Talking Politics with Joe Carter and Matt Anderson

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Today, I’m posting an email conversation between myself, Matthew Lee Anderson and Joe Carter about the current political climate and what role evangelicals are playing in the upcoming mid-term elections. I hope you enjoy listening in:

Trevin Wax: Let’s talk about November. What are your predictions? Will this be a repeat of 1994?

Joe Carter: I expect that the Republicans will gain a majority in the House but that the Democrats will retain a narrow edge (1-3 seats) in the Senate. But even if the GOP were able to gain control over the entire legislature it would not be nearly as significant as the “Republican Revolution” of 1994.

Fifteen years ago, the mood was much different. The Democrats had retained majority control of the House since 1952. The Republican representatives in 1994 had a lot of pent up energy and frustration and were willing to make bold moves.

Today, the attitude is much different. The GOP only lost control of the House and Senate in 2007. They know that without a filibuster-proof, veto-overriding majority, they won’t be able to accomplish much. The best we can expect is gridlock and obstructionism. As a conservative, I’m all for impeding the expansion and power of the federal government. But it won’t be a winning message in 2012.

Trevin Wax: What role is the Tea Party playing in all this? In what I’ve seen, the Tea Party seems to be an outlet for pent-up frustrations on the part of many conservatives. But since the Tea Party is a protest movement, I wonder how well it’s going to play in general elections when you’ve got to be constructive and visionary.

Matthew Lee Anderson: Trevin, you’re right about the Tea Party being an outlet. But I see no reason to doubt that their energy will carry straight over into the generals. 2008 was a change election, and in one sense, 2010 is as well.

Joe is right that conservatives had a lot of pent-up frustrations in 1994 that were unleashed in and through policies and governance. It’s a different situation, of course, but we have to remember that the limited-government libertarians who drive the Tea Parties have a lot more than 2 years of anger to release. Though they don’t say it as often, there was a lot of frustration with Bush’s economic policies that has then been transferred to Obama’s even worse economic policies.

The real question for the Tea Party folks, though, is whether they can do anything other than win elections. The problem of conservatives’ failure to govern has been around a long time, and I suspect it will continue long into the future. Getting your people into office is only the first step, and whether the Tea Party will have the endurance to sustain the pressure to actually get things done is an open question.

Joe Carter: At this stage of the election, there is only one way that the Tea Party can really do to affect the outcome: increase voter turnout. How they’ll be able to make an impact after the election – or if they will at all – still remains to be seen.

Trevin Wax: Sarah Palin has been making headlines with her endorsements and her seeming embrace of the Tea Party ethos. Yet she didn’t do too well at the Values Voter Summit. A lot of conservatives really like her, but I get the feeling that a much smaller number have the confidence to get behind her if she decides to run for president. What do you make of Palin?

Joe Carter: Palin came along at a time when the Republican party needed its own Obama – an attractive, charismatic candidate that few people know much about and could project their own beliefs onto. But now that the Left is starting to realize that they may have made the wrong choice in electing an unqualified candidate, the Right is growing cautious about making the same mistake.

A lot of people (including me) rationalized our support of Palin as a VP candidate by claiming that she could “grow in office.” But after two years of seeing her in the spotlight, many of us are having second thoughts.

She has a negligible amount of experience in governance – a term as mayor of a small city and two years as a governor of a modestly populated state. Her resigning as governor didn’t instill much confidence in her ability to handle the pressures of elected office. And, despite pleas for her to do her homework, she has failed to distinguish herself in any area of public policy. The country has too many complex problems to let a neophyte candidate replace the current underprepared President.

Also, she is completely unelectable. By nominating Palin, the GOP would be signaling that they realize that they can’t defeat Obama in 2012 and have decided to exploit her popularity to fill the campaign coffers in preparation for 2016.

Matthew Lee Anderson: What Joe said, and this… Palin is probably the Republicans’s best and most effective political talent, but John McCain ruined her for conservatives. Had she not been turned into an instant celebrity, she would have had a few more years of governance and she would have had to work much harder to build the sort of coalition that she now controls. And that would have meant building an organization rather than a fan base, and potentially working a lot harder to demonstrate that she is a serious policy thinker in addition to a savvy speechmaker.

