The Wrong Question

In his review of Thomas Kidd’s new book, Who Is an Evangelical, Samuel James begins with this anecdote:

Many years ago I was sitting in the basement of my Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, when a friend asked: “Do you think it’s a sin to vote for John Kerry?” This was 2004, and conversation was littered with talk of the upcoming contest between Kerry and President George W. Bush. I thought for a minute, then said no, I didn’t necessarily believe that. But it never occurred to me to think of the question as strange. The congruence between believing in Jesus Christ and voting Republican was as natural in my mind as the inspiration of Scripture. Only much later would I realize just how novel that kind of thinking truly is among we who call ourselves evangelicals.

Roberts seems to think that asking about the sinfulness of a ballot choice is fine. The problem is identifying evangelical fortunes with the Republican Party.

What if both are wrong? I mean, why on earth (as opposed to heaven) would anyone conceivably think that a vote for a Democratic candidate is sinful? Why, that is, if the person asking had any sense of Ecclesiastes, Paul, and Augustine, texts and authors that indicate politics is intrinscially a temporal, earthly, dirty affair because it happens post-Eden. To expect politics to correlate with redemptive purpose is to border on utopianism or immanentizing the eschaton. What is rich, for evangelicals at least, is that questions about sinful voting rarely extend to the visible church, which is locus of Christ’s kingdom this side of glory. Why not ask if it is sinful to think Beth Moore should be president of the Southern Baptist Convention?

And so, the better way that Roberts hopes for in the end is one where evangelicals are not so predictably Republican:

Nevertheless, Who Is an Evangelical? is a hopeful book, demonstrating that the word “evangelical” is rooted not in our present culture wars but in our past gospel commitments. The solution is to look backward, to break the tyranny of the now and remind ourselves of a way more ancient, more holy, more biblical, and more evangelical.

In politics? Hello. That older evangelical way (at least in the United States) had some role in apotheosizing George Washington as the father of the country and turning Abraham Lincoln (a Republican, remember) into a Christian martyr.

Roberts’ (and Kidd’s) critique of political evangelicalism is simple. Trump is a despicable person who puts the fall in fallen. If evangelicals remain loyal, it’s because they are so politically partisan. Their political partisanship blinds them to Trump’s wickedness (as if evangelicals have ever been known for subscribing to National Review). That analysis is both moralistic and pseudo-psychological. If evangelicals wanted to vote for the Democratic candidate, were they facing a clearly moral and holy choice? And what if evangelicals were not merely tribal in their attachment to Republicans but also felt alienated from the corridors of elite institutions where people associated evangelicals with clinging to God and guns or were worse, belonging to a basket of deplorables (without the loaves and fishes). In fact, the divide between elites and non-elites likely has a lot to do with Brexit and Trump. But some evangelicals who work in the academy and publishing world, and aspire for inclusion in those same sectors within the secular world, do not seem to understand the elite-populist divide.

This post overdoes it, but it also captures some of the reality of life among Protestants who want to be evangelical:

The 2016 election and the years that followed have revealed this truth: that the composition of the current “respectable” evangelical leadership does not derive its legitimacy from the evangelical many but from the few. They are a self-legitimizing, self-perpetuating, and self-anointed elite—unaccountable to and disconnected from those whom they are to serve and represent. In other words, as to form, they are no different than the elite of broader American society; and, materially, they are increasingly similar in political sentiment.

I might qualify “self-anointed” and refrain from attributing motives. But 2016 did reveal a significant gap between those people who observers thought were evangelical leaders and spoke for the movement and the ordinary whites who voted for Trump. To be so completely out of touch with the eighty-one percent does raise all sorts of questions about whether you have your finger on the pulse of the movement so you can actually represent it to reporters and scholars. Whether traveling in evangelical academic circles, Washington think-tanks, or on-line fraternities necessarily isolates you from the rank-and-file is a question without an obvious answer. But given the way modern life works especially for people who don’t work with their hands or in the service sector, it’s hard to imagine that evangelical professionals would be immune from elitism.

Then again, they could ask whether it’s sinful to think that your professional office or rank make your theological or political judgments more valuable than those of the average pastor or church member. Expertise does yield insights. So does the communion of the saints.

17 thoughts on “The Wrong Question

  1. Utopians (they don’t believe in depravity like WE do ) who ” immanentize the eschaton”….?

    Why should 2k folks ask any questions when they can use the same old slogans for every occasion?

