Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: A Review

With 2012 being a presidential election year, politics is constantly in the news. One perennial question is what role evangelical Christians will play. But who are evangelicals, and how did they come to occupy the role they do in American politics?

Kenneth J. Collins presents his readers with a historical survey that answers that question, focusing on evangelicals’ pursuit of political power since the late 19th century. Collins is a professor of historical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, an evangelical school from the Wesleyan tradition. The book comes in six chapters, which mostly follow chronological order. In the first chapter, Collins looks at the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. He discusses factors that led to the decline of Protestant Christianity’s public voice starting in the late 19th century, including Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible. In the second chapter, Collins narrates the growth of fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism from the ’30s through the ’50s. In the third, he describes the turbulent ’60s and the influence of the Religious Right from the ’70s to the ’90s. The fourth chapter brings a break from Collins’ chronological march, in which he looks at two of evangelicalism’s responses to Darwinism: theistic evolution and intelligent design. In the fifth chapter, he looks at the rise of the evangelical left, focusing particularly on the careers of Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren and Jimmy Carter. He also includes a discussion of the Manhattan Declaration, an attempt at nonpartisanship that was received tepidly by the evangelical left. In the first pages of chapter six, called “Beyond Ideology,” Collins brings an end to his historical survey with the rise of Barack Obama. He then argues that evangelicals’ desire for power has prompted them to restrict their public voice to an exclusively political idiom, leading to disastrous results. His positive proposal is for evangelicals not to abandon politics altogether, but to craft an evangelical political philosophy that is informed by Scripture and natural law, and is wary of being co-opted by the non-Christian ideologies of the right or the left.

This book is a well-done survey of evangelicalism’s involvement in American politics for the reader who wants to place current political debates in their historical context. I have read other accounts of American evangelical political involvement, and this one stands out for two reasons: first, Collins includes discussions of the Wesleyan/Holiness/Pentecostal stream of evangelicalism, which has sometimes been left out or given short shrift. Second, he depicts the rise of the evangelical left, which is not narrated in older historical accounts of American evangelicalism. Readers who are already familiar with the history of American evangelicalism will not find a lot that is new in the first 100 pages or so, but the latter part of the book makes it worth reading even if you have some familiarity with that history. I especially recommend it for those who have interest in, but little or no knowledge of, the history of evangelical political involvement in the United States.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.

Publisher: Intervarsity Press
Reading Length: 260 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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The Idolatry of Ideology


It was the spring of 2009, and I was visiting my friends Neal and Danielle in Massachusetts. They both had to work one day, so I decided to go to Cambridge on my own and take a look around Harvard. While I was there, I felt the irresistible pull of a used bookstore and found Political Visions & Ilusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies by David T. Koyzis inside. I immediately snapped it up, but didn’t make time to read it until this month.

What I found was an excellent overview of five popular political ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism. Koyzis, who teaches political science at Redeemer University College in Ontario, examines each of them from a Christian perspective and finds them to be incomplete understandings of the world God created. That is because “every ideology is based on taking something out of creation’s totality, raising it above that creation, and making the latter revolve around and serve it. It is further based on the assumption that this idol has the capacity to save us from some real or perceived evil in the world” (15). In other words, ideologies are modern idolatries.

We commonly think of idolatry in terms of its ancient manifestations: worshiping a literal idol that represents a god who exerts control over some aspect of the physical world. But that is only the shape idolatry took in the ancient world; idolatry in its modern forms is still with us. Idolatry is taking a contingent thing and turning it into an ultimate thing. I’ve heard it attributed to Augustine that “Idolatry is worshipping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that is meant to be worshipped.” This means that even nominal believers in God may be idolatrous, in the sense that while they profess to worship God, they may actually serve success, political power, or any number of other things.

