In the ongoing aftermath of the ever-generous fiasco that we call the Trump campaign, Russell Moore wrote that if Donald Trump has accomplished anything of value, it is that he has snuffed out the religious right. The first half of his piece says a lot of things that are pertinent, trenchant, on the mark, and otherwise okay.
I believe, with Moore, that this particular disaster-on-stilts is what we might call a “teachable moment.” It is filled with lessons we must learn if Trump goes down in flames, and with very similar lessons if Hillary does. But it is by no means assured that we have learned, are learning, or will learn those lessons.
My evidence for this is the second half of Moore’s post, and so I propose we take a brief walking tour through his comments.
“There is good news, though, behind all of this, regardless of how this election turns out. The old-school political Religious Right establishment wonders why the evangelical next generation rejects their way. The past year is illustration enough.”
First, it is always dicey to speak for something as ill-defined as the “next generation.” But second, to the extent that we can do so, it by no means clear to me that anybody is “rejecting their way.” Rejecting the contents of someone’s procedure is not the same thing as rejecting the procedure, and if the procedure itself is the problem, if the procedure is the carrier of the disease in question, then we haven’t really fixed anything. I would submit that the problem with our cultural engagement is that it has not been entirely, distinctively, Christian. It has been murkily collaborationist. More about that in a bit.
“The evangelical movement is filled with younger, multiethnic, gospel-centered Christians. They are defined by a clear theology and a clear mission—not by the doctrinally vacuous resentment over a lost regime of nominal, cultural ‘Christian America.’”
First, remember that word multiethnic. It will come back in a minute. Moore says here that these gospel-centered Christians have a clear theology and a clear mission. I believe I understand what he means by “clear theology,” and I agree. It is a clear theology. That is not the same as a clear and detailed theology, and the real question before the house is whether clear theology by itself is sufficient for any level of cultural engagement. Cultural engagement is always going to require involvement in the details, and a “clear but truncated” theology won’t cut it. This problem is revealed by the next thing Moore said, which is that they have a “clear mission.” Okay, I’ll bite. What is it? What is this clear mission?
When are we done? What does success look like? How will we know that we have accomplished that mission? In short, does the end game include the discipling of the nations or not? We can either abandon culture, accommodate ourselves in some way to culture, or successfully teach our culture what obedience to Jesus looks like. Moore believes in cultural engagement so the first option is out. He is not a theocratic postmillennialist, so the third option is out. That leaves the second option.
But doctrinally vacuous hope is no better than doctrinally vacuous resentment.
If you are accommodating yourselves, on what principles, by what standard, is the accommodation of the older religious right “compromise,” and the accommodations of the new generation not compromise? What is the officially-tolerated line of accommodation, and how can we know? What level of compromise is okay, and what level of compromise is . . . compromise? Trump is a serial adulterer, sure enough, and so was Martin Luther King.
Moore makes a valuable point when he asks: “Why Trump would be more faithful to vows to religious political activists than he has been to people named ‘Mrs. Trump,’ they do not tell us.” But this is a knife that can carve up many different cuts of roast beef. If someone is repulsed by Trump, simply because the adulteries shout louder than the message, would Moore praise him? And if someone a generation ago did the same thing with MLK, would Moore praise him? If we are going to navigate this thing, we have to do more than simply put a Christian gloss on the work of Hillary’s oppo-research team.
Another king, King David, was an adulterer and a murderer, and Nathan the prophet—the man who courageously rebuked him—was in his political corner in the subsequent battle between Solomon and Adonijah (1 Kings 1:11). So why am I #Never Trump and not #Never David? The answer is because Trump is an unrepentant Adonijah. And Nathan the prophet said, “I knew King David. King David was a friend of mine. You are no King David.”
Next, I told you to remember that word multiethnic, and here is why. Why was it a problem for the older religious right to have an attachment to the good aspects of their generation (e.g. our older quaint custom of not boycotting states for keeping perverts out of the women’s restrooms), and not a problem for this younger generation of Christians to love the good aspects of their generation (e.g. rejection of racism). When Moore trumpets the need for a diverse church, he is sailing with the wind. This generation will not give you any grief over your multiethnic ministry, any more than the culture gave the church grief in the fifties for being against homosexuality.
“The people who have used the gospel to sell us politically cynical voting guides have done damage. But they are not replicating themselves in the next generation.”
