Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Christian discipleship in the public square"

This past weekend The New York Times Magazine published an article by David Kirkpatrick titled "The Evangelical Crackup." Its thesis is that the Religious Right is in decline, superceded by leaders who put faith ahead of politics. Of course, genuine Christians always put faith ahead of politics. Faith is the motive for becoming involved in politics, as it motivates [or should] all our work in the world.

Richard John Neuhaus [who is not an Evangelical] puts it all into perspective at First Things in "That Evangelical Crackup." An excerpt:
Of course, the whole thing about an evangelical crackup is silly and would be easily ignored were it not that some of us are addictively amused by paying attention to the Times. And, let it be said in fairness, that there are others who still read the paper to find out what is happening in the real world. Let it be further admitted that there are divisions and conflicts among politically oriented evangelical leaders, especially with regard to the prospect of Giuliani being the Republican nominee. In the December issue of First Things, subscribers will find a very thoughtful analysis of that prospect by astute brain-truster of the pro-life cause Hadley Arkes. He carefully examines the troubling consequences for the cause if the Republicans are no longer the pro-life party, which, despite his more recent hedges, would be the case if Giuliani were the nominee.

But an evangelical crackup? Don’t believe it. The Times is whistling in the self-induced dark. They scare themselves by creating the boogeyman of a monolithic theocratic assault and then console themselves that the advancing forces are in disarray. Both the monolith and the crackup are fictions of their overheated imagination.

Since the most recent round of political activism by evangelicals in the late 1970s, there have been several times in which prominent leaders have called a retreat from electoral politics. Disillusionment comes readily to enthusiasts, and evangelicals tend to be enthusiasts. Mr. Kirkpatrick spoke to one minister who has thrown in the towel. “I thought in my enthusiasm that somehow we could band together and change things politically and everything will be fine,” he said. But electing his preferred politicians did not change everything. “When you mix politics and religion, you get politics.”

Anyone seized by utopian delusions about political action is bound to be rudely disappointed. The pastor is also right about ending up only with politics when you put religion in the service of politics. The organizing imperatives and urgencies of electoral politics, combined with its inevitable negotiations of competing ambitions for power, quickly overwhelm a church’s proper business of saving and nurturing souls.

Mr. Kirkpatrick spoke to a few disillusioned ministers. There are undoubtedly others. The well-documented fact, however, is that the great majority of evangelical clergy have never succumbed to the temptation to become politicians rather than pastors. Nor have they surrendered their right and obligation to point out the implications of Christian faith for public policy. Some call the exercise of that duty “mixing politics and religion.” Others call it Christian discipleship in the public square.

Nowhere is the understanding of those implications more deeply entrenched than on the “life issues,” meaning abortion preeminently but not exclusively. On no other controverted issue is there anything comparable to the theological and moral grounding found in, for example, “That They May Have Life,” the statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The Frank Riches cheer on Jim Wallis and others associated with the “religious outreach” initiative of the Democratic party, wanting to believe that they will persuade evangelicals that the Iraq War, health care, global warming, and economic equality are more morally urgent than protecting unborn babies. With some evangelicals they have apparently succeeded. It is also worth remembering that in the 1970s the majority of self-identified evangelicals were Democrats. Many evangelicals, as well as Catholics, who have been voting Republican for pro-life reasons may return to old habits if the Republicans do not offer an unambiguous alternative, or they may simply sit this one out.

The reality is that, for millions of voters—evangelical, Catholic, and other—the number-one moral and political issue is the defense of the unborn. Join that to the defense of marriage and family and it seems certain that we are talking about no less than twenty million people. That is more than enough votes, or decisions not to vote, to decide a presidential election. It seems probable edging up to certainty that, if the choice is between a pro-abortion Republican, such as Giuliani, and a pro-abortion Democrat, such as any of the Democratic candidates, those millions will take it as an invitation not to be bothered with election day.

In sum, there is no evangelical crackup. Thirty years after the “religious right” appeared on the radar screens inside the liberal bubble, there is a normalization of conservative Christian activism in the public square. As on the left, organizations and activists on the right maneuver mightily to direct sometimes contentious constituencies toward their preferred political outcomes. In America, we call it democracy in action.
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » That Evangelical Crackup

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