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.

This is Your Society on Antithesis

Damon Linker explains:

Slightly (but just slightly) below the level of national politics, reverberations from news of Harvey Weinstein’s allegedly atrocious behavior with women over a span of several decades continued to radiate outward from the movie producer. Instead of a united front of disgust at the details revealed by the story that brought him down, reaction (of course!) split along partisan lines, with leading liberal and conservative writers denouncing one another for hypocrisy and double-standards (the easiest and laziest forms of moral denunciation). So the right accused the left of going easier on Weinstein than they had on conservatives Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly after similar behavior was alleged against them, and the left accused the right of precisely the opposite sin.

Every single event in our public life is now instantly swept up into the centrifugal whirlwind of a political culture in which the center has completely failed to hold. Democrats are increasingly defined by their hatred of Republicans, just as Republicans manage to agree about little besides their loathing of Democrats.

Isn’t this precisely what happens when culture is an outworking of ground motives, and when policy is part of the plan of salvation? Living in God’s two kingdoms sure looks more attractive. But it is not nearly as fulfilling or energizing.

Why Not Address President Obama?

I’m with Chris Bodenner that Brandon Victor Dixon’s remarks to Vice President-elect Mike Pence after a performance of Hamilton was not all that disrespectful or edgy. Here’s part of the speech:

We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post because this message needs to be spread far and wide, OK?

Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.

What does President Obama not need to hear in this advice? Should he have been governing in a way to keep BLM protests from happening, opponents of gay marriage from feeling marginalized, and Americans with pre-Affordable Care Act health insurance from having to lose benefits in their existing their plans? Of course, a president has to make choices and not all of the electorate will be happy. But why do the elites in the U.S. — Democrats in D.C., Hollywood, university faculty, and mainstream journalists — think that partisanship in politics only happens when Republicans get elected?

And I wonder what Dixon makes of President Obama acting in a statesmanlike manner in meeting and greeting President-elect Trump? Was the President properly empathizing with those Americans who not only refused to vote for Trump but view his supporters as deplorable?

And People Wonder Why 2Kers Worry about Mixing Religion and Politics

Daniel McCarthy explains why people (Christians included) should be skeptical of all parties and politicians, especially the GOP:

The story that voters are told today, both by Republicans themselves and by a mainstream media that views Republicans in general as extremely anti-government, is that the party has changed over the last five years. Whatever a Republican House may have done in 2003 just isn’t relevant to what a different Republican House wants in 2013.

There are two problems with that storyline. First, the 2003 Republican House was a continuation of the 1990s Republican House, which also shut down the government in a spending battle with a Democratic president. Something must have happened between 1995 and 2003 that led the Republican House to change its philosophy. In fact, several things happened, but the most important was the election of a Republican president in 2000. A Republican House would not have been eager to pass something like Medicare Part D under a Democratic president.

So if the small-government 1995 Republicans became the big-spending 2003 Republicans, what reason is there to believe that small-government 2013 Republicans won’t become big-spending 2017 or 2021 Republicans?

The second problem with the story that says Republicans have changed is that for all the new blood that has come into the congressional GOP, the party’s leaders—elected by its members, of course—are much the same people responsible for the 2003 Republican Party. John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan—the GOP’s present House and Senate leaders and its 2012 vice presidential nominee—all voted for Medicare Part D. The party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, instituted his own Obamacare-like system as governor of Massachusetts. This is a surprising leadership cadre for a party that’s supposed to be radically different in 2013 from what it was in 2003.

Instead of “Republicans have really changed,” a more plausible story is, “Republicans are pretty much the same,” both in key personnel and in principle. The principle the party has lived by in 1995, in 2003, and in 2013 is that Republican presidents and their policies are good, Democratic presidents and their policies are bad. The size of government or the national debt is a secondary concern, if that. The real test is what a party does when it holds power, not how desperately it struggles when the other party has power.

