Religion and Politics: A Roundtable Discussion

Religion and Politics: A Roundtable Discussion
Panelists: William Bennett, Os Guinness, Michael Horton, Jim Wallis and Moderator Cal Thomas

©1994, 1998 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

This discussion was organized for the news media by the Christian Bookseller's Association July 1994, Denver, Colorado.

Cal Thomas: Isn't it amazing that about 15 years after the advent of the so-called "Christian Right" that we are still debating the issues of the proper role of religion and politics. My view is that religion is political, or has a political dimension, and all politics has a religious dimension. So the question I want to pose to our panel members is just what exactly is the proper role of religion in a political system, and what is the proper role of politics in a nation that contains a good number of religious people. I want to begin by saying that there are two elements here we need to look at. First of all I think we have to begin with Thomas Jefferson's wonderful phrase, "All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It was in the next clause that Mr. Jefferson outlined the purpose of Government. He wrote, "And to secure these rights governments are instituted among men." To secure what rights? Well, the rights that God had endowed. Why is that necessary for government to do? Because the founders understood that men and women were basically flawed on the inside­not basically good as modernists say­and that if they would not be constrained from within by the presence and power of God whom they worshiped, then they needed to be restrained from without by the presence and power of the state in order to conform them to a standard that would, because of self-evident truths, promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense, insure domestic tranquillity, and establish justice. It is, I think, because we have abandoned this important analysis of the human condition, which we used to call sin, that we now have a dysfunctional government. I also would say that I think the church would make a great mistake if it is looking for a political deliverance. People seem to be saying that if we could only find another Reagan then we could make things better. But I don't believe in trickle-down morality in America. I don't think that the person in the White House can make things better by him or herself. I think that it is going to require a national revival where our consciences are raised and we all come to our senses.

Michael Horton: I come from the Reformation tradition, which is ostensibly where evangelicals come from­and that is part of the problem, because evangelicalism is becoming more shaped by the forces of secular culture than by that Reformation heritage these days.

I would like to begin by arguing that this whole issue goes back a lot further than Ronald Reagan. In the nineteenth century, the moral crusade was very much a part of the American gospel. It was very important to have an American culture, an American church, an American religion, etc. And as Protestant denominations began to lose their hegemony over these institutions they increasingly downplayed theology and doctrine in order to form alliances with those who were on the right side of the political spectrum. One of the things I argue in Beyond Culture Wars is that the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God are two different kingdoms, a distinction that seems to be lost from both the Christian right and Christian left. Coming from the Reformed tradition­a tradition that has taken this world very seriously­I have a lot of respect for my forebears who in this country founded Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, and other institutions. They were trailblazers in all kinds of disciplines, and yet they knew that there was another world that was not only more important, but another world that helped us interpret this world. Evangelicals have lost that theological ballast by and large­which, by the way, has been pointed out by more secular historians and commentators than evangelical ones­and because of that loss of spiritual and theological ballast, we end up parroting whatever the world says or whatever was on Oprah's last show, perhaps with Bible verses attached to it.

We used to call the confusion of politics and the gospel­saving the nation vs. saving indidviduals­heresy in mainline denominations in the sixties. But now evangelicals adopt the social gospel mentality because, after all, it's now the right politics. Part of the problem in this business is entitlement. Everyone is out for his or her piece of the pie. Not only is Christianity in danger of being increasingly confused with American culture in general­those of you who travel abroad know exactly how many people recognize evangelicalism as an American phenomenon­but it is, even further than that, in danger of being confused with white, middle class, suburban American culture. I'm not critical of the Christian Coalition, for example, for its particular policy positions. It's a free country and they represent a large segment of society. My problem is confusing that with Christianity, which I think it does.

Christianity won its way to dominance by sound arguments. Stephen in the book of Acts is emblematic of this, for when men began to argue with him, "they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke" (Acts 6:10). Evangelicals today focus on the people in power, and either lionize them, as in the case of Reagan, or demonize them, as in the case of Clinton. They should focus not on the people but on the ideas in power. I think that is crucial to focus on in the discussion of the culture wars.

