Trump didn’t just win in South Carolina; he won the white Evangelical vote. It’s a striking success for a thrice-married man with a penchant for profanity and a history of supporting Planned Parenthood. Evangelical leaders are wringing their hands. Back in January, when it had become evident that Trump’s appeal was for real, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, asked, “Have Evangelicals who support Trump lost their values?”
The explanation for Trump’s support among Evangelicals (and religious conservatives more broadly) is fairly simple. Evangelicals have been left behind by a culture that’s increasingly hostile to their role and influence in American public life. This puts them in a rebellious mood. To be honest, I feel rebellious, too.
Evangelicals have become more educated and economically successful over the last two generations. Today, a higher percentage of those with college degrees go to church than do those with a high-school degree or less. Evangelical voters who are such an important part of the Republican party base are not the same as the working-class voters who have been left behind by our globalized economy (although there’s certainly some overlap). Many do quite well; others reasonably well.
But in one respect the Evangelical dentist in Greenville, South Carolina, has a great deal in common with the beer-drinking good ol’ boy in South Carolina’s Low Country who scrapes by as a caretaker on coastal estates. Both suspect, rightly, that Republican party grandees don’t see a future for them in America.
Many, including myself, have written about why the working class is struggling. Those folks are often seen as the inconvenient baggage on the journey toward the globalized economic future that most conservative (and liberal) leaders urge us to join. It’s a future characterized by the free flow of capital, goods, and labor.
There’s also a cultural journey we’re encouraged to join. The consensus among big money people is that the religious right has outlived its usefulness. The pillars of the party deplored disasters like Todd Akin. In the aftermath of Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican National Committee issued a postmortem that recommended, among other things, a change of tone, “especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters.” They looked at surveys showing that Nones, people with no religious affiliation, make up a rising percentage of Americans. The editorial page of the New York Times never pretended to have sympathy for the concerns of conservative Christians. Now, the conservative establishment feels the same way, at least in part. It views the Evangelical dentist in South Carolina as a political liability—unless, of course, he’s willing to keep his mouth shut in public.
The plan was straightforward: Allow socially conservative Christians to become the African Americans of the Republican party. The calculation is astute. Progressive cultural politics has been driving conservative Christians into the Republican party for more than a generation. That aggression is increasing, giving Evangelicals and other religious conservatives no place else to go. Protective rhetoric about religious liberty is meant to reassure us. It serves as code for “we’re with you” without mentioning “certain social issues.” In this way, like African Americans in the Democratic party over the last two generations, we can be managed in ways that allow the Republican party to rebrand itself as having moved beyond the culture wars.
Events have shown that the Republican party is not eager to spend political capital on causes dear to Evangelical voters. The conservative establishment even abandons religious liberty. In 2014, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed important legislation that would have significantly strengthened the protection of religious liberty. She did so because of widespread outcry from every sector of the establishment, including the Republican party establishment.
Anyone who missed the demonstration of Republican political priorities in Arizona certainly saw things clearly last year in Indiana. Again, it was a matter of religious-liberty protections. Again, the Chamber of Commerce wing of the Republican party did not defend the legislation when it came under withering attack. Indiana Governor Mike Pence was blindsided. He had thought, wrongly, that the deal in the conservative movement was to reassure conservative Christians that the party would protect religious freedom. But it turns out that if establishment Republicans have to choose between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Human Rights Campaign, they opt for the latter.
Thus the wide margin of support for Trump among Evangelicals, which in all likelihood will hold up in other state primaries. Conservative Christians feel themselves pushed aside by today’s cultural politics, and they can see that they’re being abandoned by national leaders. This parallels the experience of the working class. Our leadership class regards them as economic (and political) dead weight as well, though for different reasons.
Trump is a wild, brash pugilist. He accused George W. Bush of lying about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to build support for its invasion. Commentators were shocked. Bush had been a darling of the religious right. Shouldn’t this crude broadside (often reiterated on the left, and a charge without substance) undermine Trump’s support among Evangelicals?
No. They’ve voted and voted and voted for candidates put forward by the Republican party establishment. And where’s it gotten them? Nowhere, it seems. Social conservatives are tempted to discount how much worse things might be had conservatives elected in recent decades not done some effective blocking. Still, when you’re losing yardage, it’s hard to maintain confidence in your leaders. Like so many people in Middle America, religiously and socially conservative voters are ready to smash things.
If Trump manages to win the nomination, they may regret their support. But I don’t blame them. I, too, feel the impulse to smash things. I resist by reminding myself that one should never be so foolish as to imagine that one has nothing to lose.
