Features

Blinded by might?

National

Issue: "School vouchers debate," May 15, 1999

Editor's Note: Journalist Cal Thomas and minister Ed Dobson have stirred up some dust this spring with their book, Blinded by Might (Zondervan, 1999). In it the authors call for Christians neither to have faith in government, nor to withdraw from politics, but to develop a "third way" that emphasizes the character of a society more than the political coloring of its leaders. Several reviewers jumped on the book's critique of some prominent Christians and equated the call for Christians to limit political expectations with a statement of surrender. The authors state that they were merely stressing the way in which government typically reflects rather than creates the character of a society, and the responsibility of Christians to be more than political junkies. WORLD asked a handful of thoughtful Christian leaders for brief responses to a question we phrased in a purposely provocative way: "Resolved, that the past 20 years of Christian political activism have been a waste of time." Here's what they had to say. Sam Brownback
United States Senator from Kansas The work of politically active Christians has been important, (usually) edifying, and should be extended, not ended. Politically active religious conservatives have had an enormous political impact over the last 20 years, both in terms of candidates elected and laws passed, at each level of government, local, state, and national. We do need to have realistic expectations about politics, and political activism. Politics should be neither idolized nor ignored. Political activism is worthwhile because the laws of our land have a profound impact on our lives. At the same time, political activism alone, no matter how wise, strategic, or principled, cannot transform a society from rude to civil, from violent to peaceable, or from vicious to virtuous. As Christians, we are called to be faithful, not necessarily successful. The value and worth of working for Christian principles and fulfilling one's God-given vocation whether in politics or elsewhere cannot be measured by ballots or bills, but in souls touched. We should always work for justice on earth, even as we look forward to heaven. Michael Cromartie
Senior Fellow in Protestant Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center Seduction by political power is a pathetic sight and one we have witnessed most often among mainline Protestant leaders. It is even sadder when it happens to theologically orthodox Christians because, unlike liberal Protestants, they should know better. Churches that become nothing more than political action committees have lost sight of the essence of the gospel. This is deeply tragic because we should never forget, as one Dutch theologian put it, that "the dead are not raised by politics." But has political activism by Christian laymen and women been a big waste of time? Hardly. Abortion, partial-birth abortion, legal battles against same-sex marriage, and the worldwide persecution of Christians would not even be on the agenda for discussion if it were not for the persistent political activities of conservative Christians. Have mistakes been made? You bet. And any Christian political activist whose public posture communicates smugness, arrogance, and self-righteousness is an activist who needs to revisit the Sermon on the Mount-daily. Working for social and political justice sometimes requires the patience of Job because politics is, as Max Weber once said, "a strong and slow boring of very hard boards." I say learn from past mistakes, but keep "boring" away. There is much work to be done, and patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Chuck Donovan
Executive Vice President of the Family Research Council Politics is a vocation and, like all vocations, it can be the calling of a Christian, of family men and women, and of people of virtue. If it cannot, the American experiment is a contradiction in terms. The past 20 years of Christian involvement in politics have been a hard teacher, but a good one. The critique found in Blinded by Might is more apropos to the first decade of that involvement, when the mindset of the Moral Majority conveyed anger and hubris. Our movement has changed significantly since then. We speak a language of family and faith, freedom and responsibility, that resonates with most Americans. We have won, and continue to win, significant legislative victories all across the issue spectrum, from child tax credits to the Defense of Marriage Act. Majorities of Americans now want choice in education, continued welfare reform, and limits on abortion as early as the onset of the baby's heartbeat. Political debate can stoke cultural change, and the reverse is also true. Why this spurious demand to drop involvement in either sphere? We cannot all be scriptwriters and cinematographers. The worst thing pro-family leaders can do is to discourage Christian people gifted in any vocation. D.G. Hart
