I. Intro — The resurgence of conservative Christianity
One of the most startling things about the resurgence of the Religious Right is that it happened at all. Both modernists and conservative evangelicals themselves were certain that this movement would continue to diminish under the onslaught of modernism and a process that it was assumed went along with modernization, “secularization." Modernists thought that progressive forces of history were bringing the death of “primitive” religion as a wave of the future and these “fundamentalists” were clearly just bitter reactionaries who would become part of the past. Evangelicals themselves often adopted a premillenial eschatology (esp. fundamentalists) and taught that the true followers of Christ would shrink in numbers as society became more and more corrupt until the second coming of Christ.
The historian Paul Johnson writes in Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties: “The outstanding event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear. For many millions, especially in the advanced nations, religion ceased to play much or any part in their lives, and the ways in which the vacuum thus lost was filled, by fascism, Nazism, Communism, by attempts at humanist utopianism, by eugenics or health politics, by the ideologies of sexual liberation, race politics and environmental politics, forms much of the substance of the history of the century. But for many more millions — for the overwhelming majority of the human race, in fact — religion continued to be a huge dimension in their lives. Nietzsche, who had so accurately predicted the transmutation of faith into political zealotry and the totalitarian will to power, failed to see that the religious spirit could, quite illogically, coexist with secularization, and so resuscitate his dying God. What looked antiquated, even risible, in the 1990s was not religious belief but the confident prediction of its demise once provided by Feuerbach and Marx, Durkheim and Frazer, Lenin, Wells, Shaw, Gide, Sartre and many others… The secularist movement, that is militant atheism, appears to have peaked in the West in the 1880s… so that Lenin was a survivor rather than a precursor, and his secularization programme was put through by force, not established by argument. By the 1990s, the Museums of Anti-God and Chairs of Scientific Atheism he had established were merely historical curiosities, or had been dismantled and scrapped. The once-influential alternatives to religion, such as Positivism, had vanished almost without a trace, confirming John Henry Newman’s observation: ‘True religion is slow in growth and, when once planted, is difficult of dislodgment; but its intellectual counterfeit has no root in itself; it springs up suddenly, it suddenly withers.’ Perhaps the most spectacular testimony to this truth was to be found in Russia, where the collapse of belief in the Communist ideology Lenin had implanted revealed, in the growing climate of freedom of 1989—91, that both Orthodox and Catholic Christianity had survived all the assaults made upon them by the regime, and were strong and spreading. Throughout the world, while spiritual bewilderment, neatly classified as ‘agnosticism’, was widespread, it is likely that there were fewer real atheists in 1990 than in 1890.”
Coming back specifically to the evangelical resurgence in America, Ed Dobson writes in Blinded By Might: “With the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, evangelicals and fundamentalists ventured into the political process. They were not welcomed with open arms by either the political or religious establishments. Rather, they kicked down the door and marched in with such fury that they sent panic through most sectors of American society.
“The media were shocked. Where did all these fundamentalists come from? Who were they, and what did they want? Since the general public had assumed that fundamentalists disappeared after the infamous Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ in 1925, it was at a loss to explain their sudden public resurgence. A kind of paranoia set in, and some began to assert that hoards of bigoted ‘Bible-bangers’ had formed a conspiracy to take over America. In September 1980, Newsweek magazine stated, ‘What is clear on both the philosophical level — and in the rough-and-tumble arena of politics — is that the Falwells of the nation and their increasingly militant flock are a phenomenon that can no longer be dismissed or ignored.’”
II. Definitions — Evangelical (broad and narrow), fundamentalist, Religious Right
Before I go further let me define some of these labels I’m throwing around.
Besides being a political economist, another qualification I have for speaking on this topic is that I can pretty fairly be classified as a member of the Religious Right myself. Or, to use a less charged term, I am an evangelical Christian.
This means that I am what is called “theologically conservative." I hold that the Hebrew and Greek scriptures provide a historically true and spiritually profitable account of the dealings of God with man, most significantly the incarnation of God as the human Jesus of Nazareth and his subsequent bodily death, burial and resurrection.
To give you an idea of how many evangelicals there are in America, I’ll cite George Marsden who writes that"…opinion surveys that test for evangelical beliefs typically find somewhere around fifty million Americans who fit the definition.”