    2k Liberals are not liberal (and the lawless to Christ at least are not lawless)
    2k Liberals shun people who shun killing for liberalism

    I Corinthians 7: 31–those who use the world as though they did not make full use of it. For this world in its current form is passing away

    The difference between sedition and heresy, between matters of “the salvation of the soul” and “our common grace civil interests” was never an explanation. The distinction of “two realms” has nothing to do with questions or answers or definitions but the presumption of 2 k liberals  that the boundaries between state and religion from now until Jesus comes back to earth must be determined by the “liberal” state. (Even wars against Muslims are not wars of religion).

    There is no PRACTICAL distinction between the Lutheran two kingdoms ideology and the cultural imperialism of Texas Southern Baptists on Fox News. Both agree that you are obligated to participate in killing for the liberal state (or approve, not complain, shut up)  in order to maintain your rights to private religion (what is in your church). Jesus comes already in the sacrament (or when his name is used on Fox News) , and the basic point of the second coming of Christ  is to remind you that this present age is not as bad as it could be, espcially if you are a birthright Christian American.

    You possess advantages and privileges for which you must be thankful. Don’t call it worship, because the American empire is not the final never-ending kingdom but way better than back in Geneva when you were not allowed to name your own children in a non-regulated way.

    https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/liberalisms-religion

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  2. Darryl,
    Nailed it.

    Mark,
    I think there’s a huge difference between Southern Baptist’s and Lutheran 2Kers. The latter seem very skeptical of the State. The former want to coopt it. The beef amongst the latter is whether the State should be Left wing or Right wing.

    As Americans, I thought we were all supposed to be skeptical of State power.

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  3. A simpler, and I dare say more accurate analysis of the 77% of evangelical voters (and ~2/3rds of white RCs) who voted for Trump is that religion in America is functionally 2k. If you are a middle class, white suburbanite who votes, you probably voted Trump. Coincidentally you are also likely to be Catholic or Evangelical…coincidentally because religion is generally irrelevant to politics.

    Also curious that Romney got a larger share of evangelical voters: https://www.people-press.org/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/

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  4. The right question is whether it is smart to vote for the wrong party or person. Would Christians in the early church given the right to vote for Caesar have voted for the guy who was going to throw them into ovens or the lion’s den? Maybe! But would that have been smart? Some Christians have voted for the baddie in an attempt to bring on the apocalypse. They figure they can coax Christ into coming back. Some holier than thou Christians vote for the baddie because they want to be martyred. Tucker Carlson ( a professing Christian) once said he votes for the candidate who takes bribes because that person will not take his money. But are these smart reasons? It is not necessarily that you are aiding and abetting the folly of the baddie by voting for them but it is not smart. Whether it be biblical issues like abortion, euthanasia, or biblical lifestyles, or political and economic issues like guarding borders, fair taxation, death penalty, people ought to vote smart! Even the reprobates should be informed by natural law enough to understand that voting for someone who is going to take your business away and make you wear yellow symbols is not a good thing! How about someone who is going to take away you photography business because you refuse to do homosexual weddings? Or someone who is going to refuse you the right to do business because you give to Christian charities?

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  5. What about the one who is going to take away your health insurance by gutting the ACA, or the one who is going to drive up student loan debt by cutting funding for higher ed, or the one who is going to put your job at risk by gutting workplace discrimination protection, or the one who will roads crumble to protect the almighty tax cut, or the one who will make us sicker by relaxing clean air standards…

    Smart is in the eye of the beholder, and in an effectively two party system we have to live with tradeoffs.

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  6. Just like everything else, there’s a right and wrong way to vote, even according to natural law.

    Taken to its conclusion, voting my own best interests results in plunder by the voters. It’s unAmerican to say otherwise. Voters are supposed to vote for the common good defined by natural law and our shared assumptions. I’d say natural law and the sacred canopy uniting us are no longer shared assumptions, so we won’t be voting much longer

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  7. Natural law doesn’t tell us very much (allowing that such a thing as a natural law even exists – I think it is quite clear that it doesn’t in the Aristotelian sense). What ever the case, NL doesn’t tell us how to manage trade-offs among competing goods in a world of scarcity. How does one balance security and freedom? Innovation and stability? Efficiency and equality? And so on…

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  8. I understand your view. I think it’s unsuitable for the American from of government. Don’t worry-we’ll have a monarch soon

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  9. I am a firm believer smart Christians can prioritize the “weightier matters of the law” when it comes to politics. School loans matter little if I cannot get a job because I am a Christian. If you are straining at gnats and swallowing camels then you are not a Christian. Wisdom is justified by her deeds! It is nice to see even non-Christian Mark Zuckerberg using common sense lately https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/01/tech/mark-zuckerberg-leaked-audio-elizabeth-warren/index.html .