Ideologies tell their own stories of evil, salvation, and eschatology (even if they do not always use those words), and they locate all of these things within the created order. They begin with a fundamental problem and present a solution to that problem. They argue that if their solution is accepted and pursued on a broad scale in the way they endorse, it will lead to an ideal future. Here is a sketch of how each of the ideologies Koyzis writes about views the world:

Liberalism:

Source of evil: Any involuntary authority that can be imposed on an individual.
What it makes a god: Individual freedom.
Eschatology: A society where each individual pursues rational self-interest, and the only contracts we are obligated to are ones we enter voluntarily. Liberalism is by far the most popular ideology in the United States. Both the Right and the Left subscribe to different versions of it; they are just at different stages. “Conservatives” are conservative in that they want to return to an earlier form of liberalism. Those on the Right subscribe to classical liberalism, whereas those on the Left subscribe to what Koyzis calls “late liberalism.” Last year I often heard the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement insisting that they had nothing in common, but that’s not strictly true. They’re both liberals; they’re just at different stages of liberalism.

Conservatism:

Source of evil: Grand schemes for the betterment of society that ignore what the past has taught us.
What it makes a god: Tradition. This means that conservatism varies from place to place. In the United States, as noted above, conservatism simply tries to preserve an earlier form of liberalism: the kind originally articulated by John Locke and others, and interpreted by the founding fathers of the United States.
Eschatology: A society which looks to tradition as a source of norms, and in which we have respect for tradition, and humility regarding the effectiveness of new proposals. Unfortunately, conservatism as an ideology has no way of evaluating new proposals other than criticizing their novelty.

Nationalism:

Source of evil: Being ruled by someone unlike oneself. This applies to any kind of interference of one sovereign state by another, up to and including colonialism.
What it makes a god: the nation, of course. Our nation.
Eschatology: A world in which each nation commands the ultimate loyalty of its citizens, and each nation is able to be self-directed, without outside interference.

Democracy:

Source of evil: Being ruled by anyone else.
What it makes a god: The voice of the people. But not all people; the majority of the people.
Eschatology: A society in which those who have any authority on behalf of the people are in some sense following the will of the people. This includes not just government, but non-governmental institutions as well, like church and family. By the way, Koyzis draws a distinction between democracy as structure and democracy as creed. It is democracy as creed that is an ideology.

Socialism:

Source of evil: Inequality brought about by the division of labor.
What it makes a god: Material equality.
Eschatology: A society which embraces communal ownership of property by a class, leading to the elimination of the oppression of one class by another. This, according to Marx, will be the consummation of history.

All of these ideologies get something right about the world; otherwise they would not have so many followers. But what they get wrong, according to Koyzis, is that they begin from the standpoint of human autonomy. They emphasize self-direction; governing yourself according to a law that you choose. This means that they are not just ideologies; they are idolatries. They take God out of the picture, or worse: they turn him into something that the sovereign individual can choose or not choose to worship. God is not the sovereign Lord of creation; he is just another option on the menu.

But I would not go so far as to say that anyone who identifies herself as a liberal, or a conservative, or a socialist, or any of the other ideologies, is automatically an idolater. It is not common to find someone who follows any of these ideologies in its purest form. Most people realize, whether on a conscious or subconscious level, that an ideology cannot make complete sense of the world as they experience it. These ideologies do become idolatrous, however, when a person truly puts his hope in that ideology, rather than in God, to bring about justice in the world. And that varies from person to person.

All this has been a rough sketch of the main part of Koyzis’ book, combined with my immediate reactions to it. For a more nuanced discussion, I highly recommend reading the book. I think it would be helpful to any Christian who is seeking to make sense of politics, especially in the North American context.

Trading the Culture War for the Kingdom: A Review of A Faith of Our Own

Jonathan Merritt grew up a child of the Religious Right. His father is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Growing up, he says, he assumed that being faithful to Jesus meant defeating liberals. As he grew into young adulthood, however, he realized that there were Christians on the Left who saw things differently. Instead of switching from one political side to the other, he concluded that “[b]oth sides had accepted a faith that seemed more shaped by American culture than by the Christ I kept encountering in the Bible” (5). He set out to discover what it means to follow Jesus “beyond the culture wars,” and his book, A Faith of Our Own, is a record of his journey and the journey of others like him.

