The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square
by James W. Skillen
Zondervan, 225 pages
In the minds of many people, American evangelicalism is closely identified with right-wing politics. In reality, the political beliefs of American evangelicals are far more varied than is evident from watching last night’s broadcast of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club or from reading about yesterday’s anti-abortion protest by Operation Rescue. The politics of American evangelicals are a mixed bag, reflecting many of the same ideological and cultural divisions that characterize American politics in general.
In the title of his new book. The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square, evangelical theologian and activist James W. Skillen points to the political differences that divide American evangelicals. These differences are important, extending beyond the realm of specific political issues like funding for the arts or defense spending. The scattered political voice of American evangelicalism reflects a deeper struggle among contemporary evangelicals to define the essence of their putatively distinctive politics and, by extension, the essence of their distinctive faith. James Skillen’s latest book is not explicitly concerned with the crisis of identity within evangelical theology; nevertheless, his discussion of the many-sided nature of evangelical politics implicitly addresses the theological uncertainties that presently confront American evangelicalism.
The bulk of The Scattered Voice is an informative overview of the contending political perspectives of American evangelicals. In his reading of the contemporary scene, Skillen catalogs seven positions embraced by evangelicals. With the perceptive eye of one who intimately knows this subculture, Skillen is sensitive to the nuances found among evangelicals involved in the public square.
Skillen begins by discussing those evangelicals best known for their political agenda, the “pro-American conservatives.” This first voice includes religious television personalities such as Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, and the reigning superstar of evangelical media ministries. Dr. James Dobson, a Colorado-based psychologist. While these individuals provide easy targets for the secular media, Skillen expresses sympathy for their call for moral recovery. Skillen also argues, however, that these “pro-American” Christians have not clearly spelled out the normative responsibilities of government in a pluralistic, or what Skillen calls a “differentiated,” society. “The appeal of the pro-Americans,” writes Skillen, “is not so much for political action as for moral renewal, for individual recommitment to the American faith.” Consequently, Skillen concludes, these evangelicals lack “a solid, political program around a political perspective that grounded in biblical revelation.”
The method and tone of this chapter is illustrative of Skillen’s discussion of all seven political voices. He defines the distinguishing characteristics of each position, identifies those aspects that need affirming, and then offers a critical assessment in terms of discovering what he calls “the contours of a Christian political perspective.” This method is informative and helpful, especially to those not familiar with the subtleties of the evangelical world. Of particular note is the attention that Skillen gives to the “cautious and critical conservatives,” the “pro-justice activists,” and the “theonomic reconstructionists.” While not nearly as familiar as the pro-American conservatives, these three voices are major influences within contemporary evangelicalism.
As presented by Skillen, the “cautious and critical conservatives” include Charles Colson, Wheaton College political scientist Mark Amstutz, writer Kenneth Myers, and Cato fellow Doug Bandow. The common denominator among these evangelical heirs of the tradition of Augustine and Niebuhr is their commitment to forging a public philosophy that is rooted in an awareness of the ubiquitous nature of sin and that takes into account the ambiguities of history and moral reasoning. On balance, these evangelical voices are appreciative of democratic capitalism and the role the United States has played in nurturing the democratic ideal around the world.
The “pro-justice activists,” on the other hand, generally assume an adversarial posture toward both democratic capitalism and the United States. Representatives of the pro-justice activists include Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, and Ronald J. Sider, the driving force behind Evangelicals for Social Action, an organization active on many evangelical college and seminary campuses. These activists, writes Skillen, receive “much of their inspiration from the prophetic tradition of the Bible. Justice, for them, is more important than the American way of life . . .” For them, a Christian public philosophy is necessarily radical, insisting that Christians stand against all the “principalities and powers” of this world. In practical terms, Christians must oppose—in Wallis’ words—“the fundamental values and the basic framework of the American system of economics and politics.”
The perspective of Wallis and Sider, as well as that of the “cautious and critical conservatives,” represents a minority view within the whole of American evangelicalism. Nevertheless, both views are influential among younger, better-educated evangelicals, and—for all their differences from each other—they may together have a major impact on the coming evangelical generation’s understanding of politics and evangelical political responsibility.
Another voice growing in importance among evangelicals is that of “Theonomic Reconstruction.” Writes Skillen, “The names of Rousas John Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North . . . and Joseph Morecraft may not be familiar to most Americans . . . but the growing influence of these men . . . may make them a force to be reckoned within the 1990s and beyond.” This group of renegade evangelicals certainly represents one of the more interesting religious phenomena of recent years, as much for the eccentric personalities involved as for the ideas they hold. The “theonomic reconstructionists” get their name from their belief that Christians should seek to reconstruct society according to the laws and sanctions spelled out in the Old Testament.
Skillen notes an important connection between these “theonomic reconstructionists” and “pro-American conservatives.” “The element of sympathy that many reconstructionists feel for pro-American conservatives,” he writes, “flows from their belief that the early American political system . . . conformed to some degree to biblical standards.” The intellectual centers of theonomic reconstruction remain confined to obscure organizations such as Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation and North’s Institute for Christian Economics. Nevertheless, chunks of Christian theonomic thinking are finding their way into the mainstream evangelical subculture via personalities like Pat Robertson.
Skillen is rightly critical of the reconstructionist hermeneutic that confuses God’s chosen nation, Israel, with the modern state. Indeed, Skillen is critical—also correctly, I believe—of much of evangelical political thinking. For example, Skillen insists that evangelicals need to be more discerning and intellectually rigorous about such things as governmental obligations and the nature of political action. Moreover, Skillen appropriately calls attention to the fact that many evangelicals have not thought carefully about the implications of our differentiated society for the way we think about and do politics.
But Skillen’s overarching purpose is not simply to critique current evangelical positions, but to articulate the basic elements of a Christian political perspective. Such a perspective will, for one thing, draw upon biblical revelation and Judeo-Christian tradition for insights about such things as the nature of man and the meaning of history. Put differently, a Christian political perspective presents a framework for moral and political reasoning that is informed and/or reinforced by biblical teaching and tradition.
The major flaw in much of contemporary evangelical political thinking is the altogether different assumption that a biblically informed politics will yield a distinctively Christian politics, some sort of “third way” clearly different from present alternatives. This is the common element among otherwise disparate evangelical political voices such as the “theonomic reconstructionists,” “pro-justice activists,” and many “pro-American conservatives.” The problem, however, is that there is no uniquely Christian politics. To cite a recent example, the Bible is entirely silent regarding whether or not sanctions would have been sufficient to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. This, like most of politics, is a prudential issue, not a theological one.
One suspects that James Skillen would agree. Nevertheless, Skillen himself comes precariously close to arguing for a Christian politics that is sui generis. The centerpiece of Skillen’s Christian politics is the theme of public justice. “We should seek diligently to recover a common voice for justice,” he concludes. “We ought to emulate Job and put on the clothing of righteousness, the robes of public justice.”
Who would disagree? But what does this mean in the context of specific public policy issues? It is at this juncture that Skillen’s otherwise informative and thoughtful book stumbles, and it is on this point that evangelical political thinking requires careful meditation.
Dean C. Curry is the author of A World Without Tyranny: Christian Faith and International Politics.