In today’s Long Read—our monthly in-depth essays that dive into a current topic, debate, or conversation—three leading Christian scholars of political science, Jesse Covington, Bryan McGraw, and Micah Watson, lay out a roadmap for evangelical engagement in public life. On Monday, we will feature responses from three writers who critically engage with this essay.
Conventional wisdom has it that evangelical politics in the United States leaves much to be desired. In terms of practical political successes, neither the moral reforms of the evangelical right nor the social activism of the evangelical left have delivered meaningfully on their stated goals. While there has been significant movement on abortion (particularly given the recent Dobbs decision) and some criminal justice reform, the exceptions may prove the rule.
More significantly, evangelicals’ moral witness itself seems near a nadir. Churches have become politicized, riven by partisan and ideological disputes that are at times more central than theological or biblical claims. On the right, efforts to protect religious liberty have seemed self-serving. Moreover, many white evangelicals’ embrace of Donald Trump—and, in some cases, uncritical acceptance of his vulgarity, sexism, nationalism, and thinly veiled racism—have weakened claims of moral motivations. On the left, progressive evangelicals’ agendas are often indistinguishable from those of their secular counterparts, leaving them open to accusations of uncritical party capture and moral relativism. In short: selective, inconsistent, and divisive policy stances leave evangelicals on both sides of the aisle open to critiques of incoherence, hypocrisy, and pursuing status and power over moral convictions, let alone biblical and theological ones. The upshot is that our public witness has been seriously compromised, and we have contributed significantly to the polarization and conflict currently roiling American politics.
As grim as this situation may be, it is only half the problem. Even if evangelicals could articulate and apply a coherent moral framework for politics, its compatibility with liberal democracy is increasingly contested within and without evangelicalism. Indeed, the posited tension between objective morality and limited, rights-respecting government that operates in the context of plurality leaves many evangelicals with an apparent choice between the two: being good Christians and abandoning liberalism (through withdrawal or triumphalism) or being good liberals and abandoning the moral implications of their Christian faith.
This second facet of the present evangelical crisis has implications far beyond our own religious community. All reasonable people of good will must ask: can a coherent, religiously informed moral framework be reconciled with liberal democracy in a pluralistic context? Or are they ultimately incompatible?
In this essay, we will argue that the two can in fact be reconciled, and that evangelical theological distinctives, when brought to bear on the Christian natural law tradition, offer a uniquely helpful path forward for politics. After dealing with some preliminary objections to the very idea of evangelical political thought, we will describe a theologically informed evangelical and Augustinian theory of natural law, which we term “Hopeful Realism.” We will then trace the implications of this theory, highlighting its key political principles, particularly in relation to liberal democracy. In section three, we will turn to practical application, offering three key questions for discerning the moral good in politics.
Several preliminary objections to evangelical political thought warrant a brief accounting. For many, the project of trying to think theologically and philosophically about how evangelicals ought to engage in politics is at best a fruitless task and at worst a cover for evangelicalism’s less savory impulses. After all, evangelicals are notoriously difficult to define, and even if we can devise a reasonable definition, evangelicalism’s well-known tendencies toward anti-intellectualism work against such an effort. Some might also worry that, in attempting to do theological and philosophical work, we will end up ignoring the “real” wellsprings of evangelical politics: the stew of racial resentment, sexism, and economic dysfunction that many recent authors argue have motivated most of post-WWII evangelicalism. Maybe the reason it has been so difficult to articulate a tradition of evangelical political thought is that there isn’t really any “there” there—at least, not anything we should encourage. Thus framed, this project may seem doomed from the start.
On the contrary, we believe that it is an auspicious time to think about the future of evangelical politics. Mainstream evangelicalism’s political influence—for good and ill—is in significant decline, and there is little reason to suspect that those fortunes will be soon reversed (recent Supreme Court decisions notwithstanding). Perhaps more to the point, it seems clear that the broad sweep of evangelicals’ political agenda has largely been a failure. A sojourn in the political and cultural wilderness offers us the chance to reconsider who God has called us to be as citizens in our political communities, without the temptation of thinking of this calling as a pathway to power and influence. We can explore the question of political faithfulness anew, from a posture of humility that recognizes the failures of evangelicals’ moral witness.
