Editor's Introduction: What follows are excerpts from Colonel Doner's important critique of the Christian Right which he wrote exactly 10 years ago. It seems that his insightful assessment is as valid today as it was then.
Lack of Vision
In the book of Proverbs we read, "where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). They also get burned out, confused, and scatter their energies in a hundred different directions.
What was the Christian Right actually for? What was our vision for the future? Yes, we were for stopping abortion, pornography, sexual degeneracy, big government, communism, and a host of other evils. We were for prayer in school and the rights of parents and churches to be free from government intrusion in ecclesiastical and family affairs. But these are single issues, not a cohesive platform or vision of what could be or even should be. And they are negative stands often made simply in reaction to the aggressive or adversarial positions of those not in agreement with Christian values.
Cal Thomas, in his obituary on the Christian Right, observed:
Evangelicals have contributed to their own political demise by failing to develop a unified social ethic. They have preferred to limit their agenda to the "gut issues" (abortion, school prayer, the family).
To many, it appeared that all the Christian Right had to offer was a negative/reactionary collage of "don'ts" rather than a comprehensive and constructive agenda of "do's." Worse yet, most Christians could not understand how all the issues connected to each other. If one was opposed to abortion and pornography, why should one also support Contras and Star Wars? Why should concern for protecting churches and Christian schools from government interference or regulation dictate allegiance to conservative or Republican political movements?
Compassion, Justice, and Righteousness
While it is possible for such a rationale to be thoughtfully developed through a Christian worldview, applying Biblical principles of compassion, justice, and righteousness to each issue, it was never fully developed by the activists of the Christian Right. Christian worldview thinkers and writers, like Schaeffer, Whitehead, and other scholars, were largely ignored by the major leaders of the Christian Right and their constituent churches.
Without a clear Christian worldview, Christians were unable to act in unison behind a comprehensive and clearly understandable agenda. Each Christian Right issue on its own, with the possible exception of the pro-life issue, lacked the sense of life-changing or life-threatening urgency that compels volunteers selflessly to devote their energies on a long-term basis to see the battle through to a victorious conclusion.
And with its constituency divided among so many causes and projects, the Christian Right was unable to mobilize its forces in any unified manner except at election time. Even then, only the overwhelming importance and excitement of the presidential election year seemed to turn out the volunteers — at the expense of the crucial in between "off-year" Congressional elections.
What happened, in fact, is that around each "single issue," i.e., abortion, pornography, etc., there developed a host of small organizations dedicated solely to eradicating that particular evil. Unfortunately, such organizations were for the most part too small to accomplish much on their own, too limited in scope and resources to cooperate in any effective way with Christian Right groups focused on other issues, and too competitive for the limited supply of volunteers and money to cooperate with other groups focused on the same issue!
Turf battles, personality conflicts, and general mutual animosity characterized many, though certainly not all, of the Christian Right groups both locally and nationally. Once the momentum of media attention and the consequent excitement wound down, the volunteers upon which all movements are dependent "burned out" or simply moved on to the next issue or cause that offered some momentary stimulation or meaning.
Effective action demands an integrated, strategic use of resources (time, labor, and money) and the focused attention of all participants. A movement that seeks to alter the course of the world's mightiest and most complex nation, and accomplish this redirection in the face of all-out warfare from a powerfully entrenched opposition, had better be able to command complete and total loyalty and selfless dedication and sacrifice for its objectives on the part of its supporters.
Single issues, even a whole pot full of them, will not stimulate this necessary but rare level of commitment. What was required was a vision of a better, greater, more just, and merciful society to command such devotion. The Christian Right was also incapable of finding a spiritually sound mandate for involvement. Without an orthodox and historically sound Christian doctrine that clearly demands all Christians be active in some mode of service and "fruit bearing," the Christian Right's battle was lost before it was begun. Without such a "non-optional mandate" for Christian service, millions of Christians would choose (and still do) to "opt out" by opting to emphasize "personal growth," "peace," or "affluence," rather than "bearing fruit" through service and self-sacrifice.
This concept of vision is what the Christian Right failed to understand. Without vision, there is no clear agenda. Without such an agenda there is no clear direction. Without direction, there is no effective mobilization of forces.
If the Christian Right's potpourri of goals were ever realized, what would our future look like? Would it look like the Kingdom of God? Would it look like the 1950s or the 1700s? Should the civil government be run by Christians or just be more friendly to Christian values? Should politicians enforce Christian values by law or just expound them by personal example and persuasion or perhaps a mix of these approaches? And how do we define Christian values?
What would a Christian conservative coalition in power really do about the economy, national defense, nuclear war, hunger, poverty, AIDS, etc.? No one seemed to know, or at least no one that could speak for any semblance of a unified Christian Right. In meeting with other Christian Right leaders, including members of Congress, I often observed that our movement did not know where it was going, how to get there, or what to do if we ever did get there.
