Category Archives: Jesus and the President

Lies, Damn Lies, and… Well, You Know

Evangelicals love statistics, especially negative ones. The way the church talks, one often thinks the sky is falling. According to “studies”, young people are leaving in droves, Christians are morally indistinguishable from non-Christians, and in all likelihood this will be the last Christian generation in America.

The problem with these oft-cited “studies” is that they simply aren’t true. It has often been remarked that we as evangelicals love poorly-conceived statistics – some articles here, here and here might be helpful places to start if you’ve never heard this critique. Recently, I spent some time fact-checking one of these claims – that “only four percent of the coming generation will be Christian.” While this immediately raised my eyebrows because I have some background in the area, a quick google search confirmed that this stat was everywhere. The problem is, it simply doesn’t reflect the facts. Coming out of this work, I thought I’d post an overview of some reputable statistics on where evangelicalism, and Christianity as a whole, actually stands on the American stage. Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Jesus and the President, Unsolicited Advice

Why the Religious Right (and Left) Can’t Succeed

Note: I owe a lot of this thinking to a recent book I picked up which I found helpful in distilling issues of Christianity and culture: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.

With a title like that, I’m sure you’re all expecting me to say something inflammatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, as I interact with Christians’ attempts to influence and shape culture (the true aim of both the religious poles – politics is merely an outworking of this), I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings of culture which result in misguided attempts to change it.

Both Christian liberals and conservatives buy into what we might call the “democracy myth” of culture. This myth supposes that culture is just an amalgamation of the beliefs most people share in common – as if everyone votes their worldview, and the one with the most ballots in the box ends up setting the agenda. Thus, engaging in a “culture war” primarily consist of convincing people to think correct things and then live out what they believe.

While I’m all for right thinking and right living, the democracy myth is patently false when it comes to approaching culture. It is much more complicated, in three ways. First, culture is not monolithic. Rather, it is a set of overlapping circles, some closer to the center and some to the fringe. The areas in which they overlap form shared beliefs, values and influences, but no two circles in America share everything in common. Thus, while certain cultural forces are represented in a variety of cultures (i.e. the New York Times, some genres of music), each of these cultural circles also have unique forces at work. Because this is the case, simply being a voice in a part of culture in no way guarantees that your voice will be heard in culture as a whole.

Second, cultures do less to instill specific beliefs than they do to erect plausibility structures – frameworks of thought in which certain beliefs are easier or harder to hold. There is a remarkable diversity of specific convictions within any given culture. Every human being is rife with contradictions. It is not that they live in the culture and wake up one day to discover that they’ve become convinced to change one of those beliefs. Rather, within this diversity, not all beliefs seem created equal. Some make sense to people, and some seem more and more unbelievable. It is this “sensibleness” which culture creates.

Third, culture is shaped by the interaction of cultural conservatism and cultural antagonism. When a voice seeks to speak into or challenge culture, one of two things can happen which could end up keeping the voice from being heard. On the one hand, if the voice is too similar to the dominant culture, the conservative nature of the culture will work to co-opt that voice; to use what it says to reaffirm the values of the culture it is speaking into, even if the voice would vehemently disagree with some of those values. On the other hand, if the voice is too different, it will fail to get a hearing in the culture at all. It will so violate its plausibility structure that it will be rejected out of hand. However, this antagonism doesn’t simply result in the voice being ignored. Rather, since values are defined in part by the other – by what they oppose or what they are not – such extreme voices will actually serve to drive the culture in the opposite direction. Thus, trying to change culture often results in it becoming even more deeply established, either by being used to prop up its views or to serve as the other to those views.

When defined in this way, I think it becomes clear why most Christian attempts to affect culture fail. We might categorize the normal modes of Christian interaction into two groups: opposition from without and relevance from within. Many groups end up using a combination of these two strategies, but they are clearly present – and neither of them can affect how culture actually functions.

