Russell Moore’s 2016 Erasmus lecture, “Can the Religious Right be Saved?,” provided a wide-ranging indictment of the Religious Right—of its often unreflective baptism of GOP talking points, its theological shallowness, its “gentleman’s agreement” (quoting Walker Percy) to ignore race, the buffoonery of its leading fundraisers, and the naked partisanship of those evangelical leaders who condemned Bill Clinton’s predatory sexuality as disqualifying for the presidency yet today turn a blind eye to Donald Trump on the same point.
Moore also offered grounds for hope. He observes renewed interest in confessionalism and catechesis, particularly among younger evangelical leaders. He sees a passion among these leaders for passing this on, for building churches that are more firmly grounded in the Gospel, more Biblically literate, and more committed to rigorous confessionalism and catechesis. He worries, however, about the often apolitical dispositions of these leaders. He fears that they are apolitical not merely because their ministries consume their time and attention, but because the failures of the Religious Right have discouraged them from participating in politics. Nonetheless, he has hope that a better religiously-informed conservativism will develop from these trends.
The trends certainly are good. I wonder, though, whether they are sufficient. Moore’s focus on confessional and catechetical renewal brought to mind David Wells’s argument in No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? At the end of the day, for Wells, the cure for what ails evangelical Protestantism is a doubling-down on teaching, particularly by renewing the sermon-centered worship of the Puritans (or of “classical Protestantism” more generally).
The ecclesiology implicit in what Moore commends is a familiar one—even, arguably, a historical one for many Protestants. “Church” is here understood as an association of individuals who give mental assent to the same religious ideology.
But in his talk, Moore himself provided in passing a counterpoise to this ecclesiology. In a section of his lecture dealing with race and the Religious Right, he commented:
Walker Percy warned us a generation ago that to talk about race in the context of southern religion was to break a “gentleman’s agreement.” The religion of this world, Percy argued, is not Christian but Stoic, infused with concepts of honor and tradition and virtue and kinship. “And how curiously foreign to the South sound the Decalogue, the Beatitudes, the doctrine of the Mystical Body.”
Moore’s discussion of race is itself worthy of attention. But I want to focus on the last line he quotes from Percy: “And how curiously foreign to the South sound the Decalogue, the Beatitudes, the doctrine of the Mystical Body.”
American evangelicals today would admit an aspiration to know the Ten Commandments and Jesus’s Beatitudes, even if they’d overlook a commandment here or there, or squirm at a beatitude or two (or three or four). But “the Mystical Body”—that’s different. There’s no broad aspiration among evangelicals to know or embrace the “doctrine of the Mystical Body.” And I think that’s a problem going forward for American evangelicalism.
The Body of Christ, mystical or otherwise, is a sacramental matter, though not merely a sacramental matter. American evangelicals largely turn the sacraments into subjective and individualistic matters: Baptism is merely a public profession of one’s faith, an “outward sign of an inward reality.” It is what the believer does, what the believer professes to God (and to others). God does not unite the believer with the Body of Christ in baptism. Not really. So, too, the Lord’s Supper is not a sharing in Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Not really. The point, then? Christians are to think about Jesus’s sacrifice as they sip the grape juice and down the morsel. The benefits are subjectively and individually appropriated.
There is no real union with Jesus’s Body, and there is no real union with one another in the local Body (let alone the universal Body). Ecclesiology for the American evangelical is essentially Lockean social contract theory dressed up in religious garb.
A main part of what provoked the rise of the Religious Right, I believe, was the sense among evangelicals that they were losing cultural power, that America’s civil religion no longer paid lip service to them or to Christianity. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with Christians’ exercising worldly power. Indeed, if most folks in a society were Christians, it would be odd if a fair number of officeholders and other influential folks weren’t Christians. But it’s an oh-so-subtle shift from taking responsibility for worldly power to infusing that power with religious significance. Subtle. But idolatrous. And there’s a cost. Christianity today is often seen by outsiders as little more than a Gospel-less moralism. This results when Christians over-identify their spiritual aspirations with civil religion, and allow the (admittedly legitimate) needs of civil society to distort their Christian identity. This is the “stoicism” that Percy wrote of.
In his book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, R. R. Reno laments the erosion of solidarity in the United States. So do I. He urges the renewal of the family and civil society in the U.S. as a way to respond to this loss. While I may have a few more concerns about today’s neo-nationalism than Reno does, in the main I do not disagree. But Jesus famously, if controversially, defined the true family around himself first, not around a man’s natural kin. And the Christian’s first “Christian society” is the Church, not a civil polity.
Per Russell Moore, I’m all for increasing Biblical confessionalism and Biblical catechesis. But the Church today needs to be more than an association of well-trained, like-minded religious ideologues. She needs to be the Mystical Body that truly unites her members not only with their Lord, but with one another as well. That’s the offer of solidarity that the world needs today.
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. This November, he is guest-blogging at Law & Liberty.