When You’re In the Business of Righteous Politics, It’s Hard to See the Beam in Your Own Eye

The BeeBee’s don’t seem to care for Kenneth Woodward’s complaint about the Democrats’ politics of righteousness, but the former religion editor for Newsweek and ongoing Roman Catholic makes a lot of sense. Who knew the Democrats were the Moral Majority before Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority?

The party’s alienation from the white working class began in the streets of Chicago outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. There, antiwar protesters and activists for a host of countercultural causes fought the police of Mayor Richard J. Daley while the nation watched on television. As President Bill Clinton later observed in the first volume of his memoirs, Vietnam was only one point of contention in what was really a wider clash between generations, social classes and moral cultures:

“The kids and their supporters saw the mayor and the cops as authoritarian, ignorant, violent bigots. The mayor and his largely blue-collar police force saw the kids as foul-mouthed, immoral, unpatriotic, soft, upper-class kids who were too spoiled to appreciate authority, too selfish to appreciate what it takes to hold a society together, too cowardly to serve in Vietnam …”

The 1968 convention marked the end of the New Deal coalition that had shouldered Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to the White House. It wasn’t that white working-class Americans turned away from the party so much as that political reformers representing the young, the newly wealthy, the suburban and the higher educated deliberately cut party ties with them. “Boss” Daley, the authoritarian Irish Catholic mayor from the blue-collar Bridgeport neighborhood, became the poster boy for all that was “bigoted” and socially regressive in neighborhood-based, white ethnic America.

The new era

Over the next four years, a commission on party structure and delegate selection, with Sen. George McGovern as chairman, introduced a series of reforms ensuring that, culturally as well as politically, the delegates to the 1972 Democratic convention would resemble the young activists who had battled the police in Chicago more than delegates who had been seated inside. The McGovern Commission, as it came to be called, established state primaries that, in effect, abolished the power of the old city and state bosses, most of whom came from white ethnic stock. The commission also established an informal quota system for state delegations to assure greater representation of racial minorities, youths and women that by 1980 became a mandate that half of every state delegation must be women.

The 1972 Democratic platform formally introduced the party’s commitment to identity politics. Rejecting “old systems of thought,” the platform summoned Democrats to “rethink and reorder the institutions of this country so that everyone — women, blacks, Spanish speaking, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, the young and the old — can participate in the decision-making process inherent in the democratic heritage to which we aspire.” There was also this: “We must restructure the social, political and economic relationships throughout the entire society in order to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth and power.” The delegates put flesh on these lofty moral commitments by adding a plank commending the forced busing of students in order to achieve racial balance in public schools. Blue-collar Boston exploded.

McGovern naively took for granted the traditional party loyalty of union leaders and the white working class. But these pillars of the New Deal collation recognized that McGovern’s creation of a new “coalition of conscience” built around opposition to the war, identity politics and a redistribution of wealth excluded some of their own conscientiously held moral convictions. McGovern went on to lose every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia — and with them the party allegiance of blue-collar workers, union leaders and — what often amounted to the same voters — conservative Roman Catholics.

Jimmy Carter was not a member of McGovern’s coalition of conscience: He had his own powerful sense of moral righteousness, one he derived from his Southern Baptist heritage of personal rectitude rather than McGovern’s secularized Methodist heritage of moral uplift and social reconstruction. There was much in that mix that was admirably righteous, especially the instinct to protect racial and sexual minorities from social oppression. The problem is that pursuing righteousness by expanding individual rights at the expense of communal values often creates greater social conflict. As sociologist Robert Bellah argued in 1991, “rights language itself offers no way to evaluate competing claims.” One side wins, the other loses.

Shazzam! You mean that entering the public square with the certainty that you are pursuing holiness and your opponents are depraved is bad for The Union? You mean “I’m right and you’re wrong” is divisive? Who knew? (Actually, most married couples do.)

Real or Fake Spin

Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports that hipster-urban church planting may be responsible for Donald Trump:

In recent decades, white evangelical leaders made the American city their mission field. If you wanted to change hearts and minds, you had to go to cultural centers of power, such as New York City or Washington, where the population was growing. Now some evangelicals are wondering if that shift has caused them to overlook the needs and concerns of their counterparts in rural America.