To be in the “religious right," on the other hand, has connotations beyond strict theology and implies socially conservative beliefs. This describes me as well. I believe sex is meant to be confined within marriage, that killing babies inside the womb is a destruction of human life. And even beyond these sorts of things I’m a strong adherent of “bourgeois morality”: hard work, thrift, staying married even when it isn’t fun, etc. I also, like many in the religious right, have no socialist sympathies and think that private property and voluntary exchange are the proper basis for a just and progressive economic order.
Now let me clarify that the term “evangelical” which is what I will primarily use tonight instead of “the Religious Right” has quite a history, which I’ll touch on later, and more than one meaning. George Marsden, a major scholar of Evangelicalism in America, says there are two primary meanings of “evangelical," a narrow and a broad meaning.
Marsden writes in Evangelicalism and Modern America that, "…with the possible exception of [fundamentalists], evangelicalism is a transdenominational movement in which many people, in various ways, feel at home. It is a movement as diverse as the politically radical Sojourners community in Washington, D.C. and the conservative Moral Majority… Institutionally, this transdenominational evangelicalism is built around networks of parachurch agencies. The structure is somewhat like that of the old feudal system of the Middle Ages. It is made up of superficially friendly, somewhat competitive empires built up by evangelical leaders competing for the same audience, but all professing allegiance to the same king. So we find empires surrounding Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker [this book is a bit out of date], Jimmy Swaggart, and other television ministers. Card-carrying evangelicals are just as familiar with Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth for Christ, Young Life, Navigators, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri Fellowship, and other evangelistic organizations….”
“We can see, then, that a decisive factor in distinguishing evangelicals in the more narrow sense from evangelicals in the broader sense is a degree of transdenominational orientation. So, for instance, many Missouri Synod Lutherans, Southern Baptists, Wesleyan Methodists, Church of the Brethren, or Mennonites whose religious outlook is channeled almost exclusively by the programs and concerns of their own denomination, are hardly part of the card-carrying evangelical fellowship, even though they may certainly be evangelicals in the broader senses.”
The last term to note is “fundamentalist” which I will shortly explain more about in the context of the history of the term. Suffice it to say for now that “fundamentalist” currently refers to a subgroup of evangelicals who are marked by being more strongly separatist in regards to the culture and other Christian groups. An example of a fundamentalist institution is Bob Jones University. As we will learn, “fundamentalist” once referred to a much broader group.
III. Defense of the Religious Right
Now, before going any further it is my duty to defend evangelicals in regards to their political involvement from some of the charges that are more outlandish but unfortunately still get repeated in the mass media. This is especially important since later I’ll be making a critique of that political involvement.
The key to understanding what brought evangelicals back into politics after 50 years is one term: “self-defence."
Since you may not trust me as a self-identified member of the “Religious Right," I’d like to call as a witness the great libertarian Murray Rothbard, sometimes called “Mr. Libertarian." I think his observations are particularly interesting because he was an agnostic Jew who spent his life criticizing the State and those who would use it to steal from and control others. I should note that he made these observations in 1994, so what he would say now, especially in light of the invasion of Iraq which was generally supported by evangelicals, would probably be somewhat different. I’m using a lengthy passage because I also think Rothbard’s insightful and funny.
This is from his article, “Hunting the Christian Right”: “Watch out, Johnnie and Janie, the Christians are out to get you!… You see, the problem is that Christians — those sneaky devils! — are on the march; they’re taking over, in particular, the Republican Party. And, once again, as they have done effectively so many times, left-liberals, who wouldn’t be caught dead voting Republican, are rushing dewy-eyed, to try to save the wonderful old GOP from those terrible, extreme, Christians.
“So what’s wrong with these Christians, anyway? They’re ‘extremists!’ Oooh! On what? Well, they’re single-issue types: they’re only interested in abortion. Soon, it turned out patently that that wasn’t true: for example, the Christian Right (for they indeed, are the Christians under attack) are also passionately interested in saving their children from multicultural, socialistic, condomaniacal, anti-Christian public schooling.
“And so the anti-Christian left retreated to another line of attack: they’re ‘creationists’! They’re interfering with the separation of church and state! They want voluntary prayer in the schools! But why is even discussing a Christian view in the schools a breach in this holy wall of ‘separation of church and state,’ while presenting all sorts of New Age propaganda, channeling, pantheistic mysticism, etc. is not a breach in such a wall? It is pretty clear that the only separation of religion from the public schools that left-liberals are interested in is from Christianity, not from religion in general.
