Greg Forster has written a very interesting three-part series at The Public Discourse giving an overview and interpretation of the history of Evangelicals’ engagement in politics. (Here are part one, part two, and part three.) Foster’s goal is to overturn the conventional wisdom about this story, allowing us to understand why religious conservatives have been so consistently ineffectual in politics and how to change this. I agree that the conventional wisdom needs overturning, but I don’t think he goes nearly far enough.
Throughout the century of American history Forster covers, the main concern of Evangelicals politically active qua Evangelicals has been to halt and reverse America’s slide into secularism and publicly-sanctioned immorality. Foster respects his subjects’ concerns, but he sees the story of conservative Protestant resistance as one of inevitable failure. Evangelicals, Foster claims, misunderstood the nature of the threat. They imagined that liberal apostasy was a matter only of a wicked elite, that America’s conservative Protestant communal consensus remained intact among the “moral majority” below. If this were the case, all one would need to do is to overturn the hostile elite and install a new one, a straightforwardly political process that should be fairly easy in a democracy. However, what Foster calls the “Protestant schism” wasn’t nearly so lop-sided. America’s moral consensus was completely shattered, so that any claim from one side to speak for the country’s shared values comes across as arrogant usurpation.
All of this is pretty reasonable, and Forster tells his story with deep knowledge and insight, but what should we do about it? We must rebuild America’s moral consensus, Forster says. I agree, but he and I seem to mean different things by “building moral consensus”. To me, it means Evangelicals (and Catholics, although we Catholics should recognize that this is primarily their country, not ours) need to convert the unbelievers to orthodox Christianity and political traditionalism, convince them to repent of their liberalism, and establish laws, customs, and social sanctions that safeguard this moral consensus. Forster, on the other hand, seems to mean rebuilding a consensus by watering it down till we can come up with something both liberals and real Christians can accept. (UPDATE: In fairness, I should say that it’s not entirely clear that this is what he means. He says that Evangelicals can still advocate for their particular beliefs as long as they don’t claim to speak for or to the national consensus. There seems to be a tension here, since one would think the goal of full Evangelical activism would be to align our moral consensus with what they regard as the full truth, but doing so would make it too narrow for liberals. Below, I choose to discuss the more objectionable interpretation to Forster’s essay, an interpretation that does not align fully with his own beliefs.) We shouldn’t try to make traditionalism/conservatism a guiding political philosophy for the nation, because “America is not a traditionalist country”. Here Forster reminds us that America’s political independence was the work of Deist, Freemason traitors. (He doesn’t use exactly those words.) Forster also encourages Evangelicals to avoid “partisanship” and look for common causes with the liberals who are trying to corrupt our children. Supposedly, Evangelicals’ close association with political Reaction is what makes them unpopular. Above all, we are to avoid “hostility toward those outside our group”.
And so, despite its promising beginnings, Forster’s essay ends up basically endorsing the conventional wisdom it promised to overturn. I claim we can make better sense of the last two centuries of political-religious history if we reverse some common assumptions to be in better accord with what we know about human nature and the historical record. Let us also not restrict ourselves to the American context, since a similar battle has raged across Europe. (I know and care more about the French experience, which affects my choice of examples.) Let’s go through these assumptions one by one. (Forster himself doesn’t endorse all of them. My point is not to refute his articles–which I largely agree with–but to discuss beliefs about Christians in politics more generally.)
- Liberals only hate Christians because we’re conservatives. This is backwards–since its birth in the 18th century, liberalism has always attacked the Church, has worked to confiscate her resources and socially marginalize her, and has loudly and angrily rejected her moral code. (They are the ones who, without any provocation on our part, perpetrated the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, enslaving the Church to an atheist State.) Conservatism, meanwhile, means preserving these things against liberal attack. It’s absurd to think that Christians individually or the institutional Church could be neutral in this contest. Liberals don’t hate Christians because we’re conservatives; they’re liberals because they hate Christianity. Nor is this irrational animus; if the ideology of liberalism is true–with its elevation of autonomy and equality to supreme values–then Christianity (a hierarchical, communitarian, and moralistic faith if ever there was one) must be repudiated. Liberals of course do express outrage when Christians defend themselves, but let us have our causality straight: the counterattack is not the cause of the initial attack.
