The twentieth-century evangelical model of politics, presupposing moral guardianship over the social order on the basis of confessional Protestantism or “Judeo-Christian” moral traditionalism, is on the way out. However, nothing particularly substantial is on the way in. The overconfident moral universalism of George W. Bush couldn’t serve as the beginning of a new model. If the old model was too particularistic, denying any level of moral overlap across religious divides, Bush went too far in the other direction by assuming that everyone already shares a set of basic values more or less automatically.
Withdrawal from politics is not an option. While it’s wrong to subordinate everything to politics, God cares about justice, so politics will always be important. Moreover, we should remember C.S. Lewis’s Iron Law of Social Ethics: “Spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.” The void left behind by the decline of the old political model is already being filled by toxic identity politics.
So we need a new model. I propose five key starting points:
1) Build moral consensus. The biggest problem with the old model was its hostile attitude toward those outside our group. Evangelical leaders viewed the rising social influence of other groups as illegitimate. Those outside our group were the enemy, and our political goal was to neutralize, defeat, and expel them.
There are many reasons this approach is inadequate; perhaps the most important is that it is inconsistent with religious freedom in the broadest and deepest sense. It may not involve directly persecuting other beliefs, but it fails to live up to that civic standard of good will and solidarity among fellow citizens that George Washington articulated so eloquently to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights… May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
All Americans who “demean themselves as good citizens” (in Washington’s phrase) deserve this goodwill. This is what I mean by religious freedom in the broadest and deepest sense: we want a society where neighborly love and civic solidarity don’t depend on adherence to a particular religion or tradition. More than anything else, the founding idea of America is that the state legislates based on the moral consensus of society, not the particular morality of one religious group.
You can’t govern based on moral consensus, however, in a society that doesn’t have one. Recent controversies surrounding religious freedom reveal how precarious it has become today. Religious freedom is no longer sacred to most Americans, because they feel like they’re locked in a life-and-death power struggle on religious lines. That won’t change until we rebuild a sense of moral consensus in society at large.
In the phrase “build moral consensus,” all three words are important. If law is not guided by societal consensus, government can rule only by dictatorial force. But if the consensus is not moral, grounded in the natural knowledge of right and wrong written on the human heart, politics degenerates into a cynical power game. Either way, we cease to be a free people.
Yet the most important word is build. Moral consensus does not come easily to human communities. Whenever it is not being intentionally built up, it deteriorates. (Bush’s error was a failure to recognize this.) Yet because God’s grace remains active throughout creation and his law is written on all human hearts, moral consensus does emerge when we work to build it. (Failure to recognize this was the twentieth-century model’s error.) The natural human processes of reason, history, culture, and socialization are enabled by providential grace to be vehicles for producing moral consensus.
Thus evangelicals were right to embrace partnership with Catholics and the mitigation of our own internal divisions in the 1980s. Where we went wrong, in addition to the problem of partisanship (which I’ll get to below), was in building these partnerships upon moral traditionalism. America is not a traditionalist country. Moving beyond a model of “Judeo-Christian” cultural superiority toward a model based on building moral consensus is not only better on the merits, it’s a better fit for America.
2) Rethink the American founding. Our concept of citizenship begins with the story we tell ourselves about our national identity. Since at least the great Protestant schism, two rival understandings of the origin and meaning of the American founding have been circulating among evangelicals. Unfortunately, neither is adequate.
One story overemphasizes the Christian-ness of the founding. One central feature of the predominant political model of the last century was the idea that the American civic order is the social expression of the Reformation. But Luther didn’t nail the Declaration of Independence to the Wittenberg door.
The other story portrays the American founding as primarily anti-Christian in character. This story has prevailed among those who were turned off by the predominant political model. The founders were a bunch of unitarians, deists, and moralistic theists in thrall to naturalistic ideas. But the Enlightenment was not a homogeneously naturalistic or anti-Christian movement.
In fact, the American founding drew in deep and meaningful ways upon both Christian and anti-Christian sources. Developments in seventeenth-century theology and philosophy converged to forge a strong civic partnership for the broad social model of religious freedom between evangelical Protestants and adherents of unorthodox liberal belief systems.