“The liberal media have spun an entire web of disinformation and lies around the Christian right. First, there is the notion that there are two types of Republicans: the Christian right only interested in ‘social’ issues (bad), and economic conservatives interested in safe issues like taxes and economic controls (good). Or, alternatively, that there are three types of Republicans: the Christian right (bad), the economic conservatives (so-so), and the ‘moderates’ (wonderful), who are left-liberal on all issues, or who are willing to cave into the left everywhere.
“All this is baloney. The Christian right might well have been inspired into activism by abortion or by the horrible state of the public schools, but by this time the nature of the Enemy is clear, and they have become ‘conservatives’ on all issues, anti-tax and pro-free market as well as cultural rightists.
"…I’ll say it only once more: it does not violate the separation of church and state principle for Christians to get involved in politics, or to take political stands. Or even for Christian ministers or priests to do so. For people who use this absurd argument, this point should be thrown into their face: All right, are you prepared to repudiate all the political activities of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? Or of all the other black ministers? Are you prepared to condemn Catholic Bishops when they agitated for civil rights legislation? And if not, why not? And if not, please inter this idiotic argument once and for all. The blatant hypocrisy of left-liberals on this entire matter is a stench unto one’s nostrils. They must not be allowed to get away with this intellectual fraud.”
IV. 1900—1925: Prohibition, Modernist/Fundamentalist debates, Scopes Trial
To understand the sudden reengagement in politics of evangelicals in the late 1970s, I think we must first begin with what came before. Namely, how it came that a large segment of the American population stepped back from politics.
Coming out of revivals led by men like Dwight L. Moody, the 19th century was filled with religious activity. Marsden writes that “‘Evangelical’ (from the Greek for ‘gospel’) eventually became the common British and American name for the revival movements that swept back and forth across the English-speaking world and elsewhere during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries… the revivalists’ emphases on simple biblical preaching in a fervent style that would elicit dramatic conversion experiences set the standards for much of American Protestantism. Since Protestantism was by far the dominant religion in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century, evangelicalism shaped the most characteristic style of American religion.”
While the seeds of a coming split quietly developed among evangelicals, the late 19th and early part of the 20th century seemed to be a time of triumph for evangelical influence on society. There were massive missionary efforts abroad as well as new organizations at home like the YMCA. The Prohibition movement resulted in the passage of numerous state laws beginning in 1917 which culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment in early 1919 which made the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” illegal in the United States. This alcohol Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in late 1933.
But the seeming unity among evangelicals was about to fall apart.
Marsden writes "… the vast cultural changes of the era from the 1870s to the 1920s created a major crisis within [the] evangelical coalition. Essentially it split in two. On the one hand were theological liberals who, in order to maintain better credibility in the modern age, were willing to modify some central evangelical doctrines, such as the reliability of the Bible or the necessity of salvation only through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. On the other hand were conservatives who continued to believe the traditionally essential evangelical doctrines. By the 1920s a militant wing of conservatives emerged and took the name fundamentalist. Fundamentalists were ready to fight liberal theology in the churches and changes in the dominant values and beliefs in the culture. By the middle of that decade they had gained wide national prominence. By a few years later, however, their support faded and they disappeared from the headlines.”
Ed Dobson describes the origin of the term “fundamentalist”: “The fundamentalist movement took its name from the publication of a series of booklets in 1909 named The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth, written by scholars from around the world. The authors represented Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal denominations and people of varying theological positions. These articles were designed to identify the essential (fundamental) doctrines of the Christian faith, which were under attack from the then-current tides of scientific inquiry. Five fundamental doctrines were identified as the basic tenets of the Christian faith:
- The inspiration and infallibility of the Bible.
- The deity of Christ.
- The substitutionary atonement of Christ. The liberal theologians had begun propagating the idea that the death of Christ was merely that of a martyr and provided nothing more than a moral influence on society. That is, his death was a good moral example from which all people could benefit. To the fundamentalists this was a denial of the heart of Christianity and the soul of the gospel. Christ died a substitutionary death, and in so doing, he provided atonement for the sins of mankind.
- The resurrection of Christ. Liberal theologians advocated a spiritual rather than literal resurrection… The fundamentalists, by contrast, loudly proclaimed the literal resurrection of Jesus.
- The second coming of Christ. The fundamentalists believed not only in a literal, bodily resurrection, but also in a literal, bodily return of Christ to the earth.”