Such a reimagining is both possible and desirable for three reasons. First, there is indeed such a thing as evangelicalism, despite its definitional challenges. There remain many millions of Protestants whose theological commitments (as opposed to sociological, political, or identitarian conceptions of evangelicalism) include a deep sense of human sin, the centrality of Christ’s redemption through the cross for justification and sanctification, a transformed heart and life through a personal relationship with Jesus, and the authoritative role of God’s special revelation in Scripture. Evangelical Christians will continue to exist and to be involved in politics in ways more or less consistently motivated by our theological convictions. Second, evangelicals already have access to a faithful and vibrant tradition of Christian thinking about politics in the biblical natural law tradition. Although this tradition has been neglected for more than a century, it deserves reconsideration. Third, evangelical engagement with this tradition can provide us with a framework for a convictional Christian political witness that can help us and others engage fruitfully within a pluralistic and liberal democratic political order. That is, we believe that this exploration may well serve others outside the evangelical camp, making it significant for broader communities and discussions.
The Christian natural law tradition offers Christians meaningful and coherent moral guidance apart from instrumental calculations of political power and success. That is, the tradition is moral, not consequentialist or ad hoc. Moreover, rooted in a creational theology, it provides important pathways for a cultural apologetic—a means of making its claims comprehensible to those who disagree. This is vitally important in a political season marked by polarization and tribalism. An evangelical natural law tradition can help reconcile such moral guidance with the norms and processes of a liberal democratic order that takes divergent ultimate commitments seriously and serves the common good, not a sectarian good.
In short, we believe the way forward requires looking back.
An Evangelical Theory of Natural Law: Augustine’s Hopeful Realism
Christians have long framed their understanding of the nature and purpose of political life in terms of the natural law. Since the early Church, they have acknowledged that humans, by God’s creational design, inhabit a world in which moral norms and obligations help direct us toward our flourishing, and we can derive meaningful political guidance from these truths. Our attempt to articulate a distinctively evangelical understanding of the natural law draws on this long history of Christian reflection and appropriates that tradition in ways consonant with the best of evangelical belief and practice.
Ours is a theory of the natural law that is characterized by both hope and realism. It is hopeful insofar as it is unequivocally moral, relying on creational norms as guidance for human action toward a vision for human flourishing. This hope animates and directs our actions to human goods and takes seriously the idea that the political order has an important role to play in our flourishing. It is realist insofar as it recognizes the consequences of the Fall and the tensions of our moment in redemptive history. These realities temper our expectations for the present, foreclosing any easy moral or political perfectionism. Here, we find St. Augustine a particularly helpful guide—particularly insofar as he both participates in the best of the natural law tradition and emphasizes evangelical distinctives like the unique authority of Scripture and the deep impact of sin on human will and cognition.
Consider, first, the created order and its relation to political life. We take it that the created order is fundamentally good and intelligible. Much of what is good for human beings in terms of life in the body and in society can be understood through general revelation and is shared among all humans (not just Christians). For all the challenges of perceiving, sharing, and applying creational norms (and the Fall produces many such challenges!), we cannot escape the reality that all humans are bound by moral truths that we cannot entirely wish away, ignore, or misconstrue.
Scripture clearly endorses this hopeful view that moral knowledge is to some degree accessible to all through the created order. At times this is explicit, as in Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:18-23, where the created order speaks “into all the earth,” providing “plain” knowledge of God for which humans bear moral responsibility. Moreover, even gentiles without Scripture “show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness . . .” (Romans 2:15). Scripture also assumes natural law throughout. From the principles of justice assumed in critiques of social practices (Proverbs 20:10) to Old Testament prophets condemning gentile nations for immoral practices that they should have known better than to do (Jonah), the Bible assumes that all people know something about their moral obligations—and holds them accountable to boot.
On the other hand, Scripture clearly describes and experience confirms that our finitude and sinfulness not only limit and distort our understanding of the natural law but also sap our will to abide by it, either as individuals or communities (see, for example, Job 38-39, Romans 1:18-32, and I Corinthians 13:12). No serious Christian proponent of the natural law has denied this. Even the best thinkers will err about the natural law, and the holiest individuals will still transgress it. Such realism presents a sobering challenge: we must recognize that such limits point us to humility and modesty about our claims. That is, we ought to take care not to be too quick to make our moral and political judgments, nor should we be too quick to revise them on the basis of moral “innovations.” Politically, our weaknesses in knowing and acting in accordance with the natural law should incline us to form institutions and practices that limit the damage that misbegotten conceptions of that law might create.
What, then, are the political implications of this hopeful realism? To elaborate, we must sketch at least some broad contours of a political theology. Augustine articulates the complex relation of creational goodness, fallen distortion, and redemptive hope in his City of God, where he affirms that all of humanity is divided into two “cities” defined by their ultimate loves: the City of God, defined by love of God, and the Earthly City, defined by love of self. The two “cities” live together during the present age (Augustine’s saeculum), which is marked by the eschatological tension of living in creation between Christ’s first coming (already) and waiting for his second (not yet).
