Editor's Introduction: Wayne Johnson is one of the most astute Christian political observers on today's scene. His unique combination of unwavering commitment to Reformed Christianity and extensive knowledge of the political process forges deeply insightful assessments like the one below.
"Hundreds Boycott Rally!" screamed the headline.
The occasion? A sparsely attended meeting sponsored by a city council candidate in a small town that remains appropriately anonymous.
With a single line of type, a clever editor with an ax to grind turned a non-event into a happening. All the local citizens ensconced in their easy chairs watching Wheel of Fortune were suddenly transformed into active "boycotters," their indifference magically reborn as statement.
I couldn't help but be reminded of that apocryphal incident when I read the flurry of obituaries for the "Moral Majority." Presiding at the funeral was the man credited with coining the "Moral Majority" moniker in the first place, Paul Weyrich.
Always good at getting press, Weyrich soared to new heights this time. Like a mountain man who occasionally wandered down among the people of the valley to regale them with stories of Bigfoot, Paul had us all leaning into the campfire to hear about poor Sasquatch's untimely demise.
Yup, old Bigfoot is dead, all right, and you heard it here first.
No matter that no one ever actually saw Bigfoot. His obituary has now been dutifully reported by the gullible pecksniffs of the fourth estate coast to coast. And that is as it should be, since they're about the only ones who actually believed he existed in the first place (that is, when it suited their purposes). H. L. Mencken would have loved it. And Mark Twain? He actually wrote Weyrich's script, with Tom and Huck tearfully watching from the balcony at their own funeral.
The actual non-event that triggered this outpouring of joy, angst, and blather was a letter sent by Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, to — as we say in politics — "several hundred of his closest friends." Within hours, a plethora of stories gushed forth chronicling the retreat of the "Religious Right" back into the swamps and bayous from whence it had lumbered some years ago.
Much of what Weyrich actually said was, as usual, good stuff. He's been defending freedom the whole of his life, and ought to be honored for the good soldier that he has been, and is. He correctly identified American culture as a "widening sewer of cultural collapse." "People of faith" ought to "declare our cultural independence," said Weyrich, whom the Sacramento Bee characterized as suggesting that "since the drive to push its political agenda has failed, the social conservative movement should build its own world of schools, media and entertainment to create a moral counterculture."
Ambivalence on the Right
Chalcedon readers and those with a good working knowledge of Reformed history and theology must find this entire brouhaha odd, indeed. When were we not trying to build our own schools, media, and entertainment? And businesses, families, churches, and other institutions as well? The Protestant model has always been bottom up. Lacking an understanding of the one and the many, hierarchical religions tend to seek top-down, imposed solutions — political solutions. The so-called Christian Right has wavered between these worldviews with inconsistent and often demoralizing results.
While there are certainly examples of Protestant abuse of the power of civil government, it occurs in spite of Protestant theology, not because of it. Principally, we find ourselves on the opposite side of any earthly power that claims autonomy and sovereignty; and for this reason, we have lived in a very uneasy truce with the "new Protestants" who largely compose the membership of such groups as the "Christian Coalition."
To be perfectly blunt, their ways are not our ways. While we certainly acknowledge a political aspect to our world and life view, it comes not as a precursor to social change, but as a result. In other words, we begin with the understanding that most of the problems in our country do not have political solutions, and believing and acting as though they do is a prescription for despair.
And as for the newest "Moral Majority" incarnation du jour — those "people of faith" that Christian Right "talking heads" keep referencing on the talk show circuit — we'll take a rain check. Why? Because we are not polytheists.
"Now Moses, here's what I want you to do. When you get to the Promised Land, I want you to get all the People of Faith together. You got your Hittites and your Amorites. And of course, your Baal worshippers are big, big, big. And whatever you do, don't be so judgmental with the Molechites and that child sacrifice thing. They have a long history and, need I remind you, a ton of votes."
Oh yeah, love those "People of Faith."
