With the election of Donald Trump, the erosion of evangelical unity around shared political goals has accelerated dramatically. Whatever center or core there once was in the evangelical movement, evangelicalism has splintered into warring camps, and different players are vying for attention, influence, and power. The complexity of the situation precludes simple answers. But to my mind, the lack of a center—that is, the absence of shared goals—is largely explained by two factors: the evangelical defeat in the culture wars and the rise of the evangelical narrative of decline during the Obama years. With the perceived loss of both social control and political powers, the rising evangelical leaders of the Obama years, such as Russell Moore, re-oriented evangelical political theology towards “moral witness,” a view of political action with an ultimate goal of displaying evangelical character or morality—and hence the gospel, they claim—not a goal of achieving political ends.
Eschewing power, these leaders developed or acquiesced to a declinist or defeatist narrative and a pessimistic political theology of perpetual ecclesiastical foreignness: the Christian is a sojourner not only as one living in a fallen world or in a world made good but not yet elevated to blessedness, but as one possessing an alternative and transcendent earthly identity vis-a-vis all other earthly identities. We are told, therefore, not to be like the world, that is, do not concern yourself with these other earthly identities, for they are not “gospel identities” or distinctively Christian.
Naturally this political theology of decline and witness could not but condemn Trump and his evangelical supporters. Regardless of the evangelical political interests Trump could meet (and has met) as President, evangelical support for him violates the first principle of the declinist narrative: politics as moral witness. It is not a matter of what one can achieve, but how one achieves it (or how one attempts to achieve it); and one should not achieve any political end by means of an immoral man. For this reason, as Russell Moore said, supporters of Trump are “on the wrong side of Jesus.” Evangelical Trump supporters were also called “consequentialists,” as if politics is a subset of ethics. They were accused of being “nihilists” and followers of Nietzsche. Throughout this torrent of condemnation, few evangelical NeverTrump commentators cared to present a systematic treatment of politics, either as political theology or political theory.
Despite a massive output by NeverTrump evangelical leaders against “selling your soul for political gain”, their followers didn’t follow them, with a super majority voting for Trump. The election tore apart the already ripped tapestry of evangelical political unity. And despite going on listening tours after their humiliating defeat in November 2016, the NeverTrump evangelicals have doubled-down on their gospel-witness theology, widening the rift in evangelicalism even more.
The Political Theology of Moral Witness
In the past, the variegated denominational landscape of evangelicalism had little effect on its political unity, which resulted in little attention paid, at least popularly, to the distinctives of each tradition’s political theology. A traditional Presbyterian political theology is simply not the same as most Baptist political theologies, for example. But these differences were transcended by a common approach to policy. From the pulpit and in the pews, evangelicals were once socialized into good political policy, from the evils of abortion to the necessity of low taxation; and this socialization was so common that it formed the evangelical identity. The pending demise of this unity however left a vacuum of thought in evangelicalism. On what ground are we united as evangelicals? Since the distinctive traditions of political thought never mattered in old evangelicalism, most people lacked the requisite knowledge for a meaningful discussion between competing Protestant traditions. Nothing was left to fill the widening gap.
Evangelical discourse then began focusing on what one might consider mere protestant principles as a means of filling the gap, constituting a shift in the nature of evangelical political socialization. Instead of a political program advocating for specific policies, evangelical leaders now socialize Christians with lines such as “Christians are to be, like Jesus was, advocates for the marginalized.” This sort of socialization has the benefit, so they think, of both separating the church from worldly politics (by simply teaching an ethical principle from Christ) and also preparing people for the reception of certain policies without actually stating the policies directly. So the church can claim to be political but not partisan.
Evangelical leaders have simply changed the nature of political socialization. It is an engineering of unity not through the development of a lowest-common-denominator political theology, nor a bare assertion of policy-goals, but by means of—and this is what I think these “principles” actually are—a collection of disparate slogans, themes, expressions, tropes, tweet-sized aphorisms, and one-liners by which people are signaled or cued due to socialization to support whatever political goal that accompanies them. It is a kit-bag of rhetorical devices. Mention one of these lines in association with some policy and the socialization kicks in to lend support to some policy or to reject some policy.