Culture Wars Then and Now

In my course on Christianity and Politics in the U.S., I assigned Thomas R. Pegram’s Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933 (published by Ivan R. Dee, who remains one of the genuine mensches in American publishing). I continue to be struck, not only by how good the book is, but also by how little the dynamics between Democrats and Republicans have changed. Yes, the contested issues have — abortion and marriage instead of alcohol and women’s suffrage. But Republicans are still the moralists and the Democrats are the libertarians. For instance:

. . . controversies over temperance laws tended to strengthen Democrats and hurt Republicans. Although many Democrats practices personal temperance and even supported some regulation of the liquor industry, the party as a whole expressed its commitment to “personal liberty” in the matter of drinking. “Why do you allow the dyspeptic Boston to tell you want to drink, and when and how you must behave on Sunday?” asked a New York Democratic congressman in 1867. Prohibition not only endangered the preferences and customs of drinkers, including Protestant Germans who normally voted Republican, it also provoked among Democrats the old Jacksonian fear of arbitrary power. The 1870 platform of the Indiana Democratic party denounced Republican intentions [are you listening David and Tim Bayly] “to regulate the moral ideas, appetites, or innocent amusements of the people by legislation.” By challenging anti-liquor laws, Democrats in the mid-1870s won elections in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. In the highly competitive politics of the Third Party system, issues that energized voters in one party and alienated small groups in the opposition party enough to keep them from voting or even cause them to “scratch” their ballots and cross party lines, were often decisive in elections. Alcohol regulation became such an issue in the decade following the Civil War.

Election Analysis

Two pieces caught my eye. The first is Doug Wilson’s (thanks to the always Moscovite Baylys):

1. The first principle is not just that Jesus is Lord. That wonderful phrase is our foundational confession; it is not simply a sweet sentiment to tide us over until the sweet by and by. Rather we must say that Jesus is the Lord of history, and so He is the one who gave this electoral outcome to us. We don’t fully know why He did, but we know that He did.

2. Given the wickedness of key elements in Obama’s agenda (abortion, sodomy, thievery through taxation, etc.) we know that whatever the Lord is doing, it is for judgment and not for blessing. And in Scripture, whenever judgment is pending, or has begun, the appropriate response is repentance — not mobilization or organizing our remaining tatters.

Postmillennial optimism does not mean the world gets better without repentance. It means that the gospel is powerful to save, and when the gospel is preached rightly it comes in the form of “repent and believe.” Repent of what? Repent of our sins. Believe what? Believe in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. . . .

4. Every unprincipled vote, offerred to the bitch goddess of the state on the left, or the bitch goddess of pragmatism on the soft right, or the bitch goddess of ideology on the libertarian right, was simply thrown away. Professing Christians who voted for Obama were either confusedly or rebelliously heaping up judgment for all of us. Christians on the right who voted for Romney for no other reason than that he was “electable” found out that he was not as electable as all that. And Christians who voted for absolute ideological purity (which is, remember, a form of impurity) found out that that kind of purity wasn’t in the running.

5. Consistent biblical thinking required us to be preparing to oppose the proposals of either a re-elected Obama or a newly-elected Romney. In my judgment, opposition to Obama will be much tougher, which is why I would have preferred to have been opposing Romney. But if the Lord has given us the tougher assignment, our responsibility is to take up that tougher assignment with a gladness that submits to His will.

So my predictions of a Romney victory did not proceed from support for Romney. I didn’t want to vote for Romney, and I didn’t. I didn’t want to work for Romney, and I didn’t. I was preparing myself to oppose either Obama and Romney, and would have preferred to go against Romney.

From a truly conservative source comes this from Noah Millman:

Based on exit polls, Romney has captured a percentage of the white vote comparable to the 1984 Reagan percentage. But, to look at it another way, the white vote still dominates the Democratic part of the electorate – over 60% of the Democratic vote came from white voters. Something like 45% of men will have voted Democratic. 41% of those who attend religious services weekly will have voted Democratic. If the goal is increased demographic polarization, there’s plenty of room for either or both parties to pursue such polarization.

