To Change the World, Essay II, Chapter 3

Describing and analyzing the approach of the Christian Right is the task of this chapter.  Certain commitments lie at the heart of Christian conservatives’ engagement with American culture:

  • America belongs to religious people by virtue of its Christian history.  Some see this history as explicitly Christian, others as a general sense of the recognition of a religious sphere over the government and people of America.  This Christian character resulted in the blessings and greatness that the United States has enjoyed.
  • American culture is changing for the worse, something often blamed on powerful liberal elites and interest groups.  The groups are hostile to Christians and promote the mockery and discrimination against Christians.  The word “persecution” is sometimes used.
  • Christians must take action, including in politics.  This is the context of much of the world-changing rhetoric that he looks at in the first few chapters of Essay I.

The style of engagement is usually to call for prayer and action, including voting and expressing “demands” of politicians (especially the Republican politicians that Christian conservatives helped to elect) and media outlets to address the concerns of Christians or to stop what is considered offensive behavior.  While most of the Christian action groups are nonpartisan group, the net effect is to be intensely partisan.  I read Doug Wilson’s review of this chapter before I read the chapter for myself, but having read the chapter I agree with his view that Hunter says “partisan” like it’s an inherently bad thing.  But while partisanship for its own sake is terrible and one of the things that really hurts our political system, it’s impossible to argue that Christian conservatives’ vision for a good society could be advanced by the Democrats.  I’m not saying that Christians can’t vote for Democrats (I have), but instead that it would make no sense to think that Chuck Colson would ever vote for the modern Democratic party given his views not only on abortion (which I share) and other cultural issues (which I often agree on), but also on economic policy and limited government (which I’m still trying to sort out).

As far as the Christian Right approach to politics, I think that he described it pretty well.  There’s definitely a “take America back” motif running through much of the rhetoric.  There are four concerns that I have with this.

  • Sometimes it seems that the talk of restoring moral values is an attempt to restore an America where people behave better rather than an attempt to really present the gospel message of salvation.  I am going to use Chuck Colson as an example here, realizing that he is in many ways a wise, dedicated, faithful servant of God from whom I can learn much about clear thinking and the courage to stand for truth.  From reading his Breakpoint messages, though, it can sometimes seem that his concern for virtue can be detached from the gospel (see an example here, where he talks about the virtue of deferred gratification).  I realize that he wants to make practical arguments that make sense to non-Christians too, and I respect that.  Michael Horton said that Charles Finney was the forerunner of Jerry Falwell (and Jim Wallis) because he saw the church as a way to make society better.  I think that we want to be careful about pressing Christianity into the service of America to the point that it can obscure the proclamation of the full gospel.
  • In the talk of restoring America to the values that made it great, has anyone thought how this sounds to the people who got the raw deal during these times of greatness?  I don’t think that American history is simply a catalogue of oppression and injustice (far from it).  But consider, for example, the people who have suffered most from America’s greatness: American Indians.  Does it advance Christian unity with American Indian Christians or help in presenting the gospel to non-believing Indians to talk about the past in such glowing terms, when this was the time that they lost their lands, were treated unjustly, and had their children sent to boarding schools?  I’m not talking about corporate sensitivity training here; I’m trying to think about the consequences of rhetoric and attitudes toward our nation’s past.
  • There has often been unconditional support for America’s international military involvement.  Why is it that a country that is so screwed up (according to the Religious Right’s narrative) should be spreading its influence?  Why would Bill Bennett, a veteran culture warrior, write an American history that (using Lincoln’s words: look at the last paragraph of this long message to Congress) is called America: The Last Best Hope?  Leaving aside for the moment the insane statement that America could be considered by a Christian to be the last best hope for the world, why is a country in cultural crisis the last best hope?
  • In endorsing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and also calling for a return to a Christian nation, it sometimes seems like the Christian Right doesn’t realize what kind of nation it has signed up for.  They’re absolutely right that the Christian culture of the United States has changed.  It’s no surprise that, under the broad umbrella of the freedoms provided in our nation’s laws and tradition, secularism and religious pluralism have increased.  The Enlightenment, as well as Christianity, had a large influence on the American founding.  Jefferson wrote the Declaration as a man of the Enlightenment, not a traditional Christian (although he called himself a true Christian, he didn’t believe that Jesus was divine or rose from the dead).  Therefore, I think that the Christian Right has a fundamental historical misunderstanding about the origins of American liberty.  There is not a straight line from the Christianity of the apostles to an American conception of liberty.  The eighteenth-century American conception of liberty was a unique (at that time) hybridization of Christianity and Enlightenment liberties, and Enlightenment liberties come from a different way of looking at the world (placing human reason as the ultimate authority) than traditional Christianity.  That doesn’t make our system unbiblical, it just gives it a more complicated heritage.  Until the Christian Right deals with that equation, I would contend, they’re going to have a tough time responding to these issues in a way that makes sense to people.