The process of political socialization does not involve the presentation of an evangelical political-theological framework, nor a coherent system to understand or engage political phenomena. There are few distinctions, if any at all, given to the average evangelical. No attempt is made to distinguish between the principles, roles, ends, and nature of the civil and ecclesiastical spheres, for example. There is no detailed treatment of the two kingdoms or natural law, and nothing but contempt is shown to political principles that the Protestant reformers considered the orthodox positions on the role of civil magistrate in religion. But these new “principles,” operating as they do on the socio-rhetorical level, do not offer a real political theology at all. What characterizes evangelical political commentary today is the repeated re-sorting of these lines in application to selected recent political events in order to cue support for some action (or inaction) as part of a particular program of witness. Evangelical political thought, at least at the popular level, revolves around a particular set of rhetorical devises. Read this post, for example, which in other contexts might be a parody, entitled, “Jesus is not your American Patriot” at The Gospel Coalition.
The average evangelical has no framework or theological system through and by which to evaluate these rhetorical devices. They are stuck in ignorance and channeled into right action by means of political socialization. They are triggered into certain beliefs; they are not convinced by careful, systematic thought. And it is only on account of evangelicals’ ignorance of their own traditions that they are susceptible to this. Indeed, most of the pajama-boy woke evangelicals fail to realize just how conditioned and programed they are to tweet from cues built into intra-evangelical discourse. Baptized ignorance and sentimentality drives them to repeat these lines, and they proselytize others by social pressure and shaming. This is the sorry state of evangelical political commentary: the social conditioning of people to proudly and boldly respond to any re-sorting of a pre-packaged set of lines and the shaming of those who reject the vacuity of the discourse.
Let me give some examples of the sort of lines I’m talking about.
To question evangelical participation in the Republican Party, someone might say, “Jesus is not a Republican” or “Christians are not beholden to an earthly political party” or “the Christian faith transcends and critiques every political group.” No theory of voting or party participation is offered. No one considers that perhaps American political parties are large coalitions of competing interests and ideologies and therefore are entities necessarily requiring compromise and imperfect results. Evangelical intellectuals have no theory of political parties and party participation. But they have their lines, and the average evangelical has nothing to say against them.
To question an American evangelicals’ attachment to their country, particular culture, and nation, one might say, “Jesus is not an American” or Jesus “won’t return in a pickup truck with ‘God and Country’ bumper stickers and a flag in tow.” or “Jesus didn’t swear allegiance to any earthly power” or, as Russell Moore said, we must face the “test of whether we will identify as Christians first.” Rarely do they offer any clarity on the nature of earthly identities or distinguish heavenly and earthly identities. Is the Christian identity the same in species as the national one such that the former is an alternative and in competition with the latter? Perhaps the Christian identity, as an identity oriented to heavenly life, is complementary to an earthly one, such that one could be a Christian American, having dual identities with each pointing to a particular mode of belonging. But this thought, though perfectly consistent (to my mind) with classical Protestantism, is never considered or refuted. It is precluded from being true, because the set of available rhetorical lines in evangelicalism do not permit the (classical) distinctions that would make dual identities possible.
If evangelicals seek the preservation of their way of life, homeland, culture, and nation, one might say, “Jesus didn’t call us to have a spirit of fear” or “Our citizenship is not of this earth, but in heaven” or “Your Christian identity trumps your earthly one” or “Christianity knows no borders” or “Christ’s death tore down ethical boundaries” or, as with Moore, accuse them of using “nativist language” and state that Jesus was “a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner.’” They will call any hint of “nativism” a manifestation of “fear” as opposed to “love.” The more sophisticated will call it the “sacralization” of civil realm. All of these lines might fit into some coherent political theology, but it is never presented in any systematic way. They merely grab the attention of evangelicals who are socialized to respond either positively or negatively to the policy or action linked to the line.
To question any policy that might have some effect, no matter how incidental, to a minority or “marginalized” race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. one could say, “Jesus did not have blonde hair and blue eyes” or “Jesus would not be accepted into your country or church” or “the Church is multicultural; a white church no more” or “nativism is anti-gospel” or “racial justice is a gospel-issue” or “immigration provides opportunities to evangelize.” We should “put aside our nationality and ethnicity” in order “to simply love as Christ has loved us,” we are told. As with the others, no attempt is given to provide a coherent political theology that distinguishes between civil and ecclesiastical duties and the Christian’s relationship to each. On the issue of immigration, perhaps it is the Christian duty to ensure, in the interest our neighbor, the continuity of culture by limiting immigration. Perhaps loving as Christ loved requires one to be, as Augustine said, more “concerned with those who by reason of place, time, and circumstances, are by some chance more tightly bound to you” (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.28). Perhaps there is some truth to Calvin’s comment that “Delightful to every one is his native soil, and it is also delightful to dwell among one’s own people” or to Augustine’s words, “The difference of nations [gentium] or condition or sex is indeed taken away by the unity of faith, but it remains in the conduct (or manner) of mortal life, and this order must be preserved in the journey of this life” (commentary on Gal. 3:28, 29). But today’s evangelical commentators show little interest in this past wisdom.
