Scott Kistler’s Review of “To Change the World” (Essay 2, Chp. 3)

Posted: July 21, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture
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Describing and analyzing the approach of the Christian Right is the task of this chapter.  Certain commitments lie at the heart of Christian conservatives’ engagement with American culture:

  • America belongs to religious people by virtue of its Christian history.  Some see this history as explicitly Christian, others as a general sense of the recognition of a religious sphere over the government and people of America.  This Christian character resulted in the blessings and greatness that the United States has enjoyed.
  • American culture is changing for the worse, something often blamed on powerful liberal elites and interest groups.  The groups are hostile to Christians and promote the mockery and discrimination against Christians.  The word “persecution” is sometimes used.
  • Christians must take action, including in politics.  This is the context of much of the world-changing rhetoric that he looks at in the first few chapters of Essay I.

The style of engagement is usually to call for prayer and action, including voting and expressing “demands” of politicians (especially the Republican politicians that Christian conservatives helped to elect) and media outlets to address the concerns of Christians or to stop what is considered offensive behavior.  While most of the Christian action groups are nonpartisan group, the net effect is to be intensely partisan.  I read Doug Wilson’s review of this chapter before I read the chapter for myself, but having read the chapter I agree with his view that Hunter says “partisan” like it’s an inherently bad thing.  But while partisanship for its own sake is terrible and one of the things that really hurts our political system, it’s impossible to argue that Christian conservatives’ vision for a good society could be advanced by the Democrats.  I’m not saying that Christians can’t vote for Democrats (I have), but instead that it would make no sense to think that Chuck Colson would ever vote for the modern Democratic party given his views not only on abortion (which I share) and other cultural issues (which I often agree on), but also on economic policy and limited government (which I’m still trying to sort out).

As far as the Christian Right approach to politics, I think that he described it pretty well.  There’s definitely a “take America back” motif running through much of the rhetoric.  There are four concerns that I have with this.

  • Sometimes it seems that the talk of restoring moral values is an attempt to restore an America where people behave better rather than an attempt to really present the gospel message of salvation.  I am going to use Chuck Colson as an example here, realizing that he is in many ways a wise, dedicated, faithful servant of God from whom I can learn much about clear thinking and the courage to stand for truth.  From reading his Breakpoint messages, though, it can sometimes seem that his concern for virtue can be detached from the gospel (see an example here, where he talks about the virtue of deferred gratification).  I realize that he wants to make practical arguments that make sense to non-Christians too, and I respect that.  Michael Horton said that Charles Finney was the forerunner of Jerry Falwell (and Jim Wallis) because he saw the church as a way to make society better.  I think that we want to be careful about pressing Christianity into the service of America to the point that it can obscure the proclamation of the full gospel.
  • In the talk of restoring America to the values that made it great, has anyone thought how this sounds to the people who got the raw deal during these times of greatness?  I don’t think that American history is simply a catalogue of oppression and injustice (far from it).  But consider, for example, the people who have suffered most from America’s greatness: American Indians.  Does it advance Christian unity with American Indian Christians or help in presenting the gospel to non-believing Indians to talk about the past in such glowing terms, when this was the time that they lost their lands, were treated unjustly, and had their children sent to boarding schools?  I’m not talking about corporate sensitivity training here; I’m trying to think about the consequences of rhetoric and attitudes toward our nation’s past.
  • There has often been unconditional support for America’s international military involvement.  Why is it that a country that is so screwed up (according to the Religious Right’s narrative) should be spreading its influence?  Why would Bill Bennett, a veteran culture warrior, write an American history that (using Lincoln’s words: look at the last paragraph of this long message to Congress) is called America: The Last Best Hope?  Leaving aside for the moment the insane statement that America could be considered by a Christian to be the last best hope for the world, why is a country in cultural crisis the last best hope?
  • In endorsing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and also calling for a return to a Christian nation, it sometimes seems like the Christian Right doesn’t realize what kind of nation it has signed up for.  They’re absolutely right that the Christian culture of the United States has changed.  It’s no surprise that, under the broad umbrella of the freedoms provided in our nation’s laws and tradition, secularism and religious pluralism have increased.  The Enlightenment, as well as Christianity, had a large influence on the American founding.  Jefferson wrote the Declaration as a man of the Enlightenment, not a traditional Christian (although he called himself a true Christian, he didn’t believe that Jesus was divine or rose from the dead).  Therefore, I think that the Christian Right has a fundamental historical misunderstanding about the origins of American liberty.  There is not a straight line from the Christianity of the apostles to an American conception of liberty.  The eighteenth-century American conception of liberty was a unique (at that time) hybridization of Christianity and Enlightenment liberties, and Enlightenment liberties come from a different way of looking at the world (placing human reason as the ultimate authority) than traditional Christianity.  That doesn’t make our system unbiblical, it just gives it a more complicated heritage.  Until the Christian Right deals with that equation, I would contend, they’re going to have a tough time responding to these issues in a way that makes sense to people.

Of course, secularists have mythic stories of their own.  I’m sure that you’ve seen secularists respond to Christian political engagement as if the first Christian ever to say something about politics was Jerry Falwell.  The secular myth that the founders believed in the exact same kind of separation of church and state as the ACLU (if I may exaggerate a bit for fun) is more distant from reality than the Christian Right’s conceptions of American history.  I’m sure you’ve seen media stories that treat traditional believers with a complete lack of understanding, and sometimes contempt, as if traditional believers are some kind of new species, or perhaps one recently unfrozen from cryogenic hibernation since before the time of Galileo.

In sharing my concerns about the Christian Right’s ideology, I don’t wish to throw my fellow Christians under the bus; without Christ, I’m a hopeless wretch, just as all people are.  I’m willing to be proven wrong in any of these points.  I hope that Christians will all mature together and grow to understand God’s will for our public witness.

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