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Post-Partisan Evangelicals and the Culture Wars: An Attempt at Clarification

May 24th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

David French has posted an "open letter" to post-partisan evangelicals that's bound to get a lot of attention because, well, that's what "open letters" are designed to do.  The whole piece tells his story of becoming a card carrying member of the "religious right" after his early days of thinking that the previous generation had gotten it wrong.  The payoff:

So, “post-partisan” Christians, please ponder this: First, as the price for your new path, are you willing to forego any effective voice at all for unborn children?  Are you willing to keep silent when the secular world demands your silence?  After all, that is the true price of non-partisanship — silence.  Second, if you believe that a more perfect imitation of Christ (more perfect than the elders you scorn) will lead to more love and regard for the Church, consider this: No one was more like Christ than Christ, and he wound up on a cross with only the tiniest handful of followers by his side.

Follow Jesus, yes, but don’t think for a moment that will improve your image, and don’t be surprised if He takes you down much the same path He took the generation before you.

I tend to agree with my friend Jonathan Fitzgerald that framing discussion around waiting for the "kids to grow up," so to speak, is the wrong way to go.  Like Fitzgerald, I have no interest in moving on from the idealism of my youth.  It's idealism, as Chesterton pointed out, that gets things done.  The real difference between my idealism and Fitzgerald's is that my ideas happen to be true and his, well, you can fill in that blank (wink and nod, Jonathan!).

In fact, I'm not really joking about that.  And that is the plane on which this whole discussion should go forward and why I enjoy talking with those folks like Jonathan and having respectful and invigorating disagreements.  It's not that I've no interest in listening to the voice of wisdom:  I have and I do.  And I'm wary of the sort of media-centric caricatures of the "religious right," as though the whole thing could be summed up in the person of Jerry Falwell.  And I actually agree with most of the substance of French's piece, like how if you talk about abortion too much you're going to get labeled as a "culture warrior."   But the more important question is what the appropriate shape of Christianity's public witness should be in a political arena where things are amiss.

What's missing in all this is clarity.  So let me try to bring some.

Jonathan Merritt advocates for leaving behind the culture wars and the political parties that make them go in law and government.  French rejects that by wholesale affirming the "religious right," suggesting that the only path forward is going to be the path we've already trod.  And therein lies the binary that everyone depends upon for their angst and frustration at the other generation.  Either your a culture warring conservative or you're (ostensibly) above the fray.

There is at least one more option, though.  Ross Douthat recently wrote a book that critiques the culture wars.  But his solution isn't political independence:  it's repudiating what he has called "the partisan mind" while holding on to party affiliation because, well, parties happen to be how things get done in government.

Can someone be a partisan without being infected by "the partisan mind?"  I think so.  We're trying around here.  And Douthat is himself a good model:  he's willing to critique his own side (as in the aforementioned essay) but no one thinks he's going to come out for Obama anytime soon.  No one, anyway, who hasn't already given their brains over to the debased sort of partisanship that currently drives our political process.  And therein lies the trouble:  the danger with the "partisan mind" is that people have to continually demonstrate their credentials in order for everyone else to feel sufficiently confident that they're on the "team," and if they criticize too much they lose their voice.  Which is to say, trying to be partisan without the "partisan mind" may not win someone awards at conservative dinners even if they'll happily take our donations.

The new path forward for evangelical engagement in politics will often share the political conclusions that the religious right came to.  And it won't be timid about saying things that the culture not only disagrees with but is downright hostile to.  But it shouldn't go, I don't think, the path of "independence" that Merritt prescribes.  I am not convinced that Republicans are quite as committed to, say, overturning Roe as French is.  In fact, I'm more of the opinion that social conservatives are viewed as the idiosyncratic, slightly embarrassing uncles in the Republican world.

Which is why the better path of partisanship is not a wholesale defense of partisanship but rather the understanding that we have a strategic alliance that will break the moment the Republican party ceases to be friendly to our concerns.  We can take that approach, I think, while recognizing that there are substantive differences between the party platforms and their their environments (blessings on you few pro-life Democrats, but the failure of Stupak effectively killed their prospects for the season), differences that justify partisanship without captivity to the "partisan mind."



Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.