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Evangelicals are Still Trying to Figure this Out

I’ve been going on about “non-culture war” conservatism over the past two weeks, attempting to delineate its characteristic shape over and against some of its rivals.

It’s possible that the position is substantively no different than that held by the previous generation of the Christian right, at least once we get beyond the media narratives.  I’m not opposed to the thesis and have defended, as much as able, the Christian right against their critics in the past.

But the exercise has still been valuable for me, as it has helped me clarify for myself how I tend to think about my own public engagement.  Calling a “Non-culture war conservatism” is something of a misnomer, of course, but its a way of carving out the differences between this and the approach that has characterized the excesses of the Christian right’s politics that I’m going to continue to run with.

Qualifications aside, here are four moves that are important for buttressing Christian political engagement.

1)  Recover a robust doctrine of creation that is isn’t afraid to be doctrinal

The debates over creation, evolution, and the Bible are of massive importance.  But evangelicals have sometimes allowed the question of how God created to dominate their doctrine of creation, rather than attending to how God’s ongoing relationship to the world as Creator should shape our understanding of the world here and now, and how the world’s status as creation endows it with a unique dignity that endures despite the fall.

The need for a more robust doctrine of creation isn’t news—James Davison Hunter opens To Change the World with the point—but if you find yourself tempted to reduce questions of the church’s witness to party alliances it’s not a bad place to start.  For one, it helps explain why abortion should be prioritized for the church’s witness, but buttresses the metaphyiscal arguments that are used in public with a specifically theological case.  Such an approach helps us see the issue in theological terms, which gives us greater confidence to speak in public about it and see the necessary shallowness of those party affiliations in light of those doctrinal commitments.

One more point:  a richer doctrine of creation would also cut against the voluntarism that is rampant in evangelicalism and that proves such fertile soil for the pursuit of political power.  As long as voluntarism is the order of the day, which I take to be a formulation of the Christian’s ethical task that prioritizes the will over reason, then our efforts to translate the teachings of Scripture into secular discourse will be frustrated.  There is, for instance, an answer to the question about why God would prohibit extra-marital sex.  Saying “because it’s in the Bible” isn’t an answer, at least not one that illuminates the nature of sex or why it might be wrong outside of marriage.  But the loose and badly formed voluntarism of much of evangelicalism frustrates these efforts, treating the attempt either as sowing the seeds to rationalize not obeying or as a legalistic attempt to say what the Bible doesn’t about the world.

That voluntarist conception of ethics is, I think, partly why evangelicalism has been so susceptible to using political power and legislation for its ends (which, surprise, did not start in the 1980s).  If we’ve been told the right path (and we have) and the question is solely one of obedience or disobedience, rather than also a question of moral deliberation about the reasons for those particular commandments, then our political engagement must invariably be reduced to either using the Bible badly in public discourse or simply pursuing power to bring about the ends that we discern are in Scripture.  Or, as is more likely, both.

Book to read, academic version:  Resurrection and Moral Order.  Book to read, lay version:  Earthen Vessels

2)  Emphasize the moral imagination and attempt to construct arguments that both appeal to and buttress it.

The debates over when life begins are critical and helpful for clarifying the nature of the atrocity that abortion is.  But movies like Juno and Knocked Up, both pro-life in their own ways, appeal to intuitions that run just as deep:  the intrinsic nobility and goodness of parents who make deep personal sacrifices in order to bring a child into the world.

In short, it is not sufficient to argue that the positions that conservatives hold happen to be true, though they very often are.  We must set about demonstrating their intrinsic beauty and goodness.  I say demonstrate, and not describe, as the latter is helpful but doesn’t quite go far enough.  Friday Night Lights has done more for marriage in America than people will ever know.  This group was a good start, but the failure of it to draw traction is not a hopeful sign.

3)  Remember that the church does not simply engage the culture, including politics, but is a culture and so has her own political order. 

The Hauerwasian school has made the language of “counter-polis” popular, but one need not be an Anabaptist or a Hauerwasian to affirm it.  As long as we fail to recognize that the church is its own culture, with its own symbols, ways of speaking, and manners of formation, then the evangelical political witness will continue to suffer as we will not be experiencing the proper formation that we need to engage within the world without being co-opted by it.

