Faith, Politics, and the Evangelical Culture of Judgment
As a full-time student who is attempting to finish a dissertation I rather like keeping my head buried in theological matters — still paying attention to what the world is talking about but not engaging the conversation beyond the occasional Facebook rant. So if you will excuse a rare foray into the political sphere, this seems to be a post I can’t not write.
Some ten years ago now Touchstone magazine made waves and took a great deal of flack when it published a front cover essay on “The Godless Party.” The author was addressing the fact that in its platform the Democratic Party in the U.S., as well as the vast majority of elected Democrats, are pro-choice (i.e. permissive on the question of abortion). Christians, however, populate both parties — apparently without regard to this issue. The suggestion seemed to be that one cannot be both Christian and Democrat, since this would mean if not the commission of sin then at least its passive endorsement. (I don’t recall that the question of whether abortion is sinful, or when life begins, was a part of that discussion.)
The prophetic call in such a message is not so much to reform the Democratic Party to renounce its stance on abortion, but to call confessing Christians out of their midst. Political allegiance, it seemed, ought to be a one-issue matter — for nothing is more gravely serious or more important than the conservative position on abortion.
All of this is merely prolegomena for what I want to talk about, which is Owen Strachan’s June 2012 Christianity Today essay denouncing President Obama’s claims to be a Christian. (It is paired as a counterpoint to this essay affirming it. A new August essay argues, in an unsurprising contrast, that Evangelicals can vote for Mitt Romney even though he is Mormon.) Strachan lines up the President’s statements about his religious views with what the author takes to be the basic essentials of Evangelical Christianity. For a variety of reasons including policy votes with which Strachan disagrees, and an insufficient understanding of God and of the primacy of Jesus Christ as the only way to be saved, an evidently pluralist Obama comes up short.
When someone professes faith, yet has none of these instinctive reactions — and actually opposes such instincts despite years of membership in supposedly Bible-teaching churches — we realize, chillingly, that something greater than right morality is missing. The gospel, the ground of our ethics and the animator of our conscience, is very likely missing. Perhaps the person speaks of faith and their nearness to God. In reality, though, they are far from him. They may have come near at some point to the kingdom, but like the rich young ruler who chooses reigning with sinners over reigning with Christ, they are desperately far.
Allow me to focus on but two criticisms of this piece.
(1) FIRST, whether his target is a public figure whose religious beliefs influence some voters or just a neighbor down the block, Strachan has no business passing judgment on whether or not a man who calls himself a Christian really is so. This is not just a faux pax for a postmodernist, inclusivist culture; the gospel that Strachan purports to defend calls such action sinful (James 4:11-12; cf. Matt. 7:1-2, Rom. 2:1f.). Christ has called us to holy discernment, yes — but this is so often executed by believers as “righteous” judgment. But God has reserved the right of such judgments for Himself alone.
What Is A Christian? Let’s broaden the discussion a bit. Strachan isn’t questioning the President’s Evangelical credentials but his profession of the real Christ of Christianity. So what does it mean to be a Christian? We theologians have no qualms about excluding from the (orthodox) Christian church those important figures from history who have placed themselves outside its doctrinal bounds. Heresiarchs such as Arius and Nestorius have been deemed as not sufficiently Christian in the substance of their beliefs. So, too, are modern-day Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses widely regarded as something other than Christian. Like Islam they have a place for Jesus, the one whom Christians confess as Lord; but when this is measured against historic Christian orthodoxy we have to ultimately conclude that they just aren’t the same. To be a Christian means to uphold a basic set of beliefs about God, creation, and most importantly Jesus Christ.
(This is, we should note, an attempt at describing the “essence of Christianity” in theological terms. The question of religious identity is also bound up with sociological questions about the visible church, and its membership and discipline. My blogging colleagues have flagged this issue in private correspondence, but I’m going to set it aside for now and let anyone who wants to speak to this bring it up in the comments.)
What Ought Christians Believe? The closest that Strachan gets to such considerations is when he calls Obama on the carpet for what may be a pluralist understanding of salvation. Let’s grant for the sake of discussion that this is indeed one of those essential Christian beliefs — the belief that our path to God is exclusively right. Let’s even bypass the fact that Presidents and elected figures must (or feel they must) be always inclusivist in their rhetoric due to the nature of the position, and so what he says in a media interview or when lighting the White House Christmas tree may be a watered-down version of his own particular theological stance. Aside from these points, how many professing Christians do you think would today espouse a version of pluralism? What percentage of those under the age of 25? How many who worship Christ with their whole heart, soul, and mind, who serve the poor, who teach Sunday school, who otherwise are biblically grounded and even theologically sensitive?
In 2012 I’d wager that number is quite high. What, then, is our response to them as ‘true’ Christians? Do we condemn them and take away their hymnals and membership certificates?
Of course not. Men and women who have given themselves to Jesus Christ, who have submitted to His lordship, continue to stand in need of education and correction. The Lord is their shepherd, and He has given this task of theological education to His church.
How Should Christians Respond to Error In Their Ranks? If Strachan’s indictment of Barack Obama is sustained on this point, his judgment should not be that the President is “missing the gospel,” only mouthing Christianity but not following Jesus Christ. His response, and our response, to one who confesses Jesus Christ but holds apparently unbiblical views is to teach and admonish in love.
(2) SECOND, Strachan betrays his true motives in the use of abortion rhetoric to denounce the authenticity of another man’s faith in Jesus.