Of course, secularists have mythic stories of their own.  I’m sure that you’ve seen secularists respond to Christian political engagement as if the first Christian ever to say something about politics was Jerry Falwell.  The secular myth that the founders believed in the exact same kind of separation of church and state as the ACLU (if I may exaggerate a bit for fun) is more distant from reality than the Christian Right’s conceptions of American history.  I’m sure you’ve seen media stories that treat traditional believers with a complete lack of understanding, and sometimes contempt, as if traditional believers are some kind of new species, or perhaps one recently unfrozen from cryogenic hibernation since before the time of Galileo.

In sharing my concerns about the Christian Right’s ideology, I don’t wish to throw my fellow Christians under the bus; without Christ, I’m a hopeless wretch, just as all people are.  I’m willing to be proven wrong in any of these points.  I hope that Christians will all mature together and grow to understand God’s will for our public witness.



  1. “There has often been unconditional support for America’s international military involvement.”

    This strikes me as one of the biggest shortcomings of the “religious right” as a whole. I remember as a kid listening to a preacher (I think RC Sproul) talk about a decision during the Vietnam era to limit conscientious objectors to people who disagreed with all war and not just a particular war. He claimed, fairly convincingly I think, that this basically did away with a concept of just war in American law, especially in light of the draft. Either you were OK with war or you weren’t. If memory serves, he contended that this fostered an extremism in American cultural, political and religious thought on war which was detrimental to society at large and Christianity in particular.

    “In endorsing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and also calling for a return to a Christian nation, it sometimes seems like the Christian Right doesn’t realize what kind of nation it has signed up for.”

    This strikes me as true, not only in regards to the deism of some founders, but also in regards to treatment of native peoples and Catholics. While people say they want to return the American of yesterday, what they seem to mean is that they want to return to the idealizations popular in their childhood. Those idealizations never really existed, but contain the moral intuitions and aspirations of particular generations. In many ways, this is probably inevitable. However, it would probably be helpful to hear it more readily acknowledged.

    It was interesting to read Wilson’s take on the chapter. I would have to agree that there are definite problems and that Christian’s are being attacked in the public sphere. It seems like the nature of a two party political system to divy up positions into two camps, anti-religious and pro-religious and have extremists concentrate primarily in opposite parties while people with more middle of the road ideas tend to gravitate to the party they most closely align with. I doubt it is the fault of the religious right that they end up being fairly partisan in practice, though I’ve certainly seen it carried too far into unthinking partisanship that is unwilling to criticize certain “allies” or see the good in members of the opposite party.

    In some ways, I think that denominationalism has really hurt Protestants in this area of partisanship. I was appalled at the unthinking support for George Bush that was shown by my foster daughter’s pastor. The “He’s one of us” mentality, without criticism of policy, turned my stomach. Such partisanship could never have been spouted from a Catholic pulpit without really ticking off a good majority of the congregation. When religion and politics are as closely aligned as they are in the US, and the criteria people use for picking a church is “fitting in” or alignment with one’s personal ideology, congregations can become terribly one sided in their politics.

