The ability of Evangelicals to tap popular trends has always been ambiguous. At once it makes faith available to many, and yet it always threatens to careen of track, to make faith less transcendent and more cultural. The movement needs its prophets.
Sharon Hodde Miller has been thinking about this in particular, and tapping into Walter Breuggeman, as in this quote
“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3)
Matthew Lee Anderson takes stock of the election,
What people want is not handwringing when things don’t go “our way,” but hope. And a sober and serious assessment of how things look along with something like a strategy to turn them around that stays true to our principles. Or maybe I speak too broadly. So let me narrow the scope: that is what I want from an evangelical leadership, not the sort of handwringing that we are currently experiencing.
Still, it’s not as if Evangelicals will abandon the Republican Party. The first reactions are less about policy than they are about disappointment and real grief. And in understanding that this still part of a grieving process, several points come to mind.
As political scientists will remind us, political identity is rather stable; culturally evangelicals will continue to be a part of the Republican coalition, particularly in the South. That cultural identity is a trap as to the real transformational goals of the faith community (and this is what I hear you struggling towards). In this light, Evangelicals face something of a choice whether to reinforce this cultural and political identity, that is to take part as a political community, or to take part in something akin to culture-making.
I would opt for the culture making approach.
Evangelicals in the last election voted more intensely GOP than in 2008. If there is an electoral failure, it is not for their not trying. What is missing is their ability to find allies in the center. Here, the deep cultural identity as a wing of the GOP played against them, particularly in the polarized electorate and an election framed as a cultural war, a war the Right lost (per Jonathan Chait).
To advance a transformational approach will it seem, call for different approaches than those previously advanced. At the least, as you suggest, it calls for something like a cheerful engagement. I would suggest that you especially pay attention to Peter Leithart’s concern for justice; a second place to turn would be the sober approach of Alan Jacobs’ thinking on information deficits and global warming.
And Leithart is right in this also: culture making can only take place in the context of a deep faith in the sovereign God who claims our lives at the Cross. Sovereignty and sacrifice walk together, indeed are the proper fuel for hope. But if such hope were easy, we would have it already, wouldn’t we?
A month ago, Kevin White at Mere Orthodoxy raised up the question about what it meant to be a social conservative. Terms get mushy when we speak about “cultural warrior” and even more so, when the conversation turns to the meaning of conservative itself.
So some conservatives are defined by one or another cultural ideology (not just the “Religious Right”), some primarily by an economic theory, some by a vision of American greatness. There is a conservative political movement in America, but it is itself a coalition of conservative movements, of varying mutual compatibility. They have more in common than an opposition to modern progressivism, but that “more” can be tricky to pin down.
Even social conservatism is a cluster of movements. Some are single-issue, others take on a thicker portfolio of concerns. Some threads have a positive vision, and others are reactive and based on resentment. Some care deeply about the proper role of each level of government, others see that array of governments as a jumble of available tools. Some loved Falwell, other social cons struggle still to distinguish him from Mephistopheles-minus-the-style.
So he opts out for a Mr Nice Guy philosophy.
So perhaps the question is not how to find a “non-culture-war conservatism”, but how to be a thinking, winsome social con who can self-present and be received as those things.
Perhaps it is as simple as this: there is no unified conservative worldview or approach. None. The very amorphous nature of those who would wear the label probably rules against its use save in the comparative sense (“this more conservative than that”) and of course as a political label. On top of this, so much of our own political and cultural thinking will be driven not by philosophy but by our particular social circumstances. We are as much conservative (or liberal) by birth as by our “coming to the light.”
As a matter of politics — this mass communication aspect — the use of the term “conservative” is somewhat slippery, suggesting that one actually has a set of principles that will lead one to act independently on various political or policy decisions. A kind of semantic glue, perhaps, but also a sort of scrim hiding from us what the issue really is, that of power to determine the political agenda on the Right. Here, the social conservatives (for want of a better term) appear to be engaged in a two-fold struggle, first to enlist fresh soldiers from the Millennial cohort, and second to gain traction within political councils against the more economic and libertarian factions.