The Waning of the Nation
We live in a dissolving age. The institution of marriage provides a case study. Strong forces aim to erase the difference between male and female. But the trend is not limited to intimate life. The nation state is eroding as well. Pope Francis celebrates Mass on the border between Mexico and the United States, a symbolism that negates, or at least downplays, national differences. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government positions itself as a “global leader” dedicated to solving “the greatest problems confronting our world today.” These are instances of a growing cosmopolitanism. Whether inspired by the universal Church, the Republic of Letters, or global commerce, this sensibility discounts the nation’s once strong claims on our loyalty.
The trend is apparent in Europe. The European Union represents a vision of post-national political and economic life. There’s pushback. Britain is currently engaged in a fierce debate about whether to leave the E.U., and if so, on what terms. The dramatic influx of migrants into Europe has led some countries to erect border fences. Populist movements challenge European establishment parties, all of which have invested in the project of an “ever greater union,” as one of the treaties that laid the foundation for European integration put it more than fifty years ago. But the powerful forces driving us toward a post-national future remain. I’m willing to bet that over the next ten years, the grip of Brussels will get stronger, not weaker.
A recent conflict between Apple and the Obama administration’s Justice Department highlights some of the global trends that work against national identity. Syed Rizwan Farook, along with his wife, killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, last December. The FBI thinks his iPhone contains important information that law-enforcement officials need to have. The more thoroughly we understand this terrorist attack, the better able we’ll be to detect and forestall future ones.
The problem is that, like all recent iPhones, Farook’s has very strong security software. The FBI wants Apple software engineers (who created the security software in the first place) to design a new operating system that can be loaded onto Farook’s iPhone, allowing government technicians to circumvent the encoded security and “unlock” it. This Apple refuses to do, even to the point of refusing to comply with a court order, which it has appealed.
In an open letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook justifies his decision. Allowing the federal government to order his software engineers to write the code necessary to break down the security of a single iPhone creates a “master key,” one that can be used on any iPhone. Who’s to say the government won’t use it on your phone? Or some other government won’t? Or criminals? Cook presents himself as a white knight protecting us from these dangers. He will not allow his company to cooperate in any weakening of iPhone security, for it will “make our users less safe.”
There’s a legitimate debate to be had about where to draw the boundaries between the government’s fundamental interest in securing public safety and our rights to privacy. But on its face Cook’s rhetoric is striking. A super-rich global company presents itself as a more reliable guardian of our safety than the United States government.
This does not surprise me. Denizens of Silicon Valley culture are confident that technology controls the future. This confidence works alongside a tendency to dismiss the always stolid, often ineffective, and technologically Precambrian government bureaucracies. The techno-supremacist mentality reasons as follows: Innovation rules the future. Government never innovates. Therefore we, the creative class, need to take responsibility, because the realities of the hyper-connected digital world now outrun the competence of government.
As Cook has put it, big business has to step up and run society. The civil responsibility of companies like Apple—the captains of the future—“has grown markedly in the last couple of decades or so as government has found it more difficult to move forward.” Although he doesn’t quite say it, the implication is that the global winners need to take up the reins from the old-economy, old-paradigm folks who remain hobbled by outdated and ineffective national politics. We need a new, post-political politics for the new post-national future.
Belief in techno-supremacy is not limited to Silicon Valley. It’s widespread within our leadership class. New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo expresses a version of it. He notes (correctly) that if Apple loses its appeal, it will be forced to do as the government wishes. But that’s not the end of the story. “Experts said that whether or not Apple loses this specific case, measures that it could put into place in the future will almost certainly be able to further limit the government’s reach.” Apple’s software engineers can design encryption that booby-traps any effort to unlock it. Technology outflanks law enforcement and wins in the end.
This scenario discounts the possibility that Congress could pass legislation criminalizing the sale of encryption software impossible for law enforcement to crack. Or that after future terrorist attacks, our culture of litigation will roll up the entire smart-phone industry, as it has others. Since 1987, every major manufacturer of asbestos has declared bankruptcy. But this does not trouble the new masters of the universe. The notion that technology wins in the end reinforces a wider conviction that technological and technocratic expertise now supersedes the messy business of nation-based democratic politics as the great engine driving history.
And not just transnational expertise, but also the global market. Manjoo notes the obvious incentive Apple has to resist the United States government:
Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies . . . have our data, and their businesses depend on the global public’s collective belief that they will do everything they can to protect that data. Any crack in that front could be fatal for tech companies that must operate worldwide.
