclusively prophetic.
There is, however, a significant “but.” “But behind that, we must have consciences formed by a prophetic word of “Thus saith the Lord.”” This prophetic stance is his baseline:
“What we have to offer is more akin to the abbot in the dystopian novel A Canticle for Leibowitz who in seeking to persuade a woman not to euthanize her child, ultimately realizes that the most important thing he could say is “I, a priest of God, adjure thee.” When, as he puts it, God’s priest was overruled by Caesar’s traffic cop, the narrator tells us, “Never to him had Christ’s kingship seemed more distant.” In an age suspicious of all authority outside of the self, the appeal to a word that carries transcendent authority can be just distinctive enough to be heard, even when not immediately embraced.”
There is something not entirely wrong about this, but still—First Things was founded on the idea that the eternal law of God speaks not just through the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and not just through the pages of Scripture, but through the natural law as well, the law written on the heart; the law that is accessible to public reason. I almost hesitate to say this, but it seems to me that even this way of thinking about speaking prophetically does not quite do justice to the facts of the matter: Christ’s kingship, God’s rule, is very precisely not only through prophetic “pronouncements,” and those pronouncements— the Ten Words on Sinai, paradigmatically— are very precisely not voluntarist, arbitrary expressions of divine will, but are related to our own natures and to His. Remember Nathan and David and the story of the lamb: When the prophets speak to the kings, they speak to remind those kings of what by their consciences, by their reason, by their natures as men, and by the nature of the duties involved in sovereignty, they already half-know.
Moore’s notion of Christians speaking in the public sphere seems to be almost exclusively church people, churchmen, speaking prophetically against the state. A Christian literally in politics, in power, is deeply weird to him and weird along the same angle as a Christian reasoning with a “prince” rather than speaking prophetically to him. A society where Christians have a role other than speaking prophetically and living private church lives would, I think, freak him out.
The antipolitical stance that goes along with this prophetic stance carries another problem too. Here’s the thing: Many of us, many Christians, have many, many, many non-Christian friends and family members. We are bound to them with the kinds of human ties of common life that are the seeds of political association. We do projects with them. I’ve recently just cleaned out my basement, for example, alongside my family, who are not Christians. Then we made pot roast. We laughed and strategized and were human together. To deny that Christians can act politically in the world, to say that worldly politics is wicked only, seems to me to imply that all friendship, all collaboration, all common life with non-Christians is fake.
There’s another problem, this one less relational, though not less important. To say that Christians can only act politically or can speak to politicians in a prophetic mode implicitly denies that we can read or understand history as history. There’s a weird balance to be struck here: We mustn’t shove God out of post-New-Testament history. One of the reasons that we should read books like Hilaire Belloc’s Europe and the Faith is the sense he gives of God not having stopped caring about nations after the birth of the Church: God acts in history in the birth and adventures of the nations too. Warren Carroll does this in a more lurid and cheeseball way in his jillion-page History of Christendom.
But the supernatural element to history must not drown our ability to understand it in common with our non-Christian fellow memory-bearing humans. Ordinary historical understanding, ordinary research, ordinary political history counts too. And to reject politics is to reject this kind of common remembering. We need both.
Do we have a basis for common discourse with our non-Christian neighbors?
His backing away from right reason as the basis of common discourse between Christians and non-Christians parallels his implied rejection of the naturalness and inevitability of politics, and this was, I think, evident in his response to one of the questions that followed his talk. Two of the Junior Fellows were lurking in the back of the room with microphones; people raised their hands; Rusty Reno chose from among them, and one of the people chosen was Leah Libresco. Leah Libresco Sargeant, I mean– she’s just married the third Junior Fellow.
Leah’s question seemed to me to be an eminently sensible followup to his general theme: “People find it easy to get involved in politics because they are directly invited to do so,” she said. “What are some helpful concrete things that we can do in the next two weeks before the election to share love?”
It was a pitch for the Libresco Option, which as I understand it is a kind of casserole-based model of community formation: dinner parties and cupcakes and Arcadia readthroughs for the sake of the Kingdom. It is one of my very favorite Options on the whole Island of Manhattan, and I have benefitted from it personally.
