During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was purportedly asked if God was on his side. “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side,” said the president, “my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
Although Lincoln is often praised for this remark by those who oppose the mixing of church and state, it contains three of the most controversial ideas in American politics: (1) that it is legitimate to invoke the name of God within the realm of political discourse; (2) that God is always right, including in what he has revealed to us through general and special revelation; and (3) that since God takes sides on certain political and social issues, some people will be divinely justified while others will stand in opposition not only to the views of their political opponents but also to the will of the very Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.
If you find these ideas absurd and repugnant, you are most likely a secularist. If you find them to be embarrassing truths, you may be on the religious left. If you find them so obvious that they hardly need stating, you are probably a member of, for lack of a less-loaded term, the so-called religious right.
Uncomfortable Label for a Uneasy Movement
With reservations about how they are interpreted and applied, I embrace those three ideas wholeheartedly. For this reason people will always label me as a member of the evangelical branch of the “religious right.” Although I’ve often been uncomfortable with that term, and increasingly uncomfortable with the associations it implies, it’s a phrase the world will continue to apply to me. And if you believe those ideas, it’s the way the world sees you too. Whether you embrace the identification or not, if you embrace those ideas, this article is for you.
Over the past several years I have served in various positions that have allowed me the opportunity to engage with people who express firm religious and political convictions. My experiences with the religious right have been, at various times, aggravating, encouraging, fulfilling, funny, frustrating, provocative, and, on occasion, downright weird. I sometimes get a feeling of unease by being a part of this movement.
In general, though, I remain optimistic about the role of politically conservative evangelicals in America and how we can work together with mainline Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews in seeking the common good for our neighbors and ourselves. There are, however, a number of issues that still give me pause. It is worth reminding ourselves of lessons we’ve learned that should be obvious yet are often overlooked.
One Dozen Recommendations for Our Way Forward
On the eve of the 2016 election, I want to share these 12 recommendations (or reminders) with my fellow religious and political conservatives:
1. Prioritize Substance Over Symbols
As a matter of political liberty I believe there are justifiable reasons to support such issues as prayer in schools and public displays of religious symbols. But I can’t imagine that on the Day of Judgment I’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant—you have faithfully fought to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.” It’s more likely we’ll all be asked why we didn’t spend more time concerned about refugees from Syria or fighting the global AIDS pandemic.
As a political movement I believe we have made a significant shift away from contending for these mostly symbolic gestures to focusing on more substantive matters. This is mostly due to the fact that we had no other choice. While we were distracted with public displays set in concrete the public was taking concrete steps toward displaying their revulsion to our views on marriage and religious liberty.
In the future we will need to be more vigilant and look for looming dangers. By putting first things first we can better prepare for the inevitable threats we’ll face both today and tomorrow.
2. Don’t Confuse Enemies with Opponents
We have ideological enemies (such as Islamic terrorists) and ideological opponents (such as American political activists). While our ideological opponents want us to lose political debates, our ideological enemies want us to lose our lives. That’s a crucial distinction that we should always keep in mind. Let’s not allow our rhetoric to blind us to this essential distinction. While we are called to love them all, we shouldn’t lump them all together.
3. Stop Saying We’re Doomed
If you think the outcome of a single election will determine the outcome of our country’s future, you need a more robust view of God’s sovereignty.
4. Be Wary of Political Heresy-Hunting
The oft-stated ideal of ecumenicity is, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.” Those of us on the religious right should adopt a similar principle and clearly define the boundaries between what is essential and what is non-essential in matters of policy and politics.
Protecting the sanctity of innocent human life, seeking reconciliation among people of all racial and ethnic groups, and defending the traditional definition of marriage are clearly essentials. Those matters are based on principles that can be clearly derived from Scripture. Other issues, however, are less clear.
For example, can someone be a part of the “religious right” and support increases in immigration or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants? The fact that question can even be asked shows how we’ve muddied the waters. This is an issue on which thoughtful, politically conservative Christians can disagree. Yet this and similar non-essential issues are often used as a litmus test to divide us. The effect is that we lose influence on core Christian issues because of infighting over secondary matters. We must be careful and deliberate about where we draw the lines of political heresy so as not to destroy our already fragile faction.
5. Don’t Pledge Allegiance to a Party
Our allegiance to any political party should be modest, contingent, and made with a full awareness that both the Republican and Democratic parties will attempt to distance themselves from us as soon as elections are over. Both parties have always done so and will likely continue that tradition until the Eschaton. Despite this history we are caught up in an endless cycle of expressing unreserved fealty to political candidates during the election season and then expressing shock and dismay when they distance themselves from our agenda.
Our political expectations should be more modest. We should seek to elect leaders who will provide for our national security, promote proximate justice, and slow the process of cultural disorder, allowing us the room to maneuver to re-strengthen and fortify society’s other institutions. This last function is why protecting religious liberty should always be a priority concern, and why supporting religious freedom should be a minimum requirement to get our vote.