    • That was really interesting about the draft and conscientious objections. I knew that it was an all-or-nothing rule now, but I didn’t know that was a more recent development.

      Also, I didn’t think about denominationalism relating to politicization. That’s something to ponder.

  2. Excellent comments, Doug, all around.

    It’s fascinating how the qualifications for conscientious objection (one must believe that all war is bad) shape a more extreme Christian pacifism (and the elimination in at least their belief in a just war). It makes sense, and it’s a good example of how a seemingly reasonable policy impacts culture.

    Your linking of denominationalism to self-partitioning monocultures with their own partisanship is a good observation, too. I’m not quite sure how to address that.

    I think the internet is similarly self-partitioning, creating monocultures, but there is also some sort of attraction of conflicts, challenges, growth, and, well, trolling. I wonder if this plays out in denominationalism, too, where monocultures actually die out without such challenges.

  3. Scott,

    (1) What in Colson’s article do you see as detached from the gospel (Bible?) ? Or is it just that he doesn’t reference scripture?

    (2) You’re right. Indiscriminate praise or revival of the past is a bad idea.

    In terms of the losing sides, could America’s greatness have existed without fighting with American Indians, taking land, or ensuring a unified power? I’m not sure how to reconcile with such victims of the distant past or their descendants, particularly given the significance of the larger outcome. I’m not even sure in the case of a more modern example, such as Israel (or even ancient Israel’s brutal wars).

    (3) I think you may be over-generalizing here. It’s not such a dichotomy if we assume that they actually do understand your previous point (even if much of their rhetoric is not nuanced enough to show it) — the US is/was screwed up in some ways (these ways they want to fix) but not others (some of these they want to spread). e.g. I doubt most RR include slavery in their adoration of the past.

    Similarly, I think it’s possible for a country to be “the Last Best Hope” in a different sense than Jesus is our ultimate hope.

    But it’s difficult for me to evaluate groups since aggregating individual positions can create an incongruous set. e.g. is RR for limited government? or for using government to spread other Christian values? RR seems too prone to the quagmire of the latter.

    (4) You’re right, and I agree with what Douglas wrote. People refer to their perceptions of the past, not the actual past. But while American Christianity (AC) may be deconstructed in terms of the Enlightenment and earlier Christianity, I wonder if that would be very meaningful to most ACs. Could you elaborate on how they should “deal with that equation” to have the issues “make sense to people”?

    As an aside, I think it’s important to consider that “secularism and religious pluralism have increased” not primarily as a result of US freedoms (though that does create the possibility), but more directly as a result of government expansion.

    It is proper for government to be neutral in external matters it touches, but that means enforcing no religion or all religions within its domain, because religion inherently discriminates beyond that allowed of government. Thus, as the government’s reach grows, so must secularism.

    The recent Christian Legal Society v. Martinez is a good example. School resources and mandatory activity fees are only shared with clubs that do not discriminate on who can vote or be elected a leader. Seems reasonable. The case was about sexual orientation, but it seems to me that even just their policy of “not discriminating based upon religion” would have the ironic effect of prohibiting religious clubs.

    • 1) Colson’s article talks about virtue, but I think that from a Christian perspective teaching virtue is useless to a person without salvation. Virtue is socially valuable, which is a great good, but Christians should want more than good behavior.

      2) What I’m talking about with American Indians is how idealizing the past affects the unity of white American and Native American Christians. We do have to reconcile with our native brothers and sisters in Christ, and we need to be careful that we don’t put anything in the way of that. Christian unity has to take precedence over celebrating national power and prosperity. My concern is that rhetoric idealizing the past could harm that unity. Unfortunately, American Christians of all races haven’t been great at seeking cross-racial unity.

      3) But it seems unrealistic to think that when American influence spreads, only past-ideal America will travel while the bad stuff the Religious Right is fighting will stay home. The idea of “the last best hope” basically says that no one’s going to have any better ideas in the future, and also basically says that God’s governance of the world can’t succeed without America.