In this highly readable book, Merritt critiques both the Christian Right and Left. He rightly says that those Christians who are most actively engaged in fighting culture wars “take the Bible’s teachings on God’s kingdom and shrink ray it to fit their specific purposes” (17). Those on the Left, he says, focus on a “social justice” agenda that depends on government intervention, ending war, and defeating the Christian Right. Those on the Right focus on voting Christians into office, opposing abortion and gay marriage, restoring prayer to public schools, and posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. He writes,

Many on both sides lack a biblical framework for healthy engagement with the political process. Worse, few seem to consider the implications of their decisions. They know what might be accomplished by aligning their faith with a particular party, but they don’t realize the price that must be paid, the sacrifices that must be made (31-32).

These shrunken understandings of God’s kingdom, leading to the reduction of the Bride of Christ to a voting bloc, constitute the failure of Christians of Merritt’s (and my) parents’ generation to engage the public square as Christians, rather than as the tools of some political ideology. As a result, Merritt notes, young people brought up in the Church are fleeing in alarming numbers, and those outside the Church are repelled by the marriage in many churches between faith and conservative politics.

Not surprisingly, considering the movement’s influence and his personal background as part of it, Merritt spends more time critiquing the Christian Right than the Left. He memorably captures the dissatisfaction that many Christians in his generation feel about how the Church ought to act in public: “The culture-warring Christian… rushes off to fight the ‘war on Christmas’ and force the employees at Target to quit saying ‘Happy Holidays.’ A gospel-centered Christian says, ‘Christmas in America has very little to do with the incarnation of Christ anyway. Let’s focus our energies on what’s really important'” (133).

Though he talks about “focusing on what’s really important,” Merritt doesn’t have much in the way of concrete proposals. His book seems intended more to capture the mood of the shifting evangelical culture than it is to chart a way forward, though in the second half of the book he does talk about the need for change to come from the bottom up, and the change he has seen in newer churches like the one he is a part of. I hope that perhaps in a future book he will be able to shed a more focused light on what post-culture-war Christianity ought to look like.

I enjoyed this book, and flew through it in just a couple of days. Partly it was because Merritt’s message resonated with me. Neither of my parents have ever really had a “culture war” mentality, but growing up as part of the evangelical subculture in the South, it was hard to avoid. I have long since decided that it has done more harm than good to the Church of Christ in the United States, distracting people inside and outside the Church from the real work of the kingdom of God. I also appreciated that Merritt ended the book on a note of humility: he knows that his generation will make, and already has made, mistakes, the way every generation does. I hope he continues to document our successes and failures in such an engaging way.

Book Review: Decision Points

Instead of proceeding chronologically, George W. Bush structures this memoir of his presidency around the various “decision points” from his time as president and before: his decision to quit drinking, to run for governor and then president, to put the United States on war footing after 9/11, to invade Iraq, how to deal with the financial crisis in 2008, etc.

While he does express regret at times (e.g., that there was a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, that he flew over New Orleans after Katrina rather than landing), he is confident that the major decisions he made were the best ones to make under the circumstances. In other words, if a decision is big enough to warrant its own chapter, then it was the right decision. This confidence can sometimes be maddening, but I believe that it flows inevitably from Bush’s understanding of leadership as primarily concerned with decision-making. Since Bush believes that decision-making is what makes a good or bad leader, he is heavily invested in his major decisions being the right ones. Through much of the book, he comes across as a genuinely likable person: thoughtful, caring, empathetic, desiring to put the needs of others before his own. But when it comes to evaluating the consequences of his major decisions, it’s like he puts blinders on. He believes that major decisions are what make or break a leader, and he wants to think of himself as a good leader. Therefore, his major decisions were the right ones.

I recommend this book, but not because I agree with every decision Bush made. In fact, I agreed with some and not others. This book is unique in that it provides a view of historic events from 2000 to 2008 that is available nowhere else, and for that reason it is valuable. Like him or not, Bush was the most powerful political figure in the world for eight years. Learning about his decisions, and the rationale behind those decisions, is important for anyone seeking to gain an understanding of what happened in the first decade of the 21st century, and why.

