witnessThe evangelical support for Trump is a “sin [that] is collapsing the Evangelical moral witness,” says David French in a recently published open letter.  “Moral witness” has become an important term in the evangelical NeverTrump rhetorical arsenal. Whatever it means, it has been lost or harmed since evangelicals chose to pursue “political expediency” at the expense of “moral principle,” as many have recently claimed. Evangelical politics ought to be witnessing faith and not have a lust for power.

Thomas Bradstreet has helpfully criticized some of the language of these evangelicals and has described the innovative theology that underpins it. Still, more needs to be said. In particular, this term, “moral witness” needs to be unpacked. What is the nature of “moral witness”? Who is the audience? Why is it so often juxtaposed with political ends and “political expediency”? What are its dangers and disadvantages? In this essay, I provide a theory on the meaning of “moral witness” in contemporary evangelicalism.

Words and Action

In modern American evangelicalism, there is an extreme version of a common phenomenon in Christian communities: the conflict between words and action. The moral demands of Christianity, which are principally rooted in the Word of God, often tell man to do both what seems contrary to his nature (e.g., to love his enemies) and what is unlikely or exceedingly difficult given his nature. Pierre Manent calls this the “Christian situation.” He writes, “Christianity introduced an unprecedented disparity between what humans do and what they say.”[1] The moral demands of Christianity communicated via words provides significant ammunition for praise and blame, distrust of oneself and others, and hesitancy to act. For this reason, Christian political thought often has an internal tension between a moral regime of words and the political regime of necessary action. That is to say, the demands of morality, or “moral principles,” seem to come into conflict with what is necessary for political order and civil peace.

Respectable evangelicals today are decidedly committed to the regime of words in relation to political order. Moral witness is not about achieving desired policies, exerting influence, and obtaining political power. Rather it is about achieving “gospel witness” of the church. That is, it is about evangelism. The purpose of evangelical politics is ultimately evangelism, not political success or even political order itself. Hence, evangelical politics is principally speech, not action.

That is not to say that these evangelicals have no interest in civil justice and political advocacy, nor that they lack a desire for justice. I’m not suggesting that they are “all talk.” But their political activity, as I said above, is ultimately a project of moral witness, calling for Christians to live up to a selected and particular set of moral principles/language intended for a particular audience as part of evangelism. Political activity itself is just another means of showcasing an other-worldly, Christian gospel-morality in order to demonstrate the winsomeness of Christianity. So the governing principle of political action is not the necessities of civil order, but the necessities of witness; and those two – order and witness – are not entirely coextensive. In other words, the actions necessary to ensure order are not always the sort of actions that make for an effective witness. Consequently, the witnessing-purpose of Christian politics largely sidelines questions concerning civil order, for Christian politics just is evangelism by other means.

This explains why in evangelical political-talk there is little interest in a comprehensive political theory that raises questions of realistic social solidarity, social discipline, crime and punishment, social decorum, civil traditions, and other requirements of good civil order. This explains why respectable evangelicals are unwilling to be the “bad guy” in enforcing social expectations on non-believers and their unwillingness to follow any robust principle of exclusion in any space other than their churches. Judgment is reserved only for those in the church—a judgment exercised on their church members that includes an enforcement of civil non-judgmentalism. Using this reasoning, evangelicals can selectively label certain issues “gospel issues,” elevating some civil issues above others, without considering or acknowledging what’s at stake in the other issues or the civil ramifications of their prescriptions for the issues they care about. Everything centers on a calculation of potential witness, and witness is measured by its utility in generating winsomeness. Of course, achieving civil order might be part of that witness, but it need not be; for civil order is only one possible means of witness, not the end.

State-Dependent Moralizing.

The need for civil order does not go away in avoiding its questions. Evangelicals however do not have to worry about civil order. The modern State has resolved the tension between word and action. The State, as the entity possessing the exclusive means of legitimate violence, as the supreme actor in modern human society, establishes and maintains public order with such efficiency and power that selective and sentimental Christian politics is made possible. The State does the dirty work allowing Christians to perform the work of heavenly morality. With a secure state and firm civil order, evangelicals are free to formulate a set of moral-political positions, without reference to or accounting for civil order, whose advocacy is ultimately not for political implementation but serves as the public declaration of evangelical public morality. In other words, because the State has resolved the tension by assuming for itself responsibility for the actions necessary for civil order, evangelicals can, each and every time, one-up the world in their declaration of public morality, serving as a demonstration of their other-worldly moral excellence.

But again this is all dependent on the State’s absolute power in securing order. Respectable evangelical politics is facilitated by the State, is dependent on the State, and gets its greatest moral witness by reacting to the necessary actions of the State. Gospel-driven politics is state-dependent moralizing.