Donald Trump’s victory put the spotlight on white, rural voters, many of them evangelicals, who were drawn to his “Make America Great Again” message. Even as exit polls suggested that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, some evangelicals in urban and suburban areas said they didn’t personally know other evangelicals who vocally supported the president-elect. Although three-quarters of evangelicals are white and lean heavily Republican, they are a huge and diverse group, accounting for a close to a quarter of all Americans, with Latinos making up the fastest-growing segment.

Trump carried nearly 93 percent of rural, mostly white evangelical counties, according to political scientist Ryan Burge.

So does she interview the guru of The City Company of Pastors, aka Tim Keller? You bet:

Ahead of the election, Keller, who leads Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, said that, aside from best-selling author Eric Metaxas, he did not know one evangelical openly supporting Trump.

Keller made his own shift from a rural church to eventually lead one in the country’s largest city and a global church-planting network called City to City.

“Cities have a cool factor, a starry-eyed cool factor,” he said. “Young evangelicals are not motivated to go to places that are not very desirable places to live.”

Keller said young pastors could learn quite a bit by starting at a small-town church in rural America. Pastors at larger churches in big cities tend to specialize in areas such as ministries to women or children, while rural pastors usually do a little bit of everything, he said.

So now Keller has even more credibility because he started as a country pastor? Why are religion reporters so naive?

Why are readers more discerning that religion reporters?

I like Keller, but his thoughts in this are completely self-serving. How is the church failing rural parts of America? Simple: millennials.

No mention that he has spent the better part of a decade saying that we need to focus on cities, that cities are where you change the world, that cities are the fulcrums of culture, that cities are where you find the most people and get the best harvest, that God wants you to love cities, that God is asking, ‘Why aren’t you moving there?’

Does Ms. Bailey think Keller won’t return her calls if she writes a critical story? Surely, a pastor would not be that vindictive. Or perhaps sanctified celebrity carries the same afflictions as unredeemed celebrity.

What if Mark Dever were Ted Cruz?

Sure, like Roger Olson, I would have liked to have received better treatment in the recent Times story on the so-called “new” Calvinism. (For the record, Olson was quoted and I was not, but Olson still complains.)

But in addition to observing which figures — Piper, Keller, and Driscoll — are responsible for a phenomenon that is hardly new, also noteworthy is the way the national press covers religion. You either have the religion-is-bigoted meme which haunted Phil Robertson’s employers, or you have the Gee-Golly approach of religion is nice, inspirational, and alive. Why this particularly comes to mind is that the reporter who wrote this story, Mark Oppenheimer, came out with it (not on his own — his editors are also implicated) just after a dustup over one of new Calvinism’s celebrities’ damaging admissions of plagiarism. Granted, Driscoll is not at the center of this story. But Oppenheimer does mention him and chose not to look into the less reputable parts of new Calvinism (which might include the modernist-like agreement among the Gospel Allies not to talk about a central feature of the Great Commission — how to baptize and what it means). Oppenheimer’s piece, in effect, vindicates Carl Trueman’s observation that the Driscoll imbroglio would settle and the gospel business would go back to business as usual.

On the plus side, the story did vindicate those Presbyterians who opposed modernism when it looked for critical comments (again, not from all about me) from Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary:

While many neo-Calvinists shy away from politics, they generally take conservative positions on Scripture and on social issues. Many don’t believe that women should be ministers or elders. But Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, said that Calvin’s influence was not limited to conservatives.

Liberal Christians, including some Congregationalists and liberal Presbyterians, may just take up other aspects of Calvin’s teachings, Dr. Jones said. She mentioned Calvin’s belief that “civic engagement is the main form of obedience to God.” She added that, unlike many of today’s conservatives, “Calvin did not read Scripture literally.” Often Calvin “is misquoting it, and he makes up Scripture passages that don’t exist.”

Calvin makes up Scripture passages? Wow! I thought that was Harry Emerson Fosdick’s job. But it is good to see where liberal Protestants and neo-Calvinists (the real ones) agree — not the making up Scripture bit but the civic engagement is central rendering of Calvinism.