“By 1918 the liberals and the fundamentalists had clearly articulated their positions and were ready for a head-on collision. Conservative Christians held their first major national conference in Philadelphia that year, with more than five thousand people attending. The next year they met at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago and decided to go on the offensive against liberalism by establishing their own organization, which would later be known as the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. They also began advocating the establishment of new Bible institutes and conferences to combat the influence of liberalism. This was a major change of direction. Instead of staying in the major denominations and fighting against the liberals for control, the early fundamentalists withdrew and began their own organizations.”
George Marsden in Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism tells the story of the decline of fundamentalism as a nationally prominent movement: “World War I had produced among many conservative evangelicals both a sense of crisis over the revolution in morals and a renewed concern for the welfare of civilization… German civilization during the war was portrayed as the essence of barbarism, despite its strongly Christian heritage. Could the same thing happen here? The strong winds of change suggested that it could.
“The central symbol organizing fears over the demise of American culture became biological evolution. German culture, antievolutionists loudly proclaimed, had been ruined by the evolutionary ‘might-makes-right’ philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Darwinism, moreover, was essentially atheistic, and hence its spread would contribute to the erosion of American morality. Accordingly, soon after the war fundamentalists began organizing vigorous campaigns against the teaching of biological evolution in America’s public schools. This effort was greatly aided when in 1920 William Jennings Bryan, three times Democratic candidate for president and one of the nation’s greatest orators, entered the fray against Darwinism. Fundamentalist antievolution efforts were essentially political and so attracted a constituency wider than the nucleus of theologically conservative evangelical Protestants. By the middle of the decade laws banning the teaching of evolution in public schools had been passed in a number of southern states, and legislation was pending in a number of others. These efforts led to the famous Scopes Trial testing the Tennessee antievolution law in 1925, an event that both thrust fundamentalism into worldwide attention and brought about its decline as an effective national force. John T. Scopes, a young high-school teacher who admitted to teaching biological evolution, was brought to trial and defended by famed criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow. William Jennings Bryan volunteered to aid the prosecution, thus bringing a dramatic showdown between fundamentalism and modern skepticism. The event was comparable to Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in the amount of press coverage and ballyhoo.
“Although the outcome of the trial was indecisive and the law stood, the rural setting and the press’s caricatures of fundamentalists as rubes and hicks discredited fundamentalism and made it difficult to pursue further the serious aspects of the movement. After 1925 fundamentalists had difficulty gaining national attention except when some of their movement were involved in extreme or bizarre efforts.”
V. 1976 — The Year of the Evangelical
Fast forward to the 1970s, though during the intervening years evangelicals were quietly building the institutions that I listed earlier. 1976 was proclaimed by Newsweek to be “The Year of the Evangelical."
I think it is interesting to note that initially evangelicals were not necessarily committed to the Republican party. Cal Thomas remembers: “I had voted for Carter in 1976, believing him to be a serious churchman, a moral man, and a breath of fresh air following the disastrous Watergate years of the Nixon administration. When Carter had said, ‘I’ll never lie to you,’ some mocked, but I had believed him.”
Francis Schaeffer was decisive around this time in bringing evangelicals into the pro-life movement. In particular through his book, coauthored with C. Everett Koop, “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” and an accompanying film and lecture tour.
A friend tells me of something Schaeffer said, by the way, about Christians and political alliances: “At a lecture he [Francis Schaeffer] gave at Covenant College in the fall of 1969 (that I attended as a junior in high school), he told the audience that Christians in the area of politics should be ‘co-belligerent, but not allies.’ In other words, while there were some issues with which we could be in agreement or disagreement, Christianity was NOT to be tied to a political party or parties.”
VI. 1979—1989: The Moral Majority
When the Moral Majority was founded in 1979 they also intended to stay focused on issues of concern to Christians and not become too closely allied to particular political parties or candidates.
Here is the original platform of the Moral Majority:
- We believe in the separation of church and state.
- We are pro-life.
- We are pro-traditional family.
- We oppose the illegal drug traffic in America.
- We oppose pornography.
- We support the state of Israel and Jewish people everywhere.
- We believe that a strong national defense is the best deterrent to war.
- We support equal rights for women.
- We believe the Equal Rights Amendment is the wrong vehicle to obtain equal rights for women. We feel that the ambiguous and simplistic language of the amendment could lead to court interpretations that might put women in combat.