Commerce wins in the end.
This conceit ignores history. In 1914, the ultimate political act—war—put an end to the last great moment of globalization. Unlike a century ago, however, international markets now erode the claims of the nation upon the loyalties of those who run large companies. Apple has nearly all its products manufactured abroad. A New York Times article from 2012 characterized the rationale for overseas production in this way:
It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.
Got that? Apple will protect our “safety,” but the American worker is such a lazy clod that he can’t be trusted to make Apple products. In other words, the bulk of American citizens aren’t relevant to Apple’s future, except as consumers, and thus, by implication, they’re not relevant to the future that Silicon Valley believes will be built with technology. Few CEOs of large international corporations are so impolitic as to put it that bluntly, but they also speak about their businesses in ways that express a striking lack of confidence in our national project.
I don’t observe this to question the patriotism of someone like Tim Cook. His primary responsibility as CEO is to maximize the profitability of his company. But it tells us something about the age in which we live. To a greater and greater extent, the interests of our major corporations diverge from our national interest. This means that the interests of those running and profiting from them—which may amount to nearly 10 percent of the population, all congregated at the top end of the economic ladder—diverge from it as well. We’re a long way from the day when selling more Model T’s meant more money for Henry Ford—and more jobs for Detroit workers.
Leaders of higher education share in the post-national sensibilities of CEOs. In 1945, Harvard issued a report, General Education in a Free Society. In his introduction, Harvard’s president at the time, James B. Conant, described the educational goal of the report. It was to provide “the broad basis of understanding which is essential if our civilization is to be preserved” and to form each student as a “citizen of a free nation.” This nation-focused ambition has given way to a self-consciously global outlook, not only at Harvard but elsewhere. Many universities now have campuses in China, Singapore, and the oil kingdoms of the Middle East. They’ve revised their mission statements to speak of preparing students for global citizenship. The ill-reasoned ideology of multiculturalism has staying power in part because it provides an ersatz justification for the post-national ambitions of our leading cultural institutions.
Again, my object is not to impugn the patriotism of university administrators, museum directors, or foundation heads. That’s not the point. They’re adjusting to large-scale trends that are overleaping national boundaries. The same incentives, pressures, and assumptions that lead Silicon Valley tycoons to think of their roles and responsibilities in global terms—the Gates Foundation is exemplary in this regard—influence almost all the leading institutions in the United States. Conant’s America-centric concern about forming citizens for a “free nation” has slowly been transformed into the cosmopolitan concern about the “global community.”
And then there’s migration, which brings us back to Pope Francis. Europe’s migration crisis is much in the news. But there are many parts of the world where refugees and migrants have flooded into neighboring countries. Millions have fled war-torn Iraq to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. In Kenya, there are 500,000 refugees from Somalia, 100,000 from South Sudan. The United States hosts millions of undocumented immigrants. More continue to come as they flee the shocking violence in places like El Salvador, where gang conflict has made the country into a war zone. Francis rightly urges us to respond with compassion. But he doesn’t give us much help in balancing that with the imperative of renewed national solidarity. He ought to. Francis is a great critic of unbridled individualism. But the eclipse of the nation by globalizing forces is more likely to atomize and isolate us than create a “global community”—a dangerous oxymoron.
Our postwar role as leader of the free world, and then as the sole global superpower after the fall of the Soviet Union, can distort our vision. We’ve been the dominant global power for a long time. That makes it easy to believe that what’s good for the world is good for America, and vice versa—our twenty-first-century version of Charles Erwin Wilson’s comment about the happy harmony of the interests of America and those of General Motors. But this is myopic. What we need today is something akin to the Federalist Papers for the preservation of national identity in the emerging global system.
Faith in the Public Square
Russell Moore has written a very good book. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel seeks to orient us in the changing culture of twenty-first-century America. It’s written with the folksy verve of a very good Southern Baptist preacher, which Moore is. I can’t count the number of memorable sentences I underlined. After a thoughtful analysis of the fatal temptation to confuse God’s Kingdom with the United States of America: “Jesus promised those who overcome a crown of life. But he never said anything about a ‘God and country’ badge.” On putting political power ahead of Gospel truth: “It would be a tragedy to get the right president, the right Congress, and the wrong Christ.”
Onward is more than mellifluous; it’s also astute about the moment in which we live and the kind of Church we need to become. Moore’s analysis has a strong critical thrust. Again and again he observes that the days are over when Christians could imagine themselves at the center of a “Christian nation.”
