Our latest contribution on this year’s election comes from Dr. Greg Forster.
Russell Moore is right that self-appointed evangelical political leaders are destroying the credibility of American evangelicalism by endorsing Donald Trump. One implication, which Moore doesn’t speak to, is the urgent need for American evangelicals to develop a responsible political witness. These charlatans and hucksters are only able to get into the spotlight because of the vacuum left by the absence of an authentic gospel presence in our culture’s civic forum.
Yes, it’s dangerous to try to build a political witness for the church. The failure of the Religious Right, the bankruptcy of social conservatism and the scandal of evangelical leaders selling their souls for Trump all point to these dangers.
Yet it is fear of these very dangers that has prevented responsible leaders from building an authentic gospel witness to politics. That paralysis has created the vacuum within which fools like James Dobson and Tony Perkins, glory hounds like Eric Metaxas and prostitutes like Ralph “I Need to Start Humping in Corporate Accounts!” Reed operate.
For too long, our only political duty has been to not be Jerry Falwell. Well, it turns out that if all we know how to do is not be Jerry Falwell, the gap is filled by Jerry Falwell, Jr.
It’s a good thing not to be Jerry Falwell, but it isn’t enough. Here are six building blocks American evangelicals need to construct a responsible political witness in the coming generation:
An Agenda Built on Trans-Partisan Moral Commitments
In politics, the goal is not to win elections. That is certainly the goal of political candidates and parties, but it is not the goal of any other political actors. Most groups seeking to influence politics don’t focus their efforts on electing “their people,” or even their allies, to office – and the few that do are usually smart enough to know that this is only a means to a larger end.
If the church is captive to one political party, that party will influence it much more than it influences the party. The same goes for ideological partisanship or any other kind of political captivity.
But there is a deep hunger in polarized, politicized America for trans-partisan moral commitments. The church can articulate principles of justice, mercy, reconciliation, freedom and flourishing that have implications for the social order and are not captive to one or the other side of the political divide. (Often this is a simple matter of avoiding the use of particular terms that have strong partisan connotations; it’s amazing how easy it sometimes is to defuse polarization just by using fresh, baggage-free terminology.)
The goal, when this trans-partisan moral agenda has been articulated, is to persuade or pressure political actors to conform to it. Successful political groups usually advance their causes by building coalitions that welcome all political actors who share their goals, and are equally willing to drop alliances with any who don’t. Even among groups that clearly tend to lean toward one side of the political aisle – the National Rifle Association, for example – willingness to embrace anyone from the other side who reliably supports their position, while rapidly dropping anyone on their own side who doesn’t, is key to their success.
Costly Commitment to Religious Freedom
Evangelicals have always been the world’s biggest supporters of religious freedom. However, our commitment has not always been costly. We have often supported our religious freedom rights much more aggressively than we have supported others’ religious freedom rights. We have sometimes lobbied for laws, and supported court decisions, that grant special rights to religious people and organizations to the detriment of others’ rights.
And we have not often been willing to admit that the American experiment in religious freedom is an experiment. We don’t yet know how to hold a society together without a shared religion. We need cooperative relationships with our non-Christian neighbors to figure it all out together.
When we fight for our own freedom and call that the fight for religious freedom, we lose credibility and set ourselves up in a position of hostility toward our neighbors. We also help make it plausible for people to think that “religious freedom” only means freedom to hold worship services and has no implications for the public square.
Authentic Christian Consensus, not Superficial Centrism
If you want to avoid captivity to either party, the easiest way to do it is by hitting both sides equally hard – the “pox on both your houses” approach – while laying out a centrist agenda. Unfortunately, as is often the case with the easiest way of doing something, this is not an approach that leads to success.
We do have to oppose specific principles and practices that are wrong. But the more generalized desire to attack both sides aggressively on a regular basis, in order to prove that we are not captive to them, becomes counterproductive very quickly. It’s a great way to get lonely fast. It also doesn’t reflect God’s painful path of running towards sinners rather than away from them.
Centrism is also a trap. It lacks integrity – your positions on the issues are determined not by what is true but by what happens to be in the center. And the center will be constantly moving, so centrists have to be constantly moving to follow it. This instability demonstrates their lack of integrity to a watching world, leaving them without credibility. Centrism has a long track record of failure; it is people who know what they really want and stick to it who have a shot at success.
When I say that faithful political witness should stake out moral commitments that are trans-partisan, I don’t mean we have to be on the 50 yard line between the two parties. I mean we should articulate moral commitments in such a way that people can embrace them without having to give up their identity as a Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive, in order to do so.