Jim Wallis: I think what's really missing in our day is a politics of personal responsibility, social justice, and community spirit. In other words, we need to be involved in shaping a more biblical politics; to move away from predictable ideological politics to a prophetic spiritual politics. The prophets in the biblical mode were never very comfortable in the White House, regardless of who was in power there. That kind of a prophetic biblical politics could cause a kind of convergence, bringing together the evangelicals, Catholics, the black churches, people who are inside and outside churches who are looking for change.

I think the violence we see in our society today may be for us a wake-up call. Violence is not the problem, violence is a consequence of the problem. We need to understand that violence is not just caused by poverty, it is caused by a profound lack of hope; it is despair that leads to chaos. So our politics must be rooted in spiritual values, and it must begin to move beyond the labels of conservative and liberal. Our politics must be characterized by a profound sense of hope. When our children are planning their funerals instead of their futures, we have a problem with hope, and if the religious community is not infusing the public square with that hope, then we are not doing our job.

Os Guinness: Let me just make four comments. Two against those who would tend to discount religion in public life, and two against those who would like to bring religion back to a prominent position in public life, but in unwise ways. The first comment is that understanding America without understanding religion would be like looking at Switzerland without the Alps. You'll make absolutely no sense of it at all. Most Americans, past and present, have understood themselves and their whole lives (including their public life) from the perspective of faith. And to squeeze that out would be totally anti-democratic. Also you can see that Christian faith, as well as religion in general, is one of the three great streams that shaped this country. And to remove what is the earliest and strongest stream would be an act of national and historical suicide.

The second thing I would say on the positive side against those who discount religion in public life is that clearly, the place of faith and the religious liberty clauses in the founding documents is very close to the heart of the genius in this country. The mix of separation of church and state, faith and freedom, the ordering of religious liberty and pluralism, I think is as close as anyone has ever got in history to doing it right. Those who are trying to squeeze religion out are historically and culturally, and politically short-sighted.

Now of course for the last twenty-five years we have had the controversies. As Peter Berger puts it, one of the odd things about America is that she is a nation with a people as religious as India, and a leadership as secular as Sweden. In other words, the leadership in America is disproportionately secular. Now I personally don't think that most of that is hostile. I have worked in the media, and in my opinion that lack of appreciation is much more often born of ignorance rather than hostility. In my experience, both in academia and in the media, the amount of hostility is remarkably small while the amount of indifference and ignorance is remarkably large.

Let me now make two comments towards those who are bringing religion back in unwise ways. First, many of them do so by turning everything into the culture wars. There is a culture war; it's deep, it's profound, it's serious. But that is not the deepest problem we face today. I and many others would argue that the deeper problem still is what's called the crisis of cultural authority. In other words, the beliefs and traditions and ideals which Americans once believed no longer have their compelling power over those who believe them. The situation is not us vs. them; we are fine and they are the problem. So whether it is the liberal elite or the media or whoever, they are the problem so if you clear them out all will be well. The problem with this view is that there is no problem in the wider culture that you cannot see in spades in the Christian church. The rot is in us, and not simply out there. And Christians are making a great mistake by turning everything into culture wars. It's a much deeper crisis. It's a crisis of cultural authority that affects religious people as well as secular. It affects all of us in the challenge of the modern world.

And the other comment I had against those who are bringing religion back wrongly is that I think one of the greatest needs today is to work again for a common vision for the common good. A while back a Washington journalist said to me, "Most evangelicals speak as if they're talking of justice but sound as if they're talking of just us." And one of the reasons there is such a negative aura attached to the Christian right, which is partly justified, is that there is no stand for a common vision for the common good. There is no stand for public justice.

So let me pose the issues I think America faces today. At the individual level there is a simple choice. Will we be tribespeople and respond according to our group allegiances, will we be idiots (in the old Greek sense), people who are just after their own individual interests, or thirdly, will we be citizens, people who can fight for their own interests but always with a respect for the common good, recognizing the rights of the worst of their enemies and the smallest minorities that they happen to oppose. Too many Christians today are tribespeople. Would that they were citizens in the best sense of the word.