Significantly, for Augustine, the political community does not correspond to either the City of God or the Earthly City. Instead, he describes “commonwealths” comprising an imperfect combination of the two cities: communities of plural ultimate commitments that reflect both hope and realism. On the one hand, commonwealths pursue real, shared creational goods. Those with diverse ultimate commitments can share in seeking friendship, peace, bodily health, and justice, which are all real goods that are part of human flourishing. Together, citizens seek what Augustine calls “earthly peace”: “the peace that consists in bodily health and soundness, and in fellowship with one’s kind; and everything necessary to safeguard or recover this peace . . . light, speech, air to breathe, water to drink, and whatever is suitable for the adornment of the person.” These goods are clearly both material and moral: communities can be more or less oriented toward the true conditions for flourishing, which are grounded in the order of creation.
Such goods are the central focus of our theory’s hopeful mode. These are the sorts of ends we can genuinely (albeit partially) secure via our common political life.
Unfortunately, a shared, harmonious love of God ordering all things perfectly characterizes only eternal life with God, not the saeculum. In this life, citizens with divergent ultimate loves will use the goods of earthly peace in pursuit of different ends—some serving God, others serving the self. All political perfectionism is thus idolatrous, as justice and the goods of earthly peace can only be proximate in this life rather than final, a “compromise between human wills about the things relevant to mortal life.” According to Augustine, any account that locates the highest human good within this mortal life of the saeculum errs, as does any account that denies that there are any real earthly goods at all.
This vision for politics should inform an evangelical approach to natural law that remains deeply hopeful and realistic. It offers a substantive account of common political goods—including justice—that are grounded in the order of creation and meant for human flourishing. Christians can and should pursue these, even within communities that do not entirely share our understanding of human flourishing. Echoing Jeremiah 29, Augustine exhorts Christians, like Israel in its Babylonian captivity, to seek and defend the shared creational goods of earthly peace that politics provides—loved by both cities, but used toward differing and sometimes conflicting ends. Augustine’s conception of politics reflects a basic affirmation of creation’s goodness, an understanding that human wellbeing is fostered by the right ordering of these goods, and a firm recognition that in the saeculum our ability to secure that right ordering is inevitably limited.
Four Political Principles of Hopeful Realism
So, what does all this mean on a practical level? What political implications does our hopeful realist approach to natural law have? The implications are more extensive than we can describe in this article, but below we sketch out four broad principles that follow from what we have argued so far. What is striking about these principles is the degree to which they comport with a certain understanding of the liberal democratic regime. This should encourage both evangelicals who seem increasingly disenchanted with liberal democracy and our fellow citizens who are increasingly concerned by that disenchantment. It is also striking the extent to which they provide meaningful moral input to guide liberal democracy, without which liberal democracy risks losing its principled moorings. It is worth noting, however, that liberal democracy does not follow as a strict logical necessity from the theory’s presuppositions. Rather, these principles identify key compatibilities between Hopeful Realism and liberal democracy.
- Confessional Plurality and Religious Liberty: Hopeful Realism affirms the irreducible two-cities composition of every civic commonwealth, the idea that the political community is never coterminous with the ecclesial community. On the one hand, this plurality is descriptive—noting the redemptive-historical reality that prior to Christ’s return, all commonwealths include members with mixed ultimate loyalties. More prescriptively, it means that efforts to eradicate such differences are bound to go astray. At minimum, this principle limits state establishments of religion—refusing to collapse the covenant community with the political community—and protects citizens’ liberty of religious conscience and practice. The divergent ultimate loves within a commonwealth will only be finally addressed at the Last Day, not in the next election or court decision. Protecting this plurality is a key political good.
- The Common Good and Civic Friendship: Hopeful Realism highlights creational commonality in the realms of material and moral goods (the stuff of “earthly peace”) that are common to all. Difference and plurality, significant as these are, cannot be totalized. These human goods are real, inescapable, and necessary for human flourishing. Their common pursuit opens the door to the possibility of real civic friendship, where those with differing ultimate commitments nevertheless agree on certain goods, pursue them together in political community, and enjoy the benefits of mutually rendered justice—albeit proximate rather than perfect. This is not the robust fellowship of teleologically aligned pilgrims with shared ultimate loves. But neither is it a minimalist contract based on what self-interested individuals find mutually willable. Instead, it involves shared visions of real goods that inform politics.