For fear of being misunderstood, we also articulated what we were not.
- We are not a political party.
- We do not endorse political candidates.
- We are not attempting to elect “born again” candidates.
- Moral Majority, Inc., is not a religious organization attempting to control the government.
- We are not a censorship organization.
- Moral Majority, Inc., is not an organization committed to depriving homosexuals of their civil rights as Americans.
- We do not believe that individuals or organizations that disagree with Moral Majority, Inc., belong to an immoral minority.
VII. 25 years later
It’s about 25 years since the Moral Majority was founded in 1979. We can now assess how successful Evangelicals have been in accomplishing their goals through the political process.
After the Reagan landslide of 1980, excitement at the Moral Majority was high. Ed Dobson writes of what they were thinking, “We had made our mark. We influenced an entire election. Our agenda would never again be ignored. We were about to turn around the whole moral and cultural decline of our country. Our man was in the White House. The Senate was under our control. The media wanted our opinion on every issue.”
"… The Reagan-Bush landslide in 1980 was the greatest moment of opportunity for conservative Christians in this century. We had been disgraced in 1925 at the Scopes trial. But now we were vindicated. We had helped elect our man to the White House, and he openly praised the efforts of Falwell and the Moral Majority. The Republican landslide brought in new senators, and for the first time in twenty-six years the Republicans had a Senate majority. Along with the Moral Majority, groups like the Christian Voice, the Religious Roundtable, the National Christian Action Coalition, and several pro-life organizations published target lists and moral report cards. The new right was successful in defeating senators George McGovern of South Dakota, Frank Church of Idaho, John Culver of Iowa, Birch Bayh of Indiana, and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Of the targeted senators, only Alan Cranston of California survived.
“Between the presidential campaigns of 1980 and 1984, the Religious Right continued to lobby Congress and register new voters. According to various reports, by 1981 new right groups had enlisted 70,000 clergy and had registered four to five million new voters. The Reagan presidency took a conservative posture toward issues such as abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, homosexuality, and school prayer. The Religious Right lined up behind the Republican platform. Jerry Falwell and other religious leaders visited the White House on a regular basis. President Reagan became the hero of the conservative Christians in America.”
Cal Thomas continues the story with how pragmatic compromises began to creep in for the Religious Right: “The subordination of conviction to the pragmatic was also evident in politics — which is one of the great dangers of too close an association by the church in affairs of state. Politics is all about compromise. The church is supposed to be about unchanging standards…
“The temptations occurred early for [the] Moral Majority. Not only were we forced to say nothing about Ronald Reagan’s selection of the previously pro-choice George Bush as his running mate, but only one month into the Reagan presidency, we were faced with the ultimate litmus test. Associate Justice Potter Stewart announced his intention to retire from the Supreme Court. Conservative groups had long believed that the Court had acted as an unelected legislature. We thought that Reagan’s presidency offered a possible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the Court in a conservative, or ‘strict constructionist,’ image.
“Reagan nominated a relatively unknown Arizona Appeals Court judge and former state senator, Sandra Day O’Connor, to replace Stewart.
"…because of Judge O’Connor’s questionable record on abortion, many conservative groups immediately opposed her. They felt the conservative movement had not come this far only to be compromised at the moment of victory.
“In an interview with Gerald and Deborah Strober for their book, Reagan: The Man and His Presidency, Jerry Falwell revealed how politicians — even Ronald Reagan, who supposedly was above compromise — can use the prospect of future access to cause one to compromise a principle.
Said Falwell, “I was at Myrtle Beach (South Carolina). The president called me and said, ‘Jerry, I am going to put forth a lady on the (Supreme) Court. You don’t know anything about her. Nobody does, but I want you to trust my judgement on this one.’
“I said, ‘I’ll do that.’ The next day he announced the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor. About two weeks later he called me again and said, ‘Jerry, I’ve had a chance to talk to her, and my people have, and I can tell you that her views will not disappoint you, and I hope you can help me bring the troops in.’ So I began calling conservatives, asking them to back off.”
[back to Cal Thomas' comments] “But Justice O’Connor has been the swing vote that, in virtually every case, has beaten back any and all challenges to the ‘right’ of a woman to abort her child at any stage of pregnancy.’”
Due to the compromises and the feeling of being betrayed by politicians, Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas began to question the movement of Christians as a group into politics.
