I am an heir of Bible Belt America, but also a survivor of Bible Belt America. I was reared in an ecosystem of Evangelical Christianity, informed by a large Catholic segment of my family and a Catholic majority in my community. I memorized Bible verses through “sword drill” competitions, a kind of Evangelical spelling bee in which children compete to see who can find, say, Habakkuk 3:3 the fastest. The songs that floated through my mind as I went to sleep at night were hymns and praise choruses and Bible verses set to music. Nonetheless, from the ages of fifteen through nineteen, I experienced a deep spiritual crisis that was grounded, at least partially, in, of all things, politics.
The cultural Christianity around me seemed increasingly artificial and cynical and even violent. I saw some Christians who preached against profanity use jarring racial epithets. I saw a cultural Christianity that preached hellfire and brimstone about sexual immorality and cultural decadence. And yet, in the church where the major tither was having an affair everyone in the community knew about, there he was, in our neighbor congregation’s “special music” time, singing “If It Wasn’t for That Lighthouse, Where Would This Ship Be?” I saw a cultural Christianity with preachers who often gained audiences, locally in church meetings or globally on television, by saying crazy and buffoonish things, simply to stir up the base and to gain attention from the world, whether that was claiming to know why God sent hurricanes and terrorist attacks or claiming that American founders, one of whom possibly impregnated his own human slaves and literally cut the New Testament apart, were orthodox, Evangelical Christians who, like us, stood up for traditional family values.
I saw a cultural Christianity cut off from the deep theology of the Bible and enamored with books and audio and sermon series tying current events to Bible prophecy—supermarket scanners as the mark of the Beast, Gog and Magog as the Soviet Union or, later, Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda or the Islamic State as direct fulfillments of Bible prophecy. When these prophecies were not fulfilled, these teachers never retreated in shame. They waited to claim a new word from God and sold more products, whether books or emergency preparation kits for the Y2K global shutdown and the resulting dark age the Bible clearly told us would happen.
And then there were the voter guides. A religious right activist group from Washington placed them in our church’s vestibule, outlining the Christian position on issues. Even as a teenager, I could recognize that the issues just happened to be the same as the talking points of the Republican National Committee. With many of these issues, there did seem to be a clear Christian position—on the abortion of unborn children, for instance, and on the need to stabilize families. But why was there a “Christian” position on congressional term limits, a balanced budget amendment, and the line item veto? Why was there no word on racial justice and unity for those of us in the historical shadow of Jim Crow?
I was left with the increasingly cynical feeling—an existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world—that Christianity was just a means to an end. My faith was being used as a way to shore up Southern honor culture, mobilize voters for political allies, and market products to a gullible audience. I was ready to escape—and I did. But I didn’t flee the way so many have, through the back door of the Church into secularism. I found a wardrobe in a spare room that delivered me from the Bible Belt back to where I started, to the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
I had read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its sequels as a child, and found something solid there. As the other Inklings knew, the Narnia series wasn’t great literature or a carefully constructed myth such as Middle Earth was. My experience was similar to that of science fiction writer Neil Gaiman: “The weird thing about the Narnia books for me was that mostly they seemed true,” as if they “were reports from a real place.” So when, in the middle of my spiritual crisis, I saw the name C. S. Lewis on the spine of a book called Mere Christianity, I was willing to give him a chance—and he saved my life. Mere Christianity is not the City of God or the Summa Theologica or the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It didn’t need to be. All I needed was for this drinking, smoking, probably dancing and card-playing man on another continent to tell me the truth, to point me to a broad, bustling Church that took serious questions seriously and could be traced all the way back to an empty hole in the ground in the Middle East.
Most faiths that persist are tested and questioned and tempted along the way. But for me, the question was whether I was a beloved son or a cosmic orphan. It seems to me that my spiritual crisis is similar to a larger one that threatens to engulf religious conservatism in America. The religious right—whether we trace it to the school prayer skirmishes of the 1960s or the segregation academy controversies of the 1970s or the response to Roe v. Wade and the sexual revolution—was always a multifaceted coalition. After all, Jerry Falwell adopted Paul Weyrich’s language of a “moral majority” because the movement encompassed not just born-again Protestants but also many traditional Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints and Orthodox Jews. But while the movement was in many ways informed by sources such as John Paul II’s theology of the body and Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square, the entrepreneurial energy almost always came from Evangelical Protestantism. For that and other reasons, American Evangelicalism is enmeshed with the religious right psychologically, institutionally, and in terms of reputation in ways the Catholic bishops, the Mormon apostles, and Orthodox rabbis just aren’t.
