It is no secret that something is deeply wrong with American politics and public life. We are alarmed by the unrest and violence that surrounds us. We are disturbed by the toxic nature of public conversation about matters that are important to our common life together.
We sense that we are being hoodwinked by the people we elected to office. Politicians often say one thing to get elected and do another thing once they enter office (I think it was William Buckley who once said that a politician is a person of his most recent word). More significantly, they lie to us on matters of the greatest significance (as the great political philosopher Dennis Miller once said, “Washington, DC is to lying what Wisconsin is to cheese).
We sense that our past political witness has, in some ways, failed.
In addition to these sorts of concerns held by many or most Americans, conservative evangelicals are disillusioned with the fact that the past few decades’ worth of political activism seem not to have paid off. Worse, it seems to have backfired. We’ve argued that abortion is immoral and is detrimental to society as a whole, and we’ve made only limited progress in convincing our fellow citizens.
We’ve argued that marriage is a creation ordinance, limited to the union of one man and one woman, and that this view of marriage serves the common good of the country. The Supreme Court has ruled differently; many and perhaps most Americans agree with the Court.
We’ve sought religious liberty and trumpet it now more than ever. But many politicians and power-brokers, and an increasing number of our fellow citizens, seem to think it is not so important. (Conservatives, do not fool yourself into thinking that other “conservatives” automatically care about religious liberty. Many of them do not. Do you really think that Wall Street executives and lobbyists will safeguard “religious liberty” if it conflicts with corporate interests?).
We must construct a blueprint for future evangelical political witness.
So for these reasons and many more, we not only wish to throw up our hands and walk away (I’ve responded to the temptation toward despair and withdrawal here, here, and here), but fumble when searching for a “game plan” for the future. “If our best efforts in the past have failed or even backfired,” we ask, “what would a blueprint for future political witness even look like?”
There are any number of essential components of any blueprint for future evangelical political witness. It must be gospel-centered, for example, more focused on witness and obedience more than success or victory. It must be civil, and characterized more by grace and joy than by anger and fear. However, in this post, I wish to call attention to the fact that evangelical political activism and political witness must take the long view and the broad view.
That platform must include playing the long game and taking the broad view.
In One Nation under God, Chris Pappalardo and I wrote about the need to take the long view and the broad view. Here is an excerpt adapted from the book:
Plank #1: We must play the long game.
If the current social and political climate has provoked in evangelical Christians feelings of anxiety and fear, it has also led to impatience. We want to see change, and we want to see change now, so we often put too much of our hope in short-term political activism. Thus we lean too heavily on social media activism, for example, or concerted efforts to overwhelm the switchboards of our local congressman. These types of activism are not wrong (both, at times, can be timely and appropriate measures), but the results are necessarily short-lived and superficial. If our political strategy is relegated to this sort of activism, we have already lost.
Plank #2: We must take the broad view.
We need to remind ourselves to take a longer and broader view, to work toward a sustained and comprehensive cultural witness over generations. After all, politics is only one sphere of culture. Even if we were to completely reform that sphere to reflect God’s Kingdom (a mammoth “if”), we would fail to take into account the myriad other ways in which society is affected through other spheres. Politics, in other words, is not the headwater of culture. In many ways, politics stands downstream from culture, reflecting our society at least as often as it directs our society.
So if we want to influence our society, our efforts must not be aimed only at short-term fixes, especially if we are limiting our scope to politics. We must expend our energies in every sphere of culture, recognizing that human life is an integrated whole. There is no effective “trickle-down” method when it comes to impacting society: we must aim everywhere at once.
Consider, for instance, the influence that we might have on our country through shaping the minds and hearts of our own children, grandchildren, and extended families. The time we spend investing in them will reap untold dividends in the future. As G. K. Chesterton said, “How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?” The task of childrearing, he insists, “is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.”
Or consider the power of the arts (not just “high art,” but popular media such as music, television, and movies) to shape the way entire cultures and sub-cultures think and feel about issues. Are we really content to abandon this field to others, to limit ourselves to defending truth while caring nothing for beauty?
Similarly, consider the influence that schools and universities have in shaping the worldviews of young men and women. In our opinion, Christian schools and universities often merely pay lip service to the notion of “Christian education,” conforming in large part to the ideologies set by other universities. The “Christian” aspect of their schooling is a veneer of some sort, a chapel attendance requirement, a perfunctory prayer to start each class, or a system of 1950s-era dating guidelines. But if Christian scholars and teachers would put forth a sustained effort to shape their research, writings, and teaching in light of a biblical worldview, the positive results in the lives of our students would be remarkable.
The broader and longer view means investing long-term in every aspect of American culture—art, science, education, politics, economics, business, sports, and family life. It means avoiding the pitfall of social and political passivity, on the one hand, and mindless and ineffective short-term activism, on the other hand.
Christian political witness is a long term construction project that requires a full toolbox.
Americans are right that there is something deeply wrong with our politics and public life. Evangelicals are right that we have not been very successful in persuading our fellow citizens to our vision of the common good. But that does not mean we should despair, and it does not mean that we should not persevere by constructing a platform for future evangelical witness. And that platform must be viewed as a long-term construction project (not a jerry-built shanty town) that employs a full tool box (including witness in our families, the arts, and education) rather than merely the hammer of short-term political activism.
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