Ed Dobson describes one of the false myths that the Christian Right keeps buying into: [Myth 10] “Politicians are genuinely concerned about our issues…
“Dr. Dobson contended that the Republican party had abandoned its previous pro-life and pro-family stance, that the people advocating these positions had been rebuked and betrayed by the Republican establishment, and that if the party didn’t respond, then maybe it is time to make a change. I agree with all these ideas. Moreover, the speech led to a series of talks with Republican leaders and assurances to Dr. Dobson that things would change. And at this point I have deep concerns for Dr. Dobson. When the Moral Majority was at the height of its popularity, its leaders likewise met with the politicians and received their own assurances. But these assurances were never realized — and I predict that neither will those that were given to Dr. Dobson. Why not? Because politicians are politicians. Some genuinely care out about our issues because they share our values. Most do not. They are more concerned about the next election and about keeping power; they are inclined to use anyone, including sincere people of faith, to ensure that they maintain power.”
Cal Thomas: “The American Enterprise Institute and Roper Center examined opinion polls on abortion for the last twenty-five years. In January 1998 they concluded that despite the rhetoric and campaigns by both sides, attitudes about abortion remain pretty much unchanged.
“In perhaps the biggest and costliest battle waged by conservative Christians, twenty years of fighting has won nothing. And our record is no better with other moral and social issues.”
Ed Dobson: “Did the Moral Majority really make a difference? During the height of the Moral Majority, we were taking in millions of dollars a year. We published a magazine, organized state chapters, lobbied Congress, aired a radio program, and more. Did it work? Is the moral condition of America better because of our efforts? Even a casual observation of the current moral climate suggests that despite all the time, money, and energy — despite the political power — we failed. Things have not gotten better, they have gotten worse.”
VIII. Christians in Politics: A critique
I’m going to argue that the compromises and the disillusionment that Dobson and Thomas describe are not due to a lack of sincerity, good intentions and hard work on the part of the Religious Right. I believe that evangelicals, in general, were nave about the nature of politics. I would argue that if they had truly understood what the government, the church and the modern nation-state are, and what they are not, they would have gone about things entirely differently from the beginning. I would further argue that having clarity on these matters suggests that it is nearly impossible for politics to accomplish not only what the evangelicals hoped to accomplish through it but what many other interest groups hope to accomplish.
A. The nature of government
George Washington described the nature of government in this way: “Government is not reason and it is not eloquence. It is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”
The scriptures say this "…rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”
So the nature of government is that it has the sword, that it uses force. This force is supposed to be used by the government to punish wrongdoers. To put it in one word, the institution of government is about justice. Martin Luther called this the “left hand kingdom” of God’s two realms established in the world after the Fall.
Ed Dobson puts it this way: “We should not expect the government to promote the gospel or prayer or religion. This is not its role. We should not expect the government to promote compassion for the poor. That is not its role.”
Why does Dobson restrict the government in this way? Doesn’t he want the gospel promoted? Doesn’t he want compassion for the poor? He certainly does, but an institution that is marked by force is not suitable for these tasks.
B. The nature of the church
The nature of the church, on the other hand, is to dispense mercy and bring the good news of God’s mercy. Luther called this ministry of mercy “the right hand kingdom."
Cal Thomas puts it this way: “What was the first witness of the church shortly after the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus? Did anyone say, ‘Let’s get an army together and charge Rome so we can overthrow Caesar for what he allowed to happen’?
“No, the first witness was that they loved each other and pooled their possessions (Acts 4:32). It was love, not criticism or condemnation, that persuaded others to learn more about Jesus and to ultimately follow him.”
Though we can argue about the Inquisition or the Crusades, the primary day to day activities of Christian churches for the last two thousand years has been to persuade people of the truth of the gospel, to train new Christians and to do acts of charity.
To make the distinction abundantly clear: The church is not, unlike government, about using force to dispense justice. The seed of the church is the blood of the martyrs, not of the pagans.
C. The nature of the modern nation-state
I would like to make a further distinction. The U.S. federal government is not just a plain vanilla government that dispenses justice, end of story. It is a modern nation-state. It still qualifies as a government but with some major caveats.
Contemporary political science has slowly been finding its way to an old libertarian insight: The autonomy of the state. You can see this, for example, in the book Bringing the State Back In by Theda Skocpol and others. The state is not just a neutral instrument, now being used by this interest group, now by that of another. The state has its own interests… Primarily to grow and eliminate any competition to its authority, like local or regional governments or even the authority of churches and families.