Note: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Book Review: Uncle Sam’s Plantation by Star Parker

Star Parker argues in this book that poverty is too complicated to be fixed by government programs. Parker herself was once poor and took advantage of welfare programs, but she climbed out of poverty through hard work and determination. The two great heroes of this book are freedom and personal responsibility, and the two great villains are what Parker calls liberalism and moral relativism.

I found Parker’s telling of her own story to be inspiring, and there were some parts of the book that I agreed with. On the whole, however, I didn’t care for this book. Here’s why:

1. Parker is not civil toward those with whom she disagrees. In fact, she treats them with disdain. She calls the practice of repeating a lie over and over until it is believed a “time-honored liberal tactic” (56). She rails against “liberal ideologues in the halls of power” (105) and “mainstream media elites” (173). She says that on the Left, “facts will never get in the way of ideology” (187). I think that the lack of civility between disagreeing parties is a major problem, and Parker’s language does not help. I was tired of it well before the end of the book.

2. Parker relies too much on rhetoric to make some of her points. I agree with her that moral relativism is a problem, but does moral relativism really lead to plane hijackings (41)? I think there was a lot wrong with the worldview of the 9/11 hijackers, but I would argue that moral relativism was not the primary issue.

3. Parker could have used a better copy editor. There are too many examples of typos and mangled sentences to list here.

4. At the basic level, Parker is arguing for moralism, not Christianity. She talks about “biblical truths” and “absolute guidelines” (98). She talks about “faith” and “ethics” (129) and an “absolute moral code” (134). She talks about “moral and spiritual” solutions (165). She says that the Old Testament law was about family, property and ownership, and “being concerned about building your own and not what your neighbor has” (223).

This, as a Christian, was what disappointed me most about this book. If Parker is to be believed, being a Christian is about being a good person and following rules. This is a mistake that a lot of people make, but it is still a mistake. Parker never mentions Jesus’ death on the cross, never mentions forgiveness of sins, never mentions grace and mercy, never mentions the resurrection, and never mentions that the Old Testament law was about God’s holiness. Parker seems to think that the solution to poverty is moralism: people behaving better. I think that morality is better than immorality, but please let’s not confuse being a good moral person with genuine Christianity.

If you are conservative and you are interested in feeling good about being conservative, then this is the book for you (it got blurbs from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity). If you are liberal, Parker’s characterizations of your position will probably make you angry. If you are a Christian who is genuinely interested in finding out how you and your church can help the poor, don’t bother reading this book. One book I’ve read recently that I’d recommend instead is Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller.

Note: Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review. And clearly, I didn’t.

Review of The Battle, With Reference to WORLD Magazine’s Endorsement of It

I am not a regular reader of WORLD magazine, but when I picked up a copy of it a few weeks ago and saw that it was their yearly “books issue,” I was curious to see what they had named as their Book of the Year. When I read that they had named as their book of the year The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future by Arthur C. Brooks, I was even more curious. WORLD is a Christian magazine, and The Battle is a book that deals primarily with politics and economics, but not from a distinctly Christian perspective.

I was sufficiently curious after reading the article that I checked The Battle out of the library and read it.

The book is made up of four chapters. In the first, Brooks uses polling data in order to neatly split America into the 70 percent who think that free enterprise is a good idea, and the 30 percent who think that government-sponsored redistribution of wealth is a good idea. Brooks calls them the “70 percent majority” and the “30 percent coalition,” and argues that the 30 percent coalition has wielded a disproportionately large amount of influence, especially over young people. In the second chapter, he gives an example of this influence by detailing the narrative about the 2008 financial crisis given by the 30 percent coalition, and Barack Obama in particular. Brooks argues that the claims made by this narrative are false.