Somewhat paradoxically, this might mean bringing Christian political engagement back into the local church as part of her witness, rather than outsourcing it to parachurch organizations.

Book to read, academic version:  Desire of the Nations.  Book to read, lay version:  Desiring the Kingdom or the new preface to All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes.

4)  Reframe American exceptionalism around America’s responsibilities rather rather than its virtues.

I owe the point to Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion, where he points out that John Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill” line was something of a warning that if America failed to do well than America would be judged accordingly. Douthat expands the thought, pointing out that in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural he “invokes providentialism to explain a chastisement, rather than to boast of America’s particular virtue or celebrate its particular mission in the world.” A political version of the via negativa, if you will, where excpetionalism is invoked to caution America from going wrong.

There are other ways through, no doubt, and other principles we could doubtlessly add in. But for my own sake, realizing the above four has helped me cut a way through political engagement that doesn’t strike me as quite the same as the Christian right’s general approach even if it often ends up in the same place.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Andy Crouch

    This is good stuff, Matt. In the sentence after the reference to Friday Night Lights (which I really need to watch), when you say “This group,” is there a link or reference that is missing?

  • Hmm…perhaps I’ve read too much MacIntyre and William Cavanaugh (not to mention Hauerwas and John H. Yoder – Yes, I’m one of those pesky neo-Anabaptists you’ve heard about)…but your “non-culture war conservatism,” as much of an improvement as that would be (and it would be an improvement), still seems far too dependent on the political order of the day.

    I’m glad to see you emphasizing that the church itself constitutes a culture in #3 (Kavin Rowe’s book on Acts helped me see this, not to mention Hunter’s book referenced here as a more critical work). This point often seems lost on most American Christians, which to me just illustrates how our (American Christians’) cultural logic is soooooo deeply patterned by the American social imagination, and not by the distinctly Christian social imagination, which spans temporal and territorial boundaries. Its this latter imagination (social, moral, theological) that needs to be emphasized, as you state in point 2. Does non-culture war conservatism do enough to foster that, or does it leave the American imagination in place?

    I’m also glad to see you emphasizing local/congregational political engagement in #3, which is something that Yoder seemed more positive about than larger-scale approaches. I hope you continue to push this out, because I see large-scale political agendas doomed to seduction, temptation, corruption, and failure. The cost of the game at a national level is too great, the rules are rigged, and Christians will ultimately be grist for the gears of a beast they can never (and shouldn’t want to) control. (I’m at odds with Hunter and probably you on this, as it’s a more grassroots/rhizome/yeast-like ecclesiology…not surprising given my tradition.)

    Phew…sorry for the long response. It’s been a long time since I’ve engaged here, so you’re getting it all at once. Thanks for posting, Matt, and tolerating a pesky Anabaptist!

    • Brian, are you familiar with Jonathan R. Wilson? He does a beautiful job of deploying MacIntyre’s philosophy of virtue ethics into the service of the local church.

      • I hadn’t come across that yet, Andy, but thanks for the tip. It looks like the book, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, is what you’re referencing. I picked up MacIntyre first through Hauerwas and now I’m at the source, so I’ll have to work back out to others who’ve appropriated him for more practical applications. Thanks again!

        • It’s a wonderful little book, as is Why Church Matters. Also of interest: Jonathan R. Wilson is Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s father-in-law.

          Anyway, sorry for the digression Matthew, and thanks for a thought-provoking and, I hope, action-provoking post!

  • Keith

    Co-sign moves 2, 3 and 4.

    I wish I could offer some helpful critique of your first move, but I seem unable to briefly summarize my thoughts. I guess one of my chief concerns is that your recipe (a richer doctrine of creation, a buttressed metaphysical argumentation, more moral philosophizing) leans too heavily on scholarship and intellectualism; whither perspicuity and First Corinthians, Chapter One?

  • As soon as I read this point – “Remember that the church does not simply engage the culture, including politics, but is a culture and so has her own political order” – I thought of Reformed theologian David VanDrunen, who eloquently argues that the only Christian culture is the church:

    http://bensonian.org/2011/09/17/the-only-christian-culture-is-the-church-part-1/

    http://bensonian.org/2011/09/19/the-only-christian-culture-is-the-church-part-2/

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