- Democracy and Decentralization: Significantly, acknowledging real, shared, communal goods does not automatically lead to many precise policy conclusions, particularly because human finitude and plurality lead to different conceptions of these goods. Thus, a central task of political communities is to work out—in a manner that respects human dignity and agency across a range of social structures—what aspects of the common good can and should be pursued in a given political context. This requires deliberation and compromise, not just imposition. This also means that communities will differ in significant ways. While larger political communities may be necessary and can have important shared ends, the extent of agreement across a larger community (on the shared objects of love) will be less, due to the diversity of interests within it. The shared objects of love for a large political community will be thinner, more limited. In contrast, the civic commonwealth “thickens” as it goes closer to the local, as shared objects of love increase in scope and the compromise of wills includes more goods of earthly peace. This concept has significant affinity with the Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity, without necessarily requiring the same ontological hierarchy that extends beyond the political.
- Restraint and Liberty: As one of us has argued elsewhere, a number of virtues apply here, especially as they relate to the limits of politics, human finitude, and the effects of the Fall. One essential feature of this approach must be humility about human knowledge, goodness, and abilities. This rejects the epistemic and ethical optimism of perfectionist political visions. Likewise, prudence—and with it a commitment to incremental change, accountable power, a suspicion of perfectionism, and compromise—is vital. Moreover, a certain detachment from guaranteeing outcomes (implicit in ethical commitments that take means seriously) is key. That is, we have to trust that God will accomplish his purposes in history, rather than succumb to the temptations of what Augustine called the libido dominandi—the lust for power—in which we seek control and attempt to exercise god-like power over history and those we are called to love. These principles point to a government of limited powers, exercised with accountability. Separation of powers, the rule of law, and removability from office all support this. Finally, such a government would exercise caution in extending its power over individuals and other structures of social life (as with subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty), and would only do so with due justification, deferring to liberty as the default.
These principles are general and leave much to prudence and contextual factors that would guide particular applications. Nevertheless, they reveal that a commitment to the natural law is not at all incompatible with participation in liberal democracy. Rather, Hopeful Realism provides a point of reference for how political compromise might work with integrity. Moreover, it provides significant guidance for the structure and limits of a liberal-democratic order. We are persuaded that this guidance strengthens, rather than weakens, such an order.
Putting the Natural Law to Work
Let us suppose that the account thus far strikes you as intriguing and perhaps even persuasive. There is still a significant gap between these theological and political claims and the real-life decisions and challenges facing Christians today. How should we think and act as earthly citizens, given our ultimate identity in the city of God? What does all this have to do with how we vote, what causes we support financially, where we might volunteer, and so on? In short, how do we make political judgments about controversial and difficult issues? In this section, we sketch out three steps to help us make the right sorts of judgments, ones that take seriously both our political hopes and the limits inscribed by our imperfections.
First, we need to identify what good or principle is at stake and how it relates to human flourishing. Following the age-old natural law tradition, these might include such goods as the preservation of animal (bodily) life; family life (combined goods of marriage, procreation, and education of children); and social life (including learning and the worship of God). In any particular instance, one would assess the action or policy at issue in light of its contribution to these goods, recognizing that this contribution might be direct, indirect (related to the conditions for that good to be realized), or negative (restraining or punishing unjust infringements on the goods). There is often more than one good at stake, and they will probably relate to our flourishing quite differently. Identifying the creational good(s) at issue in a political decision is primary.
Second, we must determine who bears primary responsibility for securing the good. This should be done with an eye toward understanding the role of the state and respecting the political principles articulated above. For some goods—such as the defense against invasion—it seems obvious that the state plays a central, even exclusive, role. For others, like responsibility for healthcare, things are much less clear, and at times responsibility is shared.
Third and finally, given our particular context, what prudential considerations should come into play? To our modern ears, “prudence” can sound like a weak admonition to “be careful” or a capitulation to mere cost-benefit analysis. In reality, prudence is a practical virtue that helps us choose the means appropriate to the ends we pursue. It allows us to think carefully about the trade-offs that are involved between and among goods and how to prudently navigate them. With prudence, we can determine how we should prioritize one action over another. To exercise prudence well means having the right kind of disposition toward our moral and political lives. God calls us to a disposition of faithful engagement that steers between a despairing apathy on the one side and a domineering hubris on the other. Thus, we care about justice because God cares about justice, but without mistaking ourselves for the final arbiter of justice.
Although all three of these questions are important, many contemporary controversies turn on the second. It can be difficult to discern who is responsible for particular goods and whether the state’s responsibility for securing a good is exclusive, shared, or nonexistent. Take, for example, the education of children. Everyone agrees that education is an important good, both as an intrinsic good that contributes to our flourishing by developing our capacities and as an instrumental good that prepares us for productive participation in community and economic life. But who has primary responsibility for ensuring children receive an adequate education? For some, it is the state, given its obvious interest in a well-formed citizenry. For others, it is parents, given their just-as-obvious interest in forming children according to their own moral and religious traditions.