The question is not whether you can win in the future on the basis of demographic polarization. The question is what the consequences would be – for the demographic groups in question, and for the country as a whole.

In my view, the fact that black and Hispanic voters overwhelmingly prefer the Democratic party hurts black and Hispanic voters more than it hurts the Republicans. Republicans don’t need to court these voters – these voters need to court the Republican Party. The fact that highly religious white voters overwhelmingly prefer the Republican party hurts highly religious white voters more than it hurts the Democrats. The Democrats don’t need to court these voters – these voters need to court the Democratic Party. And polarization on the basis of identity hurts the country more than it hurts either party.

Trench warfare is bad for privates – they get slaughtered going over the top – but good for generals – the front lines don’t move much, so nothing is likely to happen that will get them canned.

One way of reading between these posts’ lines is to say that Wilson’s theological interpretation is not conducive getting what (and some Christians) wants. If you continue to treat political elections like those of a synod or assembly’s moderator (as if), you going to be one of those privates who gets slaughtered in trench warfare. In other words, if you continue to conflate the kingdoms and promote Christendom, you’re actually get a politicized church and a sacralized state. Why a Reformed church consisting of members who enjoy quiet and peaceable lives is not enough, I do not know.

The Underbelly of Gay Marriage

The federal court decision on California’s Prop 8 legislation has prompted many responses. One significant theme is that conservative Protestants, who oppose gay marriage, whether from the pulpit or in ordination standards and hiring practices, should prepare for continued marginalization and even legislative harassment if they continue to publicly oppose gay marriage. In this vein, Carl Trueman writes:

Those evangelical leaders, academics and evangelical institutions that prize their place at the table and their invitations to appear on `serious’ television programs, and who enjoy being asked to offer their opinion to the wider culture had better be prepared to make a choice. As I have said before in this column, we are not far from the place where to oppose homosexuality will be regarded as in the same moral bracket as white supremacy. Those types only appear on Jerry Springer; and Jerry generally doesn’t typically ask them their opinion on the ethics of medical research, the solution to the national debt, or the importance of poetry to a rounded education.

(BTW, Trueman adds that the older generation of conservative Protestants dropped the ball on this one and failed to produce an exegetical argument against homosexuality. He remembers that for his peers, “now in middle age, dislike of homosexuality . . . had more to do with our own cultural backgrounds than with any biblical argumentation.” He even admits that “we were basically bigots and we needed to change.” Trueman may be too young and too English to remember – if he is middle-aged, what does that make me? – that when John Boswell’s much read and discussed book came out, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality [1980], this geezer remembers any number of evangelicals responses to Boswell, all before the age of the Internet, peppered with important historical and exegetical arguments about biblical teaching on homosexuality.)

I may be as naive as I am old, but I do not agree with Trueman’s assessment that opposition to gay marriage will become synonymous with white supremacy and other crack pot ideas from the perspective of the cultural mainstream. At a deep level, Americans identify with the underdog. Homosexuals have used this to gain acceptance, even though people with the kind of access they appear to have to cultural elites are generally not eligible for the category of the oppressed.

Minority groups in the United States do oppose homosexuality and they do so without any noticeable threat. For instance, Muslims are not keen on gay marriage, nor are orthodox Jews, or African-American Protestants for that matter. And yet, the thought of the state threatening these groups with penalties for their stances on homosexuality seems far-fetched. If Andrew Sullivan were to come to a place in policy debates where he wound up on the other side of a dispute with Jesse Jackson, I bet Sullivan would have enough sense not to charge Jackson with bigotry – something that rarely sticks on minorities. And if Jackson were a spokesman for African-American ministers opposed to homosexual marriage, I doubt he would be banned from the Sunday morning talk shows for doing so. I could actually see lots of bookings (though I wouldn’t be at home to watch them).