The fate of religious conservatism is important, though, and not merely for its own sake. Ross Douthat is quite right that America—left and right—needs a strong religious conservative movement. The religious right, at its best, modeled the kind of civic engagement and civil society that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wanted for this country. At its best, the religious right reminded all of us that there are realities more important than political or economic success; that we are a nation under God, one that can be weighed in the balance and found wanting. At its best, the religious right kept the focus on a vulnerable minority that easily becomes invisible to those with power: unborn children. Douthat is correct that without some form of religious right, the space left behind can all too easily be filled by European-style ethno-nationalism or Nietzschean social Darwinism. The religious right must, in some form, be saved. But how and in what form? That question, of course, brings us to the 2016 presidential election.
Surveying the countercultural hippies and anti-war activists streaming into the 1972 Democratic National Convention to nominate George McGovern, not as protesters but as duly elected delegates, Tip O’Neill was perplexed. He knew that, for all the talk of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, this was not a winning coalition, and wouldn’t be for a long time, if ever. The old-school Irish Catholic party boss and New Deal political tactician famously said that the Democratic party had been taken over “by the cast of Hair.” We can have some sympathy with Tip O’Neill now that the Republican party has, one might say, been taken over by the cast of The Apprentice.
Parties are resilient, and there are no permanent winners and rarely permanent losers. Economic conservatism can survive a protectionist or nativist upsurge every once in a while, because the base value of economic conservatism is prosperity and people will recalibrate to what works. Foreign policy conservatism can withstand an occasional tide of “America First” approaches to the world. For religious conservatism, though, the aftermath of 2016 will be different. The reason for the existence of religious conservatism is, after all, about moral formation and family values.
For some, the trauma of 2016 will be healed easily. I understand the sort of Evangelical or Catholic who, looking at these choices, believes that he or she must choose the lesser of two evils, acknowledging the moral catastrophe at play with both of the two major candidates, and who hopes and prays for the best with a less than ideal president. This, unfortunately, has not been the approach of some of the old-guard religious right’s political activist wing.
The crisis before us now is not that many among the national religious right’s political establishment have endorsed a candidate but that they also ignored or downplayed some of the most morally troublesome questions of personal character, and, for instance, issues of torture and war crimes, an embrace of an “alt-right” movement of white identity ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism, along with serious matters of sexual degradation towards women. Some—mostly Evangelical—political leaders have waved away misogyny and sexually predatory language as “locker-room talk” or “macho” behavior. Some have suggested that their candidate has never claimed to be “a choirboy”—thereby defining deviancy down to such a degree that respect for women, protection of the vulnerable, and a defense of sexual morality are recast as naive and unrealistic. One said that his support for his candidate was never about shared values anyway. Others suggested that we need a strongman (implying a strongman unencumbered by too many moral convictions) in order to fight the system and save Christians from a hostile culture. Some prominent Christian political activists said that those who could not in good conscience stand with either of the major party candidates last year were guilty of “moral preening” and of putting our consciences before the country, sometimes even putting the words “conscience” and “witness” in scare quotes, a rhetorical gesture worthy of an Obama administration solicitor general.
It is not as though we were not prepared for the challenges we faced in 2016. During the scandals of the Clinton administration, Richard John Neuhaus warned us about the consequences of a national acceptance of a public loss of character. Neuhaus, a priest but no choirboy, knew that morally tainted politicians and leaders will always be with us, as they have been in the past. “The difference is that our intellectual leadership, the media and the then-mainline churches did not tell the morally slovenly sector of the electorate that they were right in their indifference to character.” Neuhaus knew that what was new was not the presence of sin but the loss of a sense of shame. “The most hopeful thought is that enough Americans have learned from this experience never again to entrust the presidency to a person of such reckless habits and suspect character,” he said after the Monica Lewinsky affair of 1998. “But that hope comes with no guarantee.”
