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'We Were Wrong!' Yes: Hook Then, Slice Now

My love for the game of golf is, alas, not matched by an equivalent level of skill. Like many duffers, I tend to overcorrect. If I hook a shot, I am just as likely to slice the next, and my journey up the fairway reminds any spectator brave enough to watch of a drunken sailor tacking. Or I may push my putt past the hole only to follow by leaving the next one short. A good golfer learns from each minor mistake, makes the appropriate adjustment, and improves his game; I am happy if my mistakes occasionally compensate for each other and give me a break.

Cultural and political trends often exhibit similar patterns of overcorrecting. People and societies often zigzag from one extreme to another. Permissive eras are followed by repressive ones, and vice versa. We embrace big government one day; we cynically despise it the next. The volume under review, coauthored by Ed Dobson, a respected, inspirational evangelical pastor and Cal Thomas, a nationally syndicated columnist who never hides his Christian light under a politically correct bushel, is, in this reviewer’s judgment, a classic example of cultural and political overcorrecting.

Pastor Dobson and journalist Thomas were key architects of and players in the Moral Majority movement led by Baptist clergyman Jerry Falwell. Blinded by Might argues that conservative evangelical Christians adopted a flawed strategy when they embraced a political solution to fix America’s social ills. The authors confess they once believed “that we could make things right through the manipulation of the political system” (8). Now they realize that politics cannot save America; the biblically directed path to “political and societal restoration” is renewed hearts that the Holy Spirit creates through the gospel, not political activism.

The Authors’ Lament

Evangelical Christians, they say, have erred in attempting “to achieve success by shortcuts through the dark and deep political jungle” (8). Not only are most evangelicals politically “in unfamiliar territory and lack the necessary survival skills,” but more important, if we rely “mainly on politics to deliver us, we will never get that right because politics and government cannot reach into the soul. That is something God reserves for himself” (89). The authors also find distasteful the arrogance implied in names such as “Moral Majority” or “Christian Coalition,” the latter being particularly offensive since it implies “that disagreement with their political positions is, in fact, disagreement with Jesus” (80).

The authors insist that they have not changed theologically or politically, that they continue to “support much of what the movement upholds … [and] respect Jerry Falwell for the good he has done as a pastor, a civic leader, a mobilizer of politically docile Christians who had withdrawn from their civic duties” (9). They are also “emphatically not calling for retreat or surrender by conservative Christians, or anyone else on the ‘right.’” Rather they are insisting on a reordering of priorities. In Thomas’s words: “Our beliefs about God and the Bible have not changed. Neither has our politics. What has changed is that we no longer believe that our individual or collective problems can be altered exclusively, or even, mainly, through the political process” (15). In fact, the authors contend, even after twenty years of evangelical activism, “today very little that we set out to do has gotten done. In fact, the moral landscape of America has become worse…. [Our] hopes of transforming the culture through political power, it must now be acknowledged,… have failed” (23). A different set of priorities is needed; politics must be subordinated to gospel proclamation. According to Dobson and Thomas, “too many religious conservatives have not learned from twenty years of attempts to fit the square peg of the kingdom not of this world into the round hole that is the kingdom of this world” (139). Hence, this book. The authors’ “zeal,” says Thomas, is “proclaiming a better way to transform society” (117).

There is much in this book that is wise counsel for Christian political activists and for concerned Christian citizens. A triumphalism that puts too much faith in political solutions is a Christian eschatological heresy that prematurely seeks to herald the full salvation of God’s kingdom as a present reality. It is no less a heresy when it comes from the right of the political spectrum than when it came from versions of Christian Marxism or other forms of the Christian left. In particular, the warning about ministers becoming politically engaged and thereby losing their voice as authentic and credible messengers of Christ and the gospel is well taken. Politicizing the pulpit is a major mistake. Bad politics in the name of Christ is a scandal to the gospel; evangelical zeal mistakenly poured into a political movement rather than bearing witness to the gospel of reconciliation can produce an apocalyptic zealotry that destroys all hope for a genuinely civil political society. When God is marshalled as a partisan in ideological, political debate, true political society disappears. In addition, the temptation to exert political influence and power is a seduction for church leaders that takes them away from their real calling. All this and much more is salutary, wise counsel that evangelical political activists ignore at their peril. The authors rightly call on the church to be the church and plead with its ministers to remain faithful to their real calling.

A Disappointing Contribution

And yet this volume disappoints as a contribution to what is arguably the most important issue in contemporary discussion about American public life–the proper role of religion. To begin with, the authors give us conflicting messages. They oppose retreat and withdrawal from politics by Christians yet describe it in terms so polarizing–politics is about compromise, having enemies; the gospel is about truth, reconciliation, compassion–that the subliminal message decidedly encourages distance rather than involvement. They judge American public education to be a basket case, favor education choice via vouchers and muse out loud about a better, more loving strategy of infiltrating public schools with dedicated Christian teachers instead of setting up alternatives. They maintain a traditional moral stance against homosexual behavior, yet use the code language of gay activists–compassion, love and tolerance instead of hate and “gay bashing”–in critique of “judgmental” Christians. They judge compromise to be a necessary political evil, insist that abortion is a great evil that requires a constitutional pro-life amendment, and then proceed to urge American Christians to slow down their political efforts on abortion in favor of changing hearts first. The authors repeat many of the familiar calumnies coming from critics of the Christian right–Christian political activists are closet theocrats seeking to impose their religion and morality on freedom-loving Americans–while their own account of the Moral Majority’s founding, along with the interviews with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell at the end of the book, provide overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It is clear, from Thomas’s and Dobson’s own accounts, that evangelical political activism arose in reaction to hostile secularism that threatened religious freedom. If so, then the strategy of “preaching instead of politics” leads to cultural pacifism, to a political posture that will not fight back when attacked, will not seek redress from constitution, legislature, or court, but will only turn the political cheek and respond with kindness and love. This is a curious and confusing conclusion for columnist Thomas to make especially since he remains an active journalistic warrior in the culture wars of our time. It is also at odds with the cri de coeur eloquently expressed by Thomas only five years ago in his book The Things That Matter Most:

