October 27, 2010 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.
If there were a prospect that the nation’s course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It’s incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan’s signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.
President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor — the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush’s, but not different in principle.
A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama’s options. It might pass Paul Ryan’s budgets as written, and they still won’t become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.
So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.
Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?
Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there’s no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece’s all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?
We can rage against Wall Street’s greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.
Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It’s time to dig up the planted axiom.
None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great — great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.
If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:
Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.
And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: “You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God.” (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)
If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ’s grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.
October 21, 2009 § 13 Comments
by Matthew Raley
Evangelicals and political conservatives have been allies for decades, an alliance many evangelicals now question.
Evangelicals certainly constitute a large part of the Republican base. But the alliance I’m talking about is more specific. The conservative movement is distinct from the GOP, and the two have long had a strained relationship. Conservatives embraced most of the GOP’s presidential nominees since Ronald Reagan only reluctantly. Neither of the George Bushes were “movement” conservatives, and Bob Dole and John McCain were frequent antagonists.
So my focus is on the evangelical relationship with the conservative movement ideologically and organizationally. Does this alliance serve the cause of Christ? Has the increasing orientation of church life toward political issues harmed churches? Has the politicization of churches harmed conservatism itself?
Let’s start with definition and analysis.
Most people professing to be conservatives today do not know what conservatism is. It is not Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin. Indeed, conservatism is not historically or essentially a political philosophy, but a philosophy of culture that expresses itself politically. The logic of its policies cannot be understood without a grasp of the ideas about culture on which the policies are grounded.
There are three basic strains that came together mid-20th century to form what we know as conservatism today.
First, there were libertarians. Thinkers such as Albert Jay Nock and Friedrich Hayek constructed seminal arguments for the free market against state control, arguments that were further developed by economists such as Milton Friedman and political philosophers such as Willmoore Kendall. The supply-side tax policies of Arthur Laffer also came from this strain. For a libertarian, a value that must be preserved is economic liberty vested in private property.
Evangelicals have not felt much kinship with this faction. Socially, evangelicals were small business and agrarian people, not financiers. They were (and remain) based in the southeast and the west, not in the northeast. Furthermore, evangelicals have a long history of economic populism (back to William Jennings Bryan) that continues to this day pitting Wall Street against Main Street.
One question I want to ponder, then, is the significance of private property biblically.
A second strain of conservatism is traditionalism. The thinker here is Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, which surveyed cultural and political thinkers from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot. Conservatives of this faction drew their inspiration from Britain, and from such continental figures as Alexis de Tocqueville. They emphasized the respect for folkways and local hierarchies that informed the American founders as they wrote our Constitution. For a traditionalist, the value that must be preserved is the inherited way of life.
This is the faction in which evangelicals feel most at home. But there is still tension. Most traditionalists are Roman Catholic, leading many on the religious right (e.g. Chuck Colson) to seek theological rapprochement for the sake of cultural alliance.
So I also want to consider the significance of inherited ways of life biblically.
A third strain that went into today’s conservatism consisted of anti-communists — the most socially complex faction.
Most of these conservatives started out on the left and joined one of several migrations to the right. An intellectually powerful migration occurred in the 1930s and 40s in reaction against Stalinism. This group of ex-communists and fellow travelers was represented most prominently by Whittaker Chambers, John dos Passos, and James Burnham. Another migration came when New Deal liberals and internationalists like Ronald Reagan perceived that Democrats were not committed to defeating the Soviet Union. A still later group, consisting of Irving Kristol, John Podhoretz, and Midge Decter, et al., reacted against the counterculture in the 1960s.
For anti-communist conservatives, free society was the primary thing to preserve against communist dictatorship. These conservatives had experienced radical leftism from the inside, or in direct contact, and regarded it not as mistaken but evil. They were intellectuals — journalists, novelists, social scientists, policy analysts.
Evangelicals were certainly anti-communist, but had little affinity for the academic orientation of many conservatives from this faction.
I want to ponder whether loyalty to one’s culture and patriotism for one’s country have significance in the biblical scheme of things.
The man who, more than anyone else, fused the three strains into one movement was William F. Buckley, Jr. He was able to fuse them partly because he personally embodied all of them. He was reared on Nockian anti-statism and on Catholic traditionalism, and was driven politically by the mandate to defeat the Soviet Union. The instrument he founded for articulating the fusion and gathering the factions under one roof was National Review. (The term fusionism and its intellectual formulations were the construct of fellow editor Frank Meyer.)
The fusion worked because all of the factions shared the principle that localities are strongest when free to govern themselves. The localities need to be strong in order to keep people strong. Communism was the ultimate offense against this philosophy because it violently leveled all local authority.
To consider whether evangelicals should keep thinking of themselves as conservatives, the first question is not whether Palin is a hot political commodity, or whether Rush is a liability, but whether the Bible agrees with what conservatism is.