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The Joy of Evangelical Political Life: Russell Moore in First Things

November 20th, 2013 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Russell Moore's latest for First Things is up.  And it's a fun read:

Indeed, often the “broader” agenda items reinforce their social conservatism. Evangelicals working with the poor see the devastation of family breakdown, substance abuse, predatory gambling, and so on. Not that this changes the way they’re spoken of in public. When Evangelicals adopt, the secularist Left accuses them of “stealing” children for “Evangelism,” though if they didn’t the left would accuse them of caring about “fetuses” without providing them homes.

These Evangelicals actually go to church and so represent the future. The problem is that “young Evangelical” is a confusing term, especially for a media culture that often defines the concept in terms of marketing rather than theology or ecclesiology. It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak in with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic. As one wag once said of Al Gore, that he is “an old man’s idea of a young man,” these Evangelicals are usually an Episcopalian’s idea of an Evangelical, just as the “nuns on the bus” are secularizing America’s idea of a Catholic.

But these sorts aren’t, demographically speaking, where the future is, among those who are actually filling and building churches. The “red-letter Christian” who speaks as though the Sermon on the Mount is a pretty good Galilean first draft of the 2024 Democratic party platform isn’t likely to be launching an Evangelical church-planting movement. Or an Evangelical adoption agency, soup kitchen, or halfway house for people just out of jail. The pop-left of Evangelicalism usually has quite little to do with Evangelical churches and is usually ephemeral even by the standards of Evangelical faddishness. Rob Bell once pastored a megachurch; now, last I heard, he was talking about starring in his own reality show.

And that closes off the first third.

There's lots to interact with in the piece.  I particularly appreciated Moore's insistence that the "centrality of the Gospel demands a certain form of public engagement."  And his critique that the last generation of political activism was sometimes motivated by "a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it" seems apt as well.  Moore is trying to carve out the same sort of delicate relationship with the conservative political world that we have cultivated the past decade here at Mere-O:  appreciative of the efforts, agreeing on many matters of substance, concerned about the rhetoric, and willing to critique when necessary.

In the final third of the piece, he outlines his vision for a Christian engagement that is neither triumphalistic nor isolationist and here too I have hearty cheers.  The word that I think fits is confidence, and I sometimes suspect that evangelicals have never had much of it in their political engagement, which is partly why our influence has been considerably less than our size.

Moore's imagery of the cultural peril that evangelicalism faces is rather dire.  And perhaps that is warranted.  But even if it's not appropriate to "shrug off" the hostility before us, we ought to at least have a good laugh about it.  The very Gospel that Moore ably keeps at the center reveals hostility to it to be comically impotent, a laughable parody of genuine power.  The prophetic tension and engagement that Moore unpacks must both be bounded by joy, which is perhaps the most important political affection we can have.

It's clear Moore is going to lead the way for evangelicals going forward, and I for one couldn't be happier about that.  And I've no doubt that he is a genuinely cheerful fellow, in person and beyond.  He seems to be, anyway.  And I know I'm not saying anything he disagrees with; he has made similar points in other contexts, I think, which brings me great comfort indeed.

But that joy has to begin to pervade our rhetoric.  Courage, fortitude, strength--yes.  You can hear Moore's words evoking those responses from evangelicals.  But that path before us good, and the hope before us is not simply that Rome will not waver but that in the very marginalization and suffering that Moore thinks is upon us we will be made complete and whole like our Savior.  The prophetic announcement must have its great tidings of glad joy, for it is the joy of the people that will cast out our fear.

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.