Cal Thomas: Let's bring Bill Bennett into this discussion. Bill, on the major issues of our day, abortion, the gay rights movement, etc., it's fine to talk about pluralism and tolerance, but in politics someone has to make a decision. Now, you are thinking about running for president, so what are you going to do about all those people who disagree with your views?

William Bennett: Well, first of all, the Christian is not objecting to notions of tolerance and pluralism. The Christian's objection is that he is being left out of the public square entirely. I think that is the problem, Cal. It is not seeking orthodoxy or uniformity across the country. Rather, Christians entering into politics now are saying that they are the last group in America that is not respected. Everyone else seems to have their day and we do not have ours. Our beliefs are tread upon, our children are not allowed to express their faith. This is the main problem we have to deal with.

The Press: Bill, one national columnist recently observed that the conservative religious right is fighting for its life, suggesting that the culture is slipping away and perhaps gasping its last breath. Is there a certain desperation demonstrated in the activity of the religious right involving American politics, and is there a counterpoint to the remarks of President Clinton and Joycelyn Elders about the religious right's imposing its agenda in politics and education?

William Bennett: I don't think it's desperation at all, rather, I think Christians are energized, and I think that the Clinton presidency has helped somewhat to energize them. When Bill Clinton or Joycelyn Elders give voice to views that have angered many people, views that go against the grain of mainstream Americans and not just Christians or Jews, this I think is what has energized people. I don't think it is a last gasp, I think frankly the movement to get sound values back into politics and to not be embarrassed by their religious origin is stronger now because people understand that we have tried to do it value-free; we have tried to run politics without values and we have seen the result. It is now very respectable to talk in public about the importance of the family, character education, and a whole host of things which only fifteen years ago would have been regarded as on the fringe. So I think this is an expression of strength, not of weakness, and it is that which has enraged some Democrats on the left because they fear the strength of the movement. The last point I have is that as the movement gets stronger its spokesmen must be careful of what they say and how they speak. They must remember to speak in a way and for a cause that would invite people rather than turn them away, so the example of Christian witness must always be in the forefront.

Os Guinness: I would agree with most of what Mr. Bennett said, but just with one slight difference, and that is, I think there is a note of Christian desperation. As someone put it to me, "Christians talk as if they are standing on the rock of ages, and act as if they are clinging to the last piece of driftwood." And if you read direct mail, there is a panic, an alarmism, a paranoia, that really is born of fear, and I think that really is an explanation for a lot of the hate and some of the ugliness. The clearest example in my view is the attempt by Christians to portray themselves as a persecuted minority. It was quite deliberate; it was engineered at a stage several years ago when the Christian right looked as if it was faltering. I think it is psychologically disastrous and it appeals to resentment. It is politically ineffective and it is thoroughly sub-Christian. But I think examples like this are examples of Christian desperation, and I think the sooner we get rid of this and have a firm faith in the sovereignty of God and of the truth of the Christian Gospel and in the openness of democracy we'll have a chance to win the debate, particularly if we put in place a public philosophy.

Michael Horton: It seems to me that everyone is setting out to be a moral authority while at the same time there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy, whether you are talking about the Clintons or the Christian right. In terms of beliefs and practices, evangelicals themselves are too much apart of the "worldliness" they themselves criticize. Let me give a couple of examples. Secular humanism is defined by leaders of the Christian right as making man the measure, while at the same time, 77% of America's evangelicals say that man is basically good, and 4 out of 5 evangelicals agree that "God helps those who help themselves." If secular humanism is faith in humanity, rather than faith in God, then today's evangelical are prime suspects. And on practical matters, 1 in 6 women who have abortions claims to be a born again Christian. I have personally known a number of Christian leaders who were writing book on marriage and the family while their families were falling apart. I think we have to realize that the church needs to be the church again, it needs to recover its theological roots. Ideas have consequences, and I think we are seeing Christians themselves failing to live up to their theological convictions because perhaps they are not really in touch with that theology themselves.