      4) I actually mean that American political culture is a mix of Christianity and the Enlightenment. By making sense I mean that talking about America as a Christian nation based on its history is incomplete because it denies the place of Enlightenment ideas that, for better or worse, are part of our culture’s parentage. So I’m all for the Christian Right reminding people of our nation’s Christian heritage, which is often underemphasized. But everyone knows that the Constitutional Convention wasn’t a theology conference, either, and it doesn’t do any good to keep telling the idealized Christian America narrative either.

      • (1) Maybe it’s a result of my personal theology, but it’s strange to me to place virtue and salvation at odds like that — as strange as a Christian taking salvation through Christ but not striving to be virtuous.

        I tend to think that they naturally attract and encourage one another, so I don’t take exception to a focus on morality or virtue. Granted, some people may explicitly oppose salvation through Christ, but I doubt Colson is one of them.

        (2) Good point. There is a balance to be found in honestly acknowledging the past that leads to healing rather than building a sense of victimization.

        (3) Hm. I didn’t interpret “last best hope” as encompassing the (unforeseeable) future. I agree with you that it would be entirely unreasonable to suggest that no one in the future will ever offer any better ideas or that the Earth is doomed forever without America.

        I see how you could easily infer that if “last” encompasses all time (rather than just the present time), but it’s also so ridiculous that it’s hard for me to believe that Bennett and Lincoln meant it that way.

        (4) I agree — America is clearly not a “Christian nation” in the sense of a theocracy, which leads me to believe that the Christian Right’s “Christianity” is more holistic and inherently entails aspects of the Enlightenment. In other words, I don’t think they are denying the Enlightenment, rather they have incorporated it.

        Then again, perhaps I’m projecting since, for all I know, the CR could intend to push the government to theocracy.

    • Since I didn’t touch secularism in my other response, I do think that pluralism is mostly a function of freedoms. You may be right about tying secularism to government expansion, but freedoms also give space for secularism. Rehnquist wrote in a court decision once that the expansion of government power was increasingly bringing the free exercise clause into conflict with the establishment clause (because people getting government benefits couldn’t be discriminated against based on religion, but the government also couldn’t support the establishment of religion).

      Joel and some of the guys that he reads (like Wilson and Leithart) would argue that the government really can’t be neutral and that secularism really is the established religion. I tend to think that’s a good point, and that is part of the trouble we find ourselves in, especially with expanding government power.

      The CLS case is interesting. I almost think that it’s more of an attack on freedom of association than freedom of religion, because other clubs (like a black student association) have to follow it too. In some ways it’s so ridiculous it’s hard to imagine it having much impact immediately because it’s so broad.

      • In terms of freedoms leading to pluralism or secularism, I think it also depends upon what freedoms we are talking about. i.e. freedom from discrimination by government or by individuals?

        Cultural pressures, including those from chosen business and personal associations, can impinge upon one’s freedoms even if the government does not. In that way Christians (and other groups) used to exert significant pressure.

        But, for some good reasons, the government has come to restrict people’s freedom to discriminate in many of their associations based upon a variety of uniquely protected qualities, such as religion. I think it is that restriction, along with a blurring and expanding of the role of government, that has led to the broader cultural moral that all religions are equivalent or equally irrelevant and should be treated so.

  4. Campolo is awful IMO.

    I think Christians need to give up on “restoring America” and move on, admitting that the Constitution is dead and has been for a long time. It is not time to re-pristinate the past, but instead to start building for a different future where the nation may not even exist anymore.

    I don’t get alliance with the war party – it’s not in accordance with Just War theory. I don’t get the support for the universalist GW Bush who was for gay unions and totally wrong about Islam being a religion of peace. Much of modern conservatism is bone-jarringly stupid and shallow. It will never amount to much, but the other side is just pure evil. I prefer to wait for total collapse and eventual rebuilding on the other side.

