Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Evangelical Politicking

The face of evangelical politics is changing according to Michael Gerson, the chief speechwriter of President George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign and first term. In an interview with Christianity Today, Gerson suggests that younger evangelicals are rejecting the one or two issues of the Religious Right and embracing a broader agenda of “social justice.”
Will compassionate conservatism survive rising deficits, the cost of Katrina, and illegal immigration?
There are some members of the Republican Party who do not understand the power and appeal of this set of issues and who have a much more narrow view of government's role…

Until recently, the Republican Party and Christian conservatives have complained that government is the problem. Is that a view they will likely return to?
I think it's a temptation, but I don't think it's going to happen. One reason is because of what's changed in evangelical political involvement.

I think there are lots and lots of young people, in their 20s to 40s, who are very impatient with older models of social engagement like those used by the Religious Right. They understand the importance of the life issues and the family issues, but they know the concern for justice has to be broader and global. At least a good portion of the evangelical movement is looking for leaders who have a broader conception of social justice…

You're starting to sound like Jim Wallis!
No, because I also don't think the answers can be found in the Religious Left. I don't think we can minimize some of the traditional issues. I don't believe it's possible to be concerned about social justice without being concerned about the weakest members of the human family. I also think that America can play an active and positive role in the world and that we're not at fault for everything.

A few comments of my own...

1. As these comments suggest, Compassionate Conservatism is more than a cynical rhetorical device. Gerson believes that it is a real governing principle. Despite six years into an administration which wears the term as a mantle, the movement remains ill-defined. Gerson seems to equate Compassionate Conservatism with a secular version of Christian "social justice." George W. Bush was apparently more telling than many thought when he named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher.

2. Jim Wallis is the founder and editor of Sojourners. He has been the default spokesperson for the Religious Left in the United States. Gerson interestingly doesn't seem to have a problem with Wallis' view of "social justice." Both seem concerned with poor and the downtrodden. Calls for battling the AIDS crisis in Africa or for providing perscription drugs for the poor resonate with Christians of all political stripes. The only difference Gerson suggests is that the Religious Left has walked away from traditional morality.

3. Gerson seems to reject the notion of limited government. He suggests that evangelical resistance to active government in the past was based upon the character of that government and not about the limits of government itself. He may be correct. Since evangelicals have had more power to influence policy, they have been less inclined to limit the government's role.

Although I am sympathetic to Gerson's goals for "justice" in society, I am very suspicious of an energetic and ever-expanding government. The attitude reminds me of the naivete of the social gospel movement a century ago. Government is a blunt instrument, and "hubris" is a real problem. The evangelicals of today need to be reminded of the pervasive problem of sin. Human depravity even pollutes our good intentions. Reinhold Niebuhr has much to teach this generation of evangelicals.

For those wishing to pursue their faith within the society, more thought should be given to the natural limits of government and power. We should realize that local governments, better than centralized ones, promote responsibility and accountability. We should also remember that structures such as the family, the church, and voluntary associations can often promote justice and human dignity even better than government. Most of all, we must know that true justice will remain ellusive on this side of the God's kingdom. We ignore these principles to our peril.

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