Neuhaus was not alone. Jerry Falwell Sr. called for both President Clinton and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to step down from political office because their marital infidelities disqualified them from office and “lowered the moral bar for political officeholders in America.” We were told that we should not put practical considerations—as important as they may be—above objective moral, transcendent standards. “I don’t vote my pocketbook,” we were taught to say, “I vote my values.” Yet many public spokesmen for the religious right now tell Evangelicals—including Evangelical women who have spent their lives teaching Evangelical girls and young women to resist the sexualization of their identity and worth in a hook-up culture, and Evangelical men who learned at Promise Keepers rallies that racial reconciliation is a moral imperative—to “grow up,” to stop being “panty-waists.” They even label those who will not go along with the normalization of vice as “closet liberals.” The people who warned us to avoid moral relativism now tell us that we should compare our choices not to an objective standard but to the alternative, as if an election transcends moral principle.
The strategy is working. Public polling now shows that white Evangelical Christians now regard personal character as less relevant for public leadership. In the 1990s, Gloria Steinem said that feminists should put up with a little bit of womanizing from Bill Clinton because he would keep abortion legal. Religious conservatives rightly said that this showed the moral hypocrisy of a feminist movement that inveighed against sexual harassment and office power dynamics—until it became politically inconvenient. Now, a conservative commentator says that she doesn’t mind if the Republican nominee performs abortions in the Oval Office as long as he maintains a hard line against immigrants.
To keep the moral fiber of America intact, some suggested, we must learn to manage, like an Arkansas state trooper in the 1980s, the consequences of our leaders’ appetites, while encouraging everyone to “get real” and “move on.” Reinhold Niebuhr, the great proponent of “Christian realism,” was right when he wrote, “It is a terrible heresy to suggest that, because the world is sinful, we have a right to construct a Machiavellian politics or a Darwinian sociology as normative for Christians.”
The question of moral credibility is real, but a loss of moral credibility is not the most traumatic wound of 2016. Some Christian leaders and publications pronounce a self-described unrepentant man a “baby Christian” or as representing “Christian values and family values.” With this, we have left far behind quibbles about which candidate is the lesser of two evils or about the future of the Supreme Court or even whether we should support candidates we never could have imagined supporting before. This is instead a first-order question of theology—overheard by the world of our mission field—a question of the very definition of the Gospel itself, and what it means to be saved or lost.
In the twentieth century, a fundamentalist leader defined a “compromising Evangelical” as “a fundamentalist who says to a liberal, ‘I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar.’” It seems now that we have some Evangelicals who are willing to say to politicians, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll just call me.” Garry Wills, a harsh and sometimes caricaturing critic of those of us who are religious conservatives, once said that the failure of Evangelical political activism is that it is not Evangelical enough. “The problem with evangelical religion,” Wills said, “is not (so much) that it encroaches on politics, but that it has so carelessly neglected its own sources of wisdom.” He warned, “It cannot contribute what it no longer possesses.” That may or may not have been true when Wills wrote those words, but who can ignore the fact that his words now ring true?
The upheavals of 2016 have exposed, like a Wiki-leaked email, the pre-existing tensions within religious conservatism, especially in its Evangelical Protestant wing. If we define the religious right broadly—as orthodox religious people who hold to conservative positions on the right to life, the definition of marriage, the goodness of tradition, and the freedom to believe and practice one’s faith—then the religious right is alive and well, despite the mythology of an ever-secularizing, omni-progressivizing Hegelian spirit-force. Evangelical seminaries are thriving, while liberal ones are in collapse. Evangelical church-planting movements in North America and around the world are flourishing. And these Christians—the next generation of Evangelicalism—are not liberalizing. Sociologist Rodney Stark is right that the data show that younger Evangelicals are more concerned than their parents and grandparents about current issues such as environmental protection, but they are just as conservative, and in many cases more so, on issues of human sexuality and family definition and the need to protect unborn children and their mothers from violence.