And Dr. Moore, confronted with this Option, fumbled it. There’s nothing to be done, he said, more or less. Not in the next two weeks. Because despite what he had said and despite what Leah had asked, he was still thinking in terms of electoral politics. Then he corrected himself: Well, he said (and I paraphrase) you could read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and find out why it is useless to try to persuade people of things rationally. He’d missed Leah’s point.
But here’s the other point: To gather people around a table to read a play, to have a dinner party… it may be a bit too much to say that these are political activities. But they are the results of that “gregarious” nature which, as Dr. Moore, who has surely read his Aristotle, knows, is the root of politics. Christians cannot not be political any more than they cannot not be human, and the resounding success of Leah’s Tom Stoppard readthroughs is evidence thereof. If we get together over a potluck dinner to play a board game or a parlor game, we are enacting the most basic kind of political association: We agree on the rules of the game, we enjoy each other’s company. As we bring food to the table, we are at least hopefully oriented towards the common good of the party, and as we bless it, we are oriented to God.
And here’s the other thing we do around dinner tables, despite ourselves: We talk about politics and religion. We don’t just speak prophetically to each other over the pot-roast and casseroles, either. Rather, we reason together. Through the decades, we build friendships, and we argue. Why do we do this?
“Nature, as we often say,” someone once wrote, “makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust.”
We are as God has made us. Made in the image of one who is reason, we reason together, Christian and non-Christian alike. Made gregarious and made to love, made to need each other, we form friendships and families that are, as the reformer Johannes Althusius has said, the “seedbeds of public associations.” All of these natural associations, aimed at the common good of their participants and deeply delightful to them, are inevitably political—whether or not they are public. To see politics as something to which Christianity can’t speak or by which Christianity is only corrupted is to have both a limited vision of politics and perhaps to betray a suspicion that a Christian is less than a whole man, a whole woman.
But this is not the case. And I don’t think Dr. Moore thinks it is the case either. Rejecting the Religious Right, he would embrace the politics of the dinner party, the collegial, familial, every-day politics that are so central to shaping our characters and our ability to reflect and choose ethically– of course he would. It’s just that he might not call these politics. But with Aristotle, with Althusius, he should; and he should let that Iabel write backwards onto his hopes for national politics. Because what our inability to get away from the politics of our friend-groups and of our families should teach us is that we cannot, and should not, get away from the politics of our polis either.
The answer to bad politics is good politics, not Christians who pretend not to be political, or who (per impossible) divorce their political from their religious selves; the answer to corrupt reason is not a discourse focused on prophetic pronouncement, but rather better reasoning. Dr. Moore’s talk implied otherwise, I think, but I don’t think he’d agree with the implications of what he’s said. Figuring out what these implications are is probably a lifelong process, and one way we do this is to respond to each other’s public arguments, as Dr. Moore was responding to others, as I am responding to him. We serve each other and are bound together in political friendship as we speak over the dinner table, as we write back and forth to each other in the pages of magazines and on blogs, as we attempt to become less muddled, as we attempt to remember alternatives to modern political assumptions, as we look together for a consistent and accurate vision of reality that doesn’t squash God’s claims over the world or our own need for historical, cultural, and civic elbow room. That’s politics, and that’s life, and that’s how we’re made—and thank God for all of it.
Susannah Black received her BA from Amherst College and her MA from Boston University. She is associate editor ofProvidence Magazine and of the Davenant Trust’s journal Ad Fontes, is a founding editor of Solidarity Hall (which now appears as The Dorothy Option on Patheos), and is on the Board of the Distributist Review. Her writing has appeared in First Things, The Distributist Review, Solidarity Hall, Providence, Amherst Magazine, Front Porch Republic, Ethika Politika, The Human Life Review, The American Conservative, and elsewhere. She blogs at Radio Free Thulcandra and tweets at @suzania. A native Manhattanite, she is now living in Queens.