Discerning the best answer to complicated issues often means recognizing overlapping responsibilities. This requires doing justice to the role of the state and to other social structures grounded in the order of creation. Navigating the division in concrete situations requires careful attention to the political principles noted above (including religious liberty, the common good, decentralization, and democratic judgment). These principles will provide a basis for at times empowering and at other times limiting or tempering the state’s pursuit of the good in question. There is good biblical and natural warrant for thinking that the state does not have primary responsibility for the good of religion, for example. Rather, we might say it has a negative responsibility generally not to interfere in religious practices or beliefs, per the first principle of confessional plurality and religious liberty.
With these questions and political principles in mind, Evangelicals should feel free, at times even called, to engage in political causes and moral campaigns. Because we share common goods with our non-Christian neighbors, we can pursue those goods even as a minority in a pluralistic society and without a wide scope of influence and power. We can aspire to contribute to the good in real ways, whether we are partnering with our neighbors to clean up a local creek, volunteering to teach English as a second language, or going into professions that tackle important but less flashy political problems.
God’s Sovereignty and Our Responsibility
We should resist the temptation to withdraw from political life. Indeed, we are free to engage in this way precisely because we rest in the knowledge that God is sovereign. God’s sovereignty guides us away from what James K. A. Smith has called “Pelagian activism”: an over-investment in political transformation that seeks to control the world, rather than love it in hope of God’s final redemption. What a tremendous burden is lifted when the aspirational call for our engagement is paired with our acknowledging the sovereignty of God amidst the stubborn presence of sin! If God in His wisdom has delayed the ultimate defeat of sin and brokenness so long after the reality of the cross and the empty tomb, who are we to think that our efforts in the public square will accomplish what He has not yet done? Given the call of God, and the sovereignty of God, we can serve Him by serving others in the meantime, the “in between time,” while exercising the virtue of hope, trusting that someday these broken things too will pass, and all will be made right.
This, then, is how theological truths inform who we are and what we take ourselves to be doing in our political engagement. We care about injustice because God cares, and we love our neighbor by pursuing what’s right because this is God’s call. We know something of what this looks like, because our conscience and reason guide us in discerning the moral structure of the created order, and prudence helps us apply this. And we have the freedom to do so precisely because we are not in charge and do not aspire to be. The same Word that describes God’s heart for justice also tells us that the timing of how the world’s story goes is not known by us. We are therefore called to engage with conviction and compassion with a confident assurance not in our own strength but in the One who calls and has promised to someday straighten the crooked and smooth out the rough paths.
These steps—discerning the good(s) at stake, identifying who has responsibility for that good, and considering what appropriate means may achieve it in a particular context—are not a clear road map to action for this or that political issue. But it is a framework, based on the natural law, for pursuing the shared goods of the commonwealth—particularly in public deliberation among those who disagree.
Even with the recent positive developments at the Supreme Court, it’s easy these days for evangelicals and their friends to feel discouragement and even some despair about politics in the United States. Too many of our co-religionists have been caught up in the apparent partisan tribalism, myopia, self-interest, and Machiavellian methods of the moment, neglecting their professed moral and political commitments. In so doing, they not only threaten the integrity of our liberal democratic order, but—more importantly—they also damage the witness of the Church. Indeed, it is vital in the context of recent judicial decisions to avoid the temptations that these may offer of viewing access to power as the pathway to success.
America is well on its way toward becoming significantly more secular, less just, and less stable, and we evangelicals are partly to blame. Throughout the twentieth century, American evangelicals have neglected the natural law tradition, leaving us without a serious and coherent tradition for our political deliberations and judgments. We need a theologically grounded framework that articulates our principled and prudential convictions, provides us the language with which to deliberate about them, and helps us navigate our inevitable disagreements and find commonality around real goods. The absence of such a framework has left us vulnerable to capture by the ideologies of the age. All too often, what goes by the name of evangelical politics is little more than the recycled talking points of powerful (secular) political movements.
As we have outlined here, we believe that a revitalized Augustinian natural law theory can provide just such a framework for evangelical Christians. Historically, the natural law tradition has long served in this capacity for Protestants, though it has been neglected in recent decades. In truth, what we have outlined here is less an innovation and more a recovery, particularly insofar as the distinctive realism of Augustinian and evangelical approaches helps bring this tradition into a liberal democratic context. Indeed, Hopeful Realism offers a model for pursuing moral goods amid deep difference that could serve us well in the years to come.