Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ben Witherington Throws Down the Political Gauntlet

I finally got around to reading Ben Witherington's recent post, "Evangelicals in a Post-Haggard, Post-Rumsfeld World." I had initially assumed that Dr. Witherington was merely discussing the fallout from the recent election, but there is a great deal more there than that. It's a very provocative piece, even though it doesn't grab the attention immediately, and well worth a serious read.

I've discussed my political perspectives briefly in two posts: one on the relationship between conservative Christians and the Republican party, and another on the philosophical concept of "rights" that so dominates American politics. It's an issue that I'm interested in, and yet a little reluctant to discuss in a public forum, partly because emotions run so high and partly because so many people have certain political opinions so wedded to their faith that questioning one appears to involve apostasizing from the other. And yet, that's all the more reason to speak out.

Dr. Witherington writes,
[T]he alliance between Evangelicals and the hard line conservatives in the Republican party has made it difficult for many Evangelicals to see the difference in our time between being a Christian and being an American, and in particular being a certain kind of an American—namely a Republican. The problem is that this reflects a certain kind of mental ghettoizing of the Gospel, a blunting of its prophetic voice on issues ranging from war to poverty, and sometimes this even comes with the not so subtle suggestion that to be un-American (defined as being opposed to certain key Republican credo items) is to be un-Christian.
In other words, many people have adopted being a conservative Republican as a part of their faith--for some, the most important part. I actually do understand this point of view, partly because of the hostility held by many on the liberal side of the political fence to Bible-believing Christians, partly because of the overwhelming nature of abortion as a political and social issue, and partly because of the ever-increasing social agenda of those who wish to push the normalization of practices that many Christians find intolerable. Social-issues conservatives have felt that they had nowhere to go but the Republican party, and have as a result largely adopted its economic and foreign policy positions as well. The war in Iraq may have done us the inadvertent service of forcing us to reconsider this political alliance, and look to see if there are issues that demand our moral attention other than the ones focused on by the leaders of the "religious right."

This is largely Dr. Witherington's point. He argues that the moral issues discussed in the New Testament have to do with wealth and poverty, taxes (paying them), sexual behavior (mostly heterosexual issues), behaviors and attitudes that divide believers, and war; many of these issues have been ignored or glossed over by the "religious right." He also sees the body of believers as responsible for the amelioration of social ills, rather than the government; and he is a (self-described) pacifist, so he sees no New Testament support for war at all and therefore no reason for Christians to support a government that is prosecuting a war.

My own response to Dr. Witherington's post is mixed. I'm not sure I agree with his list of issues that the NT focuses on; it doesn't seem to me that taxes and war are discussed in great detail, and there is plenty of evidence against the pacifist position in the Old Testament that is not contradicted in the New. Moreover, to argue that the New Testament writers don't place a burden on the government for the amelioration of social ills is to ignore the fact that all of the NT documents were written to people who had no immediate hope for any influence on governmental policy; they focus on individual and group behavior in the context of a hostile, pagan ruling order. The NT simply doesn't address principles for running a government; once again, one has to go to the OT for that, and there the evidence is clear that rulers were to care for the socially disadvantaged ("widows and orphans") and even to practice some degree of economic redistribution (the "year of Jubilee"). Ezekiel 34, which rails against the "shepherds" of Israel for a lack of care for the sheep, is almost assuredly referring to secular rulers--i.e., kings and lower governmental rulers.

It's my conviction that no political party will ever (or can ever) represent Christians fully. I see a greater openness these days to rethinking what Christians should regard as important in our political discourse. I think that doing that rethinking is important. What shouldn't be done (and what I have seen rather frequently) is a dismissal of the traditional foci of religious right issues (opposition to abortion, the gay rights agenda, pornography, euthanasia, etc.) so as to favor traditionally liberal policies (social justice, assistance for those in need, environmentalism, internationalism, reluctance to pursue war). I don't see why both of these foci cannot be pursued (if indeed we view them to be biblical); the only trouble is in finding candidates who support all of these issues. We may have to weigh positives and negatives of various political candidates, instead of following a more narrowly construed agenda that can be identified with a single party. But who said being more biblical would be easy?


  1. My political thinking has been changing a lot over the past few years. Not my opinions on issues, mind you, as much as my faith in the process. While we are not under a Roman-style dominance, I do think a NT attitude toward government is still warranted. Especially in our two-party system, we cannot and should not expect anything remotely approaching righteous governance. No matter which side wins, we have a fatally flawed oligarchy. So, I think we're still in a position of not really being able to influence governmental policy. I think we've simply been manipulated into thinking we do. That sounds more conspiratorial than I mean it to be, but I think you get my point.