Associate Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and Author of Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America Twenty years is too little; two centuries is more like it. In fact, ever since John Winthrop spoke of a "city on a hill," American Protestants have suffered under the delusion that their country's government possessed redemptive significance. Of course, the Puritans weren't alone. Once Constantine made Christianity the established religion, Christians have confused the city of man with the city of God. This confusion extends back to even the early church. The Corinthians, who wanted glory now, located the eschatological kingdom in this world. But American believers have regarded the United States as a Christian nation for so long that they have forgotten that Israel was the only Christian nation ever to exist this side of glory. After Christ, God's chosen nation is the church, a people and polity that transcends all nations. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church, the place where God now executes his saving plans. As Luther wrote in his famous paraphrase of Psalm 46: "God's word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth." Michael S. Horton
Vice Chairman of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Author of Beyond Culture Wars It's hardly strange that on issues such as abortion many Christians have let their voice be heard in the protest mode. On this issue at least, it is possible that concern for the unborn would be a purely private affair had Christians not made it a public one. Whatever the foibles and hypocrisies of Christian activism, the pressure which has been brought to bear on legislators on this point should caution us against any wholesale dismissal of such action as "a waste of time." Nevertheless, conservative Christian activism has been largely ignorant of and disinterested in a philosophy or theology to guide such action. In some circles it's more dangerous to disagree with Rush Limbaugh than with the Apostle Paul. Running roughshod over long-standing distinctions between the "two kingdoms," Christian activism over the last few decades has been shallow, confused, reactionary, and narrowly focused on behavior almost to the exclusion of larger questions of justice, community, selfhood, duty, and so forth. We simply haven't given much thought to the theological framework. Wide sections of both conservative and liberal groups tend to act as if we just need better laws. This gives Christians a false (sometimes even idolatrous) impression that America is the kingdom of God, grace is what God sheds on good people (like us), and that the church is, as revivalist Charles Finney described it, a society for moral and social reform. In contrast, biblical Christianity sets our hopes on the Jerusalem which is above, proclaiming grace as God's favor on account of Christ despite our unworthiness. Kay James
Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University Absolutely not. I shudder to think what America would look like if Christians had not been politically active for the past 20 years. In this soul-searching, we seem preoccupied with setbacks, instead of with our many victories and the prevention of defeats. Noble undertakings are rarely easy ones. Ronald Reagan eloquently reminded us, "Sacred is our trust-we to whom God has given the custody of the name and the song of freedom." What we should be doing is discussing strategies to prevail. We must recognize that there are three tracks critical to our nation's future: political, cultural, and spiritual. Each is critical to our nation's well-being, and each requires an independent yet complementary strategy. Too often, we confuse the three or believe that there is a common strategy. Christians should never believe that political change alone can bring about cultural or spiritual renewal. In addition to being politically active, we must work to transform America one home and one heart at a time. Surrender is not an option. Instead, let us today recommit ourselves to this "sacred trust." D. James Kennedy
Senior Minister of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church As a result of the pietistic movement the church withdrew almost entirely from culture, including involvement with government. The result of that withdrawal is the post-Christian culture in which we live today, with its godless immoral society. Though the war has not been won, there is no area of American life that has not been positively impacted by the return of Christians to every sphere of our culture. To sound retreat now when Christians are making their presence felt everywhere is to me the height of folly. It is an invitation to return to the very same problems we are now trying to overcome. And who ever said it was a 20-year war? Randy Tate
Executive Director of the Christian Coalition Many years ago, Edmund Burke said, "All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Christians who do not work visibly and vocally to resist moral disorder in their communities miss an important part of Christ's teachings. In his classic commentary, Matthew Henry stated, "Whom God sends he employs, for He sends none to be idle." As a movement we have not been idle. Every major social movement in American history, from abolition to abortion, found its roots in religious activism. More recently, we have earned and exerted tremendous influence over this nation's political process. Our involvement has ensured the passage of family-friendly legislation, including family tax cuts and real welfare reform. Congress has acted to ban partial-birth abortion and has voted on a constitutional amendment to return prayer to public classrooms. We did not win every battle in which we've engaged, but we do not measure success by the number of bills passed. We are bound not by lobbying strategy, but by our desire to be faithful to God. We persevere because we know our ultimate success rests not with our own abilities, but with our Lord Jesus Christ.

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