In the second half of the book, Brooks moves from directly criticizing the 30 percent coalition to making proposals for how the 70 percent majority can win the culture war. He argues that the 30 percent coalition has a worldview that is “fundamentally materialistic,” but the 70 percent majority has a worldview that is nonmaterialistic. Though they can sometimes have a reputation for only being concerned about money, they are really concerned with human flourishing. He argues that earned success, rather than money, is at the heart of free enterprise, and earned success is the key to happiness. In order to win the war, the 70 percent majority needs to “reclaim the morality of their worldview” (97). In addition to the claim that free enterprise is about human flourishing, four other principles he lists as central are 2) “We stand for equality of opportunity, not equality of income”, 3) “We seek to stimulate true prosperity, not treat poverty”, 4) “America can and should be a gift to the world”, 5) “What truly matters is principle, not political power” (103). He ends the book by calling for leaders who are committed to “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and defending free enterprise” (126).

The book is a quick read, an entertaining read, and in some places even an inspiring read. However, I still have many questions about why WORLD, as a Christian magazine, chose to endorse it as Book of the Year.

The dichotomy that Brooks draws between the 70 percenters and the 30 percenters makes for an appealing argument and even better rallying cry, but ultimately I think that his dichotomy is a false one. While socialists and free enterprisers do seem to be the ideologies that draw the most supporters at the moment, Christians should not be made to feel as if they are forced to choose between one or the other. Brooks spends the early part of his book citing polling data to make the case that free enterprise is really what the majority of Americans want. To me, this indicates nothing more than the fact that the false dichotomy between free enterprise and socialism has thoroughly permeated our culture, including many Christians. Rather than listen to the people, like Brooks, who seek to get them to choose between socialism and free enterprise, Christians should seek to find a way of living and doing economics that is genuinely Christian. While the Bible is not an economics textbook, we can glean some insight from it regarding what Christians should prioritize economically. And the Bible does not appear to be completely friendly to either free enterprise or socialism.

To be sure, there are some places where the Bible does seem to be friendly to free enterprise. Economist and theologian Johan Graafland, in his article, “Market operation and distributive justice: An evaluation of the ACCRA confession,” states,

The Bible indeed mentions many texts that express the right to private property, condemns stealing (Ex. 20:15, Lev. 19:11, Prov. 23:10, Ef. 4:28), require compliance to contracts (Jer. 22:13) and demand rectification if the principle of justice in transfers is violated (Ex. 22:4-7, Lev. 5:14-16, 6:1-5, 22:14, Num. 5:5-8, Prov. 6: 30-31)… There are also many texts that support the capitalistic principle of moral desert. Trade should be honest. One should use true and honest weights and measures and not cheat the other trading partner (Deut. 25:13-16, Ezek. 45:10, Mic. 6:10, Amos 8:5, Prov. 20:10). So one should be rewarded in accordance to what one really brings to the market. Many texts in the Old Testament and New Testament support the idea that effort or productivity should be rewarded. Jesus applies this principle in the parable of the three servants (Matt. 25: 29) and the parable of the Gold Coins (Luke 19:26). Also in the Kingdom of God, everybody shall be rewarded in accordance to his or her deeds (Matt. 6:3, 19:29, Luke 6:38, 18:29-30). The apostle Paul defends a similar standard (1 Cor. 3: 8, 12-15, 1 Tim. 5:18, 2 Thess. 3:10).

(Thanks to my friend Jeremy, by the way, for turning me on to Graafland’s work)

On the other hand, there are biblical texts that are less friendly to the sort of free enterprise that Brooks argues for. According to Graafland,

[T]he Bible commands several institutions that protect the poor, independently from the causes of their poverty…. For example, the poor received food during the sabbatical year (Ex. 23:10) and from what was passed over in the first harvest (Deut. 24:19-22). The hungry were to be allowed immediate consumption of food in the grain fields (Deut. 23:24) and farmers should not cut the corn at the edges of the fields, but leave them for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10). Other examples are the law of the tenth (Lev. 27:30, Num. 18:21, Deut. 12:6, Amos 4:4), the law to share with the poor food at the harvest festival (Deut. 16:11) and the prohibition on demanding interest from the poor (Ex. 22:25, Lev. 25: 36, Deut. 23:19, Prov. 28:8). Thus, aid to the suffering is not merely a matter of personal duty to be merciful.