If one doesn’t like evangelical voting patterns or political positions, one might say, “Jesus taught us to follow principle, not to pursue power” or “we are told to be different from the world” or the world loves power; Christ-followers should not” or “Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.” These lines dominate evangelical discourse today and are used to challenge any perceived unprincipled use of civil power by Christians. But what justifies the dichotomy between power and principle? What is the precise nature of the Christian’s relationship to civil order? Franciscus Junius, a Reformed theologian, said that Christians are “Christian human beings,” that is, Christian conversion does not destroy one’s humanity. So if civil power is divinely sanctioned for human use, then why must Christians, who are just as human as non-Christians, avoid power? Evangelical intellectuals however repeatedly juxtapose principle and power without providing any framework through which to understand either.
The Power of the “Gospel Issue”
The “gospel issue” phrase is the most pernicious of all evangelical lines. It is just one of many other gospel-as-adjectives, including “gospel prudence,” “gospel love,” “gospel justice,” “gospel patience,” and many others. It is not clear to me what this adjective does to these nouns. But the “gospel issue” line is uniquely peculiar, for there seems to be no precise principle to determine which issues are worthy of gospelizing.
Moreover, what is the gospel precisely? Is it the means for the salvation of souls, or is it this and a new set of earthly commands related to social and political duties—a type of neo-nomianism? Plenty of Protestants have narrowed the Gospel only to the salvation of souls. Philip Melanchthon, for example, wrote, “For Christ did not come into the world to teach precepts about (civic) morals, which man already knew by reason, but to forgive sins, in order that he may give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics). Calvin argues that Christ added nothing to the Law of God (see his commentary on Mt. 5:21). So what does the adjectival use of “gospel” say about the issue in “gospel issue,” and what sort of political theology coheres with this?
Ultimately what explains the gospel-as-adjective is the rhetorical force it adds to the noun it modifies. It serves to form a hierarchy of concerns and thereby accomplishes a few things, providing a considerable amount of power to evangelical leaders:
- It provides a distinction between gospel and non-gospel issues, permitting evangelical leaders to regard certain matters as below the Christian’s concern (e.g., national, regional, or local identity) and can thereby denounce any “undue” concern for such matters. Of course, the seeming arbitrariness, or lack of guiding principle, in determining what issue qualifies as a “gospel issue” provides evangelical leaders a tremendous amount of flexibility and power for agenda-setting, as long as they retain the authority to gospelize nouns.
- It supports the idea that the Christian identity is the same in species as other earthly identities and therefore is a subversive alternative identity that, being earthly and heavenly, can stand both against and above all earthly concerns—except of course the carefully chosen “gospel” concerns. On matters of civil justice, the Christian presence on earth is like a superhero perched on a building waiting to save the day. He takes no interest in the necessities of day-to-day order, statecraft, and mundane policy. But he does swoop down and save the day, or at least he attempts to save the day and makes sure he look good in the attempt.
- It secures the idea that the institutional church is a separate polis or political society, as if both the church and state are not two species of the same genus of order (as classical Protestants argued), but the same That is to say, they are both political orders of the same type and therefore always in tension, competition, and conflict; the church as institution is an alternative earthly society. Like the individual, the church-as-polis is above the “worldly” state in the sense that it possesses the true principles of political order as opposed to the fallen principles of world, they claim. The church then is to order itself as an alternative order to demonstrate to the world the transformative power of the gospel. From the church then proceed the “gospel issues.” This ecclesiology and the political theology that flows from it allow evangelical leaders to place wedges between earthly identities. It collapses the sacred/secular and spiritual/temporal distinctions that are so crucial to harmonize the particular roles of church and state in classical Protestantism. Ultimately, blurring these distinctions and others, evangelical leaders gain significant leeway to engineer and equip their followers with a particular vision of witness.
Much of this assumes that the church as institution should “represent a heavenly and future kingdom now,” as Jonathan Leeman has put it. This seems obvious to evangelicals today. But besides violating a basic principle of classical Protestantism—namely that the heavenly and earthly kingdoms “are always to be viewed apart from each other,” as Calvin said (Institutes III.19.15)—it has serious problems or implications. The most obvious problem is that for Reformed orthodoxy heavenly life is qualitatively and in some ways fundamentally different than earthly life. For example, there is no marriage or childbirth in heaven or in the eschaton. So it seems that transforming the church into heaven-on-earth would require ending marriage and childbirth. (See here for a demonstration of the problem). Since this is likely not desirable, one must either reject the principle (as I would suggest) or propose some distinction.