The problem for evangelicals is that they are the minority who thinks like a majority. It would be one thing to look at the numbers, recognize you don’t have the votes, and look for ways to protect your own sideline institutions. This was the approach to public life in the United States by Roman Catholics and they found their political outlet in the multi-cultural Democratic Party. But evangelicals have readily identified as the mainstream tradition in the United States, with claims about the nation’s Christian founding, and an accompanying political theology that says God loves republics and freedom. Evangelicals have also tended to approve of the Republican Party’s efforts to impose cultural uniformity on the nation. In which case, evangelicals may like to think that they are a minority only seeking toleration for themselves what other minority groups want (or have). But they have a uniformity-by-majority disposition that seeks to establish their norms as those of the nation.

This is the main reason for quick and ready dismissals of evangelicals as bigoted and intolerant, not their actual views or practices on homosexuality. Gay marriage is an emblem of a deeper cultural divide that prevents white conservative Protestants from embracing some form of cultural diversity. If they could concede ground to homosexuals (I don’t know if it should be civil marriage), they might be able to gain concessions for their own churches, schools, and families. But for the better part of 200 years, evangelicals have approached public life as a zero-sum game.

Scott Clark is sensitive to the particular consequences that gay marriage would have for the entire culture, and not for a certain sector of it, and argues plausibly for considering the social consequences of gay marriage. Scott is particularly concerned about the fallout for the family:

By analogy it is not possible to re-define the fundamental units of society without a cost. Consider any society. Assuming a certain degree of natural liberty and mobility, if people are living together in a defined space, those people have consented voluntarily to live together. They have made a society. What is the basic unit of that society? It cannot be the isolated individual if only because no mere individual is capable of forming a society or of perpetuating a society. There must be a basic social unit. Historically that social unit has been understood to be a heterosexual family, a father, mother, a grandfather, a grandmother and their children and grandchildren because it is grounded in the nature of things.

I tend to agree with this but sense it is almost impossible to use this line of reasoning in a plausible way. For forty years our society has been experimenting with a host of new social forms. Some of those were surely welcome – racial integration, and redefining women’s roles. But the impetus to overturn unwanted hierarchies did not leave much room for recognizing the value of hierarchy more generally and the way that social order depends upon other kinds of order. And so along came sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll as the baby boomers’ favorite idioms for resisting cultural and moral conventions.

Evangelicals may have taken longer and been more selective in appropriating the cultural shifts of the 1960s and 1970s, but when it came to worship and sacred song they did so with abandon. Granted, it is a leap even to suggest – let alone argue – that Praise and Worship worship was a step on the path to gay marriage. But if Christian rock did to religious conventions what rock did to cultural conventions, it is possible to wonder where the bending of conventions ultimately leads.

Scott points in the direction of his observation when he writes of the generational differences on opposition to homosexuality. The younger generation has:

been raised in a culture which not only tolerates homosexuality but celebrates it. Consider the contrast between the way homosexuality was regarded in popular culture in the first half of the 20th century. Liberace was openly effeminate and made only the thinnest of attempts to protest his heterosexuality. Homosexual movie stars regularly went out of their way to create a heterosexual image and especially when it was contrary to fact. Some movie studios had a policy requiring single male actors (e.g., Jimmy Stewart) to visit a studio-run bordello in order to demonstrate their heterosexuality.

In the second half of the 20th century the old conventions, which has lost their grounding in nature and creational law, were deconstructed. . . . All of this took decades but it happened. It’s a real change of culture, of attitude, of stance, of definition of what constitutes acceptable social and sexual behavior and norms.

If Scott is right, and I think he is about the gradual ways in which the culture has changed since 1960, then evangelicals may want to rethink why it is that their disregard for what the created order reveals as appropriate for Christian worship is okay but homosexual disregard for the created order of sexual reproduction is not. It could be that Trueman’s point about bigotry has a point: can you really sing Christian rock in praise of God and oppose gay marriage with a straight face?