[You] are aware, as perhaps never before, that something has gone wrong in the last three decades, and … may at last be ready, under the right leadership, to launch a second American revolution aimed at taking [your] country back and again creating a government of the people, by the people, and for the people–not government in spite of the people.

Actually, the book’s impact may be worse than sowing ambiguity and confusion. As a call to eschew politics for a more spiritual way of changing America, Blinded by Might fails. Whether intended or not, this book itself is a political tract. Receiving significant media attention, it has been exploited by enemies of the faith and of freedom to discredit the conservative religious presence in the public arena. The response of secularists in places of influence and power was unanimous and triumphant: “See, we were right. Religious conservatives are dangerous when they enter politics. Now two of their own even say so! Keep them out! Keep them out!” What is true and important about the book’s message will, I fear, get lost in that firestorm of gloating.

If Dobson and Thomas hooked then, they slice now. This volume overcorrects a mistake but still does not take us straightly and cleanly up the fairway. A reader cannot help but wonder why Dobson and Thomas did not encourage a better political strategy along with their call for spiritual renewal and letting the church be the church. A religious culture that provides a foundation for social renewal must begin with preaching, but it cannot exclude all political activism. In 1988 Dobson coauthored another book with similar themes (and title!) to the volume under review, The Seduction of Power, a book that Dobson still cites with approval in Blinded by Might. The earlier book, so Dobson now reports, expressed the need for an evangelical public theology because

“the Moral Majority lacked a long-term vision for its political involvement … [and] called for a philosophy of political involvement … [including] a theological and philosophical basis for our involvement … [such as the awareness arising from] a Christian being a citizen of two worlds–one earthly and one heavenly–[and having] an obligation to both.”

Though Dobson repeats this call in Blinded by Might, one wishes that the book itself had made a greater contribution to it.

Lessons from a Victorian Dutchman

Both authors could learn from the public theology and public career of the Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian, educator, journalist, and statesman Abraham Kuyper. A minister in the Dutch Reformed church, he took his ecclesiastical calling as seriously as does Pastor Dobson. For Kuyper, the church must be the church, and the preacher’s calling is to proclaim the gospel and not to confuse pulpit and parliament. Yet, in a context of cultural, social, and political chaos–in Kuyper’s nineteenth-century Netherlands, like in America one hundred years later, the dominant public issue affected by religious conviction was freedom of education–Kuyper also realized that in addition to proclamation by the church, political action by citizens was also badly needed. So he started a Christian newspaper and fired up his journalistic pen with a vigor and passion that would do Cal Thomas proud. Later, Kuyper also started the first Dutch political party, wrote its platform, ran for a seat in the Dutch Parliament, and was eventually elected and even served for four years as the Dutch Prime Minister from 1901 to 1904. However, and this point is important, he resigned as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church before he ran for public office. This was, admittedly, a requirement of Dutch law, but it was also a matter of principle for Kuyper. One’s credibility and influence in politics, Kuyper believed and practiced, do not come ex officio as a minister of the gospel but by persuasive political rhetoric and successful grass-roots political activism. In politics, motivation and mobilization are key.

Kuyper’s thought and life do illustrate the main point made by Thomas and Dobson in Blinded by Might: Let the church be the church, and let ministers of the gospel be ministers of the gospel. Kuyper’s many volumes of biblical meditations as well as his theological writings–notably his major work on The Holy Spirit, all testify to his profound conviction that real national, cultural, and social change comes through the renewing, transforming work of the Holy Spirit and not through politics. At the same time, the duties of Christian citizenship add further responsibilities for actively promoting freedom and public well-being–responsibilities that begin with, but are not exhausted by, preaching. Thomas and Dobson unfortunately do not overcome the problem of setting as stark and mutually exclusive alternatives two different tasks that must be distinguished and not confused but also not separated. For Christian believers, preaching before politics, yes. However, preaching instead of politics, no. Instead, preach and send church members out into the public square to fulfill their callings as Christian citizens. Unfortunately, Dobson and Thomas have overcorrected to earlier mistaken passions and emphases. Hook then, slice now.

Hook and Slice

What keeps us duffers from giving up the game altogether, even when we hardly ever break one hundred, is that one great drive, that one remarkably well-played hole, that one spectacular chip shot landing a foot from the pin. Dobson and Thomas get in many great shots in Blinded by Might. We need another contribution from them that corrects both the initial hook and the slice of their overcorrection. Blinded by Might says: “We were wrong then; now we show you a better way.” In the judgment of this reviewer, it would be more accurate and helpful to say this: “We were wrong (and partly right) then; here is a correction that addresses what was wrong (but is also incomplete and therefore partly wrong)–a more complete vision still awaits.” Yes, wrong then, still not right now, but to both authors: Do not quit. The subject is too important to leave it here. Now drive it straight down the fairway.