Now when I discussed the nature of government I didn’t mention anything about it growing and seeking to eliminate competing authorities. That is because the modern nation-state is a particular kind of government, it is Monopoly Government. A monopoly government doesn’t just say “We offer protection and justice services.” It gives us an offer we can’t refuse: “We offer protection and justice services, which you have to pay for whether you want to or not or even whether we are doing a reasonable job at these services or not. In fact you have to pay us even if we clearly are just creating chaos and killing innocent people.”
We economists know something about monopolies. Monopolies always give decreasing service at an increasing cost.
The seduction of the modern nation-state is this: The growth of the state, the privileged position it has through its monopoly and the hordes of intellectuals who spend their time singing the praises of the state result in a temptation to consider the state capable of doing more than it can do. Thus, we get crazy utopian schemes to eliminate poverty and uncertainty in life by giving the state power over the economy. Or we get crazy utopian schemes to bring peace all over the earth by giving a single state power over the whole globe.
D. The dangers of becoming a political interest group.
How does this relate to evangelicals in politics? The state has an amazing ability to co-opt “protest” and “reform” movements.
The game goes like this: Left wingers come to the state concerned about poverty. The state declares a “War on Poverty." Poverty doesn’t end up being abolished, or even particularly reduced, but whole new bureaucracies are spawned, taxes are raised, liberty is diminished and the central state grows.
Or right wingers come to the state concerned about drugs or rampant immorality. The state declares a war on drugs and on immorality. Drugs and immorality abound, but taxes are raised, liberty is diminished and the central state grows. Heads the state wins, tails we lose.
Ed Dobson writes: "…when the church engages in the political system, using the weapons of that system, then it becomes another lobbying group and ceases to be the church.”
Thomas & Dobson write: “The church… becomes an appendage of the state rather than its moral conscience. It is transformed from a force not of this world into one that deserves to be treated as just one more competitor for earthly power.”
Cal Thomas further reflects: “We failed not because we were wrong about our critique of culture, or because we lacked conviction, or because there were not enough of us, or because too many were lethargic or uncommitted. We failed because we were unable to redirect a nation from the top down. Real change must come from the bottom up or, better yet, from the inside out.”
And Thomas adds this, directly pulling in a libertarian insight: “Author Charles Murray had some insightful thoughts on the idea that politicians and the political system can transform human beings from the top down. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Murray wrote, ‘The Democrats of 1964 and the activist Republicans of 1998 — shall we call them modern Republicans? — share the fatal conceit [Hayek!] that lawmakers can engineer the incentives governing human behavior.’”
Ed Dobson sums up the crucial difference between the church and government in this way: “The authority of the church is the power to change people and culture. By contrast, the authority of the government is the authority to punish wrongdoing and restrain evil. But the government has no power to change the hearts of evildoers; it can only incarcerate or execute them.”
So, are there alternatives to addressing the social issues that concern evangelicals?
Of course! Christians can do what Christians have done for the last two thousand years.
In the case of abortion for example, I believe adoptions, moral persuasion, Pregnancy Resource Centers and free ultrasounds have done more than all the work to get pro-life politicians and judges into office. To this, I think we should add efforts to convict the hearts of men to act honorably towards women and take responsibility instead of using women and then eliminating the consequences. I got this idea from the 19th century feminists, by the way, who were strongly pro-life.
For another example, in the area of our government schools, I think parents who are displeased with the state of these schools should take their kids out of them and help others to do the same. There are numerous alternatives: Home schooling, private schools, the Catholic and Lutheran parochial systems. As someone who worked with inner city children for many years, I can tell you that the poorest among us are getting the worst part of this deal. I think Ladue High School, where I attended, had severe problems, but the inner city schools are on a whole other level of dysfunction and danger.
In conclusion, I hope to persuade Christians, and others for that matter, to not waste their time on politics. It seems to me clearly to have been a counter-productive activity with tremendous dangers for those who try to bend coercive powers to the ends of the Prince of Peace. There are so many other ways to engage our culture that desperately need dedicated believers. Some decent Christian filmmakers would do more good than a whole Senate full of Christians.
W. Carson [send him
mail] is a working software engineer and a graduate student in
the Department of Political Economy at Washington University in St.
was delivered on September 12, 2003 at the Friday Night at the Institute
lecture series sponsored by the Francis