6. Defend Religious Liberty for All
If you can’t bring yourself to defend the religious liberty of non-Christians for noble reasons (i.e., respecting freedom of conscience) at least do so for pragmatic tribal reasons. As Russell Moore has said,
Brothers and sisters, when you have a government that says we can decide whether or not a house of worship can be constructed based upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship, then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build.
7. Rebut the Theocracy Canard
There are those who call us “Christianists” and claim we’re attempting to “impose a theocracy”—because name-calling and scaremongering are easier than engaging us in debate. But there are also those who make such claims out of honest ignorance. For example, many of our fellow citizens don’t know much about religion and are likely unaware that the largest Protestant denomination in America, Southern Baptists, cannot even tolerate a centralized church government, much less a central government controlled by the church. Thinking that a nation full of congregationalists (nondenominationalists, Southern Baptists, etc.) wants to establish a theocratic regime is about as absurd as believing anarchists want to create a centralized government. Absurd or not, though, communicating this reality and addressing misunderstanding in a non-threatening manner is an important role we must carry out.
8. Dethrone Those Who Denigrated Character
The most shameful legacy of the 2016 political season will be how it revealed conservative Christians were willing to abandon the importance of a political leader’s character for partisan political purposes. For several months we’ve witnessed respected evangelical leaders twist Scripture to justify supporting a “pro-life” candidate who said he would use the military to murder innocent women and children. Had they made the appeal strictly on pragmatic considerations, it would be scandalous yet understandable. Instead, they mocked and demeaned the virtue of fellow believers who refuse to discard the notion that the character of our nation’s highest leaders still matters.
As I’ve said before, the result of this decision to disregard character is likely to live longer than even the most robust Supreme Court justice. No longer can we credibly claim a lack of character is a disqualifier from public office. If Hugh Hefner decides to run for president and chooses Larry Flynt as his running mate, they could credibly claim to be the candidates for evangelical “Values Voters,” so long as they promised to appoint conservative judges.
The only way we can restore our image as defenders of integrity is to replace these often self-appointed spokesman for religious conservatives. We need to signal that we have cast a vote of no confidence on their ability to represent us. We need to make it clear that there is no reason for them to appear on Fox News or write op-eds for The Washington Post, for they no longer speak for us. We need to speed up the process of removing them from their roles as leaders of organizations that claim to represent us in the public square.
After the election we need to make it abundantly clear that those who denied that character matters have shown they do not possesses the necessary character to be leaders of our movement.
9. Care More About Culture than Politics
Cultural reform is needed more urgently than political reform. As Andrew Fletcher, an 18th-century Scottish patriot, once boldly proclaimed, “If one were permitted to make all the ballads one need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” Fletcher understood that cultural influence was vastly more important than political power. We once understood this point too. It’s time to remind ourselves that, to paraphrase political operative James Carville, “It’s the culture, stupid.”
This is especially true within the culture of the church. When we’ve allowed our congregations to become more influenced by reality television than by the Bible, we shouldn't be surprised when believers ignore or contort Scripture in the pursuit of electing reality TV stars.
10. Don’t Baptize Political Agendas
It is not enough for religious conservatives to simply baptize the conservative agenda; our political beliefs must be derived from a biblical worldview. Deriving them, however, requires first developing a fully functional biblical worldview and then discerning how our principles translate to sound political policy. While the difficulty of the task makes it easier to accept off-the-rack conservatism, we need to be able to tailor our policies using the fabric of our faith as a guide.
Unfortunately, this election has shown that we have not put in the time or effort necessary to develop a coherent biblically based public policy. For more than a decade we have been reactive and fearful, responding to threats rather than proactively trying to implement policies that increase human flourishing. We need to make a concerted effort to change direction by thinking more clearly about policy and arguing more persuasively in our political engagement.
11. Translate the Bible for the Public Square
Our beliefs are often informed by tradition and the Bible. This does not, as our ideological opponents often claim, make them invalid. But it does make it necessary to translate them into common political vernacular when we bring them into the public square. Unfortunately, premising a political argument on “Because the Bible says so . . . ” is rarely effective or convincing nowadays—even when presented to our fellow believers.
Fortunately, God provides us general revelation—conscience, reason, empirical observation—which is often effective in expressing his foundational principles in a way that anyone can accept and understand. This is not to say that we should abandon referring to Scripture when forming our arguments. But we can use the additional tools of general revelation to make obvious the overlooked connections between secular and religious argument. For instance, we can use logic to show how same-sex marriage affects children and religious liberty, or use empirical research to show how family structure influences poverty. It is not enough to be correct in our views; we must also be persuasive.
12. Don’t Confuse Your Citizenship
Finally, we must recognize that America is not a “Christian nation,” though we should aspire to be a nation whose Christians are admired as good and noble citizens. America is not a “shining city on a hill,” though we should let our light of freedom be a shining example for the entire world. America is not the “greatest blessing God gave mankind,” though it is a great nation worthy of our faithfulness. Patriotism has a role but must not be allowed to expand beyond certain intellectual borders. We are citizens of both the city of God and the city of man, and must always be sure not to confuse the one for the other.