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Could Russell Moore be wrong? Maybe we don’t need less Christian engagement in Politics, maybe we need more?

25 Apr 2018

I love Russell Moore; I greatly enjoy his teaching and respect much of what I hear from him.  Yet while a foolish person may be occasionally right, so too can a wise person be occasionally wrong.  In an article over at 9Marks, Dr. Moore suggests that politics has consumed the Christian church.  I read into many of Dr. Moore’s (and others in the Christian movement, to include other Bereans) articles a concern that Christians have lost our way in politics.  Dr. Wheeler and I have disagreed over his conclusion that any Christian activity as a specific group (e.g., moral majority) is wrong.  Yet Dr. Wheeler and Dr. Moore agree that Christians should not abandon the public square.  I found myself questioning Dr. Moore in reading his book Onward, with its implicit implications, and this article captures more of the flavor.  For example,

Politics—by which I mean partisan or ideological tribal identities, not actual statecraft—seems all-encompassing in this cultural moment, perhaps, sadly, as much or maybe even more so in the church as in the world. Within the so-called “evangelical movement,” those who deny essential matters about the definition of the gospel—such as prosperity gospel teachers—are received as fellow evangelicals provided they are aligned on values and politics.

Moreover, the outside world could probably define “evangelical” in terms of how they see it as a political movement, but one in a thousand probably couldn’t explain what evangelical Christians believe about, say, justification by faith. Maybe some of this is because the outside world idolizes politics and dismisses the gospel. But maybe a great deal of it is because we do, too.

Moore continues with a rather broad brush approach to what he calls the church, arguing that:

In this era, the burden for the church is great. We must constantly catechize that the Christian gospel isn’t a means to an end of national prosperity or political influence. We must constantly work toward churches that see our identities as, first, ambassadors of the kingdom that will outlast every human state. This is especially true when many in the next generation are walking away from Christ, not because they have found his gospel tried and wanting, but because they assume that Christianity is just politics all the way down.

My basic problem with Dr. Moore’s characterization is that it fits into the narrative of those that despise the church have so assiduously created.  Take the last line, that “Christianity is just politics all the way down.”  I realize that Dr. Moore doesn’t believe this, and yet he is concerned that individual Christians are so engaged in political us vs. them that they are unable to witness to Christ effectively.  As if the reason that millennials are not believers is that we have not made the gospel winsome enough, when the biblical narrative insists that unbelievers simply reject the gospel because they prefer the darkness over the light. The goal of our enemy–our true enemy–is that the message of the gospel must be silenced.  The gospel is a positive weapon, and the word of God is “living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword” provided that it is proclaimed publicly, for “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”  Now many might say, what’s that got to do about politics?  Well, a lot.  Politics enshrines our collective values and ultimately someone’s values are going to prevail.  And the message of the gospel is repent and believe.  Both of those are offensive to the culture.  Repent necessarily means you (and I) are wrong–that we need to change.  The culture, under the sway of the prince of the power of the air, desperately wants to deny that there is anything wrong with us–in fact, the only thing wrong is that people are saying that something is wrong.  In our culture, the Christian is (and should be) a conservative force shouting “stop” when the culture is driving us off a cliff on the sexual revolution, and is a progressive force saying we must recognize human dignity when the culture wants to deny it (whether abortion or racism).

The conventional wisdom I hear often explicitly, from both some Christians and most non-Christians is that Christians are too political.  This is at some level explicit in Dr. Moore’s post, and its certainly implicit in many of his posts.  He will usually point to support for Mr. Trump as a sign of Christian abandonment of principles, although he has tried to be nuanced as he does this.  I recognize he (and all of us) have a difficult job in navigating how to be faithful to scripture and yet publicly active.  Which leads me to my point–maybe our problem is that Christians aren’t political enough?

For one thing, I am always very suspicious of being told that what we should do is always exactly what the enemies of the gospel want–that we should just concentrate on loving our neighbor and caring for the poor, and don’t politicize the gospel by saying there is “a” Christian position on anything political.  In other words, the culture is OK with Christian action, just not a Christian message–especially one that includes the concept of sin and our collective need of repentance.  This doesn’t mean that God can’t work in our silence, He certainly did in Jesus’ silence before Pilate, when the culture was defeated precisely by thinking it had won.  Yet I don’t think our salt and light strategy for the culture is for the message of the gospel and its necessary implications to be hidden under a basket.

A second thing is I can’t help but think that Moore and others are guilty of a fallacy of composition when discussing individual Christian behaviors and the church.  I had never heard of Pastor Jeffress before this election cycle, but I’m not surprised that some pastor somewhere will say some rather–let’s be generous–not fully nuanced proclamations.  Mr. Moore is right to call out publicly any Christian “leader” who is making statements such as these.  But in a population of 350 million people, with millions of these being actual Christians (as opposed to the high percentage who say they are Christians), we shouldn’t be surprised at isolated individuals making statements that are not particularly helpful to the cause, even among those that have a public profile as a representative Christian.  We also need to remember that there is an agenda on the other side precisely to take any statement and portray it in the worst possible light.  I suspect if any of you were to listen to Mr. Jeffress’ actual sermons you’d find the percentage of objectionable things related to politics quite small.

But back on point to my fallacy of composition.  I say this as a card-carrying member of the religious right (not really, but if there was a card I’d get one).  I have been active in multiple churches over the last 30 years of my life, from SBC, to independent Bible, to Evangelical Free Churches.  I do not know of this political church that is constantly being characterized by the press and at least implicitly acknowledged to be true by writings such as Dr. Moore’s.  I know of no church that has a strategy of winning the world to Christ by voting Republican.  I’ve been an elder for about 10 years of the last 30, and a SS teacher in many others.  And our strategy has always been the faithful proclamation of God’s word to God’s people to transform their lives such that unbelievers would see their lives and be attracted to the gospel.  Yes, in almost all these churches, they voted overwhelmingly Republican.  But its not our fault that Democrats embraced first the culture of death, and now the culture of individual autonomy to construct their own reality apart from God and His order.  Even the criticism of 80% of evangelicals voting for Mr. Trump–and this is very important–is based on surveys looking for this.  Its not as if Christians are screaming from the rooftops, being an evangelical Christian means voting for Mr. Trump (certainly a majority of Bereans did not feel that way).  The opponents of ours that would like to silence Christians in the public debate want to trumpet that.  Consider even on this blog who always brings that number up.

So, given Dr. Moore’s correct understanding that Christians are often not being effective public witnesses by their lack of nuance and, in some cases, lack of being faithful to a true gospel message, what do we do?  Maybe its not less Christianity in politics, but more, and more authentically by people who are not compromised.  Maybe its more of you being thoughtful and engaging publicly.  Maybe more of you run for office.  Maybe more of you pastors speak publicly about political issues that could benefit from a biblical perspective?  Maybe more of you write and meet with your elected officials?  The press is going to continue to try and hang Mr. Trump around Christianity, precisely in an attempt to drive Christians away from voting for Mr. Trump in 2020.  They want power above all else.  Finally, with respect to Mr. Trump, as I argued weeks ago, we should be getting behind another candidate in the primary that has values more in line with Christianity.   It would be great if we did not have to repeat the unpleasant choice of 2016.