If we define “the religious right” in terms of professional political activist gatekeepers, however, then, yes, there is a problem. The religious right establishment is one big Wittenberg door with an ever-expanding target where a nail should be. The movement’s institutional matrix seems—even in victory—increasingly exhausted, resentful, and at war with its own future. The internal family conversations about the brokenness of these movements and institutions have been kept quiet, waiting for the inevitable generational transfers of leadership that would allow for new initiatives and new directions. Those internal conversations, however, were made painfully public by the 2016 presidential campaign and the scandalous role the institutional religious right played in it.
I understand why some, including some devout religious conservatives, argue that they recognize the moral and temperamental unfitness of a man such as Trump for the nation’s highest office, but feel they must cast their ballots for him in an effort to forestall the very real perils of a Supreme Court increasingly hostile to the most basic of religious freedoms and constitutional restraints. While I disagree with my religious conservative friends who think this way, that is a respectable and defensible view. They are not provoking the crisis we face today.
As I write, the election itself is soon to be over—thanks be to God—but the divisions revealed therein will remain. Again, the crisis of the religious right does not stem from the differences between the reluctant “lesser of two evils” voters and the “do not do evil that good may result” conscientious objectors. That debate is largely over the degree to which casting a ballot in a two-party system implicates one in the evils represented by ethically compromised candidates. Instead, the crisis comes from the fact that the old-guard religious right political establishment normalized an awful candidate—some offering outright support in theological terms, others hedging their bets and whispering advice behind closed doors. The situation is more dire still because, following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, it was religious conservatives who were about the only group in America willing to defend serious moral problems, in high-flying moral terms no less.
To be clear, the 2016 campaign did not provoke this crisis. This was a pre-existing condition. The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.
The damage is not merely political. What’s most at stake here is the integrity of our gospel witness and our moral credibility. But there’s also the question of whether religious conservatives even want a future. Sen. Lindsey Graham said of the Republican party, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business of the long term.” That’s even more true within the religious right. There are no twenty-two-year-old John Hagees. This is not because of liberalization. The next generation of Evangelicals who pack orthodox confessional universities and seminaries is planting orthodox confessional churches at astounding velocity. Yet they are also the least likely to be concerned with politics. Again, this is not because they are liberal but because they give priority to the Gospel and mission. The Evangelical leaders they read and listen to are also often fairly indifferent to politics. Some of this is a theological overreaction. Millennials tend to have strong, conservative moral stands on at least one sexual revolution issue: divorce. They don’t buy into the 1970s idea that divorce can be a vehicle of self-actualization, and “the kids will be alright.” They lived through it and know better. But their avoidance of divorce can show up not just in a commitment to marital fidelity in their own lives, but also in a refusal to marry at all. The same temptation is there politically. Failing to see the good of politics and how it may fit within the priorities of Gospel-oriented mission, they seek to avoid becoming political hacks by disengaging altogether.
The impulse toward apolitical ministry is understandable. Those who do care about politics, and who lead populist movements, tend to be theologically vacuous, tied to populist “God and country” appeals that seem simultaneously idolatrous and angry to younger Christians. The same political and populist activists form a kind of “protection racket,” seeking to brand as “liberal” those Christian voices that wish to speak about matters such as racial justice.
Can this change? Yes. But change must start with a theological identity for religious conservatism. In the broad sense, of course, the religious right is and must remain a coalition, and that means we cannot share a comprehensive common theology, and to try to formulate one would be counterproductive. The various components, though, of a religious conservative movement in American public life must be defined clearly by their respective theological commitments, or we lose the Evangelical wing of this coalition. The Catholics have done this well. Where would the pro-life movement be if not for Catholic social thought in earlier decades when Evangelicals were largely apathetic to abortion, not able to find an explicit biblical proof text about the issue? Religious conservatism is at its strongest right now in the living room of Princeton professor Robert P. George. He cultivates the next generation, builds coalitions by articulating a compelling and intellectually rich vision—not just a political program. And that vision is grounded in the gifts Catholicism brings to the movement: rigorous philosophy, a complex defense of human dignity, and a connection of the natural law to civil society and the American experiment.