- Association with a political establishment (the Ancien Regime) has made Christianity unpopular. There is no proof of this. It assumes that the common people in olden times were actually liberals yearning for democracy and feminism. There is no evidence for this. Historians, being Leftists, are apt to impute their own sentiments onto the silent masses of deceased humanity, but they have no warrant for doing so. There were no opinion surveys two hundred years ago. Why, for example, should we assume that being associated, even “closely associated”, with the monarchy made the Church unpopular? In fact, there is no reason to think that kings have historically been unpopular. More often, they have been seen as a more benign force than the local lord. The cahiers de doleances gathered from the French populace on the eve of the revolution show no evidence for a widespread desire to liquidate either the Church or the monarchy. Ordinarily, association with government power doesn’t make a group resented; rather, it tends to lend that group authority. Consider the Leftist creed of anti-racism (which, as we all know, really means hostility toward whites). Has anti-racism suffered from its endorsement by government power? Has knowing that a single warrantless accusation of racism can destroy a person’s career generated hostility in the subject population? Far from it! Official endorsement (the “Constantinian treatment”) has been a great boon to the anti-racist creed (even Forster accepts it completely uncritically), as it has been to every other ideology fortunate enough to be given the benefits of state coercion. Whites don’t just say that ethnic loyalties (among whites) are evil and that the West has a “shameful legacy” to be atoned for; they really mean it, the poor dolts! Of course, now the populace think it a shameful thing that the Church is (or was) associated with “feudalism” and Reaction. That’s because those things lost, and the commoners are repeating the new official ideology, as commoners always do. The lesson is not that Christians shouldn’t take stands that will make us unpopular with our descendents. The lesson is that you need to win, and then you get to write the history books and decide what those descendents believe.
- Association with one side in political conflict his been bad for Christianity. It has hampered our witness and kept out people who would make excellent Christians except for their dislike for our totally optional political stances. If you believe my correction to point 1, then you will know that Christianity’s rejection of liberalism is not option and that in order to get liberals to convert to Christianity while remaining liberals, one would have to eviscerate the Christian faith.
- Association with one side in political conflict his been bad for Christianity. It has kept us from being a purer faith and diverted our attention away from the really important matter of eternal salvation. Sociologists have noted the importance of fostering a sense of identity, a strong consciousness of being different from the surrounding society, as key for a subgroup wanting to preserve its integrity and not dissolve into the larger society. Hence the function of distinctive dress, avoidance of specified foods or technologies, and other public “flags” used by many religions. Here is where the conventional wisdom is most wrong. The association with social conservatism has been a wonderful thing for American Christianity. I would even say that without it, there would be no orthodox Christianity left in the country. And I don’t just mean morally orthodox; I mean literal belief in the Trinity and the Resurrection would have all but disappeared without the pro-life movement. Engagement in the culture wars gave Christians a sense of their alienation from secular society. It fostered a crucial–and crucially good–sense of “us versus them” that has given us psychological strength to resist the powerful pressures to conform to the secular establishment. Another bonus, whose importance is often missed, is the moral authority of Leftism has been diminished in the eyes of Christians who become social conservatives. This makes it easier (psychologically, not logically) to stand firm when the Left attacks us on strictly theological and ecclesiological issues such as a hierarchical priesthood and the authority of Scripture and tradition. Liberal Christians wishing to cling to orthodoxy are in a much more difficult position. They must argue that a group of people (liberals) who historically have always been right about everything have now gone wrong in making the same sort of arguments they always make, while the monstrous defenders of slavery and tyranny are finally right about something because of the same sort of arguments that have always been wrong in the past. An example from an American Catholic, myself, illuminates this. Some years ago, I first encountered the claim that the Church should be restructured to be more “democratic” so that unelected prelates couldn’t tell us what to do. Now, there are good theological reasons why this is a bad idea, but the first thing that popped into my head (and this was when I was still a neocon who thought democracy a good thing) was “Good God, no! If we did this, the Church would endorse abortion the next day, and that must not be allowed to happen.” This is still a pretty good argument, I think. There may possibly be some merit to Protestant and Orthodox claims that the Catholic Church doesn’t have to be organized in as authoritarian manner as it is, that orthodoxy to Revelation doesn’t strictly require it. That’s a debate for another day, because it’s quite clear that today, right now, the Church must maintain its top-down structure to resist complete apostasy.
- Christians can best build a moral consensus to our liking by eschewing polemical negativity, social sanctions against immorality, and political coercion. Has demonizing their opponents done the liberals and anti-racists any harm? It’s hard to see how; I sure wouldn’t mind my side and their’s trading places. The fact is that social exclusion, law, censorship, and punishment have always been and always will be the way a moral consensus is solidified and defended. Thus, Evangelicals who do these things–and they really don’t do it very much, much less than anyone else I would say–are trying to do what Forster says we should be doing, building moral consensus. Of course, there’s a positive side to the consensus-building too: indoctrination and propaganda. To be successful, and ideological movement must wield both swords, as the stories of Christendom and Leftism show. Necessarily, establishing a moral consensus means making those outside of it uncomfortable and unwelcome. Myself, I’m not interested in any political movement that doesn’t involve pushing liberalism outside the bounds of communal consensus.