    • I won’t necessarily defend Campolo. I think that if I went back to him now, I wouldn’t find him as helpful. But there was a time in my life where I needed to be shaken up a bit about poverty. Also, his sold-out devotion to the Bible really impressed me and spurred me to deeper reflection. Even if he’s wrong about things, I think that God used him in a certain season of my life, while sparing me from following too closely (for example, I understand that he basically says that all Democratic party positions are Biblically sound – yow).

  5. I just doubt that those who eventually rebuild on the other side will be any wiser than those who founded America or those trying to “restore” it now. So we might as well get to it. 🙂

  6. Kevin,

    1) I don’t mean to place salvation and virtue at odds! Sanctifying us to become more and more like Christ is one of the major purposes and processes of God’s saving work, along with initial justification and eventual glorification. What I’m trying to say is that we as Christians don’t want our public message to be moralistic, focusing on “being a good person” without connecting morality to the source of all good (God) and the way that God truly makes us good (His grace in Christ). I don’t question Colson’s orthodoxy at all. But his presentation in this article, I would suggest to him, should be more gospel-centered.

    3) To me, my more extreme interpretation of “last best hope” is in keeping with the way that a lot of people have talked about America. There’s often a messianic way that rhetoricians have talked about the country’s mission.

    4) I think that the Christian Right has incorporated the Enlightenment as well and subsumed it under “Christianity.” That’s the problem, I think. To me, American political culture is sort of like the child of two parents, European Christianity and the European Enlightenment (which was a really weird marriage at the time, although in the American context the Enlightenment had kind of cleaned up his act to marry a really nice girl that some of his more extreme European relations would have despised). So they’re both in our family heritage.

    What the CR does is go around talking about our family heritage, but it attributes all of it to Christianity: all of the conceptions of freedom, rights, etc. which have important roots in the Enlightenment and probably wouldn’t have come out the same without it. It’s sort of like me talking about the influences of my family on me and only talking about my dad’s side while also assigning my mom’s side’s influence to him.\

    But you know what? Maybe this is my own weird little obsession and I’m just splitting hairs. It might just be me being too particular.

    • “which was a really weird marriage at the time, although in the American context the Enlightenment had kind of cleaned up his act to marry a really nice girl that some of his more extreme European relations would have despised”

      I love that word picture. It succinctly puts things in context, I think, and makes a lot of sense. It’s true that the American political culture had two parents, and most people in America only want to acknowledge one parent and not the other.

  7. (1) You make a good point and I agree with your purpose, but in terms of presentation, I think it can greatly hamper Christians if discussing or advocating virtue is contingent upon an explicit focus on eternal salvation through Christ, particularly in politics which demands abstraction but also in the broader public. And, of course, among Christians, you are preaching to the choir.

    Moreover, I suspect that the limited influence of Christians on popular culture is directly related to such constraints and limited topics that are considered Christian. I think modern Christian art is often sub-par with limited reach because of this.

    (3) Wow. Well, there’s certainly a common theme of salvation (of sorts) or at least goodness in both interpretations. Do you see Bennett or Lincoln as intending the extreme interpretation?

    (4) I like your whole inheritance / mom and dad analogy, and it makes perfect sense from a historical point of view, but such compartmentalization is problematic for Christianity as an active holistic worldview (or Reality) — not only is it supposed to subsume freedom and other rights, but all things good and right and true through God.

    So if we determine that liberal democracies are better than theocracies, then true Christianity must entail the former, even if historically it has not. This holds for all topics, including slavery, the role of women, etc. which is why people try to justify their perspectives through the Bible even when it is less than clear on the subject, and why the founders traced our rights back to our Creator. Because the alternative is to believe that Christianity has limited scope (areas in which God is not relevant) or entails something bad.