The problems with the religious right are tied to the Evangelical Protestant wing, which has increasingly supplied entrepreneurial energy but not the very aspects missing from the movement, aspects that are at the very core of Evangelical identity. This was present for the institutional leaders of much of the movement. Charles Colson was a political strategist, to be sure, but one transformed by prison ministry and in constant constructive dialogue with such pastors and theologians as Carl F. H. Henry, J. I. Packer, and John Stott. This must be recovered, because Evangelical Christianity is only of use to the world if Evangelical Christianity is, in fact, evangelical.
That starts with a commitment to biblical authority and the shaping power of the biblical text. Now, the Bible is exactly what makes some religious conservatives nervous about the Evangelicals, and our Catholic allies and others are correct that a collection of agenda items with attached biblical proof texts is not a persuasive case to the outside world. Richard John Neuhaus rightly denounced the “theonomic temptation” that seeks to impose biblical standards on a society outside of covenant with God. As a Baptist, I heartily agree. Neuhaus also warned against the necessity to translate moral norms anchored in revelation into publicly accessible arguments. Again, I agree, up to a point. Just a few years ago, sociologist Alan Wolfe said that he would take Jonathan Edwards over Joel Osteen any day. “One can, if one wishes, long for the return of Jonathan Edwards,” he wrote. “But he is not coming back anytime soon.” Wolfe was wrong, though. Jonathan Edwards is back—not in his personal genius but certainly in his theology. The growing sectors of American Evangelicalism are theologically confessional, connected to patristic and Reformation creedalism and to the expository preaching and teaching of the Bible.
The secularization of America means that appeals to “traditional family values” do not establish points of contact with the “silent majority” of Americans. Our neighbors disagree with us not only about theology, but also about what is “valued,” especially in the areas of family and personal autonomy. This shift also shows up in local church life. The seeker or “attractional” Evangelical churches that hide their crosses, minimize their appeals to Scripture, and emphasize “life tips” are still large and influential, but they can only exist in the cocoon of the Bible Belt. People only care what a pastor thinks as a life coach when they think that going to church does them, or their children, some good and that a pastor has some sort of key to living life well.
Even if one concedes that demagogic populism is morally acceptable (and I don’t), others can do demagogic populism more effectively in a post-Christian America. What we have to offer is more akin to the abbot in Walter Miller’s dystopian novel A Canticle for Leibowitz who, in seeking to persuade a woman not to euthanize her child, ultimately realizes that the most important thing he could say is “I, a priest of God, adjure thee.” When, as the narrator puts it, “God’s priest” was overruled by “Caesar’s traffic cop,” he tells us, “Never to him had Christ’s kingship seemed more distant.” In an age suspicious of all authority outside of the self, the appeal to a word that carries transcendent authority can be just distinctive and disruptive enough to be heard, even if not immediately embraced.
The Evangelical commitment to the Bible means shaping consciences of people by the doctrines and propositions of Scripture, of course, but also experiencing the world with a sense of one’s place in the biblical story. Jesus recognized the temptations of the devil not merely by opposing propositions with propositions but by seeing that he stood where Israel had stood before, in the wilderness before the tribunal of God. We need to recover a catechesis that fits the whole Bible together around the centrality of Christ crucified. This allows Christians to see that they are indeed “strangers and aliens” to every culture. Their allegiances transcend the political, the tribal, and the cultural. We need public arguments. We need philosophical persuasion. We need political organizing. But behind that, we must have consciences formed by a prophetic word: “Thus saith the Lord.”
A next-generation religious conservatism needs an Evangelical wing committed to the Gospel itself—the reconciliation between God and humanity, through personal faith in Christ by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. This commitment shapes our sense of identity. The growing theological confessionalism among young Evangelicalism is directly related to the fact that a secularizing American culture does not demand a nominal religious affiliation to be a “normal” American. Those who stand with Christ must articulate, including to themselves, why and how Christianity matters. This theological, confessional resurgence is often called “Gospel-centered” Evangelicalism. Can this and has this, at times, become faddish? Of course it has, just as, at times, the renaissance of “born again” language in the 1970s Jesus movement was faddish. But, in both cases, the movements sought to recover firmer foundations. A religious right that is not able to tie public action and cultural concern to a theology of Gospel and mission will die, and will deserve to die.