Political Implications of Faith
To blur the distinctions between Christianity and false religion is not only wrong; it actually makes working with non-Christian social conservatives more difficult. The bounds of our national covenant enfranchise people of different religions, and therefore, we quite properly engage in political organizations defined by the parameters of that civil covenant. Roman Catholics, Jews, evangelicals, Protestants, Mormons, etc. may all work together in a Republican or Democrat Party about those things which affect the civil covenant, i.e., politics.
Where our faith has political implications, we seek to work those implications out and through political organization. The nature of our civil covenant determines the limits of our political action. The rub is when we expect too much of politics. Certainly, the Bible does not propose that civil government be the most important institution in society, nor is civil government given the primary responsibility for regulating the conduct of the citizenry.
Sidestepping the Terrorists of Civil Government
The magistrate is to be a "terror to evildoers."
What does that mean? It means, don't bring civil government into the picture unless you think only a terrorist will do.
As Reformed Christians, we begin with the presupposition that God — not the state — is sovereign. We also confess that this sovereign God holds the parent responsible for the actions of the child, the individual responsible for personal conduct and the pastor and elders responsible for the government of the church community. Frankly, when those "governments" are functioning Biblically, there aren't a lot of evildoers for the magistrate to terrorize. Just remember that when you invite civil government to solve a problem, the solution will be either a real or figurative sword, but a sword nonetheless.
Negligible Political Solutions
To frame the distinction between us and what the media refer to as the "Christian Right" as succinctly as possible, is to say that we do not believe that most of the problems in this country have political solutions.
The problem, of course, is that modern evangelicals have so little historical context for dealing with matters of economics, aesthetics, politics, art, statecraft (and yes, theology), etc. that their public adventures are at once bold, passionate, myopic and, well, sad. Most have little grounding in church history and have only recently arrived on the political scene, bringing with them huge, and in most cases entirely inappropriate, expectations.
Theirs is a melting pot of social conservatism, revivalist fervor, moralism and righteous outrage, combined with an unhealthy desire to be loved by the world. Starting from a moral majoritarian presupposition, one must, as Alice's Queen, "believe two impossible things before breakfast": first, that there is a moral majority, and second, that majority rule acts as a guarantor of what is right and good.
This view of democracy as end, rather than method, is a trap into which one quite easily may fall — and into which the moral majoritarians have fallen. For the Christian, the end must be justice, not simply majority rule. A lynch mob is majority rule, but it does not meet the standard of Biblical justice. To view democratic systems as inherently good, particularly combined with the notion that majorities are moral and the bad apples few, will lead to exactly the sort of frustration, anger and alienation that currently afflicts so many Christians today.
Realistic Expectations of Civil Government
We must also be careful not to read too much into the media's characterization of what Paul Weyrich actually said. To the extent that he recognized and articulated the necessity to rebuild the crumbled foundations of our society, he ought to be commended. Actually, what he suggests has been going on for a generation now. To the extent, however, that Mr. Weyrich's words are used to justify a neo-monasticism, a wholesale retreat akin to the fundamentalists' societal withdrawal in the early years of this century, then we must demur.
We must also avoid the temptation to use civil government to achieve ends which, though they may be good in themselves, are not properly within the purview of civil government. How fascinating to watch social conservatives demand family values from their politicians, only to see the family-values camel, once in the tent, bear with it government-mandated family leave, government-funded child care centers, paternalistic medical and "health" programs in public schools, etc.
Is it possible that we got what we asked for?
So what do we do, as individuals, as a movement, as a community, as families? Well, it ain't rocket science, folks. Recognize the limits of civil government and then spend a portion (note, a portion) of your time attending to your civil duties. Not only vote for the lesser of two evils, walk precincts for the lesser of two evils and encourage your friends and neighbors to vote for the lesser of two evils. Sometimes it's even a good idea to contribute to the lesser of two evils.
In other words, lower your expectations, not only of politics, but of political saviors. The humanists speak of being a "renaissance man," defined as one who has a cosmopolitan, urbane and far-reaching knowledge of the things of the world; but they occupy the halls of music, art, literature and learning by default. The same may be said of civil government. Let us seek rather that "Reformation man" dedicated to a love of learning and knowledge about God's world, and His purpose for it.
From God's world, there is no retreat. "Occupy till I come."