Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Evangelical Political Tradition, part II

This is part two of what is turning into a three part series on Evangelical Christianity and politics prompted by Alisa Haris’ recent article. Part I is available here. This section will address some of the shortcomings of Ms. Harris’ article, while part III will focus on what she gets right.

I grew up in the same conservative christian circles as Ms. Harris. As such, I am rather familiar with the names she drops.

And I can identify when she is not portraying certain individuals accurately.

Take, for example, Francis Schaeffer. To read Ms. Harris article, one would conclude that he was a Southern sympathizer who was unconcerned about slavery. She writes:

The political principles I now embrace — human equality, human dignity, and human rights — align less with Schaeffer and more with King, who not only marched for civil rights for African-Americans but also launched the Poor People’s Campaign and fought for the economic rights of all, black and white.

I have to wonder if she actually read Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live:

There were many areas where the Bible was not followed as it should have been, but two are outstanding: first, a twisted view of race, and second, a noncompassionate use of accumulated wealth.

In the area of race there were two types of abuse. The first was slavery based on race; second, racial prejudice as such. Both practices were wrong, and often both were present when Christians had a stronger influence on the consensus than they now have—and yet the church, as the church, did not speak out sufficiently against them.


Today’s Christians, by identification with their forbearers, must acknowledge these inconsistencies in regard to a twisted view of race. We can use no lesser word than sin to describe those instances where the practice was (or is) so far from what the Bible directs. The most effective acknowledgement is for Christians to strive in the present to follow the Bible at these points. Of course, slavery was not only practiced in these Christian countries. In fact, in some Moslem countries, black slavery continues to the present day. But that does not lessen the wrongness of a twisted view of race in the countries where churches out of the Reformation tradition could have done more about it.

The lack of compassionate use of accumulated wealth, especially following the Industrial Revolution, must also be faced squarely. . . . all too often in England and other countries the church was silent about the Old and the New Testament’s emphasis on a compassionate use of wealth. Individual efforts of charity did not excuse this silence. Following industrialization, the noncompassionate use of accumulated wealth was particularly glaring.


[T]he weath produced by the Industrial Revolution was not used with compassion. This resulted in the growth of the slums in London and other cities and industrial towns, the exploitation of children and women (who suffered especially), and the general discrepancy between the vast wealth of the few and the misery of the many.


A tragic example of the acceptance of these views [that poverty is inevitable, and social reforms only increase the problems and medical care for all people is an evil rather than a good] was the attitude toward the Irish potato famine held by Charles Edward Trevelyan (1807-1886), who was in charge of government relief in Ireland. He withheld government assistance from the Irish on the grounds that they should help themselves and that to do otherwise would encourage them to be lazy. It was not that he lack compassion or a social conscience (his later career shows otherwise), but that at a crucial point a sub-Christian prejudice stifled the teaching of Christ and the Bible, and sealed Ireland’s doom.


And in the area of slavery, the Untied States must bear special criticism, since slavery based on race continued there until such a late date.

Or, as Schaeffer wrote in A Christian Manifesto:

[W]e must make definite that we are in no way talking about any kind of theocracy. Let me say that with great emphasis. Witherspoon, Jefferson, the American Founders had no idea of a theocracy. That is made plain by the First Amendment, and we must continually emphasize the fact that we are not talking about some kind, or any kind, of a theocracy.


There is no New Testament basis for a linking of church and state until Christ the King returns. The whole “Constantine mentality” from the fourth century up to our own day was a mistake. . . . Making Christianity the official state religion opened the way for confusion up till our own day. But through the centuries it has caused great confusion between loyalty to the state and loyalty to Christ, between patriotism and being a Christian. We must not confuse the Kingdom of God with our country. To say it another way: “We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.”

This is not a white-only or a rich-only or even a Christian-only politics. In fact, one of the primary points Schaeffer tries to make is that it is the Christian tradition that is responsible for the current understanding of what Harris calls “human equality, human dignity, and human rights.”

Now this is not to say that there are no fringe authors who do advocate some form of theocracy. I’ve already written about them. That Gary North, a real Christian Reconstructionist, had such hostile things to say about Schaeffer in Political Polytheism (pages and pages and pages) should alone indicate that Schaeffer is not in that camp. But to project all the implications of a view upon anyone who may be remotely associated with someone familiar with its founders is to construct a straw man. And if we accept this sort of reasoning based on inference, we must also classify Martin Luther King, Jr. as a theocrat. After all, he was the one who wrote “segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful” and then quoted a theologian. That sounds a lot like Harris’ “mak[ing] make our country’s laws conform to our private morality .“ (Unless, of course, there is more than mere private morality at play here.)

This is not to say that Harris has no point to make. Underneath her prejudices, there is a very valuable conclusion that many conservative evangelical Christians would be benefited by (and more already hold than Harris appears willing to admit). I will address that next time. But to get there, she unnecessarily misrepresents those she claims to be breaking with.

Harris may have abandoned the conspiracy theory that “humanists, from the NAACP to the Rockefeller Foundation to the National Council of Churches, were conspiring to build a one-world socialist order.” But she appears to have merely exchanged it for another, which believes that conservative evangelicals want a society ruled by those who know what the word of God is, and their Napoleon, whether she likes it or not, is Michelle Bachmann (or Rick Perry).

Oh wait, that’s what was said about Jimmy Carter.
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