Gospel-centered witness already characterizes the strongest aspects of religious conservatism. Where, after all, is the strength of the pro-life movement but in the armada of pregnancy resource centers in communities and churches across the country? Evangelicals committed to this cause care for the whole-life needs of the woman in crisis—from emotional support to job training to childcare to adoption services, as well as with a Gospel that can free us from guilt and shame. In this ministry, the pro-life movement is not at war with the culture, but sees the culture as a mission field of the spiritually wounded. One cannot demonize a woman one seeks to persuade not to harm her child, or to persuade that Jesus loves her. This has political implications. Churches involved in this kind of hands-on ministry see firsthand the power and influence of the abortion industry, and the harm it does to women, children, and communities. This is one reason why the annual March for Life is filled with younger people—Catholic and Evangelical and otherwise—the very people some told us just a few years ago would turn away from the pro-life movement due to “fetus fatigue.” At the local level, pro-life leaders are connecting the mission of the Church and the centrality of the Gospel to advocacy for unborn children and their mothers. Here we see a social and political issue of immediate relevance to those for whom the kingdom is first.
One of the assumptions made by some in the old religious right is that the Church is formed well enough theologically and simply needs to be mobilized politically. This assumption is wrong, and has been for quite a while, as we see in the Evangelical slowness to respond to Roe v. Wade. The problem was not just the Evangelical reticence to intervene in political matters that predominated after the Scopes trial. Bill Clinton learned his view that personhood begins with breath, not conception, which he used to justify his support for partial birth abortion, from a conservative Southern Baptist pastor’s teaching from Genesis. Even now, some abortion providers tell us that the majority of their clients are not “pro-choice.” They are instead Roman Catholics or Evangelical Protestants who believe they are committing a grave sin but look for mercy afterward. That’s a theological problem as well as a social problem. A theological vision is necessary for Evangelicals to shape the intuitions we will need to face the challenges of the future—whether they are ethno-nationalism, artificial intelligence, or the blurring of what humanity itself is through cloning and hybridization. The issue is not merely a “worldview” deficit. It’s a lack of Gospel-informed affections and inclinations.
The fundraising structure of political activism, left and right, means that often the most extreme and buffoonish characters are put forward. Too often the world sees the strangeness of the religious right not where the New Testament places it—in the scandal of the Gospel—but in a willingness to say outrageous things on television. Some would suggest that even broaching this topic is “intellectual snobbery.” And yet, imagine a 1960s civil rights movement led by Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright rather than Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. King did not simply speak to the passions of his followers; he addressed the consciences of his detractors, as well as those on the sidelines who were overhearing it all. Behind his rhetoric was a coherent set of ideas, grounded in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence.
A coherent theological identity does not mean fracturing into sectarian silos in the public arena. We can and ought to work with those with whom we have deep theological disagreements. I do not accept the gospel or the Christology of Latter-day Saints—and they don’t believe I am a member of an authentic church. But we can happily co-labor where there is no confusion about our deepest convictions, and when the Evangelical part of the coalition maintains clear boundaries on the meaning of the evangel. When, however, Evangelical Protestants treat prosperity gospel hucksters as fellow Christian leaders, we have declared war on the Gospel itself. Health and wealth prosperity theology—in its hard or soft forms—is not another stream of historic Christianity. It is the old Canaanite fertility religion, except worse because it takes the name of the Lord in vain under the pretense of apostolic Christianity.
Some claim that such concerns are overly scrupulous, since the Gospel is powerful and cannot be stopped. Yet the Apostle Paul, though reasoning calmly with the philosophers at Athens and with the ruling authorities on trial, issued thundering anathemas against the false teachers who came to the Galatian church as spokesmen for Christian orthodoxy. Of them, Paul said, he “did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:5). Paul’s conservatism meant conserving the Gospel. Paul was willing to confront Simon Peter when he confused the Gospel with his table fellowship out of fear of the circumcision party, because his conduct “was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:11–14).