Failing to Meet the Needs of Our Time
Any movement trying to redirect the nation's course must have as one of its primary goals that of convincing the populace that it is capable of leading them to a better, brighter future. Unfortunately, the Christian Right has squandered a golden opportunity to establish itself as an alternative source of leadership for the millions of Americans dissatisfied with our present state of confusion and stagnation.
At a time when America was looking for leaders with answers, courage, compassion, and integrity, the Christian Right failed to convince anyone — the Church, secular conservatives, or the traditionally value-oriented public — that we were the ones best suited to step into America's obvious leadership vacuum.
We in the Christian Right failed to provide real leadership because we did not understand the real problems that needed to be solved. Before a doctor can successfully prescribe a remedy for the patient's complaint, he must have an accurate diagnosis of what's wrong with the patient. The doctor must carefully examine the patient, listen to his list of complaints, and study his medical history. He must take time to really know the patient's symptoms and their underlying causes.
The Christian Right failed to provide remedies for people's problems, which is what leadership is all about, because we did not take the time to discover what was really bothering people. We were too absorbed by our own needs and agendas and too sure that we had one or two "cure-alls" that would heal any problem that came up.
We were like a doctor who refuses to see patients in person, saying that he doesn't have time to listen to their individual complaints; and anyway, he has developed his own miracle cure for everyone's problems. If they just take it, their symptoms will disappear.
But we did not have a cure-all for society's problems, which we could have learned from a careful study of God's Word. In fact, we didn't even understand what the world's problems really were. Never taking time to discover the needs of our generation, it was impossible for us to meet them.
Of course, we were diligent in recording and categorizing the many symptoms of a nation and church beset by serious moral decay and degradation. We knew we faced a patient with a potentially terminal illness. What we lacked was a real insight into the cause of the illness. Our America does not need treatment for her painfully obvious symptoms of social breakdown as much as she needs radical therapy for the underlying causes of those symptoms.
To Sum Up
The Christian Right, in its hurry to stop the obvious deterioration of our nation, failed to devote the time to take stock of root causes. Men of action like to act, not analyze, and most recently the church's strength has not been in analyzing social trends. Such a failure puts tactics before strategy, short-term goals before long-term objectives, and denies us any way to provide comprehensive answers to the very deep problems facing our generation.
The real problems facing us are not abortion, homosexuality, pornography, drugs, sex, and violence, communism, immorality, etc. These are the symptoms of much deeper problems of fear and alienation from God, from civil government, from each other. As our society becomes more alienated from both its leaders and its foundation, it increasingly turns to unhealthy forms of escape to bury its frustration.
Before we can offer solutions, we must learn to understand the underlying problems. We must feel the needs of those for whom we want to provide answers. This is the real challenge to meeting the needs of our generation. We will succeed only to the extent that we offer a vision that promises answers to people's fears in a way that gives them hope and confidence for the future.
As Christians we should know that God is the answer for man's alienation. God's love and compassion is the appropriate prescription for millions of hurting, alienated people. Our individual identity of whom we are in God is essential to any true sense of personal security. Christian principles of honesty, integrity, and truthfulness in government are the remedy for a nation disillusioned with it leaders.
The Christian Right misunderstood our generation. Our generation is not looking for single issues, or busy projects. It is looking for real answers to fundamental problems. It is waiting for someone to point the way, from listlessness to purpose, from futility to hope, from despair to vision, from alienation to commitment, from fear and anxiety to the strength and courage of great convictions.
The Christian Right is living proof that without vision any movement is guaranteed to fail. When the Christian Right attempted to substitute isolated planks in place of a cohesive vision, we quickly discovered that one cannot mobilize an army with a disparate collage of single issues. Ninety percent of those we sought to mobilize viewed each issue separately. Finding none of them overwhelmingly compelling on its own merits, they took little or no action. Or, finding one all-consuming issue, they concentrated on it to the exclusion of the other equally important issues. While most of the Christian Right's issues were of legitimate concern, most were not compelling enough to merit the devotion required to transform a society.
To make up for our lack of visionary agenda, we were forced to rely upon emotion and fear to stimulate action. Every fundraising appeal virtually screamed that some terrible catastrophe would befall the reader or his family if the suggested action was not taken immediately. This sort of continued melodramatic overstatement was justly and roundly criticized as being hard-edged, irresponsible, negative, and reactionary.
Lacking a vision of our own, all we could do was react in a negative way to the vision or programs of those with non-Christian or anti-Christian visions and agendas. In this sense, we were guilty of being "reactionaries."
- Colonel V. Doner