So I watched Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture for First Things, which you can see here, and there are many things to say about it. But many of them are, truth be told, positive, and so I would like to begin with that. His talk was informed, learned, thoughtful, insightful, and balanced. I would want to specially emphasize that last word, balanced.
In this talk, there was no trace of some of the inflammatory things he has sometimes fired off with in the past . . . perhaps constrained as he was by 140 characters. For example, apparently gone was the idea that he was not “an evangelical,” or that he wouldn’t answer to that description any more. And he went out of his way to praise the religious right “at its best,” and he showed that he was fully capable of making such necessary distinctions in this mess of an election year. Another example of this same careful pattern is that he carefully distinguished rah rah Trump supporters who are hailing Trump as “God’s man for a time such as this,” and others that Moore disagreed with, but whom he still respected—those who understand that Hillary is cold and evil, and who therefore feel constrained to put a bag over their heads in order to get themselves to vote for Trump.
In other words, while listening to this lecture you had the feeling that this was a man that you could have a fruitful conversation with.
In addition, some of his criticisms of the professional and institutional religious right were not simply jabs . . . they were body blows. And he is exactly right that this election did not create these problems, but rather has done a magnificent job of revealing them.
But at the same time, all is not well. I want to proceed cautiously because most of what was “not well” lies in the realm of what was not said. Or rather, a few things were said, but in just a few words, and those few words just blew right by the great issues, the central issues, the $64,000 questions.
There are three areas that I want to address, from the less serious to the most serious. And in order to take Moore’s proposed project with the diligence it deserves, we absolutely have to work through these questions.
“Christians, keep your proper stations;
Don’t mess around with kings and nations.”
In the Meanwhile, Keep This in the Front of Your Mind:
Chesterton, with his usual bracing good sense, spoke to his age and ours, and he put his finger on the precise problem—which we don’t like because our whole-hearted allegiance to imprecision is the precise problem.
“The one argument that used to be urged for our creedless vagueness was that at least it saved us from fanaticism. But it does not even do that” (What’s Wrong With the World?, p. 24).
And so it is that we have come down to our own time—an age suffering the desolations of rampaging fog. We still kill each other, just like the ancient times, but nobody is sure exactly why anymore. This is because, as Chesterton notes, our choice must be made between dogma and prejudice. We have rejected dogma, and so therefore our culture is seething in a cauldron of vague bigotries.
Allies and Cobelligerents
The reason for saying this will become more apparent shortly, but Moore has not really worked out the allies and cobelligerents thing. In the Second World War, we were fighting Nazi Germany and so was the United Kingdom, and we were doing so for very similar reasons. We were allies. At the same time, the Soviet Union was fighting Nazi Germany for completely different reasons. They were cobelligerents with us—they happened to be fighting the same people we were fighting. But that did not make them allies.
Moore wants us to “build collaborative majorities,” but on what principles? He is insistent that we must be theologically informed in what we do, and so must that other group over there that works with us, but what is the required shared theological commitment? There has to be one. What is it?
And when you piece together how elastic Moore’s coalition could be, you run into odd inelasticities. Why is he willing to work together with the LDS, for example, despite difference over “Christology,” but he puts “health and wealth” preachers utterly outside the pale? Now I grant that some of the “name it, claim it” guys are as doctrinally heretical as the Mormons, but some of them are orthodox. By what principle would we build a collaborative majority with the LDS, but exclude someone who believes that the Deuteronomic promises are still relevant today? I get excluding the hustlers and con artists, but I don’t get including polytheists and excluding Trinitarians.
So the question is this. By what standard? How do we determine what groups are out, and what groups are in? How do we build our coalitions in the generation to come? How do we define ally, and how do we define cobelligerent? Because I can guarantee you this—if we proceed with the imprecise language that Moore has thus far outlined, we are going to find ourselves in exactly the same embarrassed position that the establishment religious right is currently in. Some of the groups that are currently jockeying for position, willing to line up with our next generation of “gospel-centered” activists, have the potential to be every bit as tawdry as Trump.
The “Character Matters” Argument Is Not a One Way Street
One of the body blows that Moore delivered was this. He charged that when the previous generation of religious right leaders called for Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani to step aside because of their marital infidelities, and then turned around and waved away behavior on the part of Trump that was every bit as bad, this was a radical inconsistency. Moore said, and he was right to say, that they were right the first time. A man who will betray his wife has shown himself willing to betray, and this affects his qualification for any kind of leadership.
But in that same talk, Moore put forth Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of Christian and biblical engagement. Where did this standard go? If we say that King’s work was so valuable that we can accept it with gratitude, despite his adulteries, then why is Moore challenging those men now who say that keeping the Supreme Court away from Hillary is worth a bit of dealing with Trump, despite his adulteries? If Paris is worth a Mass, then surely Washington is worth a Hot Mess.
