I can't yet call this a trend. It's more of a hope. But the excesses of the Obama administration may be shaking evangelical conservatives out of some troublesome tendencies of recent years.
Instead of looking to government to advance our social goals, maybe we're ready to render unto Caesar only what is his. Instead of speaking about "Christian America" and the need for a "Christian party" of some sort, maybe we're coming to understand that those with a Christian worldview probably represent no more than one in every 10 Americans.
And, instead of going into a defensive crouch when our dreams are unrealized as we end up battered in the public arena, maybe we're ready to contain government aggression by building a coalition with others who also do not want to be ruled by a Caesar.
Here's what I hope will happen: By rendering unto Caesar only what is his, older evangelicals will defend religious liberty alongside fiscal conservatives, younger evangelicals, and immigrants of recent decades. But we'll need to recognize that creating a liberty-based coalition is dangerous, not only because Caesar can strike back but because such a grouping necessarily includes people with non-Christian values and beliefs.
Let's start with where we are. The evidence of Caesar on the march is all around us. The healthcare bill might require everyone to pay for abortions, and it could shut down creative Bible-based alternatives to conventional medical insurance. Requirements that pharmacists prescribe baby-killing chemicals would drive many Christians out of their profession. Requirements that Christian agencies place children with gays for foster care or adoption have already had an impact.
Our response to aggression is sometimes a desire to be the aggressor ourselves. Many Protestants in decades past thought that they could use governmental power to achieve their goals. Thinking they could make public schools reflect their theology, our late-19th-century predecessors passed-in three-fourths of the states!-"Blaine amendments" that banned use of any governmental funds in religious private schools. Those laws in recent years have hampered Christian attempts to increase educational opportunity by using vouchers or tax credits.
Lessons of power backfiring may be finally sinking in. One reason I like last month's Manhattan Declaration-Joel Belz and I signed it-is that it emphasizes the centrality of religious liberty. Such liberty is inalienable because it is "grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image." The declaration ends, "We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."
Only government has the police power to redefine what is Caesar's by grabbing what it should not. The Manhattan Declaration inherently backs small government-and that is the key to providing a realistic alternative to current governmental expansion. For many years we have shown in WORLD that Washington's attempts to help the poor have hurt them. We have shown that there are better ways to improve medical care for the currently uninsured population than by making it worse for the vast insured majority.
Why have the Caesar proposals from Obama and Congress gone as far as they have? I've had occasion before to quote the prescient Alexis de Tocqueville's 1830s writing about "soft despotism" in a book all college students should read, Democracy in America. De Tocqueville revered Americans but feared they might slowly submit to "an immense, protective power which . . . tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . . It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry."
That's not a bad description of the 2010 Obama vision of government: in de Tocqueville's words, a controlling force "thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle"-but soulless. De Tocqueville warned that an emphasis on security would leave individuals "not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided . . . a flock of timid and industrious animals." Today, any decision to leave the flock has theological, cultural, and political dimensions.
Theological: What gives us the courage to take risks? Why should we journey to where we are called instead of calling to God, leave me alone? Why should we tithe and give more than tithes, when we don't know what the coming years will bring economically? Such behavior is illogical in terms of self-preservation. It only makes sense if God has given us such a living hope in Christ's death and resurrection, and our future glory, that we do not fear putting our trust in Him.
We need a renewal of the courage that motivated generations of past missionaries who headed to Africa and Asia carrying their coffins with them. Some younger evangelicals fault older leaders for seemingly making politics preeminent and seeking a soft spot at the table with Caesar. They gravitate to new leaders such as Gary Haugen (International Justice Mission) who fight slavery and sex trafficking around the world.
Cultural: Baby boom evangelicals wanted to make the world safe for our children and sometimes looked to government to help. Many demanded, among other things, prayer in public schools, family-friendly television times and ratings, and a ban on pornography or erotica in drug stores or museums. Sometimes we majored in the minors and equated niceness, inoffensiveness, and blandness with Christianity. Younger evangelicals reacted to what they saw as a defensive moralism that attempted to preserve what we proclaimed but often did not practice.
We need a renewed emphasis on truth-telling in journalism, movies, music, and other cultural products. We should continue to criticize slow-motion murder, fast-talking obscenity, and amoral destructiveness, but our goal should not be smiley-faced sponge cake frosted with faith in man's natural goodness. Moralism apart from Christ is idolatry: Priests used hyssop to spray the blood of sacrifices on the people in Moses' time, and authenticity today is bound up in the realization that payment for sin required the shedding of Christ's blood.
