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.

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  • “””it is fear of these very dangers that has prevented responsible leaders from building an authentic gospel witness to politics”””

    Is this true? Or do they just not know what to do? I am more inclined to beleive this is true; many have been detached from [real] politics for so long they no longer have a vision of how to do it.

    “””it’s amazing how easy it sometimes is to defuse polarization just by using fresh, baggage-free terminology.”””

    +1,000. THANK YOU! Discussion is far too often poisoned by devotion to terminology.

    “””Successful political groups usually advance their causes by building coalitions…”””

    YES! Thank you. Speaking as someone who participates in that process; far too many people are somehow unaware of how coalitions work – and the power of constituency [in a democracy – pretty much the ONLY power]. No constituency = no power = not your ideas. But I can get the Chamber of Commerce and the environmental lawyers to sign onto the same thing! Focus.

    “”” attack … sides aggressively … counterproductive very quickly. It’s a great way to get lonely fast. “””

    This! Criticism is not discussion; it certainly is not advocacy.

    “””Only institutionalized, professional political leadership can stand reliably…”””

    Yes.

    “””Churches also need to be helping do things like rebuild neighborhoods, support job creation and advance public beauty.”””

    Absolutely. Sigh… it very often happens that they come out as vocal opponents to seemingly everything.

    I hope this happens.

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  • You trash experienced men of God in leadership positions because you are not brave enough or knowledgeable enough to defend a vote for Trump “within your own little clic” in order to protect the unborn, freedom of religion, 2nd amendment, and enforced borders against those who have made religious vows to kill us. I understand that being from Yale you are not in touch with reality – a serious handicap, but cowardice before your wife/officemates/whatever is shameful. You remind me of David French who considers both Trump & Hillary evil, yet prefers Hillary because she is smarter — well Satan himself is the ultimate SMART evil based on that logic!!!!

    I have a Masters in Christian Apologetics from New Orleans Baptist Theological seminary. Therefore, Mr. PhD I challenge you to respond to the following analysis in reference to Hillary Clinton:

    WHY IS THE LAST WORLD RULER BEFORE THE ANTICHRIST A WOMAN?

    Throughout history the various world political powers have had male rulers – Egypt had the Pharaohs, Assyria had Sennacherib, Babylon had Nebuchadnezzar, Greece had Alexander, Rome had the Caesars, and on it goes. Uniquely though at the end times we have a female ruler introduced as:

    MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH (Rev. 17:1-7 NKJ)

    Babylon is referred to more than any other city in the Bible except Jerusalem. The name Babylon means “confusion as by mixing up” and the name Jerusalem means “possession of Peace”. The meaning of confusion in reference to Babylon is very strong in the Jewish cultural mind. When Peter wrote from Rome, a city with all kinds of cultural and religious confusion from all around the world, he referred to this great Western Civilization capital as “Babylon”.

    She (i.e., the church) who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark. (1 Pet. 5:13 NAS)

    And today America has become the great and powerful multi-cultural capital of Western Civilization just like the former Rome where anyone can create their own “egocentric idolatrous opinion” about what is right and what is wrong. Is it not ironic that we as a nation founded on Biblical principles have become the end times Babylon!

    Let us look at how well Babylon in Revelations fits as a description of the USA today:

    1) Military super power – “reigns over the kings of the earth” Rev 17:18
    2) High standard of living – “adorned with gold and precious stones” Rev 17:4
    3) Great capitalist merchants – “merchants of the earth have become rich” Rev 18:3
    4) Leading other nations in sex industry – “all nations drink the wrath of her fornication.” Rev 14:8
    5) Separated by seas from world- “sailors on the sea, stood at a distance” Rev 18:17
    6) Abortionist – “drunk with the blood of the holy ones” Rev 17:6
    7) Feminism – “she says in her heart, `I sit as queen, I will not see sorrow.’ Rev 18:7
    8) Drug culture – “by your sorcery all the nations were deceived” Rev 18:23

    Let us look at how well the destruction of Babylon (USA) fits a nuclear holocaust:

    1) Destruction in one hour – “in one hour such great riches came to nothing” Rev 18:17
    2) Hail – “great hail from heaven fell” Rev 16:21
    3) Earthquakes – “great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth” Rev 16:18
    4) Waters contaminated – “rivers and springs of water became blood” Rev 16:4
    5) Nuclear winter/dust – “his kingdom became full of darkness” Rev 16:10
    6) Nuclear cloud – “smoke of her burning” Rev 18:18

    So what are the scenario of events leading up to Babylon’s destruction that we can ascertain?

    First, the great harlot of Babylon will have power on all seven continents as scripture states “the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.” This end times ruler woman partners with the beast, since the beast carries her (via contributions to the Clinton Foundation?):

    But the angel said to me, “Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her,” (Rev. 17:7)

    We can deduce that this beast describes the presence of evil governments which rule or have ruled over Jerusalem. The kingdoms which have ruled (and will rule) Jerusalem in chronological order are inserted for your convenience as follows:

    “There are also seven kings. Five have fallen (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece), one is (Rome), and the other (Islam) has not yet come. And when he (Islam) comes, he must continue a short time. And the beast that was (evil Satan), and is not (Satan is limited by gospel preaching), is himself also the eighth (Islam), and is of the seven (Islam), and is going to perdition.” (Rev 17:10-11)

    The clues for Satan as the “influence” behind this beast is presented with the scripture:

    “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to destruction. (Rev 17:8)

    The term beast can be thought of as “conscienceless” government or religious system (ISIS) with no regard for the people’s benefit. This Islamic link to the beast of Revelation is important to understand since the Islamic beast hates and will destroy the great harlot and burn her with fire.

    And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire. (Rev. 17:16)

    I think there is little doubt that the Islamic ISIS hates the liberal secular Hillary Clinton and her lap dogs from the news media. Her chief of staff, Huma Abedin, is the daughter of the Saudi professor who wrote the book on applying Islamic Sharia Law to women and children.

    The BIG QUESTION is – Will we at this time elect a female ruler, Hillary Clinton?

    He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming quickly.” Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus! (Rev. 22:20 NKJ)

    • hoosier_bob

      I didn’t realize that SBC seminaries handed out degrees in Hal Lindsey.

      • I have corrected the PhD in the error of his election comments that he may benefit. Hoosier Bob you are welcome to correct my facts above. But I would remind you of:

        Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the SCORNFUL; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night. (Ps. 1:1-2 NKJ)

    • Christopher Berke

      lemme see if i get this…. by your logic, if we elect hillary, then the anti-christ comes next. but if we elect trump, then the anti-christ comes later. (i.e. voting for trump is kicking the ‘end times’ can down the road). sounds like you think that we can change when Christ will return. so much for “god’s timing”.

      in all seriousness, the whore of Babylon in the church itself – not a literal woman. she has been around (arguably) since the western catholic church.

  • hoosier_bob

    “Yet it is fear of these very dangers that has prevented responsible leaders from building an authentic gospel witness to politics.”

    Can you provide an example or two to support this averment? I was a part of various evangelical (PCA) churches for about 15 years. None of my pastors had much knowledge (or interest) in formulating arguments that would resonate well within a pluralistic, secular society. They were far more caught up fraternal debates within the PCA, e.g., age of the earth, women in leadership, etc.

  • Dave Boettcher

    “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”
    And:
    “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 specifics, definitions and methods to accomplish the goals are missing from the analysis. Consequently, what is said is useless dribble. Put some meat on the bones, then there may be something to write home about.

    This sounds similar to allocating scarce resources. Of course, this is political decision.

    Lastly, no mention of the life and social change brought by the Gospel. Which is the key ingredient in making change.

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