Milliner’s synopsis about my reply to James Davison Hunter is accurate, even if his praise is overstated. And make no mistake–it is.
But because a few folks have asked, I am posting my full remarks to Hunter here. I’ll have a few more thoughts on the exchange (which you can also watch online) and on Hunter’s book later, but in the meantime, if you’ve read it or were at the event, I’d love to hear your feedback.
When I mentioned to a senior member of the Christian community here in Washington D.C. that I was going to be responding to Dr. Hunter tonight, he graciously advised me that I would do well to simply agree with him and take my seat. Whether that was a comment on the accuracy of Professor Hunter’s ideas or my own intellectual acumen I leave to you to decide. But given that I am not prone to using exclamation points, much less acting as one, I will foolishly demure from my elder’s sagacious advice and blaze—as I have often attempted to do—my own way.
I am grateful for Professor Hunter’s remarks, and even more for his remarkable book. There are few works that articulate many of the core frustrations that I have felt as patiently as his did. As a son of an evangelical pastor, a student at an evangelical university, a teacher of evangelical homeschoolers, and a staff member at a young-evangelical church, I have known well the emptiness of the evangelical community and have been a participant in attempts to revive it. I speak , in other words, the language of world-changing fluently.
Not only that, but as a conservative evangelical—an oddity in my circles—I have fought bouts of the nostalgia that Dr. Hunter ably describes, and have spoken passionately about the evils of secularism and the decline of American culture. In my writing, I have attempted to play a minor role in the clash of orthodoxies, agitating for a conservative political position that is motivated by a robust doctrine of creation.
Which is simply to say, I have no little appreciation for Dr. Hunter’s critique of evangelical’s attenuated understanding of how cultures change. St. Paul may have been correct when writing to the Corinthians that our warfare consists of “destroying arguments and lofty opinions,” but he is silent on precisely where and how those battles take place. Dr. Hunter has filled that gap admirably.
Allow me to risk the exclamation point and praise a bit further. Dr. Hunter’s diagnosis that evangelicals have reduced the church’s public witness to the political is perceptive. This reduction is, in Dr. Hunter’s words, an “accommodation to the spirit of our age,” an age characterized by the death of a common culture and the rise of the state in its place. All other institutions—church, family, etc.—derive their self-understanding and identity in response to the state, which inevitably makes the state not simply the object of evangelicalism’s witness, but an instrument by which evangelicals impose their collective will on the world.
As a result of this totalization of politics, the evangelical imagination about how to change the world has been stunted. This was most evident in the recent health care debate, where the only question that was pursued by evangelicals of all ages was which statist solution we should implement to the problems that we face.
What’s more, rather than being motivated by a vision of the good and by care for the world, evangelical politics, left and right, has—according to Dr. Hunter—been fueled by ressentiment, or a strong sense of injury. So conservative evangelicals are held captive by stories of secular institutions who refuse to allow the Christian worldview into their discourse about the nature of the world, stories which are used well to raise funds, but which reinforce a culture of negation and hostility toward those with whom we differ.
As a descriptive account of evangelical political culture, this is hard to disagree with. Indeed, the purported leftward shift among my peers away from issues like gay marriage, abortion, and other traditional social conservative issues has been fueled in my estimation less by a serious and substantive disagreement over policy and philosophical issues, and more by the distaste we have at this sort of political world.
There is a danger that while describing the political culture of evangelicalism we would at the same time relativize the political theories that motivate evangelical political action. In other words, because conservative and liberal evangelicals are both driven by anger and a sense of injury, which option we choose is irrelevant for solving the problem of a totalizing politics. Though I don’t think Dr. Hunter would agree with this, it’s not hard to interpret his book that way.
Dr. Hunter’s own case for navigating this morass is to decouple politics and the public. He writes that “for politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere.” His suggestion for how to bring this about, or “faithful presences,” is an evocative and compelling image of what he terms “post-political” engagement with the world.
But at the risk of being too curmudgeonly, allow me to speak one word in defense of not simply political engagement, but a political engagement that is deeply conservative in its principles–even if it rejects the politics of ressentiment and the will to power as one way of decoupling the public and the political. Here I confess I have a polemic point to make against my peers who are moving leftward in their politics because they are disenchanted by the perceived problems on the political right. That point is this: When Dr. Hunter suggests that “for politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere,” he describes the very essence of political conservatism, even if it is an essence that has been forgotten or neglected in recent years.