Acknowledging the problem, however, would undermine a powerful tool to engineer a program for “witness.” Making the institutional church both an alternative earthly and political identity and a heavenly representative allows evangelical leaders to deny Christians the right to wield state power, for the power of the heavenly kingdom is not like that of the world. It follows from this that, in the civil realm, Christians are always in foreign territory and ought to act as foreigners: instead of seeking dominion, they should request some safe space for their own little earthly, alternative community—the right to assemble as Christians unhindered. From there they “seek the good” of the worldly state but only as a witness to the gospel transforming effects on political principles in the church. Whatever one thinks of this political theology, it is crucial to notice that collapsing the earthy and heavenly blurs important distinctions that allows these disparate set of rhetorical devices, lines, tropes, phrases, clichés, slogans, catch-phrases, etc. to do their work. To deny Christians the right to wield some earthly power one only has to say, “Christ’s kingdom is not of this world,” but to grant someone an earthly power just call it a matter of “kingdom ethics” or label it a “gospel issue” and important for the church’s “moral witness.”
It is evident that there is no surface coherence in the set of rhetorical devices employed by evangelical leaders, making the resulting program of witness largely ad hoc—a product of platform engineering. Evangelicals are not given reasons for believing this or that political position or view of power, but cued into belief by these rhetorical devices. Evangelicals, after all, have nothing else but the set of disparate lines to evaluate the issues involved. Indeed, their political theology just is the rhetorical devices repeated and parroted by evangelical leaders. In order to challenge them one is forced into the rules of the game—offering one’s own “mere Protestant principles.” It is how evangelicals think about Christian political engagement.
But the arbitrary nature of the evangelical political kit-bag leads to a power struggle. The battle on the surface in evangelicalism is a matter of who controls the content of that kit-bag—a competition over the slogans that will dominate evangelical political socialization. On one side there is the old American buzzwords and phrases, such as freedom, give me liberty or death, the American dream, etc. The new evangelical intelligentsia, who are the other side, denounce them as “civil religion.” But the new evangelicals are doing the same sort of political socialization as those they have denounced.
Being participants in this power struggle, today’s respectable evangelical leaders are wielding power, despite their denouncement of power, and actively excluding others from having it. Indeed, they must actively exclude, because the very basis of their power is nothing but the social acceptability of a largely arbitrary set of rhetorical devices. And it is not surprising that they have adopted the identity politics and rhetoric of the rest of Western respectable discourse. Indeed, their entire system of thought, from their ecclesiastical supremacism to their declinist narrative, functions as cover for their adoption of the predominant modes of the world’s rhetoric, utilizing its advantages to solidify power over evangelical discourse, all the while claiming that they have merely adopted the principles and power of King Jesus. They reject visible power and external control only to wield the power of internalized control—the principal social power of our modern, liberal world—and yet they call such power heavenly. From framing techniques to shaming, they have adopted not the power of heaven however, but the rhetorical power of modern liberalism.
Responding to these evangelicals requires an unconventional approach. One might consider writing essays responding to evangelical posts like those at The Gospel Coalition. But we must realize that TGC posts cannot be refuted directly. They persuade others not with good and proper reason and evidence (indeed, many TGC political posts are egregiously and blatantly question-begging) but by utilizing both evangelical tropes and rhetorical devices and the broader socio-rhetorical privileges of Western society. Such blog posts are impervious to rational argumentation because they do not rely on reason at all, but on playing the right rhetorical game by means of a handy set of lines, words, shaming devices, etc. One must, as what I’ve tried to do here, seek to uncover the rules of the game.
Two responses to the dominant forces of evangelicalism are required. The first is, as I said, a critique of the nature of the discourse and the second is a return to political theology and political theory. Instead, of “Jesus is not a Republican” we should examine the nature of party politics and interest aggregation. Instead of “heaven is multicultural and therefore the local church should be too” we should study the way the Protestant Reformers distinguished the earthly and heavenly (or outward/inward) kingdoms and sought to keep them separate. Instead of the “Jesus was a foreigner” rhetoric, we should look at the entire Western political canon and tradition (including the Christian political tradition) on the distinction between citizen and foreigner. I could go on and on with this. But my main point is this: wake up from this engineered socialization and pursue true wisdom from the Protestant tradition. Moreover, stop trying to refute evangelical intellectuals like those at The Gospel Coalition. They are irrefutable, for they don’t convince using reason. They merely trigger others into belief. Our task is to expose this. Go to the rhetoric.