    I also recently read an article that the ozone is healing itself. Wow! I remember when the doom and gloomer environmentalists were saying how the earth is going to lose its ozone layer and the earth would die. I am still using my aerosols.

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  10. Scott,
    CFCs (which deposit chlorine in the upper atmosphere depleting ozone) were banned a number of years ago. Since then the atmospheric concentration of chlorine has declined sharply and the ozone layer is rebuilding. By the end of the century we expect the ozone layer to return to pre-industrial levels.

    While some aerosol cans did contain CFCs as a propellant, that is no longer the case as their production has been banned.

    Curious that not straining at gnats and swallowing camels is a condition of one’s justification. I missed that in the confession.

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  11. @sg
    I don’t think Jesus’s point is that majoring in minors, making a mountain out of molehill, straining at gnats, or whatever idiom you choose to use to get your point across is a universal characteristic. He had in mind the law of Moses specifically, not prudential judgements about where to focus one’s energy in the civic sphere. The doom and gloomer Christians so sure that we are on the road to a new holocaust may find that their energy (like that of the earlier religious right) was totally misspent.

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  12. The doom and gloomer Christians so sure that we are on the road to a new holocaust may find that their energy (like that of the earlier religious right) was totally misspent.

    Name names. Who is sure we are on the road to a new Holocaust? Al Mohler is a doomer but still hasn’t said we’re headed for a Holocaust, AFAIK. Peter Jones is a doomer about the West, but his version of “doom” along with Mohler is that we’re headed for cultural collapse. Many, many ministers and secular philosophers have argued the same thing. Jesus actually said you can tell when a culture is collapsing if you believe Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Olivet Discourse. The mini-eschaton of Titus’ sack of Jerusalem in AD 70 was to be repeating pattern to the final Eschaton. You can judge the immanence of such mini-eschatons just as you can judge the weather (Matt 16:3). Part of the way you can judge the immanence of the (mini) eschaton is the degree to which a culture is violating even nature in things like marriage, though there are other signs.

    I guess to say that we who believe this culture is on its way out are mis-spending our energy, you’d first have to know what we’re spending our energy on. Many of us like the “Benedict Option” – finding alternatives to the services and security the State used to provide and creating community. I can’t see how this is waste of anyone’s energy. This is more of a Gen X/Millennial “exit” course of action though. Many Gen Xers Millennials and younger are SJWs, whom I categorize as “accelerationists”. Their fruits are found in the most recent PCA GA voting against the Nashville Statement. Boomers and later still want to reform the system with better Republicans, or they think everything is fine because we got through the bombings and crime wave of the ’70s. Regardless, Boomers are probably going to be hearing a lot of dismissive “OK Boomer” retorts from both “Exit Strategy” and “Accelerationist” camps of the younger generations.

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  13. @Walt

    Scott Gordon. “ Even the reprobates should be informed by natural law enough to understand that voting for someone who is going to take your business away and make you wear yellow symbols is not a good thing!“

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  14. Wisdom is justified by her deeds! It is nice to see even non-Christian Mark Zuckerberg using common sense lately

    Personal experience, comments on RSC’s blog, and reading “The Book that Made Your World” and other writings of Christian authors of the Global South have caused me to change my opinion of natural law. I now think it’s something only Christians can apply, or at least unbelievers in a Christian culture. I think unbelievers’ religious presuppositions far outweigh the light of nature in their ethics. I think this is what Paul is getting at when he says, “When the Gentiles by nature do the things required by the Law, they are a law unto themselves” (Rom 2:14). Comparing it with the previous chapter, it appears God is mostly giving unbelievers over to sins that violate even nature and darkening their minds against even general revelation. Thus Romans 2:14 can be better understood as, “In the unlikely even that the Gentiles by nature do the things required by the Law, they are a law unto themselves.” We see unbelievers in the West acting outwardly Christian due to a 1500 year process of Christianization. Unbelievers don’t act this way in other cultures.

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  15. I now think it’s something only Christians can apply, or at least unbelievers in a Christian culture. I think unbelievers’ religious presuppositions far outweigh the light of nature in their ethics.

    Abimelech.

    Oops. Back to the drawing board.

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