And here’s where things get really interesting: the founders’ project was incomplete. As Washington’s letter shows, they aspired to create a new kind of society—a new social order. Well, they carried us a long way toward that goal, but they didn’t get us all the way there. The rigid Protestantism of every institution other than the state kept America separate and unequal on religious lines. And the long, slow slide of American culture since the great Protestant schism demonstrates that the founders’ model was unable to assimilate true religious plurality.
The calling of history for our generation of Americans seems clear. The founders’ great, unfinished task of building a society in which civic solidarity is decoupled from religious particularism must be taken back up. As our cultural divisions seem to get deeper every year and the forces of disintegration gather strength, the voice of Ben Franklin becomes harder and harder for Americans of diverse beliefs to ignore: if we do not hang together, rest assured we shall all hang separately.
3) Wrestle with partisan and ideological division. Among evangelicals today, there is a widespread fear of subordinating our religious life to partisan or ideological agendas. We must be worried about that problem, given recent history. Yet this fear can itself become paralyzing and dysfunctional.
We certainly shouldn’t straightforwardly identify the church’s public witness with promoting a specific ideology or party. That leaves no space for moral consensus. If we talk as though the gospel requires us to vote a certain way or to promote “conservatism” or “progressivism,” or even a more narrowly defined ideology such as “social conservatism,” this implies that Americans can have no shared moral commitments across those ideological divides.
But we can also become so afraid of our divisions that the church ends up saying little of practical value on public questions. I call this the “be a nice person and don’t look at porn” school of ethics. The implicit message is that it doesn’t much matter what you do with your life as long as you mean well.
Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between identifying one party or ideology with the social witness of the church and leaving the church with no social witness. The answer, to my mind, is to confess our ideologies and then work within the church to forge as much shared social witness as we can by taking the concerns of all sides seriously. Where we find that we really need to agree to disagree, we can work separately to promote the causes we believe in while remembering that in doing so, we do not speak for the whole church.
This isn’t as hopeless as it may sound. Consider the astonishing levels of marriage, industriousness, honesty, and even church attendance among the same social elites who despise “social conservatism.” When you set aside the ideologically charged labels, there’s a lot of common ground to be discovered.
In my own work, I have found that many people who identify themselves as progressives share concerns about public issues that I think of as “conservative.” I have had a lot of success working with them toward shared goals without insisting that they agree with my ideological labeling of what we’re doing together. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care which ideology gets credit.
4) Be doers of the gospel, not proclaimers only. We won’t be able to get politics right until evangelicals become more active in “living out the gospel” in ways that are not political. Given my clear track record, I won’t let anyone question my commitment to the importance of politics. Yet so long as political activism remains, as it is now, the most visible form of evangelical public engagement, the public will keep thinking that the gospel is a political program and evangelicals want to impose Christianity on people by force. (Of course we should be living out the gospel in all those other social spheres anyway.)
Our doing of the gospel across every sector of society needs to become so common and so visible that evangelicals acquire a national reputation as people who make the world a better place. The inadequate model of politics in the twentieth century has led evangelicals as a whole to under-invest in other forms of doing the gospel. Where are the evangelicals who are famous for visibly doing the gospel as business leaders? Where are the neighborhoods transformed by evangelical volunteerism? They’re out there if you look for them, but they’re too few and far between.
5) Be realistic, but be encouraged. The challenges of our time are daunting, and we need to recognize the limits of what can be accomplished. However, it’s equally important that we take courage. Despair is a sin; it denies God’s providential grace.
Evangelicals are well-equipped to face these challenges and even to take the lead in doing so. We believe in the freedom-of-religion society the American founders wanted to build. We’re highly flexible and are experts in adapting to new cultural situations. Our theology emphasizes getting out of the church building to make our faith active in the world. We have a robust appreciation of the fall, so we know better than to think we can change the world just by having the best arguments. Oh, and we know our Bibles—when operating a complex system, it never hurts to read the instruction manual.
But can it be done? God doesn’t owe us success, but I believe so. I like to remember that Flight 93 was prevented from crashing into the White House by a gay man and an evangelical. When America’s survival was at stake, they had no difficulty linking arms and fighting together to save it, even unto death. In the coming decades, all Americans are going to be discovering that we have to link arms across religious divisions to save our country. If they could find a way to die together, we can find a way to live together.
In closing this three-part essay, I wish again gratefully to acknowledge the valuable work and insights of Daniel Williams on which I have drawn throughout the essay, even while disagreeing on some points.
Greg Forster is the author of five books, including The Contested Public Square.