I also thought Mr. Bennett's remark that Bill Clinton has energized evangelicals was very interesting. I think that's part of the problem. I come at this, not as a player in Washington, I come at this as a pastor who is concerned about an evangelicalism that is becoming increasingly shaped by cultural, rather that spiritual and theological factors. And I think that point that Mr. Bennett made is very important for us to take away. Bill Clinton, by antithesis, is energizing evangelicals. I think that is a very scary thing, because what it means is, first of all, that our witness is reactive, and secondly, that our witness is determined by politics rather than by the Great Commission, and I think that is very tragic.

Jim Wallis: Some of us don't feel that the White House has been a source of moral guidance for a long time. And I think that Christian preoccupation with who is in the White House and how they can get there to be with them is the source of our problems. I also think we are still plagued by false choices. There is this attitude out there that our choices are to be either completely secular or be perfectly aligned with those of the religious right. This is simply not the case. There are many evangelical Christians who are not politically on the right. There are moderates, there are progressives, and there are many who in fact do not find that their priorities articulated the extremes of either party.

Cal Thomas: I think it is interesting to remember that 2,000 years ago the ancient Israelites were looking for a deliverer to end the secular oppression of Caesar and the Roman government. But because they were looking for a political messiah, they missed the one they were in greater need of. I agree with Jim, that we are not going to have trickle-down morality; it has to be bubble- up. So some of my wonderful friends on the Christians right (which is better than being pagan left) are making the same mistake as the ancient Jews of two thousand years ago, I think.

Let me get back if I can to the issue of character education and virtue, now that these concepts are once again in fashion. What exactly is virtue, and how do you instill it in a people if not through its institutions. Everybody realizes that we have a crisis of virtue in this country, so what is the best formula, what is the best prescription for this virtue vacuum that is now gripping the nation.

Os Guinness: Well, I have three comments. First of all, I think Bill Bennett has done us an enormous service in bringing back the issue of character. To answer your question specifically, the key notion for the Greeks in learning virtue was habit, or as we would put biblically, obedience. And the modeling of character, and the modeling of virtue is much more difficult than simply educating it through the schools or the media. The second comment I have is that I don't think we should be too impressed with the present fashionability of virtue. You can see the skepticism surrounding the subject on the recent Newsweek cover. Anything that is caught up like that is going to have its fifteen minutes in the sun, but the real test is whether after fifteen years the discussion is still going on. The third comment I have is, if you look back at the tradition of virtues and vices, the Greeks and the Romans stressed the virtues, while the Christians and the Jews stressed the vices. Both groups discussed virtues and vices, but is was the Christians that emphasized the discussion of vices. And for all our talk of virtues today, our view of the vices today is what is being described rightly as "sin-lite". Sinfulness is low self-esteem, chocolate dessert, and so on. So until there is a radical view of evil and vice, talk of virtue will mean absolutely nothing.

Michael Horton: When the Christian hears talk about virtue­if we have our theological categories, and the Reformers were great with this stuff­we have a category for this discussion of virtue in terms of civil righteousness or civil politics. The problem comes when we don't have those categories, and we think of civil righteousness as righteousness before God. So when Christians hear talk of pagan virtue, there is a sense in which we should say that even the most agnostic person can have virtue in the civic sense, but we are confusing this right now with Christianity and the Christian message.

The second thing I want to say is that when it does come to virtue in the home, evangelicals once again are lacking. Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson said recently that he was speaking to a group of evangelicals who wanted prayer back in the schools and he asked how many of them prayed with their children that morning. Sadly, no one raised his hand. Everybody wants the Ten Commandments in the public schools, but according to Gallup, most evangelicals can't name them themselves. There is an enormous doctrinal and biblical illiteracy in the church and I think we have a lot of work in teaching and explaining what we believe and why we believe it before we try to force non-Christians to be less than what they are.

Cal Thomas: It's really a shortcut to righteousness, isn't it. The government is my keeper, I shall not want... I think both the left and the right have made serious mistakes in looking to government to deliver us from our collective ills. I would like to thank the members of the panel for being with us today.

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