The problems with the  “opposition from without” model manifest in all three of the spheres I mentioned above. First, it tends to view culture as something monolithic (and which it is outside). Thus, it often goes after a part of culture as if it was the whole thing, failing to see the complexity and gear its critique toward areas of overlap. Second, and more importantly, it tries to change beliefs without recognizing the plausibility structure in which they function. It doesn’t matter how many arguments you make or laws you change. If cultural forces do not work to make these arguments and laws believable to the people interacting with them, they are doomed to fail. The result of this failure is not just being ineffective, either. Rather, since those opposing culture from without tend to be the voices which culture is antagonistic to, they often become bogeymen used to scare people into going in the opposite direction – to affirm more strongly the very things that Christians want them to change.

However, this is in no way an argument for the “relevance from within” model. It fails on all three counts as well. It tends to be incredibly naive about cultural diversity, and so seeks to speak to “culture” by anchoring itself in one tiny circle, often speaking primarily in the unique areas of that circle rather than in those that overlap. What’s more, it tends to be incredibly naive about how plausibility structures work. It often leaps into such structures thinking that they can be adopted wholesale while still holding the right beliefs, only to discover ten or twenty years later that nobody holds those beliefs anymore because they seem, well, unbelievable. As a result, the relevance paradigm ends up being co-opted and used to make culture even more established, rather than moving it in the direction its proponents desire.

So with all that gloom and doom, we might be wondering, what should we do? I’m going to save that discussion for a post next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is this an adequate view of culture? Is there another paradigm of engagement you can see which addresses these problems?

Leave a comment

Filed under Jesus and the President, Uncategorized

Missing the Marx

(A note to those interested: I might be blogging a bit this semester after my long hiatus. Stay tuned, but don’t get your hopes up.)

In a recent conversation with several people I go to church with, we ended up talking about the Beatitudes and the priorities of Jesus’ kingdom. In particular, we were discussing what Scripture had to say about the poor. Several things stood out to me in this conversation, and I think their relationship is particularly instructive to Christians wrestling with political issues.

As we talked, some people in the conversation repeatedly said that my position – that Jesus is using such passages to teach the priorities of the Kingdom in that God focuses His concern on and exercises His power through people and things despised and oppressed by the world – was Marxist. I found this ironic on two levels.

First, those of you who know me realize that my political convictions are anything but Marxist. My tendency is rather to sympathize with a Friedman-esque libertarianism that sometimes borders on anarcho-capitalism.

Second, this comparison shows something deeper about the Christian mindset, and this is what I’d like to unpack a little bit. I would argue that the dualism which underlies my friends’ assumptions about this text (it’s about spiritual poverty, it’s about offering the poor “Jesus” in some way detached from their physical needs) actually end up fostering and encouraging the godless, utopian political tyrannies they so despise.

Here’s what I mean. In a robust view of the kingdom it is through the church, indwelt by the Spirit and empowered by Christ’s resurrection, that change comes to the world. Since the church proclaims the gospel, it has the power of God to transform hearts and make the new humanity. Since she worships the God of all creation, this gospel transformation will reach into every sphere of life – experiences, relationships, economics, politics, etc. However, these spheres are all subordinate to Him. I can meaningfully speak into the political sphere because I’m not relying on it to accomplish something. I can long to make it just and equitable and free precisely because I don’t need it to solve all the world’s problems.

When we embrace a dualism that puts the worlds problems outside of God’s concern – when we believe God’s only answer to hunger is that we’ll be fed in heaven and His only answer to injustice is eternal punishment – where do we turn when the brokenness of this world rears its ugly head? If we can’t avail ourselves of the power of Christ, we must make use of idolatrous power instead. This is where Marxism comes back in. It is the dualist who gives license to its claims, because it is the dualist who cannot offer a more excellent way.

