Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why Condemnations of Last Saturday's Political Conclave of Evangelical Leaders Are Dangerous

In the "Magazine of Evangelical…" um…something (Christianity Today), David Neff has taken Paul & Nancy Pressler and around 150 other evangelical leaders to task for holding a meeting last Saturday at the Pressler ranch in an effort to unite behind a single conservative GOP candidate in this year's primary elections. The title of Neff's essay was "Why Last Saturday's Political Conclave of Evangelical Leaders Was Dangerous."

Neff's piece represents well a rising sentiment among a new generation of those who attend Evangelical churches. Popularity, however, does not always correlate well with sound thinking.

Here are, as best as I can discern them, the major points of Neff's attack:

  1. The meeting somehow went beyond "political action" to address "the social, economic, and moral threats to a healthy society" (which Neff affirms as something he would support) and transgressed instead into "playing kingmaker and powerbroker." The people at the meeting apparently did this by "conspiring to throw their weight behind a single evangelical-friendly candidate."
  2. This is a bad thing, according to Neff, because it feeds "the widespread perception that evangelicalism's main identifying feature is right-wing political activism focused on abortion and homosexuality."
  3. Please note a key facet of Neff's argument: It isn't that these brothers and sisters went about doing these things wrongly (selecting the wrong candidate, following the wrong procedure, inviting the wrong people, etc.), but that they did it at all.

I submit to you that Neff's essay represents a nonsensical halfway covenant of sorts, the main appeal of which is its vague feeling of protest, essentially against the personalities involved.

Before engaging in point-by-point analysis, we ought to take a moment to ask ourselves what really happened at the ranch in Brenham (and I was not in attendance). A group of Christians (not a church) gathered. They share a common viewpoint about what are "the social, economic, and moral threats to a healthy society." They believe that the outcome of this year's presidential election will be relevant to those concerns. Having that belief, they found themselves motivated toward "political action." Strategically, they determined that the wisest political action to address their concerns would be to select a candidate whom they could support in the primary elections. Their process for deciding which candidate to support was to conduct a ballot vote. Everyone who came to the meeting came voluntarily. No one in the meeting is in any position to coerce anyone else at the meeting to abide by the decision.

OK, so somewhere in that preceding paragraph, we have to find something that makes it all "dangerous" in the manner that Neff has alleged.

Neff's first allegation is that the meeting went beyond "political action" and transgressed into the realm of "playing kingmaker and powerbroker." How, I wonder? The substance and procedure of the meeting was no different—not one iota different—from what happened at the Iowa Caucuses or the New Hampshire Primaries. A group of likeminded people (in the case of Iowa or New Hampshire, Republicans), believing that they should, for strategic reasons, consolidate their support behind a single candidate for an upcoming election (in this case, the general election in November), hold a vote (or a series of votes, in the case of Iowa) to decide which candidate will be the one for which they will campaign and vote in the days leading up to the general election.

I suppose there is a way in which the Iowa caucuses are, indeed, instances of kingmaking and powerbrokering. The only political processes that would not run afoul of this characterization would be, I guess, political processes that never result in decisions.

Neff must LOVE Congress.

Is this process something beneath Christian individuals? Does it soil them to engage in it? If so, then we need to disavow politics altogether, and certainly we need to refrain from going to our individual polling places and casting our ballots whenever the primary elections take place in our respective states. The substance of what happened in Iowa and what happened in Brenham is absolutely indistinguishable, except for size. And if such strategic politicking is out-of-bounds for Christians, what "political action" is left over for Neff to use in his "urgent" endeavors to address the "threats" that bother him?

There's nothing out of the ordinary about the process of this political meeting, or even about the role it plays in the larger process. Neff's argument against this particular political process can hardly be anything other than an attack on political strategy in general. Neff's argument is an Anabaptist one. He should go the whole way, for the sake of consistency, and abandon secular politics altogether. I admire the Anabaptists. Although I am not convinced of their position, it is internally coherent, makes a good argument, can make some biblical case for itself, and has a certain winsome appeal to this sometimes-idealist. Neff's position is remarkable for having none of those things. His halfway covenant—that Christians should join the rest of the nation in the political process, but must do so in a more foolish, less organized fashion than everybody else—is untenable.

Or, perhaps Neff isn't opposed to such political strategy and organization, per se (and I suspect that this is the case), but is simply reacting negatively toward the particular people involved in this meeting. If so, then he should have made it clear that he was writing a personal attack rather than an attempt at a reasonable philosophy of Christian political involvement. I think we're all at the place where we have to ask ourselves, if Rick Warren had hosted this meeting at his home in California to consolidate evangelical support behind a candidate promising to wipe out AIDS, would Neff have written a demeaning attack piece or would he have asked for time off to attend?

The second grievance in the article is that such meetings (or the existence of such people?) feed what is, in Neff's estimation, a bad perception of evangelicalism: "that evangelicalism's main identifying feature is right-wing political activism focused on abortion and homosexuality." We don't have any reliable indication that abortion and homosexuality were the only items on the agenda in Brenham. Indeed, another critique from a more widely respected press organ flatly asserted the opposite today: That the reason for this meeting was explicitly to go beyond abortion and homosexuality and to meddle in economics and foreign policy and the like.

French's analysis has to be accurate. If the question were simply about abortion and homosexuality, then there would be no need for a Brenham meeting. The people who went to Brenham are all in agreement already about abortion and homosexuality. They had no need to confer about that. This was a meeting to choose WHICH pro-life, pro-marriage candidate (among several) would be the better candidate based upon their differences in OTHER areas.

