Columnists > Voices

Toodling while Rome burns?

Evangelicals do not have an agreed-upon road map to guide us in matters of public policy

Issue: "California's new governor," Oct. 4, 2003

SO DOES IT DISTURB YOU THAT EVANGELICAL Christians become so vigorously divided over public-policy issues? Are you embarrassed that after all these years to get our act together, we Christians are sometimes so splintered? Do you wish the Bible were plainer about what we're supposed to do in such situations?

That evangelicals don't seem to have an agreed-upon road map to guide them on public policy was at the heart of a two-day discussion last week that attracted two dozen scholars, writers, editors, government staffers, and activists. The conference focused on four people who in various ways have helped shape an evangelical posture on public policy-Carl F.H. Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and John Howard Yoder. But neither by themselves nor collectively did those four thinkers leave anything like a blueprint for 21st-century Christians to apply to most current situations.

It wasn't that they didn't try. More than half a century ago, Carl Henry (the only one of the four who is still living) wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism-and then followed that with hundreds of editorials in Christianity Today, along with his other books. He clearly sought an increased social engagement by his fellow evangelicals.

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Half a century before that, Abraham Kuyper had perhaps gone further than anyone in recent Protestantism to bring about such broad social engagement. In the Netherlands, he headed a political party, became prime minister, started a daily newspaper, and founded a university.

Francis Schaeffer was more an evangelist and an apologist for his Christian faith, but his Christian Manifesto not long before his death flung down a gauntlet of sorts to the political establishment. With typical Schaefferian prescience, he worried about the secular judicial activism that would loom larger and larger in the U.S. court system-and tried to lay down some broad principles by which Christians might take exception to the repugnant rulings he said would come.

The Yoder influence, coming as it does from a Mennonite perspective, is less well known to many evangelicals. It makes the case for withdrawal and peaceful protest rather than proactive engagement with the distasteful culture. Yoderian ideas, especially in his book The Politics of Jesus, support what has often been called the "evangelical left," including thinkers and activists like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis.

At the gathering last week, all four of these thinkers were weighed in terms of their contribution to the shaping of evangelical political thought-and all four were found wanting. Leading the evaluation was Jay Budziszewski, professor of political philosophy at the University of Texas (and also an occasional contributor to WORLD). In some ways, the Budziszewski critique focused more on what the four thinkers didn't say than on what they did. Part of the problem, he suggested, is that while it is a distinctive of evangelicalism to focus on the Bible as the measure of all that we hold, yet the Bible never pretends to be a handbook of political policy. So evangelicals have too glibly either forced the Bible to say things it never claims, or they simply give up and quit pursuing the prudence of general revelation, which also is a gift of God in helping us understand what political structures should look like.

Some participants chafed at the call to engage in such reflection just now. "Might we be toodling while Rome burns?" writer and lecturer Os Guinness was overheard asking a colleague. Others agreed that trying to engage in such abstract thinking while the basic pillars of humanity itself are under immediate attack may be a wrong priority. When the government appears on the edge of giving a green light to human cloning, or approving same-sex marriages, is it too little and too late to spend time at a conference on political theory? In a passionate response to that criticism, Mr. Budziszewski said there is no more important time to shore up the philosophical footings: "We can and must do both things at the same time."

That will be a tough assignment. If American evangelicals end up fighting with each other over the issue of displaying a granite replica of the Ten Commandments, and if then they look in vain for helpful guidance on the issue from the likes of Henry, Kuyper, Schaeffer, and Yoder-then what on earth are they going to do with the weightier and much thornier issues that are almost certainly right around the corner? Maybe the Ethics and Public Policy Center of Washington, which sponsored the gathering last week, and the Pew Charitable Trust, which funded it, had better be ready to think about weekly gatherings.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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