Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Evangelical Political Tradition, part III

This is part three of a three part series on Evangelical Christianity and politics prompted by Alisa Haris’ recent article. (See Part I and Part II.)

I’ve been putting off writing this third installment for some time now--and not just because I’ve been busy finishing my third semester in law school (although that makes a good excuse). I fear that my post may cause offense to some of my readers, which I am loathe to do. However, my response to Ms. Harris is incomplete without admitting that she has correctly identified something very wrong with evangelical politics.

In her piece, Harris tells her story of growing up in conservative evangelical culture-- complete with abortion protests, political camps, Confederate constitutionalism, dress codes, capitalism, and the worldview chart. She was part of this generation that is supposed to save the nation.

I know, because I was too. And my pedigree is just as evangelically conservative as Harris’. Homeschooled. Worked on Republican political campaigns. Attended Christian political camps and a conservative Christian political college. Seen the videos. Read the books. Written the papers. Heard the celebrities. I remember reading a friend’s blog shortly after her graduation from my alma mater wherein she wrote about how good it was to not be told daily that she is responsible for the future of the nation. Ushering in the future evangelical utopia is a large burden to bear.

Harris writes of her political transformation: “I have abandoned neither politics nor my Christian faith but the idea of a ‘worldview’ where all spiritual questions have political answers, and all political problems have spiritual solutions.”

That sentence is a gem. Harris is absolutely correct in abandoning the idea “that we could find in the Bible the final answers to our questions about the minutiae of 21st century tax policy and the path to economic growth.” It’s not there. You have to admit that there certainly are political questions that Christians can disagree on. (And they’re much bigger than whether Perry or Bachmann is the better candidate.) As CS Lewis warned in his Reflections on the Third Commandment, the danger with identifying Christianity with a political party is that if it is based on Christianity, it will include divergent political views; while if it is based on politics, it will exclude people who are orthodox Christians and include some who aren’t.

Underneath Harris’ article lurks her rejection of a “worldview.” This term has become a catchphrase in the evangelical political dictionary. However, as Harris is correct to identify, it has its shortcomings. Whether intentional or not, the outcome of worldview training is a tendency to put people into columns. There’s the one “good” column (us), and all the other “bad” columns (them). Then, the chart can be used as a weapon to verify the bona fides of others. Someone symphonic to socialism must inherently be an atheist. Someone who believes in evolution is a communist secretly plotting the overthrow of the nation. Someone who laments about lax child abuse laws must be secretly trying to destroy the family and church. Legitimate political discussion is reduced to name calling--and the philosophical sophistication of the terms does not change the ad hominem. When you blur the concepts together in this way, the actual meanings of the words are also lost. As Harris experienced in her discovery of the civil rights movement, this is an inaccurate way to approach both politics and history.

This is not to say that worldview instruction is useless. Categorizing, classifying, and connecting ideas is not only a valid way to study a topic, but a very beneficial one as well. Thus, for example, I could connect a strain of thinking from Plato to Paine, or from Machiavelli to Marx. Or, to cross disciplines, I could analyze how an approach to economics has influenced an understanding of ethics. Academically, this is extraordinarily helpful.

But while two ideas may be historically connected, that does not mean that someone holding one necessarily holds the other. And it certainly doesn’t mean that someone who studied under the advocate of one necessarily holds both. (Otherwise, there would be a lot more reconstructionists.) People don’t fit into logical boxes well. We’re a mix of ideas and positions, rational and irrational. In short, the worldview approach can be used with great effectiveness to discuss ideas, but is a poor tool in judging people. People are much more complex than a chart would indicate--and may be perfectly orthodox religiously while completely wrong politically, or vice versa.

And while Harris identifies something wrong with this, I worry that she has still not overcome the shortcomings of this way of thinking. She has merely switched from one worldview to another. She commits this very same error by mischaracterizing Francis Schaeffer based on his associates, rather than his own teachings & beliefs. And she may be committing this same error with Bachmann. For example, if I determined Harris’ moral positions the same way she determines Bachmann’s politics--based on the complete teachings of those who “influence” her--I would have to conclude that her admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. translated into an endorsement of adultery. The ease of this slippery slope approach is indicative of its weaknesses.

Harris ends with a reference to the rage of the Old Testament prophets. However, if that is her conclusion, than, her theological transformation is still incomplete; for the story continues, and is bigger than even the prophets knew. Christ came to show us that the Gospel transcends everything we know, even politics. We are called to love not just our neighbors, but also our enemies. Christ did not come to establish a political order, either left or right. Nor is this the calling of the church. Those things are too trivial. Christ came to redeem mankind and He will return to establish his kingdom. And because of that, we don’t have to.

This leaves us free to love, care for, reason with, grieve with, rejoice with, and show the love of Christ to, our neighbors. Our disagreements over the best way to do that are true Christian politics. But our church is bigger than our political affiliations.
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