So, Neff is attacking a meeting that was about neither abortion nor homosexuality, claiming that the mere existence of such a meeting reinforces a perception that evangelicals are concerned, above all else, about abortion and homosexuality. Let's ask ourselves, is this "perception" something that we might categorize as a reasoned observation or an unthinking prejudice? The question matters a great deal. If it is the former, then the fault lies with evangelicals. If it is the latter, then the fault lies with those who hold the prejudice.

I submit to you that it is the latter. By any reasonable measure (where evangelical money goes, where evangelical time goes, what evangelical children wind up doing with their lives, etc.), political engagement is far from the main identifying feature of evangelicalism. The idea that this is the primary feature of evangelicalism is nothing more than a prejudice. The funny thing about prejudices is that they require very little in the way of evidence in order to survive. Neff's speculation that evangelicals would not suffer from such humiliations if Paul Pressler would discontinue such meetings is simply that—speculation. I think it is naïve speculation at that.

In point of fact, the grave embarrassment for evangelicalism these days is Rob Bell and Mike Licona, not Paul Pressler. It is the fact that the word "evangelical" has come to mean nothing substantive. It is the fact that so many rank-and-file evangelicals have very little idea what the Bible says, have only the vaguest notions of what they believe, and have very little firm intention of living according to any of it should it become uncomfortable to them. It is the fact that most evangelicals, if they encountered the rich young ruler today, would commission a self-study immediately after the encounter to try to determine why they weren't reaching the leaders of the next generation. To suggest that evangelicalism's public-relations ills are the fault of Paul Pressler et al is wishful thinking.

Christians need not apologize for being involved in the political process. Christians need not apologize for trying to do so wisely, so long as they are doing so honestly. Churches shouldn't be endorsing particular candidates in this primary election, in my opinion, but individual Christians citizens will be, for a few seconds on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the sovereign rulers of this nation. As such, they are responsible before the Lord for everything the Bible teaches us about being good, godly rulers, so far as their influence reaches. I'm thankful that there are people who take that responsibility seriously. If a Christian can honorably vote, there's nothing wrong with campaigning. If you're going to campaign, there's nothing wrong with campaigning in an organized fashion. To pretend otherwise is to demand that Christians participate in the electoral process, but always in a passive fashion. David Neff's opinion notwithstanding, I think THAT is a dangerous outcome.


Malcolm Yarnell said...

Other than an oversimplification of Anabaptism, this is a very thoughtful piece. (Some among the 16th Century Anabaptists, primarily the early Sattler group, the Hutterites, and the later Mennonites, were as withdrawn as presented here. Others, such as Hubmaier and Marpeck, firmly opposed the use of the state's weapons to promote religion, but were otherwise politically active. Yet others, the Munsterites and Batenbergers, went even further and established Anabaptist states.) Thank you, Dr Barber, for reminding us that politics and Christianity are not divorced. The gospel properly shapes the political mind.

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, Dr. Yarnell!

I strayed in my prose, first calling it "AN Anabaptist" opinion, deliberately avoiding the definite article. But, caught up in my own verbiage, I see that I did write in the following sentences in such a way as to suggest that all Anabaptists approached the secular order in the same way.

Tim G said...

The problem with this new thought amoung younger and more restless Christians is that many forget the Bible clearly says or better warns, that all evil needs to survive/thrive is for the rightous to do nothing.

I would use the magizine to start a fire in the fireplace if I were Bart!

Bart Barber said...

I just read it online, Tim. I'm saving the planet.

Anonymous said...

As an evangelical I could not agree more with what Neff wrote in that article. We are naive if we believe that much of the country doesn't view us beyond the lens of abortion and homosexuality. We've limited ourselves to a social issue group when we should be more.

Furthermore, kingmaking certainly comes across as the motive of that meeting. To think it not, is to ignore the personalities gathered and the past. In their mind and motive, they speak for the entire evangelical world thinking that we will fall in line because they know best. They do not.

What we often forget as evangelicals is that we are not calling a pastor, we are electing a president. That, to me, gets lost among some of the "leaders."

Yes, the meeting was a mistake and quite honestly looked somewhat ignorant considering the nominating process was 2 states in already.


Tim G said...

You and I may agree on some specific points of when the meeting took place etc.. However, I cannot nor will I ever shy away from being one to stand for the unborn and fight tooth and nail to prevent their murder. Nor would I ever shy away from teaching and preaching what the Bible says about homosexuality.

It is possible that some have preached these two issues more than the Gospel. Some have preached these two issues without lifting a ministry finger to help people caught in these two issues. But some does not a whole make.

It is also true that many who do not care about the Gospel use these two issues for their own political spin and some even hide from the Gospel under these two issues.

Could it be that maybe your blanket is too wide and long?

I am thankful to see that some still care and some still are willing to speak out.

I realize there is a fine line here. I think we are commanded in scripture to be equal in our voice for the Gospel and the protection of the unborn. I think we should be loud and clear on the position and language that the Bible speaks concerning homosexuality. And we should be loud and clear on the Gospel with our ministry efforts speaking just as loud.

Anonymous said...

I mostly agree with your points. Yes, I believe wholeheartedly that we need to speak to the issues of abortion and homosexuality. However, we can't be limited to these issues. For a time, we were and some I would argue still are. The Bible is an all encompassing Word. We should be the same.


Tim G said...

I understand but I realized something a few years back... it appeared we were only loud on these two issues for only a few were doing anything else.

I also learned and watched that those who were speaking out were also ministering to those issues and beyond.

Maybe what has appeared to be taking place is simply the reality that only a small few were sharing Jesus.

It does add up when one looks at the baptism numbers and other statistics.