In a biblical moment, the only point of convictions is to be able to deny the politics, in the word from Proverbs, to swear to our own hurt. The charge of hypocrisy resonates as much for its sense that “conservative” is merely another name for Republican and the settling for the politics of power and pragmatism, as it does for any failing of personal ethics. The Christian political approach must always be one seeking to build across the social chasms rather simply stay content with one’s own side. However nice one puts it.
Justice Scalia left no doubt where he stands on immigration. And Keith Miller at Mere Orthodoxy approves. While Scalia’s comments have been roundly denounced (see this from Richard Posner), Miller embraces them as a corrective to the the stance of Tom Minnery from Focus on the Family, which Miller sees as being especially soft on the issues of deportation and national sovereignty.
Nowhere in anything Focus or the “Table” wrote up was any recognition of Scalia’s principle of sovereign exclusion. Sure, there are allusions to the “rule of law” and “secure national borders,” but deportation is discounted as a non-starter due to the immigrant’s inherent human dignity. Without providing a philosophical defense of the exercise of the power to exclude, these Evangelicals are allowing national sovereignty to atrophy.
Far from being discounted, it is the scale and impact of present deportation policies that have repeatedly raised the issues for congregations, as Minnery’s article points out. Moreover as deportation is not humanely possible for the 10 to 11 million non-documented, deportation must necessarily be selective and so constantly prone to an erosion of the rule of law.
Further, it is the human cost to these deportations that in turn have been the basis for the statements of the Focus and of the evangelical round table above. The core issue, has always been working to have some sort of recognized status for workers, to bring them and their families from out of the shadows where injustices continue to fester.
As to national sovereignty being allowed to atrophy, what sort of national sovereignty is it that turns away young people who desire to serve the nation? Or discounts the desire of others to actually get on a path to citizenship?
In short, the Scalian / libertarian viewpoint so snarkily defended promises nothing by way of solution; it is a politics of denial, of Dives refusing to look outside his gate at Lazarus. This indifference is hard to square with Christian teaching.
And finally, if nothing else should catch one’s attention it is this: that the politically sectarian viewpoint evidenced by Mr Miller, a viewpoint so clearly affirmed by the GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the primary season, is a political non-starter. Particularly for those who would bring Christ’s lordship to the political sphere.
Matthew Lee Anderson returns to the question of partisanship without being captive to the “partisan mind.” He is probably a little easy on his Republican friends. (And should note the partisan snark on Rep. Stupak misreads how politics work among the Dems — another issue).
The better path of partisanship is not a wholesale defense of partisanship but rather the understanding that we have a strategic alliance that will break the moment the Republican party ceases to be friendly to our concerns. We can take that approach, I think, while recognizing that there are substantive differences between the party platforms and their their environments (blessings on you few pro-life Democrats, but the failure of Stupak effectively killed their prospects for the season),
You were going so well until the last paragraph. I would encourage thinking this through a little more carefully, especially from the spiritual dimension. Partisanship is a spiritually destructive mindset; it cripples. Talk to your politco friends and see how many get jaded or jump. We really can only participate in politics as we understand it as under the cross, as judged. The moral energy that gives us conviction can easily drive us off the cliff through demonization of the Other. We easily forget that if Christ died for anybody, he died for the SOBs who are our political opponents.
At a more practical level — far more practical, actually — the reality is that most participate in politics for tribal reasons. I vote D in part because I grew up in a university town, and because my parents came from the prairies hammered by the Depression and rescued by FDR. If that is how people actually vote, then the proximate alliance with one party or the other is simply an erecting of barriers to other “tribes”. And on this eve of Pentecost, it’s hard not to remember that we are commissioned to be witnesses to the Samaritans and Romans, as well as the safe guys in Judea. When evangelicals make the too-easy identification with one party, they shut off the conversation that must go on if we are to be serious about the Good News.
Partisanship is your deep enemy, a proper Principality (in honor of W Wink). At the same time, some — many– of us will be called to again pick up the craft of politics and policy; there’s no shame in that game. But we do it best, seeing it under the judgement of Christ, who came not to make enemies, but to reconcile enemies by his blood (cf. Eph. 2:13f.).