    I do believe in our responsibility to be a part of the process by voting, but I no longer consider my vote as something that will affect society as much as it is an act of obedience. If all believers voted with a Godly agenda, we may affect society at large but I no longer believe that to be the goal of my vote. It is merely a pleasant side effect of my personal obedience.

    What this means to me on a broader scale is that I no longer believe that it is the job of the church to attempt to convince the unbelieving world of the rightness of biblical positions on the traditional family, the rights of the unborn, etc. and to get them to vote our way. That's a losing proposition. I will vote my biblically-informed conscience on those issues and encourage other Christians to do so as well, but I don't believe in the usefulness of organizations like the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority, Right to Life, etc.

    I'll shut up now. :-)

    P.S. I do find it interesting that many of the Democrats elected in this cycle are much more socially conservative than the leadership of the party. It will be interesting to see how this affects the tone of the Democrats going forward.

  2. Bob -

    I agree with you with regard to political change not being the ultimate solution to social problems. That having been said, I do think the 13th amendment is a pretty good thing, much more efficient than waiting until every last slaveholder changes his heart. The abolitionists of the 1850s and the civil rights activists of the 1950s did have an influence on government policy.

    I actually don't buy into the "voting as a duty" idea. I think there are plenty of people who have no coherent political philosophy, no clue on the issues, and who have no business voting. Don't get me wrong--I think that everyone of voting age should have the right to vote. I just don't see it as a duty. (Although I suppose the more informed and coherent your position is, the more "duty" you have to vote--if only to offset the kooks.)

    You've actually only listed two organizations, not three--Christian Coalition replaced Moral Majority (I think basically to make obsolete all the "The Moral Majority is Neither" bumper stickers.) Although I have no ties to or communication from CC or RTL, I have no problem with their existence--especially RTL, which to my knowledge focuses on a particular issue and lobbies for change on that issue. My problem with the CC appears to be a bit different from yours; my point is not that it attempts to get unbelievers to accept biblical policy positions and vote that way (which I'm not sure it does anyway; I think it just tries to deliver the Evangelical voting bloc to the Republicans). My point is that I'm not sure all its positions are biblical or that it represents the full range of biblical positions.

  3. I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to affect government policy with our vote. I just find Machiavellian manipulations of Dobson and the CC distasteful at best. (BTW, I realized my faux pax on CC/MM after I posted. Ooops) It just seems to me the quest for political influence by these folks has had little impact on policy and given the church a black eye. Besides, if Dobson et al think they're "delivering" my vote anywhere, they're severely deluded. If they simply want to inform believers about issues and candidates and encourage them to be informed and involved, then I have no problem with them.

    However, I'm not sure that's what they're doing. When Dobson and others are on Larry King or Meet the Press, they're not mobilizing Christians, they're sermonizing to the unconverted. I'm not sure blending the pulpit with the soapbox works today like it did for abolitionists. We're in a post-Christian society now, and the church has lost its moral authority. There are no voices like Wilberforce, etc. anymore.

    Bono has been successful precisely because he's not connected with a specific church or a specific party. He's completely issue-based. I think he's provided a pretty good model for Christians influencing policy for the future. I think political influence today is better accomplished by lay people, rather than clergy. In that respect, you're probably right about RTL. I probably shouldn't have painted them with the same brush.

    On voting, my point is that believers have a duty to vote and therefore have a responsibility to be informed and to form a coherent viewpoint. I certainly agree that uninformed voters are a plague on the process. Believers shouldn't be part of that problem.

  4. Keith: I do my best to be informed, but it's getting harder and harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys. And like you say, often we must choose between the lesser of two evils.
    As far as Dobson being on talk shows and so forth, I rather like having a true Christian perspective amid the debates. I saw the head of the Atheists for America (or some such group) on Bill O'Reilly tonite. She says we ought to get religion totally out of politics. Elton John is calling for something similar. Only he says we ought to abolish religion entirely.
    I wish we could effectively make a difference in our political system. But I have to agree that the system is not our real problem. It's the people within and without the system. And the ruler of this world has his own agenda when it comes to world powers. MY Ruler on the other hand, rules my heart and I take Him with me into the voting booth. There's no law against that. selahV