I have no need of socialism (or, for that matter, fascism or liberalism or conservatism). The God of Scripture cares for every human need – for spiritual intimacy and forgiveness of sin, but also for hunger and injustice and sex and beauty. None of our petty political deities can compare with Him, and none of their social programs can compete with Him. I still have political convictions, but they are now in proper perspective – as one goal of God’s plan rather than the means to accomplish it.

This is why, in my concern for the poor, I could never advocate Marxism (or any other political -ism). It shares some parts of God’s vision, granted, but it is ultimately unnecessary and counter-productive. God has given us the means, through generosity and love, through the Spirit and worship, and through our possessions and prayers, to address every problem this world faces. Every one of them. The beatitudes teach us that poverty must be addressed, but they also teach us the deeper irony – that the means of healing for poverty will come not from the halls of wealth and power but from what is weak and despised by this world.

A dualistic, “spiritualized” God cannot offer us a better hope than Caesar, but Jesus Christ can.

2 Comments

Filed under Jesus and the President, Theologia

Social Programs and Sacred Callings

This is a modified e-mail I sent a friend who I’ve been visiting with about a Christian view of politics. They asked about how we should view social programs like Welfare and Social Security, which I think are complicated issues I’ve been pondering myself. Here are the three key questions I sent her that need to be under consideration; I’d love your thoughts if you have them.

1. What are these government programs? One of the challenges in talking about things like welfare is to avoid simple answers. While the classic Church and State/Cross and Sword dichotomy has value, the real world is much more complicated. Are government aid programs just exercises of the sword by an external political power? Simply put, no. Because of our republican government, they are also what could be termed “collective action” programs. That is, there is an element of cooperative problem-solving to them. This is what their proponents tend to argue for. Welfare and medicare are, in these peoples’ eyes, the result of a nation of people pooling their resources in order to combat social ills. Insofar as this is the case, it seems to me that the church can get behind and advocate them. However, it gets complicated because unlike other sorts of collective action, this one is backed up by the sword. If I decided to give my tax money that goes to social security to some other charity, I’d get thrown in jail. Because of this, the challenge is in determining how much of this is cooperative and how much is coercive. A Christian theology of politics has to make this distinction and base its support to some measure on whether the state is a helpful tool of organization or a substitute for the kingdom of heaven.

2. How effective are they? This needs to be a seperate question. For example, I agree with many of the younger, left-leaning Evangelicals I know that poverty and other social problems should be a huge priority for Christians. However, we have dramatically different political convictions because I think most of the remedies they recommend don’t actually work. This is where a lot of practical ground-level study needs to be made. Even if welfare and social security are judged to be more good than bad in theory, they are at present extremely ineffective programs. Working to reform, or even just to supplement these programs, should certainly be a Christian priority if they aren’t doing well. The same thing applies to questions of political aid versus private giving. They might be equally permissible in a Christian framework, but if one is more helpful or efficient than the other, it makes sense for us to focus resources on this area. After all, God has structured the world in certain ways, and we are responsible to live in the world has He has made it. In this regard, study of political theory, law, and economics are invaluable. I’m not arguing for simple pragmatism, but we must be practical as we implement Christ’s calling because the goal is to actually help people, not simply go through the motions to satisfy our own consciences.

3. How can the church live out its calling in a broken world? This is where I think a lot of political thought, including some that I myself have recommended, needs to spend more time than it does. Too often, we as Christians go looking for the perfect solution to a social problem, the one untainted by sin and fallenness. Of course, no such solution exists. For some, this perfectionism ends up being paralyzing. They can’t do anything because everything has issues. For others, and I’d say the majority live here, it breeds blindness to the weaknesses of the position you’re backing. In a very real sense, every political choice is the lesser of two evils. Then again, it’s also the greater of two goods. Much like the humans that create them, no political system or social program is completely good or thoroughly wicked. Our calling is to be God-loving realists who seek to see his kingdom come little by little in the world. When we try to make it happen faster, it usually ends in disaster.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jesus and the President