    The shape of Christianity over time vs. Christianity as an active holistic belief system is a fascinating topic. So far, I like your weird little obsessions. 🙂

  8. 1) I don’t see a holistic discussion of virtue by Christians (it’s good for society, grounded in ultimate truth, and something that is most fully possible through a saving connection with Christ) as being something that would limit discussions. And I think that we should talk about it, not avoid it. I think that we should try to advocate a Christian approach to all things, not coercively but persuasively.

    3) Yes, I do think that Lincoln and Bennett were talking in the messianic sense about the US. For now, I can just say that their words fit in with the rhetorical tradition of American messianism. If I can recall some of the evidence for this, I’ll try to post about it. A recent example is the policy to transform the Middle East.

    4) I want a holistic Christian worldview too. But here’s what I’m saying: how can the CR convince people of a holistic worldview when they won’t acknowledge one of the parents? When people hear the Christian nation rhetoric, they have a ready answer because they know the also-truncated secular nation rhetoric. I don’t see that as compartmentalization.

    I’m quite happy to live in our liberal democracy, and I don’t plan on trying to change that system. But I don’t think that Christians have to subsume it in their worldview as the best form of government. One of the big weaknesses is that it puts everything up for grabs for popular definition. Theoretically, a government that acknowledged Christ as Lord would be thereby limited and allow the right kinds of freedom. I think Christians who are uncomfortable with liberal democracy have some interesting points. Here’s one possibility, which I am not necessarily endorsing but I also think it’s interesting:

    On the other hand, the fact that democracies are flexible can be a really good thing in a world where we’re never 100% sure that we have it right. John Stott says that democracy is best because it recognizes both human dignity in allowing participation for all and human depravity by allowing no one total power.

  9. (1) We certainly shouldn’t avoid talking about Christ, but, perhaps ironically, if we always insert him into moral discussions, we can actually marginalize our effects, and even marginalize Christianity itself by relegating moral commonalities to being less Christian.

    (3) How do you tell the difference between America messianism (“never any better ideas than America” and “forever doomed without America”) and America imposing what it thinks is good? Or does the latter always imply the former? Is it the same when other countries exert control? I’m having deja vu. 🙂

    (4) I don’t know what would convince secularists, but I agree that it’s certainly good to be honest about history and that the CR sometimes isn’t, e.g. they can minimize the significance of the separation of church and state.

    And while I suspect that the founders’ Christianity subsumed Enlightenment principles, the CR seems to implicitly equate their Christianity with that of the founders, often glossing over the differences.

    Scott wrote: “But I don’t think that Christians have to subsume it in their worldview as the best form of government.

    It may not be the absolute “best”, but shouldn’t it be subsumed to the extent that it is more moral than alternatives?

    Scott wrote: “One of the big weaknesses is that it puts everything up for grabs for popular definition.

    In a sense, yes, but that seems to be the way it is anyway. You can pick at liberal democracy, but there are numerous moral realizations that Christianity has (re-) adopted and emphasized over time. I mentioned slavery and women; polygamy also comes to mind, and moral aspects of the Reformation which also relate to the Enlightenment.

    Scott wrote: “Theoretically, a government that acknowledged Christ as Lord would be thereby limited and allow the right kinds of freedom.

    As opposed to prohibiting the right kinds of freedom? A theocracy that is objectively ruled by God might not have those limitations, but as we define it, theocracies (and all government, in fact) are actually ruled by fallible men, as you note in your last paragraph. That’s another moral that is periodically rediscovered.

    Regarding your link, I probably agree with Wilson about the pitfalls of secularism, but it’s not at all clear to me what he wants to practically accomplish or enforce by placing the Apostles’ Creed in the Constitution or by saying that magistrates should be (required to be?) Christian. Government is essentially about coercion, and forcing Christianity is un-christian, isn’t it?

    IMHO, Christians are better off realizing ownership of the key morals in government that allow for secularism and invoke the moral that minimizes its coercive influence, rather than trying to overtly uniquely brand government and continue to expand its influence. But I understand the frustration since some of those morals have been twisted and government has expanded to push Christianity around.

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