Moreover, some sectors of the old religious right and its institutional structures are simply too liberal for the next generation of Evangelicalism. Of course, I do not mean politically or culturally liberal. The most successful have operated at the extreme fringe of the right. But Presbyterian leader J. Gresham Machen warned in the 1920s that Christianity and liberalism are two different religions—and liberalism uses religion as a means to some earthly end, whether that end is defined as conservative or progressive. “Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in the world,” Machen wrote. He was thinking of its role in unifying the nation and fighting Bolshevism. “But if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity.”
See, for instance, the use of 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land”) by many in the Evangelical wing of the religious right. The text is employed to speak of national “revival,” defined in terms of renewed civil religion and moral awakening. The “land” is assumed to be the United States of America. No recognition is given that this Old Testament verse is speaking of the temple—a temple the New Testament identifies with Christ himself and the living stones of his Church. God has made his covenant with his elect, not the American nation. Such considerations are often seen as beside the point. The text is useful for a political purpose, and so it is put to use. This is theological liberalism. When Christianity is seen as a political project in search of a gospel useful enough to advance its worldly agenda, it will end up pleasing those who make politics primary, while losing those who believe the Gospel.
Nostalgic appeals to the fact that “we are losing our country” can only work if one defines success in terms of a cultural, nominal Christianity. Such success can restrain some aspects of overt immorality, but the outcome can be worse than paganism if there is, in fact, a hell. Likewise, an apocalyptic language that presents every presidential election as Armageddon is another kind of theological liberalism. Augustine wrote the City of God in the context of Rome’s collapse, and he did not repurpose the Gospel to prop up a failing regime. Moreover, even at the level of pragmatic politics, such appeals leave religious conservatives cynical and the churches burned over. The younger generation of Evangelicals, sadly, hardly ever speaks much of biblical prophecy today. Why? They are exhausted by the hyperventilating of some Evangelicals over blood moons and red heifers. The exhaustion is even greater in the face of endless exhortation to “act now or lose everything.” These dire prophecies of American doom prove not to be true. Our society is fallen and depraved, but also made resilient by the sustaining power of common grace and the grain of creation itself.
The theological liberalism of some aspects of the old, institutional religious right has also led to moral relativism in the area of racial reconciliation and justice. When a movement is defined, to varying degrees, by the culture of Bible Belt religion, what comes with it is that culture’s idolatries. That is not only morally wrong but also self-defeating. A generation ago, Walker Percy warned us that to talk about race in the context of Southern religion was to break a “gentleman’s agreement.” The religion of the South, Percy argued, is not Christian; it is Stoic, infused with concepts of honor and tradition, virtue and kinship. “And how curiously foreign to the South sound the Decalogue, the Beatitudes, the doctrine of the Mystical Body.” If, Percy warned, the Southern Church does not apply its theology to the original sin of American history, “it runs the risk of becoming ever more what it in fact to a degree already is, the pleasant Sunday lodge of conservative businessmen which offends no one and which no one takes seriously.”
We still face racism and nativism and anti-Semitism. The religious right, if it wishes to be genuinely religious, must work toward justice and reconciliation, regardless of whether that means a rebuke to those who are our allies on other issues. White Christians, after all, are not part of the majority culture and never have been, unless they define their primary culture as that of the United States of America. If, instead, my first identity is part of the global Body of Christ, then white middle-class Americans are a tiny sliver indeed.
Moreover, the driving force of Christian orthodoxy and spiritual energy today is not white. If made up of only Western Europeans and North Americans, the Roman Catholic Church would be the United Church of Christ, with better real estate. But there are the Africans and the Asians. The United Methodist Church is pulling back, erratically, toward orthodoxy, largely due to African Methodists who hold more closely to the supernatural vision of the Bible than their American or European counterparts. And where is the evangelistic energy within Evangelicals? With immigrant churches, whether Dominican or Cambodian or Nigerian or Iranian.
