Monday, November 09, 2009

Evangelicalism, Politics, and the Gospel

[Crossposted from Street Prophets]

In the discussions that is going on about the Roman Catholic Church, and its change, I made a comment (I will get there in a minute). Starwoman responded with:

Thanks for this very clear and helpful comment about what the strategy is wrt Evangelicals, theology, and civil marriage laws.

I'd be interested in a diary from you on the theology behind Evangelical (and other Reformed, maybe) attitudes towards the relationship between church and state.

I can try to do that - but it may not work out.

The starting point is the comment I made:
I think you are right that the Catholic Church's belief in natural theology is going to move them quicker on this issue - at least compared to Evangelicalism. The idea that God's order can partially be discerned in nature confronts the RCC with both the homosexual behavior of animals and the rising belief that homosexuality in humans is genetic.

However, the Protestant Reformation, while holding to natural moral law (that God's character overflows into us through conscience) rejected natural theology - that theological truths could be discerned in the natural physical order. Even in natural moral law, I am a bit unique in holding such a high view of it among Evangelicals. I think it makes me a closet RC in their eyes :-).

That was the whole point of sola scriptura after all. I think that the Evangelical hestitancy to accept natural moral law has led to some mistakes: I think a moral law reading of Romans and Genesis yields a much different result than most of my ilk read it - but then I have a admitted desire to relax the scriptural injunction against homosexuality as much as possible without becoming Bishop Spong.

So, generally Evangelicalism holds that all of nature was distorted by the fall so natural theology is out - including even relaxation on gay issues if homosexuality was actually proven to be genetic; and they do not particularly like natural law to the degree I do - so mostly they follow a divine command ethic based on scripture.

So, for Evangelicalism, it is deciding that this is not a divine command that they wish to enforce on non-Christians by civil law that you have to desire.

I believe Evangelicalism has damaged its missional role by its political involvement. And that is not because its political involvement has been conservative, or socially conservative, or focused on the wrong platforms and issues.

I think Evangelicalism, and the Body of Christ in general, is infected with Constantianism. I stopped cross-posting here because I was about to get far less political, and far more "religious" in my writings - and I was about to stop "biting my tongue" about certain things. Most of that would make me far more the "crazy uncle John" than I already was/am. Obviously, the series I am cross-posting here is part of that. While that series based on a critique of Evangelicalism's role in the culture wars - it, for me, is really a pointed critique of followers of Christ and their relationship to politics in general - whether conservative or progressive.

The pivotal article that "snapped" my view was by Allan Bevere and was called "On Why the Church in America Cannot Speak Truth to Power". Just so it is clear, that is not a phrase that politically conservative Christians use, and Bevere's post is aimed not at political conservatives but all political action by Christians. Bevere gives two reasons why:
  1. the vast majority of Christians in America have accepted the Constantinian notion that the primary political task of the church is to rule, to be in charge. What that means at the very least is that Christians are to play a prophetic role in the political court of Washington DC.
  2. it means that most Christians have accepted the modern dichotomies of left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican
    "And therein is the heart of the problem. That most Christians in America believe that the church's primary role is to affect policy in Washington DC betrays the mistaken belief that the primary political action in this world is to be found in the White House and on Capitol Hill, when the New Testament clearly indicates that the primary agency of politics is located in nothing less than the community of faith known as the church. In order for the church to speak truth to power it must recover its unique polity apart from the earthly polity known as the nation state; for it is God and not the nations who rules the world.

    My great concern is that when Christians in America want to play the role of prophet in Pharaoh's court, they end up looking, not like the wise sage, but the court jester that gets used by the king for his or her own comical and unsavory purposes.

    The people of God have been co-opted; it is time for the church to recover the politics of witness." -- Allan Bevere

I wish I could give the answer that quote implies when asked about how Evangelicalism views the relationship of church and state - but I cannot (yet). However, Evangelicalism is shifting politically and where it is going to move to is uncertain.