Political: Older evangelicals should work to develop coalitions with three particular groups: free-market proponents, immigrants, and-younger evangelicals. Leaders of all three of those groups have become leaders because they are not timid. They do not want to be softened and bent.
Many proponents of free markets look to gain economic advantage through adventure. They want to be entrepreneurs, not corporate managers. An Acton Institute film, The Call of the Entrepreneur, suggests the call of the wild that leads to enterprise. Here's that movie's advertising language: "A merchant banker. A failing dairy farmer. A refugee from Communist China. One risked his savings. One risked his farm. One risked his life." Common denominator: Risk.
Many immigrants are by nature adventuresome, or else they would not have left home and made their way to a strange new land. (My grandfather, known in family lore as Louis the Pioneer, walked across Europe to find the Atlantic and a ship to America, so such folks naturally impress me.) Why should they settle in this country for the stifling governmental control and economic stagnation from which they escaped? Common denominator: Risk.
It might seem hard to bring younger evangelicals into a small-government, anti-Caesar coalition, because so many of them voted for Barack Obama and his big-government policies. But some of that was payback for the failure of many Southern evangelicals to support desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. My sense is that many evangelical Obama-voters, having made history by sending an African-American to the White House, are disappointed that he has not been the rational, above-politics leader for whom they yearned.
At a deeper level, the goals of some younger evangelicals may seem antithetical to those of free market advocates. After all, many have learned from classroom and media tutors that capitalism equals selfishness. In reality, the opposite is true. Few among us are likely to love our neighbors as ourselves on a regular basis-but we are normally willing to help our neighbors if we can help ourselves in the process. Free markets merge altruism and selfishness in a way that no system based on either command-and-control or singing-around-the-campfire can do.
The possibility of an adventuresome evangelical-immigrant-fiscal conservative coalition may be doubted on other grounds as well. On the surface, the goals of some immigrant groups may seem a mediocre fit with a pro-entrepreneurship position. After all, doesn't more governmental redistribution serve the poor?-and most immigrants initially are poor? But millions of newcomers to America over four centuries have learned that our streets really are paved with gold-so why settle for the fool's gold of a governmental dole?
Can an anti-Caesar entente succeed? The founding era of America offers a strong precedent. Signers of the Declaration of Independence risked "our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor." We may choose to think of all of them as strong Christians, but that was hardly the case. Evangelicals like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry had to work alongside non-believers like Thomas Jefferson.
We should welcome those who supported Barack Obama, valuing his historic ascension, but have seen where he is leading us. We now venerate Benjamin Franklin as a leader among the Founders, but he decided to sail home from London and join the rebel alliance only a month before the Revolution broke out. Franklin had worked for the British government until he finally gave up and blasted "the extreme corruption prevalent among [London officials who garnered] enormous salaries, pensions, perquisites, and bribes."
Franklin was 69 when he returned home, but the revolutionary cause also received support from a 19-year-old Frenchman, Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. Orphaned at age 12, Lafayette disobeyed an order from the king of France and made his way to Spain and then to the United States, where the Continental Congress-tired of "French glory seekers"-delayed his commission. Franklin, though, wrote to George Washington and recommended that he make Lafayette his assistant. Washington agreed and became like a father to Lafayette, who in turn became a key leader in the independence effort.
Today's young Lafayettes see the problems of London-like Washington, D.C. Some of them are signing the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, which now has over 300,000 adherents (www.manhattandeclaration.org). More are pledging lives, fortunes, and sacred honor every day. The declaration also has historical grounding: "While fully acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages, we claim the heritage of those Christians who defended innocent life by rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps in Roman cities and publicly denouncing the Empire's sanctioning of infanticide."
As the inclusion of "Christian" in the declaration's title indicates, it's not for everyone-but it does appeal for support from others who also prefer liberty to Caesar's dictates. For example, the declaration notes that "restrictions on the freedom of conscience or the ability to hire people of one's own faith . . . undermine the viability of the intermediate structures of society, the essential buffer against the overweening authority of the state. . . . Disintegration of civil society is a prelude to tyranny."
The year 2010 may well be a crucial one in the struggle against tyranny. The temptation will be to focus on politics, and the battle for Congress this year will be important, but the deeper questions are theological and cultural: We won't get far if we just stay at the surface. The crucial decision for each of us to make: Is "personal peace and affluence" (to use Francis Schaeffer's term) our purpose in life, or is it (to use the 364-year-old Westminster phrase) "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever"?