In a 2018 speech in California, former president Barack Obama asserted that “there’s always been a push and pull between those who want to go forward and those who want to look back.” The latter, he added, are marked by divisiveness and fear, while those who wish to go forward embrace a unifying politics of hope. American politics has always had a binary flavor—as in this division of the republic between supposedly hopeful, forward-looking progressives and divisive, change-fearing regressives who cling to the past.
But when reality itself is perceived as polar, even by those who decry our polarization, we may need to look away from the poles to find other sources of wisdom.
Despite the lamentable identification of many self-described evangelicals with one of those poles, confessional evangelicalism may still have something to say to the body politic.
As opposed to the lightly churched, mostly white social group/voting bloc that recently emerged in American politics, confessional evangelicalism is a multiethnic global movement that has its roots in the historic confessions of the Protestant Reformation. These distillations of “the faith once received” were crafted in response to a perception that the Roman Catholic Church had drifted from biblical norms. As such, they give expression to the principle of semper reformanda—the church must be “always reforming” or, perhaps better, “always being reformed.” Those deep roots in historical Christianity distinguish confessing evangelicals from their political counterparts, many of whom adopted the label “evangelical” following the 2016 election.
When reality itself is perceived as polar even by those who decry our polarization, we may need to look away from the poles to find other sources of wisdom.
Although the pursuit of “reform” is often central to a progressivist agenda, the Protestant reformers had something quite different in mind. The reform they sought was neither change to bring the church into conformity with shifting social mores, nor change that tracked with progress along a perceived upward arc of history. The reformers were quite prepared to pursue reforms that placed them at odds with prevailing opinion. They held that the church must continually subject itself to the scrutiny of Scripture because, in the words of an old hymn, we are by nature “prone to wander.”
In the political realm, this incessant desire for reform sometimes aligns confessing evangelicals with objectives identified as “progressive.” If they are faithful, though, they will almost always pursue the aims they share with progressives for different reasons. At minimum, they will not regard the achievement of reforms they’ve pursued as voguish “progress”—least of all progress toward a “utopia” of radical freedom in which individuals create their own meaning and project it onto the world. Rather, they will see reform as a return to faithfulness, as a recovery of something important that has been lost, or as repentance for failing to hold fast to the truth.
This commitment to semper reformanda is also why, in some contexts, confessing evangelicals tend to identify as political conservatives. Like conservatives, confessing evangelicals believe there is something from the past that must be conserved. Like conservatives, they regard received wisdom as a more reliable guide to the good and the true than the latest “findings” of sociologists and unnamed “experts,” or the current sensibilities of the cultural elite.
Like conservatives, confessing evangelicals believe there is something from the past that must be conserved.
Although these commitments lead many confessing evangelicals to identify as political conservatives, perhaps they really should not. (In places like the United Kingdom, they rarely do.) Semper reformanda is not finally about conserving what we have received but what the apostles received. Confessing evangelicals have no vested interest in preserving the social norms of, say, the 1950s. The reformers rejected the notion that tradition per se must be conserved. This is not to say they saw no value in tradition. Indeed, they esteemed it—but only insofar as tradition preserved the authoritative norms of Scripture. To conserve the praxis of tradition is worse than useless if the received tradition runs counter to received revelation.
These commitments may lead many confessing evangelicals to sympathize with G. K. Chesterton, who wryly commented that the business of progressives is to “go on making mistakes,” while the business of conservatives is to “prevent mistakes from being corrected.” Faced with these options, it would be tempting to position confessional evangelicalism at the political center—a moderate, virtuous vanilla. But, at its best, confessional evangelicalism is saltier. It is not a political movement, and its influence quickly grows insipid within a political party.
No, confessional evangelicalism’s true influence is not that of a player or partisan but of a prophet—a witness to canonical affirmations of what is true and good. In bearing witness to the life-giving goodness of God, prophets will invariably espouse ideas that place them confusingly all over the political map, and often off it.
The witness of prophets does not come from the poles, or even from the middle, but from the wilderness. The wilderness should not be confused with the margins—though it may often look and feel that way. Rather, it is the place far from the halls of power where prophets hear the word of the Lord with uncompromised clarity so they can speak with uncompromised conviction. Only by declining the influence that comes to party insiders can their words reverberate inside the halls of power with truth that comes from above.
The witness of prophets does not come from the poles, or even from the middle, but from the wilderness.
Taking such a posture doesn’t minimize the threats currently arising at one political pole or another. This side of the consummation, no society will ever be free of them. But we should never imagine that the gravest threats to the gospel and to Christian fidelity come only from overt antagonists. Scripture’s strongest warnings are against those who appear friendly to the faith, but who care little for truth and much about power; who prey on the weak; who make a show of religion but whose lives deny the power of authentic faith (2 Tim. 3:5a).
The exigencies of a given moment may draw us to their group, but the Bible is clear: “Have nothing to do with them” (2 Tim. 3:5b). However great the threat from one pole may seem, if we follow partisans to the other pole, we will end up speaking on behalf of the party rather than Christ. We will fail to affirm the true and the good when it comes from political enemies, and we will remain silent when the party we’ve joined in service of a “greater good” becomes an enemy of the good.
Our witness may be fundamentally spiritual, but, if it is faithful, it will often prove surprising—and inconvenient—to political leaders of every stripe. A wealthy “ruler” (Luke 18:18) once approached Jesus with a spiritual question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus pointed the man back to the authoritative words of Torah, underscoring the unique goodness of God and the neighbor-oriented proscriptions of the Ten Commandments.
Unexpectedly, Jesus omits the tenth commandment (“you shall not desire what belongs to your neighbor”)—the one commandment unequivocally concerned with the heart. And in this one commandment lies “the one thing” the ruler lacks. Jesus loved the man (Mark 10:21), so his words are unvarnished: “Sell your possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me.” These are the actions of a changed heart—a heart that forsakes desire not only for a neighbor’s possessions but for one’s own. Such a heart desires, without limit, the good of neighbors and the limitless good that is God.
What “rulers” need most from evangelicals is not our political support but our clear confession, our loving witness to the God who alone is good, and a commensurate commitment to the good of our neighbors.