A religious conservatism that takes seriously the multiethnic nature of the Church will be different, in many ways, from the one we have inherited. We will not agree on the optimal size of government or the economic good of tax cuts or the death penalty. Black and Hispanic religious conservatives will expect their white allies to address issues too often seen as “Democratic” by their constituencies—such as racial bias in sentencing. The same is true in reverse. Non-white religious conservatives will need to confront their constituencies on issues thought to be “Republican,” such as abortion and religious freedom. We all may not have the same solutions for poverty, but we will be those for whom addressing poverty is a priority. We may not all agree on the way to fix the immigration system, but we will all agree on the dignity and humanity of immigrants themselves. That’s all to the better. It will strengthen the movement, because it frees us from being just another partisan interest group.
A religious conservatism that sees politics as important but not ultimate is necessary even for our public policy goals. Take the issue of religious liberty. Some, in secular circles, assume that an emphasis on religious liberty is a merely defensive move. Many on the religious right think the same. One pastor told me that he’s all for religious liberty, but wishes that we could do something “more proactive” rather than “merely defensive.” Religious liberty is not a reactive, defensive move. Religious liberty reflects a positive vision of the limitations of the state and the dominant culture, one that frees religious communities to carry on their work. To think otherwise suggests a vision of power and influence in which statecraft is more important than church-craft. Statecraft is important, but good cultures and good laws, important as they are, merely put more resilient shackles on the Gerasene demoniac. The depravity of humanity can be mitigated by law, but humanity can only be renewed and transformed by something transcendent. It’s not just our religion that teaches that; our politics teaches that also, if in fact we are in any meaningful way “conservative.”
Religious liberty is a means to an end, and the end is not political. The Gospel frees consciences that cannot be coerced. The end we rightly seek is a society in which religious communities are free to serve and to persuade. If we are to be honest, the threat to this freedom comes as much from the collapse of cohesive church communities, especially in what once was the Bible Belt, as from Washington, D.C. When faith is not shaped by community, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out, religion becomes politicized and politics become religionized. The collapse of well-defined, disciplined congregations in the South has been politically disastrous, and not merely theologically disastrous. Consider the way Latter-day Saints have approached the moral questions raised by the 2016 election in contrast to Evangelicals, even when the voting patterns were not substantially different. The difference between the two rests, I believe, in the contrast between intentional, cohesive, conscience-shaping communities of identity and social solidarity, not only in Utah but in the Mormon minority communities around the country, and Evangelical communities that are too often influenced by raging pundits, talk radio, and TV shout-shows—and these voices sometimes drown out the pastor’s. A Christianity without visible churches is backward-looking and seething with rage. Christianity loses its Gospel-centered character, Marilynne Robinson tells us, indeed any religion loses its distinctive identity, “when its self-proclaimed supporters outnumber and outshout its actual adherents.”
The religious right can be saved, but not by tinkering around the edges. Religious conservatives will need a robust religion and a sense of what is, in fact, to be conserved. This will mean abandoning an idea of a “moral majority” or a “silent majority” within the nation, even when we find ourselves winning an election or a court case. We will need to build collaborative majorities, often issue by issue. It will mean institutions that have the vision, and the financial resources, to play a long game of cultural renewal, rather than allowing themselves to be driven by the populist passions of the moment. More than that, it will mean a religious conservatism that sees the Church as more important than the state, the conscience as more important than the culture, and one that knows the difference between the temporal and the eternal. We will make mistakes. We will need course corrections. We must remind ourselves that we are not inquisitors but missionaries, that we can be Americans best when we are not Americans first.
As we work to renew the religious right by putting it on more sound theological footings, we must always keep in mind that we are being overheard, in our statements and in our silences. Somewhere out there, there’s a young Augustine with pear-stained hands, a young John Newton with receipts for what he paid to own human beings, a young C. S. Lewis arguing against the existence of God, a young Chuck Colson with metaphorical tire-tracks over his metaphorical grandmother in service to some politician, a young fifteen-year-old whose name we’ll never know wondering if he’s lost in the cosmos. The important question is not whether the religious right can be saved, but whether they can be. The important question is whether the religious right has for them that word above all earthly powers, which, no thanks to them, abideth. The important question is whether a right, defined by religion, has for the world good news.
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the author of Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.