I’ve made adjustments to bring this piece up to date, but I wrote most of it in January 2009 when President Obama was inaugurated for his first term. Friends told me at the time that I was overwrought, that Obama’s election was a fluke. Tuesday, I think, proved them wrong.
Something died this week. It probably died four years ago, but Tuesday it was pronounced dead. Obama’s two-term presidency is a seam in American history. One phase of American political history ended, and another began. Obama was right all along: “Change” happened.
What died was Ronald Reagan. More importantly, Reaganism died. Reagan embodied a creed of three articles—limited government, unapologetic support for the free market, and equally unapologetic faith in the rightness of America. Iraq soured the country on aggressive Reaganite foreign policy, and the recession has done the near-miraculous—it has made Keynes sexy again. Obama didn’t get a mandate on Tuesday, but neither did the nation repudiate his health care plan. The era of big government is back. Obama’s re-election was the funeral for a creed that had been on life support for several years.
It would be easy for Christians of the religious right to pretend that the prognosis is exaggerated: “He’s not quite dead yet!” We don’t want our stories to end. But Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was right: Some stories have to come to an end to make room for new ones. The ruin of the Reaganism, and the religious right that was always parasitic on Reaganism, is a seed gone into the ground to die. It will bear fruit in the future only if conservative Christians learn to die, and learn what to die to.
This doesn’t mean, as it has meant for some evangelicals in recent years, a wholesale abandonment of the religious right’s agenda. The issues that galvanized the Moral Majority several decades ago haven’t gone away. Family decay, divorce, the collapse of sexual morals, abortion and stem cell research, gay rights—all of these remain as crucial to our common life as they ever were. Creeping or galloping, statism still needs to be opposed vigorously.
Yet conservative Christians have much to die to. Not least, we have to die to a rhetorical style and a public posture. The media exaggerates the crankiness of religious conservatives, but they are exaggerating something real. Does the frenzied tone of Christian commentary manifest confident Christian faith? I don’t remember that Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fear.”
The more basic death has to be a death to the Reaganite creed on whose coattails the religious right rose to power. Christians have the opportunity to construct a genuinely evangelical public philosophy, a public philosophy and practice that is not an ill-fitting addendum to the gospel but arises from the gospel.
What might this look like?
Economically, we need to uncouple Christian economic values from Reaganism. Free trade and free markets are goods, but they aren’t the only goods. Capitalism does produce injustices and inequities. It does have its cultural contradictions, and Christians won’t have a fully Christian public philosophy until we have reckoned with the inner tensions between advocacy of the market and, say, support for traditional families.
We have to die to the instinct to test the justice of a system by asking how well it works for the rich. In the Bible, the crucial test is the opposite: Do the poor, weak, and forgotten, the widows and orphans, get justice? Conservative Christians need to be prepared to read, and repeat, Jesus’ “woe to the rich” and his “He anointed me to preach good news to the poor” without wincing and hedging. We need to learn to sing the Magnificat without quietly spiritualizing its disturbing economic and social message.
An evangelically grounded foreign policy will have to unlearn the instinct to confuse the fortunes of America with those of God’s kingdom. Even at this late date, I still find Richard Neuhaus’ careful formula compelling: “On balance, and considering the alternatives, America is a force for good in the world.” But, as Neuhaus continually warned, that is not at all to say that God’s kingdom is identical to or carried along by the United States of America. We have to see and expose American folly and abuse when it happens; and we have to admit that it does happen.
Positively, a foreign policy rooted in the gospel will take fuller account of the fact that Christianity is an international brotherhood. A renewed religious right cannot offer a purely “national-interest” foreign policy. Asking whether Christians might be on the receiving end of U.S. bombs should be one of our first questions when American forces get deployed. But until Christians further learn how to work “love your enemies” into foreign policy, our public philosophy will inevitably appear, and be, less than fully Christian.
The details of post-Reaganism Christian public philosophy are not going to be evident all at once. The fruit never resembles the dying seed. But it has to be something other than the same old thing. If we refuse to die, we also refuse the fruits of death. If we refuse to die, we implicitly refuse to follow Jesus, the grain that died in order to bear fruit.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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