While the first two-thirds of the essay have taken the form of an intellectual appeal to the theological legitimacy of the President’s words, make note of the vivid rhetoric (underscored below) when he turns to this issue:
This, then, is why evangelicals come away so confused from the President’s faith-friendly speeches. He sometimes sounds the thrilling chords of the gospel of life, but his policies smack of the culture of death. How can a man who shows such charm toward his wife help to destroy the foundational institution of human society? How can a man who so clearly loves his adorable daughters stand on the floor of the Illinois senate and declaim the right to life of a child who, against the terrible odds only a womb-bloodying scalpel can produce, miraculously survives an abortion? Saving faith creates a relentless desire in the name of Christ to heal the wounded, restore the weak, and defend tiny fetuses that kick and spin and wave their miniscule arms when they hear their parents’ voices. Saving faith causes us to weep and yell and wrestle with God in prayer for infants that are savaged in the womb. Saving faith cannot abide unlawful death. It must and will decry it.
Like the Touchstone author a decade ago, Strachan would seem to believe that abortion is the issue that trumps all others. Aside from the evidence that the President may have a malformed doctrine of God and a pluralist understanding of salvation — he’s a Democrat, to boot! Like the vast majority of that “Godless party,” Obama allows abortion to continue to be legal. (Here is yet another matter we must set aside to engage this essay: a sitting President has no direct influence over current U.S. abortion laws apart from a few executive orders on things like funding.) He could not abide such a thing if the faith he claims to have is indeed, as Strachan puts it, “saving faith.”
The full force of the implied argument is this: One cannot be pro-choice and a born again Christian. Those who claim to be are deluded at best, and wolves in sheep’s clothing at worst.
Can You Be Saved and Pro-Choice? As with his apparent theological naivety, the President is far from alone within the church, of course. Contrary to Strachan’s rhetoric, abortion is not a clearly evident and settled issue among confessing Christians. This national divide knows of no boundary between the church and the rest of the world (and it’s not something I propose tackling here — I only want to shine a light on the rhetoric). What are we to do? Continue the discussion, of course, both nationally and within congregations. And it is the duty of church leaders to preach and to teach according to their convictions. But if Strachan is to reject Obama’s own faith claims because the President is pro-choice, then he must also reject the faith of millions of men and women who confess Jesus Christ with their mouths and believe that God raised him from the dead.
What’s the Motivation? The occasion for this essay is suspect, and here we reach the real heart of the matter. Were it a descriptive piece appearing in the pages of Time, comparing the President’s words with core Christian doctrines and commonly held Evangelical values, citing the importance of the Evangelical vote in an election year and then leaving the matter for the reader to decide, I would have nothing to which to object. That would make for an interesting bit of journalism on the intersection of faith and governance in a pluralist culture. Instead, Strachan’s piece is argumentative in nature — he is marshaling evidence to try and convince (Evangelical) readers of his own position.
As critical readers we must ask, then: What is the purpose of publicly calling into question the faith of a public figure, the authenticity of his commitment to Jesus Christ, and his concern for the sanctity of life in this fashion — particularly in a venue like Christianity Today? What does it matter if American Evangelicals believe that their President is also an authentic Christian? Strachan is not correcting the President in love; he is not engaging in activity that is the least bit pastoral. Strachan’s design is to convince the readers of CT that the President is not one of them. The message between the lines is: Can you really vote for him in November, then?
It is, finally, a more subtle and measured rendition of the “birther” and “secret Muslim” tactics.
Contrast this with this month’s piece, which not only argues that Christians can vote for a Mormon (I think that’s right, but I suspect for different reasons) but couches this in rhetoric of the President as an “almost pastor” of America.
Appeal to Emotion. What is so distasteful about this essay is not so much the judgment levied against one’s brothers and sisters (though that is deeply troubling). No, what is so revolting is the rhetoric Strachan employs for these aims — “a womb-bloodying scalpel” and “tiny fetuses that kick and spin and wave their miniscule arms when they hear their parents’ voices” are phrases intended not to appeal to reason or to historic Christian beliefs but to emotional revulsion and horror. Regardless of your own position on abortion, recognize the strategy being deployed: Strachan resorts to emotional manipulation to make his case against the President’s faith.
Strachan believes that abortion is murder — and, of course, he is far from alone among Evangelicals. He believes that painting visceral portraits of it will expose the fact that abortion runs contrary to the most basic of human instincts — okay. But what agenda is this rhetoric serving here? This essay is not about the state of U.S. abortion law or an argument for the life and dignity of unborn children; it is about “reexamining” the President’s faith, his qualifications to call himself a Christian like the rest of us. This is merely the final piece of evidence in a structured argument defending a thesis that Barack Obama is not a true Christian. And for this aim, Strachan’s manipulative rhetoric of death is abhorrent.
Insofar as American Evangelicalism intersects with the political sphere, unfortunately Strachan’s screed is commonplace. Thus I’ve chosen to title this response “The Evangelical Culture of Judgment.” This speaks not only to judgment about the salvific standing of elected officials but a judgment that pervades every aspect of social life, where one holds his neighbors to his own standard. This culture presumes uncritically that what the individual or the “Evangelical” collective believes regarding social policy is so fundamentally right that Christians, non-Christians, and state and national law must be held to its standard. This is not merely having convictions and fighting for them. It is the sort of homo incurvatus in se that leads to talk of “two Americas” and the desire to press one’s rightness over, and even against, social and ecclesial unity.
In making itself Arbiter on the public stage, this cultural Christianity seizes for itself a right that belongs to Christ alone.
For a diverse, public society the Evangelical culture of judgment is poison. But, still more significantly, it wounds deeply the church’s witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.