The Quest For Power In Evangelical Politics

Aug 26th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

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If you ask the typical evangelical Christian in America the question, “do you believe that humans are basically good or bad,” most would affirm that humans are basically bad or what Scripture calls sinners.   We are born sinners and that is why we need the salvation that Jesus offers.  He died a substitutionary death and was resurrected, conquering sin, Satan and death.  He is our only hope and our only deliverance from the ravages of sin.  It is difficult to trust humans as a result.  Sin is lawlessness and rebellion against a holy God.  That is why Scripture has so much to say about the character, the righteousness and the integrity of religious, political and family leaders.  Leaders are always called to a higher standard and we must hold leaders to that higher standard.  The narratives of the Old Testament are filled with examples of how leaders, kings and parents failed those under them because of their sin, debased character or their outright duplicity.  We are fallen people and we must always keep that proposition ever before us, especially when it comes to political power.  As James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

I was reminded of this truth in an essay I recently read by the Christian columnist David French.  He writes:  “There’s a popular story in Christian circles that’s literally too good to be true. According to legend, in the early 1900s, The Times of London sent an inquiry to a number of writers asking the question, ‘What’s wrong with the world today?’ The Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton responded succinctly and profoundly: ‘Dear Sirs, I am.’  The real story is just as profound, but less succinct. In 1905 Chesterton wrote a much longer letter to London’s Daily News, and that letter included these sentences: ‘In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question ‘What is Wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong.’ Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.’  I’ve thought about that Chesterton quote often during the age of Trump, especially as I’ve seen the ‘new’ Christian right re-embrace the authoritarianism of previous American political eras. At the exact time when religious liberty is enjoying a historic winning streak at the Supreme Court, a cohort of Christians has increasingly decided that liberty isn’t enough. To restore the culture and protect our children, it’s necessary to exercise power to shape our national environment.”

French goes on:  “Years ago, I laughed at claims that Christian conservatives were dominionists in disguise, that we didn’t just want religious freedom, we wanted religious authority. Yet now, such claims are hardly laughable. Arguments for a ‘Christian nationalism’ are increasingly prominent, with factions ranging from Catholic integralists to reformed Protestants to prophetic Pentecostals all seeking a new American social compact, one that explicitly puts Christians in charge.  The motivating force behind this transformation is a powerful sense of threat—the idea that the left is ‘coming after’ you and your family. This mind-set sees the Christian use of power as inherently protective, and the desire to censor as an attempt to save children from dangerous ideas. The threat to the goodness of the church and the virtue of its members, in other words, comes primarily from outside its walls, from a culture and a world that is seen as worse in virtually every way.”

But as I mentioned in the first paragraph, the fundamental proposition of biblical Christianity is that the real threat is first to look inside, one that emanates from the idea of original sin, which Chesterton argued was “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” The doctrine of original sin rejects the idea that we are intrinsically good and are corrupted only by the outside world. Instead, we enter life with our own profound and inherent flaws. We are all, in a word, fallen. To quote Jesus in the book of Mark, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” All manner of sin and evil comes “from within, out of the heart of man.”

To drive home this point, I like refer to a 2022 book by the historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, We The Fallen People: The Founders and American Democracy.  McKenzie reminds us that our nation’s founders did not believe that humans were innately good or virtuous; indeed, they embraced the fundamental proposition of human depravity.  Patrick Henry “admitted to feelings of dread when he contemplated the ‘depravity of human nature.’”  Samuel Adams argued that “Ambitions are lusts for power . . . are predominant passions in the breasts of most men.”  McKenzie shows that the “Framers’ views on human nature were compatible with an orthodox Christian standing . . . [They also affirmed that] If the dignity of imago Dei gives us hope that a government of the people might flourish, the corroding effects of original sin persuade us never to take self-government for granted.  Given humankind’s fallen state, a free and just society is as fragile and unnatural as it is precious.”  For that reason, he cautions, “to live out a heartfelt conviction of original sin, we must run from every effort to meld Christianity with a particular political party, movement, or leader.  The reason for this is twofold:  For one, we’ll recognize the folly of placing unlimited confidence in any earthly deliverer.  If the effects of the fall touch every era in every land, they also mark every political institution we revere, every political party we champion, every incumbent we cheer, and every candidate we vote for.  But because we know the effects of the fall also linger in us, we’ll know that we can be lured into political idolatry all the same, and we must be on guard against that perpetual danger.” [p. 268]  He also concludes that “The mantra of monarchy, that ‘the king is never wrong,’ and the dogma of democracy, that ‘the people are always right,’ are both false.  To assert either ‘is to speak the language of a slave.’  Human nature is no different in democracy than in any other state . . . None of us can be trusted with power as individuals, and our character doesn’t improve when we become part of a majority, regardless of what politicians seeking our votes may tell us.” [p. 204]