When it became easy for Palin, she lost the pressure to become a credible Presidential candidate. That sort of short-sightedness has been the Republicans’ loss, as she has the sort of charisma and easygoing image that is required in our media-saturated political environment.

Trevin Wax: There’s been a lot of talk about the GOP’s Pledge to America, specifically the lack of focus on social issues. Do you think we’re seeing a turn away from social issues and toward economic policy within the Republican Party? If so, what does this mean for conservative Christians who care deeply about the moral values of our society?

Joe Carter: The GOP has been trying to turn away from social issues for years (as I’ve complained about incessantly since 2003). Very few representatives in Congress care deeply about those issues. Most see them as, at best, a distraction, and, at worst, the reason the party doesn’t appeal to “independents” (read: liberal-leaning libertarians).

Unfortunately, too many conservatives give them a pass and make excuses for them. Economic issues are indeed a primary concern (when are they not?) but that does not mean the Republicans cannot also focus on social issues. When the Democrats are in power they manage to deal with both at the same time.

If conservative Christians don’t hold the GOP accountable they will soon find themselves persona non grata, just as we are now with the Democratic Party.

Matthew Lee Anderson: To build on Joe’s point about social conservatives’ relationship to the Republican party, at the Values Voter Summit last weekend, there was lots of talk about limited government and economic conservatism, to plenty of cheers. Yet if a social conservative were to go in front of the Club for Growth, one of the main economic conservative organizations, and talk about abortion, they’d be completely ignored. So the disconnect is very, very real.

Social conservatives have started making the case that economic conservatism actually depends upon strong families, growing demographics, low crime rates, and all the other issues social conservatives have historically thought about. And I think that’s a good strategy. But it needs to be combined with the sort of political savvy that really pushes Republicans to give more than lip service to social conservatives, as they so often do.

Trevin Wax: Glenn Beck has certainly gathered a following. Mitt Romney has (at least) a chance at becoming the Republican nominee for president. How does Francis Schaeffer’s idea of co-belligerence work in this scenario? Is it working? I worry that some evangelicals don’t think theologically enough to understand the difference between working side-by-side on certain political issues and standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the gospel.

Matthew Lee Anderson: I suspect the theological problems run both directions, and that Mormons also don’t understand enough of the differences or what’s at stake in those differences, which simply muddies the water even more. But evangelicals who want to be political co-belligerents with Mormons (as I do) need to think through not only our own political theology a lot more carefully, but Mormon political theology as well.

Marriage is a great example here. Mormons have a very different view of marriage than has existed in most of church history. How much of that plays out into their defense of traditional marriage, and how much of that matters? I have no idea, as that’s a recent realization for me. But I suspect it matters some, and that if evangelicals want to preserve the distinctiveness of Christian theology in its relationship to marriage, we need to be judicious about how we align ourselves with those who agree with ballot initiatives like Proposition 8.

In other words, if we’re going to be co-belligerents – and we most definitely should be – we should do so without secularizing our own views on the matter, which is a constant temptation for Christians who wish to interact in the public square.

Joe Carter: I think Matt is right. All of us—Christians as well as our religious co-belligerents—need to develop a more robust political theology.

Civil religionism is simply insufficient. Civil religion requires that we all get on the same page by setting aisde the God we really believe in and refer to a generic deistic entity that is palatable in the public square. But this is something Christians should not do. We should not hesitate to proclaim the name of Jesus.

We have both general revelation (mediate and immediate) and special revelation. We can agree on the general revelation aspects, which is why we can work as co-belligerents. But we can’t set aside what God has shown us through special revelation. Anyone who rejects Christ has rejected God. Jesus made it clear that there’s no way around that. Whatever Being that the other traditions are talking about, it ain’t the true God.

However, rather than letting that fact this divide us, this should simply be acknowledged, accepted, and factored into our approach to co-belligerency. We have to stop thinking that we all have to worship the “same God” – however unclear our understanding of him – in order to work together. We also have to stop thinking that our political alliances prevent us from spreading the gospel message that the triune God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and not the tritheistic god of Joseph Smith – is the only way to salvation. It would be better for us to lose our nation than to lose the souls of our fellow citizens because we refused to share the Gospel.

Trevin Wax: A sobering word to end on, Joe. Thanks to both of you for this stimulating conversation!

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