The question boils down to the same one. By what standard? When do we judge a man unfit for civic office or civic activism? What standard should we use? And when we come by our standard, and have grounded it in the Word, will it be applied selectively or not? Moore charged the establishment religious right with selective application, but then turned around and did the same thing himself, and he did it in the course of the same talk.
Martin Luther King Jr. was an adulterer, and so was King David. I am not pretending that these questions are simple or easy. But I am suggesting that they are already complicated enough that we should avoid every trace of double standardry, especially when the heart of your argument accuses the old guard religious right of double standards.
The Tectonic Plates
The third issue relates to the first two, underlying them, and is really the big issue. These are the tectonic plates. Moore addressed his questions wonderfully, but there are much bigger questions deep beneath his feet.
There is a true dilemma here, and the problem is that Moore is opting to handle it in exactly the same way that the establishment religious right chose to handle it, and it is that way of handling it that created many of the problems that Moore so cogently critiques. We have seen this movie before, didn’t like it, and so Moore has picked up the remote to start over. But “resume from the beginning” is not an editing tool. We need to be the religious right, not the rerun right.
Here are the choices. Given the existence of the church and the existence of a secularized society, the church can refuse to engage, the church can engage as the church, or the church can engage as just one more pressure group. If the first, they opt out in the name of God like good anabaptists. If the second, they declare the truth to society in the name of God, like the prophet Amos. If the last, they claim their right to engage as time-share part-owners of Demos, the people, and they want their part of the involvement to be “theologically informed,” and “gospel centered.” But at the end of the day, this is merely lobbying.
They are saying what they have to say because of their deep commitment to Jesus, but at the same time, they are good with the system inviting others to be involved because of the will of Allah, and so on. So here we are on our side of the table. Muslims are on their side. The Mormons are in their chairs with their suggestions. All of us came to the discussion “informed” by our faith commitments. But who is the god of the whole room?
This is simply the move that we have seen countless times and in countless ways. It is the retreat to commitment, where we hold to our deepest convictions, but acknowledge that these convictions are but one option among many possible.
There is an ultimate theological basis for any shared cooperation together. There has to be. Is that basis true or false? If false, then why do we have anything to do with it? If true, then why can we not confess that Jesus is the author of it? Remember that religious liberties enable religious communities to carry on their work, and that is a good thing. But religious liberties are themselves a religious value. Who says that religious liberties are a good thing? Does Allah say that? Does the secular Left say that? Who says that? Why do they say that?
Let us make this simple. Jesus teaches that you can have no more than one wife. Allah says you can have four. So how many we actually get in this novo ordo seclorum? This question is a real stumper if you insist on leaving the voice of the true God out of it, “an authoritative God over all men” whether they believe in Him or not. You cannot build a society that honors women through Christian monogamy while at the same time insisting that Christian preachers “must not impose” their views on people who disagree with them.
So Jesus is Lord. Or Allah is God. Or Demos should be able to serve once we get him back on his meds. Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.
Hovering in the background of everything Moore said was his willing accommodation of the idea that the rules for public discourse, behavior, and engagement will be laid down for us by someone who did not rise from the dead on the third day. We all get our secularized copy of Robert’s Rules. Can we look at the spine? Who published this thing? Who owns the copyright? And, fundamentally, why do we have to submit to it?
So we are all of us in this jumbled up society, and we know that we need to get along. But what constitutes getting along? Who is the chair of the rules committee? Who made him the chair? Where are the by-laws?
All of this actually reduces to a playground argument. Why? And who says?
In short, all societies are necessarily theocratic, and so the only question to resolve is the identity of the god of the system. But because Moore explicitly rejected “theonomy” in his talk, and because his entire approach assumed ongoing engagement with the culture on the part of Christians, this necessarily means that he believes (without actually saying) that we must all submit to a set of standards that arises somewhere else.
Either Moore must develop a biblically-based vision for the entire society, showing how all of us must obey the God of Scripture, or he must somehow encourage Christians to obey a singularly undefined god from somewhere else. And this is what I meant at the beginning when I referred to imprecision.
These are the questions that have caused me to argue for mere Christendom. Secularism is incoherent. Secularism cannot work. Secularism is bankrupt. If that is the case, as I believe it is, should Christians urge a Christian foundation for social order? Let me think about it, yes.
Near the end of his talk, Moore said—as all real reformers with an ounce of humility must acknowledge—that “we will make mistakes.” Yes, that is quite true, and understandable. We know we will make mistakes.
But we must not make the very same ones.