Num. 26:52-56 shows us that upon entering the promised land, Israel was commanded to divide it so that every tribe would have land proportionate to its size. All tribes, clans and families were assured that they would have enough land for their needs. Also, in Dt 15:12-15 we find that slaveholders were required not only to free their slaves in the Sabbatical year, but to provide them with means of subsistence. Of course there is debate regarding the extent to which these Old Testament laws should be normative for Christians, but it seems at the very least that Christians have a duty to fulfill the basic needs of the poor. This was not just a matter of personal giving in the Old Testament; it was a matter of law. It should also be pointed out that the poor were still responsible to build up the capital they were given, and in this I do agree with Brooks.

By endorsing this book as Book of the Year, it seems to me that the editors of WORLD magazine have missed an opportunity. They could have used this book as a chance to talk openly as Christians about the best way to do economics. They could have praised The Battle for the ways in which it reflected a distinctly Christian view of economics, and critiqued the ways that it didn’t. Instead, there is only one criticism of Brooks’s book in WORLD’s review: “Brooks here should do more about the importance of biblical faith, since many people who have ‘earned success’ apart from a sense of God’s sovereignty and love hit a wall of meaninglessness as they age.” It seems to me that WORLD is wholeheartedly endorsing Brooks’s free enterprise worldview which claims that earned success is the key to happiness, but recommends he adds a little faith as a garnish. I don’t think this is an effective way to go about teaching and encouraging people to have a Christian worldview. Rather than starting with an unquestioned acceptance of free enterprise in forming our worldview, we should start with God’s story as it has played out primarily in the Bible and also in the history of the church. That should be our starting place, not adding faith to another worldview as if it were merely another ingredient. The Christian worldview centers on Jesus, and Jesus is not mentioned in The Battle. If nothing else, that ought to give us pause.

The mistake that the folks at WORLD make in naming this book as their Book of the Year is that they believe both the free enterprisers and the socialists when they say that there are only two ways to live. They chose the less offensive of the two options (and yes, despite my criticism I do think free enterprise is the less offensive option of the two), but in doing so they have taken their cue from the world and lost an opportunity to discern how to do economics in a Christian way.

Book Review: William F. Buckley (Christian Encounters Series)

This is the second book that I have read in the Christian Encounters series from Thomas Nelson, and I must admit that the idea behind the series is a good one: short biographies of well-known people, with an emphasis on their Christian faith. The first book in this series that I read was Peter Leithart’s biography of Jane Austen.

I chose to read Jeremy Lott’s treatment of William F. Buckley because I wanted to know more about Buckley. All I knew was that he was a conservative, a writer, and the founder and editor of National Review. The book certainly did introduce me to Buckley: I learned about his wealthy Catholic upbringing, his time at Yale, his initial writing success, the founding of National Review, his unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New York and how his TV show Firing Line got its start, among other things.

Though the book did teach me about Buckley, I was put off by Lott’s writing. He alternately gushes about Buckley and criticizes those whom he (Lott) dislikes. He calls the announcement of Buckley’s campaign for mayor of New York “legendary” (70). Legendary to whom, exactly? He says that Buckley’s responses to journalists during the announcement of his candidacy “only fueled their cynicism” (74) – without citing any evidence for this opinion. He never wastes an opportunity to slight Garry Wills, whom he says “ended up endorsing just about any old liberal position you could think of” (47) – again, without citing any evidence.

Now, I expect biographers to have a certain affection for their subjects. And I suppose Lott has lots of reasons for criticizing the people he criticizes. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Lott never wastes an opportunity to inject his opinions into Buckley’s story. He never gives his readers the chance to make their own judgments, and I ended up wanting more Buckley and less Lott. I’d read more Buckley in a heartbeat, but I’ll have to think twice before I read anything else by Lott.