Two fine recent articles by evangelical scholars serve to highlight a problem I have mentioned before in this space : the remarkable inability of accredited spokesmen for the Christian Church to address the moral challenges faced by our civilization in the struggle with militant Islam.

First of all, there is Joe Loconte’s powerful indictment of the astonishingly feckless political reasoning of Anglican theologian N.T. Wright. The bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and a first-rate theological mind, Wright nevertheless serves as an excellent, if dispiriting, example of church leaders’ refusal to think soberly about the moral and spiritual dimensions of the conflict we face.

Wright evidently believes in moral equivalence, as for example between September 11“style terror and the American liberation of Afghanistan from the rule of the Taliban, and is addicted to rants like this: “The Superman myth, or the Captain America complex, has been shown to underlie the implicit narratives of generation after generation of American leaders, generating the belief that the hero must use redemptive violence to restore the town, the country, the world to its proper state.” You would expect this sort of juvenilia from a sophomore in American Studies at Amherst who had read two books on America, one of which was Richard Slotkin’s golden-oldie Regeneration Through Violence ¯but not from a world-class scholar. But, as Loconte points out, as much in sorrow as in anger, when operating in the realm of politics Wright sounds like an entirely different man, incapable of transcending his weakness for straw-man arguments and invective, in place of calm and deliberate moral reflection. He is, in short, no help at all.

Also of great interest is evangelical scholar (and recently retired Marine Corps colonel) Keith Pavlischek’s strong and closely reasoned rebuke to a small group of evangelicals who earlier this year propounded a document called An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. Although it has received only scant attention outside evangelical circles, the chief significance of the declaration was the fact that it was endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest and best-respected organization of evangelical Protestants. The NAE’s emergence in the late 1940s was a sign of the maturing of fundamentalist Protestantism, in response to a broadening appeal of the Rev. Billy Graham and to the late Carl F.H. Henry’s call for responsible social and political engagement. But, more recently, the NAE seems to have lost its bearings, getting onboard, for example, with trendy environmental positions about which it has nothing much to offer but a chirpy “me too,” thereby succumbing to one of the greatest moral temptations coiled at the heart of modern American evangelicalism: the yearning for mainstream respectability. Unfortunately, as Pavlischek demonstrates with devastating clarity, this move toward the mainstream does not seem to have been accompanied by closer attention to argumentative rigor.

As Pavlischek shows, the declaration is not really about torture but instead aspires to the status of “political theology,” seeking to justify broad legal and public-policy conclusions with a moral-theological-political argument and “an awful lot of biblical proof-texting.” Yet even with all the proof-texting, it somehow neglects to provide an extended reflection on Romans 13 or other classical biblical texts directly related to “the normative role of civil government, the obligations of civil authority to protect its citizens, or those relevant to retributive justice or punishment.” In short, it has nothing to say about “the moral obligations of public legal authority in an age of terror”¯that is, about what governments should do to pursue justice, and not merely what they should refrain from doing.

In the process, it papers over the profound difference between pacifists and just-war advocates, which results in a slippery tactical use of pacifist arguments, while the concept of “justice” is rendered empty and groundless. At the heart of the matter is the drafters’ studied lack of interest in what might make a war just and in what is entailed in defending a nation, and thereby fulfilling the dictates of Romans 13. Are there occasions when a person’s basic human right to life may be forfeited and be justly and legitimately taken by an agent of the state? The document had to remain silent about this crucial point in order to garner the express approval and endorsement of pacifists who explicitly deny that lethal force is ever warranted or “just,” while giving no offense to nonpacifists who are not prepared to make any such denial. Whatever else one may say of the cobbling together of such an essentially political document, it is certainly not an act of moral leadership.

“The National Association of Evangelicals,” as the organization itself has said in a more widely noticed 2005 document entitled “ For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility ,” has “engaged our political leaders” and “worked to educate member churches on current issues.” The document itself was more or less explicitly designed to distance American evangelicalism from exclusive identification with “conservative” political positions in the public mind. Yet, the document continues, “evangelicals have failed to engage with the breadth, depth, and consistency to which we are called.” It is hard to argue with that. But one wants to point out that this will likely continue to be true, so long as greater care is taken with political appearances than with hard reasoning about moral realities. Certainly, a declaration that postures as political theology but that fails to speak to the normative role of civil government and the obligations of civil authority is not an example of “civic responsibility” but of its antithesis.

Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

blog comments powered by Disqus