Moore emphasizes our post-Christian cultural context because he’s a son of Biloxi, Mississippi, which was once part of the Bible Belt, that wide swath of God-haunted America that runs from West Virginia to Texas. In those communities, being Christian and being an upstanding American citizen often seemed fused together. As Moore points out, this can make us complacent “have-it-all” Christians who want to follow Christ while fitting in with mainstream culture. The problem is that this can tempt us to dilute the Gospel so that we can remain “normal.”
The Moral Majority approach tried to solve the problem by “taking back” the mainstream culture through political action. Moore thinks that project failed. The bad news is that this failure has made America increasingly post-Christian. That’s as true in the Bible Belt as elsewhere, as he illustrates with vivid anecdotes. The good news is that we can no longer fool ourselves. We’ve got to make a choice. Will we live according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the gospel of the American way of life?
By Moore’s reckoning, this is a renewing choice. It provides us with the opportunity to rediscover the power of the Christian message. The choice also winnows. He reports that Evangelical churches are undergoing “a mirror image of the Rapture.” Nominal Christians are vanishing from the pews, and those who choose to be defined by the Christian Gospel rather than “Christian America” are “left behind.” This clarification will not weaken Christian engagement and influence in American public life; it will strengthen it. A post-Christian context is a forcing ground: “Once Christianity is no longer seen as part and parcel of patriotism, the church must offer more than ‘What would Jesus do?’ moralism and ‘I vote values’ populism to which we’ve grown accustomed. Good.”
Moore fleshes out the “more.” He argues for an expansive understanding of our duty to defend human dignity. It includes a wide range of efforts on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. We should attend to the needs of the poor, migrants, the disabled, and the homeless, as well as the unborn. To be pro-life is to be whole-life, to paraphrase one of his lapidary formulations. But Moore avoids a facile “seamless garment” approach. Defending the lives of the innocent, especially the unborn whom our legal culture has abandoned, is the foundation of a culture of life. Without a pro-life commitment, no “whole-life” stance can endure.
His treatment of religious liberty and freedom of conscience draws upon the Baptist tradition. From its inception it recognized the dangers that flow from too close a connection between religious authority and civil authority. Moore provides theological justification for our constitutional principles of non-establishment and free exercise. But he draws attention to a deeper truth about religious freedom: Our greatest freedom comes from the strength of our faith in God, not by way of rights given to us by constitutions. The freedom of the martyrs is the foundation of the Church’s freedom.
Sex, marriage, and family are today’s battlegrounds. They’re the reason why we’re arguing over religious liberty. They’re the reason our society ignores the claims of the unborn. There are moral arguments to be made, and they should be made. But at root these battles are spiritual, not merely moral, as Moore helpfully reminds us. Far from being a liability, the Bible’s countercultural sexual ethic and theology of marriage may end up being the Church’s greatest tool of evangelization. The day is coming when more and more people damaged by the sexual revolution’s false promises will seek a gospel promise they can trust.
Onward suggests a sober rethinking of public engagement by conservative American Protestants, one that moves in the direction outlined by Stanley Hauerwas over the last four decades. Put succinctly, Hauerwas has argued that the Church fails to leaven society when it poses as culture’s friendly chaplain, because in that role it gets coopted. The same is true when the Church poses as culture’s stern, disciplining chaplain, which is, perhaps, a way to sum up Moore’s appraisal of the Moral Majority’s approach to influencing society at large.
Hauerwas’s genius was to see that living a faithful Christian life explodes the pretensions of the world. Going against the grain—as sojourners or pilgrims, to use the biblical image—is a public statement that does more to shape the future of American society than “cultural engagement.” Moore’s insight is similar. He points out, rightly, that we can fix too much attention on discussions about how to get cultural leverage. We forget that, in a society in which aborting Down syndrome children is taken for granted, pastoring a Church that forms Christian parents to welcome them is a powerful way to claim cultural territory.
Unlike many who recognize the de-Christianizing mainstream culture, Moore does not shy away from the culture wars. As he knows, we can’t avoid them. Secular progressives wish to conquer all the territory in American society. That means they cannot help but battle with Christ-formed communities for our spiritual loyalty. The battle is coming to us, even if church leaders wish to avoid controversy. We see this in the contraceptive mandate and gay marriage. Here Moore is admirably clear. The Moral Majority may no longer show the way to stand for what we believe in public life. But stand we must. “If we do not surrender to the spirit of the age—and we must not—we will be thought to be culture warriors. So be it. Let’s be Christ-shaped, Kingdom-first culture warriors.” Amen.
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