To understand Evangelicalism, you have to understand its roots. It was born when the Fundamentalist movement became more and more separatist - not just not "of the world" but not even "in the world". Billy Grahmn and folks with him saw (rightly IMO) that we could not just be a "city on a hill" (a beacon outside the culture) but also "salt and light" in the culture. This is the cultural mandate that these comments (and Jered Wilson's answers) at "Funny, I Don't Feel Neoconnish" - the post that started my series on the "culture wars".
Jered Wilson: “... it is theologically naive and demonstrably false to think laws or policies make anyone a Christian.”

Responder: What if this is not the primary goal?

Jered Wilson: Oh my. Well, there we disagree. I think worship of Jesus should be the primary goal of the Christian’s engagement with the world, to do it and to do it compellingly in word and deed so that others may wake to want to, as well. Worship of Jesus trumps everything, including strong marriages, etc. In fact, what I’m saying is that it is the gospel that produces the fruit of strong marriages, etc.

Responder: What about the goals of having fewer marriages to fail, fewer unjust abortions be performed, and fewer people suffer the pain and regret of having an abortion? Are those goals worthy of fighting for, or not?

Jered Wilson: Yes. I refer to those things in my post, actually. I fight for those things almost daily, although almost none of that fighting is done in the political realm.

or this general comment about the entire post:
Responder 2: My reaction, which is a concise rebuttal to the accusations of moral crusading: You are much to either/or, refusing to acknowledge the need for public virtue. Culture Warriors never claim to be savings souls, but the preservation of prudence & a just society.

Jered Wilson: This is patently false, as even a cursory reading of my post indicates. I am only advocating a different — and more Jesusy — route to public virtue. On culture warriors not aiming for saving souls, two things:
a) Why not? Isn’t that better than just well behaved pagans?
b) I don’t know what area of the nation you live in, but in both the Bible Belt I’m from and the Northeast I’m currently in, the conflation of legislated morality and soul salvation is alive and well.

Responder 2: Secondly, your stance is completely against the grain of eschatological hope.

Jered Wilson: I have no idea how this can be true. It would be true if I did not believe in the kingdom inaugurated and yet to be consummated, if I distrusted Jesus’ promise to return, or if I believed Christians have no obligation to share the gospel in word and deed. But none of those things are true, so your accusation is untrue.

Responder 2: Do not throw the the baby out with the bathwater. You sound much too anabaptistic and against the grain of the cultural mandate.

Jered Wilson: I don’t know what “cultural mandate” you refer to. Was there an official memo I missed? Or do you mean something like the Great Commission, Great Commandment, Sermon on the Mount, or related?

Evangelicalism has bought into the idea that "engagement with the culture" means political involvement to pass laws to reform the culture from above. In a look-ahead at a future point in Jerad Wilsons's critique:
Jesus knew heart change didn’t come through political power, cultural pressure, or zealotry, so he was keenly disinterested in those things.
and something from Allan Bevere as well:
In cosying up to the principalities and powers, Christians on the left and the right have chosen the politics of power over the politics of witness; indeed, they cannot even imagine, in spite of what they say, what the politics of the Kingdom of God might look like apart from the politics of left and right. Take the recent health care debate as an example-- Christians on the left argue that health care is a right and Christians on the right proffer that health care is a commodity-- and neither side bothers to consider the possibility that both "rights" and "commodities" are notions not found in Scripture and that both concepts are theologically problematic.


As Christians, instead of identifying ourselves as primarily kingdom citizens, we see ourselves first and foremost as Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. The Sermon on the Mount gets eclipsed by the political platforms of the DNC and the RNC. We like to say that we transcend such earthly contrived political conventions, but we can point to very little evidence to show that this is indeed the case. James Dobson is clearly a conservative Republican and Jim Wallis is obviously a liberal Democrat. The only truth they speak to power is their own Republican or Democratic truth to the power of the other party. The criticism of their own is basically absent or woefully inadequate at best. It appears that both men desire to play the role of Nathan in David's court, but they find they only have influence in that court when "David" is part of their own party; and then their prophetic denunciations are reserved only for the opposition outside the court and not those who are in power. They have very little of a prophetic nature to say to the king from their own party whom they serve. In other words, the church cannot speak truth to power because the church itself is up to its armpits in power and, therefore, has a stake in such power.

Did that answer the question about Evangelicalism's view of the relationship of church and state? You tell me.

It did however more deeply defiine this evangelical's view of the relationship between politics and the Gospel.

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly