To be clear, I’m not saying that religion has no place in the public square. Far from it: religious persons have just as much right as anyone else to advocate laws and policies that line up with their beliefs and values. Government officials, however, are in a different position. No, they don’t have to “walk away from what they believe,” as Patrick puts it. Their religious beliefs can inform their personal morality in office — don’t lie, don’t steal, and so on — and give them comfort and hope or motivate them to serve others. But they can’t make policy based on those beliefs. Government officials have a duty to uphold the Constitution, not to enact their personal religious convictions. They are obliged to serve all of the people, not just members of the officials’ own religious community.
Allison Vander Broek picks at one of the puzzles of the Christian Right, viz. it’s relation to the anti-abortion movement. Did the Christian Right really arise as a reaction to Roe v. Wade, as the common internal narrative would have it? Or should we follow along after Randall Balmer, and think of the Christian Right as emerging out of the reaction to the civil rights movement, and particularly the emergence of the white Christian schools? Vander Broek notes the absence of evangelical engagement on the question of abortion (something Balmer does as well) and proceeds to ask a couple of questions,
Why did evangelical leaders create and perpetuate the narrative that abortion is what spurred them to political activism? … Why might American evangelicals craft an origin story that’s so off base from reality?… Could it be that it’s a much more heroic tale that evangelicals got into politics to defend babies rather than to oppose desegregation?
Vander Broek decides that the racism narrative is the dominant one, the secret sin of evangelicals. This may be a case of reading our history through lens of the present: the Christian Right drew from several streams.
What Balmer omits is the role of Orange County, where the children of the Okies took on Northern California elites, waging war over several cultural issues, while holding to a virulent anti-communist ethos. This was a movement grounded in the sociology of the sunbelt suburbia, whose issues were not schools but the cultivation of American values. In their emergent mega churches they shaped a politicized faith that elected Ronald Reagan to the governors mansion. Their rise and impact is nicely document in Darren Dochuk’s From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt (Norton: 2010); the flavor of the movement can be caught in None Dare Call It Treason.
A second stream that plays an important role in the evangelical church and in national politics are those immigrant churches of the Upper Midwest. These were organically Republican communities that also incorporated a high degree of religious motivation to their politics. Social issues were important, but often with a slightly more communitarian shape; and while there was a caution about racial issues particularly in urban areas, nonetheless the community maintained an openness to civil rights. These were the churches that self-defined as evangelical and not fundamentalist, a community that maintained numerous academic institutions: Bethel, Calvin, Trinity Evangelical, Wheaton, and others.
And then there are is the southern revivalist stream that Vander Broek and Balmer identify, whose life was shaped by the reaction to the civil rights movement. Even this has a deep root. The southern revivalistic church was a populist phenomena, with the weight of that racial narrative; it shared the rejection of the post Civil War centralized state. This is the seedbed of Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and the nascent Moral Majority.
The genius of the Paul Weyrich was to find the issue that took these three regional movements and organized them to a common political purpose. As Balmer relates
“The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition,” Weyrich wrote in the mid-1970s. “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.” Weyrich believed that the political possibilities of such a coalition were unlimited. “The leadership, moral philosophy, and workable vehicle are at hand just waiting to be blended and activated,” he wrote. “If the moral majority acts, results could well exceed our wildest dreams.”
This new movement would indeed become powerful, but not all at once. It’s politics grew not only from political strategy but for a host of cultural reasons. It was the long march of a generation, a topic for the next time.
Jason Ellis brings up an interesting article from Michael Horton and asks
I’d appreciate any critiques of Horton’s line of thought from those who support having an OSJ. IMO: the OSJ is a distraction from the mission of the Church as Christ instituted it as understood by Augustine, Luther and Calvin as cited by Horton, especially in a tradition that emphasizes a distinction between saving and common grace, but I’m trying to be open minded:)
I see the strong two-kingdom style of Horton, but it does seem at odds with the other conservative True Reformed types. Horton’s view appears to leave politics to being politics, that there is nothing a Christian can do for or against the actions of the culture. Not quite a separationist, but certainly in line with the pietistic branch of the CRC. In that light the Office of Social Justice (OSJ) is probably best understood as an extension of Kuyperian thinking, where the Gospel life permeates our cultural living. While there may not be a single way to help the poor, there is a biblical obligation to help the poor. The manner of obedience may vary by culture and setting, but the duty of obedience remains.
For Horton, the Church stands apart from culture, and fulfills its own mandate. Here’s how he puts it:
Through its administration of Gospel preaching, baptism, the Supper, prayer, and discipline, the church is God’s new society inserted into the heart of the secular city as a witness to Christ and the age to come when He will be all in all.
As I tend toward the neo-Anabaptist side of things, with its skepticism about social construction of Christian engagement (aka Constantinianism), and so prefer seeing issues in terms of principalities and powers, I have a mixed reaction. On one hand, I do applaud his distancing from the conventional Christian Right politics, nonetheless, I would ask Horton whether Horton has effectively abandonned having any word for the culture. How can we engage in a critique from his viewpoint? As a practical matter, I think Horton’s view ends up with a very moralistic reading of society, so that we get programs slapped with Bible verses.
Ecclesiastical entities such as OSJ arise basically a result of the church’s presence in society. It is especially a result (ironically, from Horton’s side) of the Augustinian emphasis on fall. The heritage of Augustine in the West is that atonement and salvation are seen juridicially, as a matter of justice. If the core issue is that of reconciliation, then the political becomes almost inescapable.
In short, there’s more that God’s people can say to this world.
Roberto Saldaña comments
How interesting that he believes that the persons who should lead the crusade to restore our civic virtues are the economic elite. He provides no incentive why anyone in that group should care about this divide because things have been rather swell for them without paying attention to “cultural inequality.”
The failure to explain why elites should help reveals the essential contradiction in Charles Murray’s thought. He approves of the egalitarianism of two generations ago (can it be?!), even as he has been in the employ and the willing abetter of tearing down that equality. The outcomes are basically what his patrons wanted, and in that self-confirming of their own (moral) goodness. The data point to the evident moral quality of the middle and upper middle classes, reinforcing the narrative of personal achievement — a moral meritocracy as it were. Thus the status and virtue become wed, and the underlying warping effects of economic decline are ignored.
The same danger is at work among the Evangelical church, as it too becomes more resolutely middle class and distant from the damage being done on the working class. The rise of secularism among the workers reflects this shift, as well as the alienating turn the Christian Right has had on our politics.