I’ll choose two examples, both of which are near to the conservative heart: capitalism and gay marriage. As a theory, the former wants to maintain an independent realm of commerce. Historically, capitalism has been tempered by forms of life that were oriented toward local communities, and by educational methods that were oriented toward the production of virtue, both of which mitigated its excesses. Whether it is sustainable without these is debatable. Even if it is not, evangelicals disaffected by capitalism who turn toward statist solutions simply highlights the loss of our imaginative vision for solving problems in non-statist ways.
With respect to gay marriage, conservatives have sometimes argued that marriage is an institution only inasmuch as it is tied to the procreation of children, an unambiguously pre-political act that points to our status as political animals. The notion of traditional marriage suggests that the basic unit of society is not the individual and his rights, but the family—a concept that also might mitigate the dangers of capitalism. If they are right, then conservatives aren’t seeking to simply impose their will on the world capriciously. Rather, they are trying to protect the space around this pre-political institution from being reshaped by the state, an argument made best by Seana Sugrue in her essay “Soft Despotism and Same Sex Marriage.”
Additionally, the central problem for religious conservatives with respect to gay marriage is that the state will inevitably encroach on the church. As long as the argument for gay marriage assumes the discourse of “rights,” then regardless of whether the state sanctions any marriages at all, churches could be subject to lawsuit or punishment for infringement of political rights if they refuse to marry gay people.
Which is to say conservative politics—and more precisely, social conservative politics—might be uniquely devoted to the distinction between the political and the public in a way that no other tradition is. If, as the Anabaptists are prone to say, the state is an idol, we just might consider defunding it.
All this puts me in the somewhat odd position of agreeing with traditional evangelical theological and political conclusions, while disagreeing with them on their reasons for those conclusions and the way they present them in the public square. While many of my peers have been turned off by the political culture, I have peered beneath to see some of the good work that is being done, despite the inflammatory rhetoric.
The real question, then, is whether conservative evangelical politics are possible without being motivated by the sense of personal injury.
Over the past ten years, conservative evangelicals have begun to retrieve a robust doctrine of creation. It is no accident that Dr. Hunter begins with this, and that Andy Crouch’s Culture Making features it prominently in the first few pages. This emphasis on creation is one of my generation’s distinct contributions to evangelical discourse, and we are better off for it. But we have not gone far enough. Our notion of creation has been limited to two realms: the environment, or what is sometimes called “creation care,” and culture.
Both may fall under the doctrine of creation. But they are insufficient on their own, nor should either be the starting point for the doctrine, for neither are able to specify the set of normative goods that guide our world-making and our environmental practices. For evangelicals to recover a doctrine of creation, they must begin to appreciate—though not necessarily adopt—the work of natural law philosophers like John Finnis and Robert George. Though I have significant differences with them, they are right to point to an objective order of goods that is discernible and that can guide both ethical and policy decision making, and in so doing, establish limits on the state and its activity.
The loss of this grounding for ethics that has made evangelicals particularly susceptible to the Nietschean instrumentalization of the world and the totalization of politics: younger evangelicals, despite their attempts to move beyond politics to culture, have not escaped the madman’s specter. Because evangelical cultural engagement is often motivated by a sense of ‘missionality’ or ‘social justice’ that doesn’t include the sense of creation I included above, it often results in an accommodation to contemporary ways of doing things. So “engaging technology” inevitably turns evangelical worship services into rock concerts with speeches. This is, of course, a Nietschean accommodation to the spirit of our age—even if it wears much cooler clothing.
But as Dr. Hunter points out, the notion of creation (and incarnation) means that the first and last movement of the Christian toward the world is one of affirmation, not negation. A doctrine of creation properly orders our minds and hearts so that we are able to find the good and praise it, wherever it is. A politics that takes this doctrine seriously cannot be rooted in negation or injury, but must be motivated by the affirmation of all that is true and beautiful within the created realm.
My goal in reflecting upon Dr. Hunter’s book has been to attempt to say one thing that he didn’t quite say in full, and to ground it in my own experience as a young evangelical. The young evangelical emphasis on the doctrine of creation is a step in a good direction, but one that does not go far enough. And while I think I am more optimistic about the prospects for an evangelical political witness than Dr. Hunter, his critique demands a careful hearing by all evangelicals, young and old. That it has started this conversation is an enormous gift to the church and the world, and I am grateful for his “faithful presence” as an academic.
One final word: there is a tendency among conservatives to move from crisis to crisis, declare the end of the world at each of them, and then raise funds accordingly. Like Elijah, we have watched the wind, the earthquake , and the fire. Unlike Elijah, we have been outside the cave trying to stop every one of them. Meanwhile, the Lord whose providence governs creation and shows through history speaks with gentle whisper that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. It is a whisper that I hope shapes our politics as much as our spirituality.