The revelation about Donald Trump’s vulgar and pretty ugly statements about women has certainly generated heated discussion. I am not here to either defend his statements or to persuade anyone to vote for him. I will merely state the obvious: Christian voters find themselves in quite a quandary. On the one hand, I am convinced we have a duty to participate in our government as God has sovereignly allowed us, including voting. It is a part of our vocation as citizens in the United States. On the other hand we find that we have two major candidates who are in their own way, immoral and/or unethical, personally or privately. Virtue is at a minimum for both.
To be honest I am at a loss as to how to proceed going forward. There is an interesting article today in the National Review Online, by Avi Woolf, in which he addressed the perceived decline in social conservatism, that is, social conservative values, largely held by Christian evangelicals. His article does not deal much with the Trump issue, though it does devote a couple of paragraphs to the social conservative “sell-out” for the Donald, but it mainly has some important bigger ideas to consider as we think about voting in November. Woolf first addresses the current lament on Christian conservatives that they are losing the culture wars. He also gives the reader a concise overview of the historical rise of “fusionism,” the merger of cultural right social values and free market ideas into a political coalition that looked for a time as if it would be a crushing movement to the basic Left aversion to religious values and free markets.
Woolf argues “these are dark times for the Right. Not materially, or even politically, but intellectually.” He goes on to make his case that in reality the socially conservative Right has won some victories and has solidified some gains–in other words, things are not as bad as the Right believes. To be sure, he captures the social conservative lament well: The Left won the culture wars and the Right won the economic/free market war, leaving the social conservatives “high and dry.” He says however that the social conservatives are not completely correct in their pessimistic assessment. I agree with his analysis to an extent. Christian values have, it appears, made headway in the political/legal realm, though in the last two years, there have been setbacks. I think also that Woolf has his finger on a major problem for social conservatives: They put too much faith in the political and legal systems to give them what they need. I certainly observed this in my years on the faculty at Liberty University, with the presence of the Moral Majority’s aggressive political advocacy, but without a very deep theological/philosophical foundation. Moreover, I tend to agree with Woolf that culture is the main battleground. Cultural change in some sense precedes political and legal change (not always but most of the time). And it works both ways. Cultural decline leads to political and legal issues, while cultural advance–in the highest sense of that term–can produce advance in the public sphere.
One of Woolf’s best lines is this:
“There we get to a key sticking point: Cultural wars do not begin in Congress, and they rarely end there. Government has limited power to force morality on an unwilling culture.”
In the long run, Wolf is right. For Christians the long run is tied inseparably to evangelism followed by discipleship, real discipleship that is more than fluff, but gets to every aspect of a Christian’s life and thought. Moreover, as Woolf correctly points out, this means of winning the cultural war–and in the process, the more important spiritual war–is a long run tough slog, like running an ultra-distance run. Some years ago, I raced distances from 50 to 100 miles. I know from experience that the the problem a race poses is not mainly physical, but mental. I was physically prepared and the first 30 miles or so were nearly effortless, but after that, when the body begins to run out of fuel, you have to draw on mental resources. This is exactly analogous to the Christian engagement in the public sphere. It begins in the culture and then works out to the political, economic and legal realms.
This once again points up the need for engagement in culture, and the institutions of culture (for example, journalism, education, etc.) wherever God calls one, and engagement that is intelligent, reasonable, well-grounded in Scripture, and gracious. If God wills, “we win.” But more important, God wins and real people are blessed. Our war is not ultimately not against “flesh and blood” but against “principalities and powers.” (the latter being spiritual powers that dominate even culture). By the way, I am not saying that political, law and economics cannot be engaged in directly. They can be, but anyone who aspires to enter this arena must be sure of his/her calling and be well-educated in the ground of Scripture.