Was the problem with the voting guides that the motives were cynical? Or that the positions were not biblical? If the motives were the problem, then we should repent before the next round of voter guides comes out. If it is claimed that the problem was a misrepresentation of the Bible’s teaching, then let’s have a Bible study. And I would encourage us to include the Old Testament this time.
“The old-guard is easier to engage in politics, because they find identity in a ‘silent majority’ of Americans. The next generation knows that our witness is counter to the culture, not just on the sanctity of life and the stability of the family but, most importantly, on the core of the gospel itself: Christ and him crucified.”
There are many problems here. The old guard did preach Christ and Him crucified, but they simultaneously tried to be culturally engaged without a clear word from God. In other words, they did not make an explicitly biblical case for opposition to gun control, support for free markets, etc. They did rely on traditional American values too much, which just got everyone confused. They did this in exactly the same way that Moore is relying on contemporary American values too much.
Moore is to be commended, by the way, for his ongoing commitment to the sanctity of human life. If he continues that, and if he upgrades phrases like the stability of the family to something more like the absolute normativity of heterosexual monogamous marriage and resultant family stability, he can denounce the old guard religious right all he wants, he is still going to be lumped in with them. If you oppose the sexual revolution, whether in its bloody or orgasmic aspects, then you are a hater and will not be allowed to be collaborative with anybody.
“The 30-year-old evangelical pastor down the street from you would rather die than hand over his church directory to a politician or turn his church service into a political rally.”
The legal theorist John Rawls once said that you should design the ideal society without any information about where in that society you will be born. This is simply another variation on the Golden Rule, but we may adapt it to evaluate Christians and their political engagement. It sounds icky to hand over a church directory “to a politician,” but we really need to know more than that. What is the proposed use of the church directory? Is the politician simply using it to pump up his mailing list in his “Murphy for County Coroner” campaign? In other words, is it a partisan use? Or is he trying to mobilize white Christians in 1950 Birmingham to do something about how their black fellow Christians are being treated?
There is no question that race relations is a political issue. Is Moore saying “no church directory” for any political issue? Or just for the political issues he finds passé?
“Finding new ways of engaging our fellow citizens and forming collaborative majorities for public action are now the urgent priority of evangelicals who wish not to concede the public space, in our name, to heretics and hucksters and influence-peddlers.”
And here we come to the realization that we haven’t really learned anything yet.
Look at that phrase “engaging our fellow citizens and forming collaborative majorities.” Which fellow citizens? On what principles? NRA fellow citizens or BLM fellow citizens? By what standard? Forming collaborative majorities with whom? Why?
This is the same virus of pragmatism that has resulted, at the end of the day, with many Christians endorsing Trump. They say—and I agree—that Hillary would be a greater judgment on us than Trump would be. But they are both judgments, and judgments cannot be stage-managed.
When you form a collaborative majority with pagans, they are not going to share your “Christ and Him crucified” ethic. You will be cobelligerents with them, and not allies. Before we show ourselves too eager for “collaborative majorities,” which sounds too much like a “moral majority” to me, we need to hammer out the principles that must undergird all Christian cultural engagement.
And the question that still needs to be addressed is this one. When you propose any course of action whatever, and you do it in Jesus’ name, then you have to answer the question by what standard?
“The gospel matters more.”
Yes, it certainly does. But the gospel is the good news of the rule of the Lord Jesus. This begins with individual conversion, but it cannot end there. The foundational gospel confession is this: Jesus is Lord. That means that Caesar isn’t lord, and that Caesar needs to humble himself and listen to what the church has to say. But before that can happen, the church needs to jettison the deficient theologies that have kept us—for several centuries now—from speaking the whole counsel of God.
Lord of what? Why? Who says? How do we ascertain His will? By what standard? If those questions are not asked and answered by Moore’s younger generation, then they are soon enough going to find themselves in the same humiliating position that many of the old guard religious right are in today. They are in this excruciating position for a reason.
I don’t want to surrender the term religious right, because we are still religious, and we are still right. If there is another big battle in the coming generation, as I trust there will be, the term will be applied to us. I still believe in God and Jesus, and I still have my guns, and I still hate the abortion industry, and I still think the Fed can’t make monetary water flow uphill, and I still believe homosex is sinful and unnatural, and I still believe the federal government is a metastasizing tumor, and so on, right through most of the voter guides. But at the same time, there is something important to be said about the death of the religious right. I agree with Moore that something like this kind of did happen.
So again like Moore, but in a different way, I do have some hope for the next generation. The religious right is dead. Long live the religious right. Bring your Bibles this time.