This book has reminded me that as I focus more on God, I must also embrace the key axiom that I am a fallen creature, and that my dependence on God, as His child because of my faith in His Son, is more important than anything else in life.  It is even important when I engage in the various aspects of my citizenship role in this democratic-republic.  But, as McKenzie argues, this understanding faced an early and serious challenge in a political movement that we’d recognize today—the Jacksonian populism of the 1820s and well into the 20th century, the idea that “the people” were, in fact, righteous enough to rule. “You see echoes today in the constant refrain from the Trumpist right that ‘we the people’ represent the ‘real America,’ the virtuous core that can save the nation from what they see as a decadent left.”  This very concept was, and is, destructive to its core. The sense of virtue creates a sense of righteous entitlement. In Christian America, the belief that “we” are good leads to the conviction that the churches will suffer, our nation will suffer and our families will suffer unless “we” run things. It closes our hearts and minds to contrary voices and opposing ideas.”  As French concludes, “And what’s the new right’s response to its theory of the left’s use of power? Fight fire with fire. Take over institutions. They tried to cancel us? Cancel them. They bullied us? Bully them . . . This is a fundamentally top-down model of culture change, and it’s not entirely off. Leaders can have a profound cultural impact, and we have seen that when institutions are captured by a monoculture, they can grow intolerant. There has, in fact, been too much bullying in elite American institutions.”

For that reason, I find French’s comments about original sin so compelling:  “Under this understanding of Scripture, we are all our own greatest enemy—Christians as fully as those who do not share our beliefs. We do not, either as individuals or as a religious movement, possess an inherent virtue that should entitle any of us to rule. We shun the will to power because we rightly fear our own sin, and we protect the liberty of others because we do not possess all wisdom and we need to hear their ideas.  Of course that is not to say that external voices and ideas can have no negative effect in our lives. We might be our own greatest enemy, but we’re not our only enemy. But if we are deeply flawed, then that realization has to profoundly impact how we approach politics. It has to temper our confidence that we either can control or should control the public square.  This proper skepticism about human virtue pervades the Constitution. At every turn, the power of government is hemmed in. Each branch checks the other. The people check the government, and the government checks the people. The Bill of Rights attempts to safeguard our most fundamental human rights from government overreach or the tyranny of the mob. No faction can be trusted with unchecked authority.”

French suggests that we as Christians recognize our “existential humility,” one that  acknowledges the limits of our own wisdom and virtue. “Existential humility renders liberty a necessity, not merely to safeguard our own beliefs but also to safeguard our access to other ideas and arguments that might help expose our own mistakes and shortcomings.  Who is wrong? I am wrong. We are wrong. Until the church can give that answer, its political idealism will meet a tragic and destructive end. The attempt to control others will not preserve our virtue, and it risks inflicting our own failures on the nation we seek to save.”

See David French, “Who Truly Threatens the Church?” and “Twitter Shows, Again, the Failure of the New Right’s Theory of Power” in the New York Times (9 and 16 July 2023).

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2 Comments to “The Quest For Power In Evangelical Politics”

  1. Harvey Gilbert says:

    Dear Dr Eckman

    Thank you and I am in complete agreement with your thoughts and prayers.

    To God be the Glory as he answers our prayers!

    Praise God!

    Harvey Gilbert