The next generation of Christian political witness should take its bearings from an authentic consensus in the church that is informed by theology as well as subject matter expertise, and not captive to outside loyalties. And then we should let the chips fall where they may. If the church takes a stand against abortion and one party is on board for that while the other isn’t, fine.
Public Theology from Pastors and Practitioners Alike
American evangelicals have a very anemic theology of public life. The Bible provides a rich source of insight on the relationship between our faith and the structures of human culture and civilization. We are disconnected from historical sources of theological reflection on this scriptural testimony. Moreover, the new challenges of modern pluralism are forcing the church to consider these questions in ways that push us beyond what the history of theology can address.
We need pastors to preach from our pulpits a deep, gospel-centered theology of public life. What are the divine purposes that give structure to our political, economic, and social systems? How has the fall affected those systems, and what does the gospel have to say about our participation in them? We need to pursue the contemporary implications for faithfulness in diverse cultural contexts of the Great Commission, Pentecost, the struggles over Jewish law in the early church, and the eschatological visions of the nations in Isaiah and Revelation.
While pastors provide the church with a firm theological center, serving as professional stewards of the mysteries of God, we also need public theology from practitioners. What does the gospel have to say about how we respond to poverty, abortion, immigration, pornography, and debt? We need theological reflection on that topic not only from pastors but from people in all walks of life and all vocations, every member bringing its distinct and indispensable knowledge and calling to serve the body of Christ.
Institutionalized, Credible, Non-Clerical Leadership
Moore is one of the few evangelical leaders who has firmly and consistently campaigned against the sellout to Trump from the beginning. He is also one of the few evangelical leaders whose full-time job is building a credible political witness. Other prominent evangelical voices who were against Trump from the beginning, like David French, Peter Wehner and Michael Cromartie, are also professionally charged in various ways with maintaining a credible political voice for evangelical Christianity.
This is not a coincidence; it is a critically important pattern. We need many more Christians in positions like this, whose professional calling is to steward such efforts full time. Politics is a domain with specialized knowledge, and we need experts – thinkers and practitioners alike – with mastery of its subtleties.
Only institutionalized, professional political leadership can stand reliably against the shifting winds of fashion and opinion. Only such leadership has a long-term stake in maintaining integrity and credibility, even when it means admitting that there isn’t a winning option in the next election. And only such leadership will be in a position to call out fools and frauds for what they are.
These leaders should not normally be pastors. The ecclesial and civil realms are very different, and it is exceptionally rare for an individual to be gifted in both. The track record of pastors dabbling in politics is not one that inspires confidence.
Moreover, our constant tendency to elevate pastors to political leadership roles signals to our non-Christian neighbors that American evangelicals are not serious about religious freedom. We act like we think the world is a big church.
When I shared this idea with a Roman Catholic friend, he immediately began ribbing me about my desire for a “Protestant magisterium.” I can’t blame him for that – if he’d thrown an equally slow pitch down the center in my direction, I certainly would have swung at it. But in fact Protestants have always believed there is a teaching authority in the church; we just understand its relationship to ecclesial institutions and offices differently than Roman Catholics. Evangelicals should take advantage of the organizational flexibility our theology permits and create new institutions where they are needed – as they are here – while not treating those institutions as infallible.
Public Witness Beyond Politics
There is no hope for Christian success in politics so long as the church’s encounter with culture occurs solely, or even primarily, through politics. Churches also need to be helping do things like rebuild neighborhoods, support job creation and advance public beauty. The church’s credibility depends on this, and so does the right functioning of politics itself.
The church claims that it possesses an authentic revelation from God and that it is the center of God’s supernatural, transformative work in the world renewing humanity. If that claim were true, the church would be an important influence in every domain of human activity. Thus, if people encounter the church solely as a lobbying firm – and a pretty lousy one at that – the claim appears false.
Meanwhile, the main reason our politics is degenerating into an ugly war of raw ambition is because it is less and less constrained by boundaries of trans-partisan moral consensus. The primary thing that keeps politics oriented toward justice, its proper goal, is its reliance upon cultural systems of moral meaning and purpose that are not themselves political. Christian leadership in advancing non-political forms of renewal in our broader culture and civilization may be the best service it can render to our politics.
What I’m proposing will take the work of a generation to reach full development, but an initial form of it could easily be built in time for the 2020 election. That would depend on leaders with resources deciding to prioritize the salvaging of evangelical credibility – just as the Evan McMullin campaign depends on voters deciding to prioritize the salvaging of America’s national honor. Both are causes worthy of the sacrifice.
Greg Forster (PhD, Yale University) is the director of the Oikonomia Network, a visiting assistant professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University, and the author of numerous books and articles.