Evangelicals can even act in ways that undermine order, if those actions demonstrate some exemplary level of morality. Hence, while a deep sense of place, permanence, home, and nation might be integral to civil order (as I’ve argued), Christians can denounce such attachments and affections as “worldly” and call for immigration, even making the right to migrate a “human dignity” issue. At no point (or at least rarely), do respectable evangelicals consider human nature in relation to place and the inter-generational ties that bind people to a homeland and generate care and concern for it. But of course they do not have to: evangelical politics is only accidentally concerned with civil order, for Christian civil action is ultimately not about civil order, peace, and security. It is a matter of witness. Civil order is relevant only when it is either a means or an incidental consequent of witness. It is not the principle or ultimate earthly end of Christian civil action.

Evangelical moral witness is then clearly parasitic on the work of both the State and social actors (including many evangelicals whom they denounce) who establish, maintain and shore up the civil order in which Christians operate and undermine. It is only because of this work that Christians can have “gospel-love”. The evangelical renunciation of civil power is made possible by that very power.

The Moral Project and Rhetorical Power

Since the ultimate end is witness to a particular contemporary audience, the evangelical regime of moral words must be engineered and tailor-made. But enforcing this particular set of words requires a significant means of control over messaging. It is no surprise then that respectable evangelicals have sought and achieved a remarkable degree of rhetorical power to unite evangelicals around a particular platform. The generalizations, shaming, the casting of labels, the extensive and repeated use of political-theological social cues, the exclusion of certain perspectives and voices (see the ERLC’s MLK Conference speaking list), the moral denunciations, and willingness to dismiss others—all this points to a willingness to exert rhetorical control over evangelical discourse to enforce a particular vision.

Notice that this pattern of denunciation and control is not much different than the “modern epic of denunciation” that characterizes our contemporary public discourse. Respectable evangelicals are respectable for their participation in it. Despite denouncing others for their “worldly” use of power, they have adopted the world’s instrument of mass social conformity. But this is not surprising. Since their end is moral witness to the world, they must pattern their public speech around the world’s method of moral dramatization. It is part of their moral witness. This is power, of course, a subtler form of power; but it is power. Covert (rhetorical) power is used to attack overt (political) power.[2]

It is the State that provides these evangelicals the opportunity to dwell in this regime of words, a linguistic land with an arsenal of praise and blame, with which they wield to browbeat their fellow evangelicals to conform to their project of moral witness. It must be “our” moral witness after all, because we must be a house united. Let the State and others do the dirty work. Pursuing “power” makes you the same as the “world.” Glancing askance at the social deviant is not “gospel-love.” We are called to be “different.” It is in our difference—our separation from the less savory actions necessary for political order—that ensures our gospel-witness.

Evangelical and Secular Interest

This notion of “moral witness” is unfortunately useful to evangelicalism’s opponents (or their pseudo-allies) to stifle evangelical political action. When you posture yourself as “above politics,” any perceived use of political power for evangelical ends is an occasion for accusations of hypocrisy. One could easily use the evangelical opposition to civil power to challenge the legitimacy of any distinctively evangelical political action. They would say, “You say you’re against the pursuit of power, but here you are pursuing power and power against me and my dignity!” Evangelicals are then cornered into a regime of words with little to no basis for action, save those strictly consistent with the world’s approved list of actions. In the end, the tailor-made platform for gospel-witnessing allows non-Christians to tailor-make Christian action to practically support the moral chaos of modern liberalism.

The evangelical hyper-sensitivity to secular moral outrage and disapproval is exacerbated by the ultimate end of evangelical political action: moral witness to non-believers. How can we morally witness when our actions are deeply offensive to the object of witness? Since appropriate evangelical political action is so bound up with non-Christian approval, they have a powerful rhetorical advantage. Non-Christian moral denunciation can come in at least two forms: the charge of hypocrisy and the failure to distinguish faith and power. The former concerns the failure to “love” the right things (e.g., “you’re supposed to love the marginalized”) and the latter concerns loving the wrong things (e.g., “you’re supposed to reject worldly power”). The evangelical moral platform then is highly constrained and partly dictated by secular moral posturing, since the winsomeness of Christianity is the ultimate end of the evangelical political platform. It seems inevitable then that the respectable evangelical moral platform will become and partly is already in conformity with the secular approved list of just social causes. [3] In witnessing to them, evangelicals work for them, and in consequence become the unwitting advocates for and censors on behalf of secularist interests.

Conclusion

“Moral witness” is a particular moral posture towards the world—dominated by action-stifling words and yet facilitated by the State—to eschew the world in order to appeal to the world. Evangelical moral witness is the principle and end of evangelical politics, and the means is determined by considering the winsomeness-utility of possible moral platforms in light of contemporary sentiments. Ultimately, evangelical politics is about evangelism. To choose “political expediency” over “moral principle” then is ultimately to have a false end of political action; it is to have political ends as the ultimate ends of political action. It is, in other words, the willingness to assume the comprehensive duties necessary to secure a peaceful civil life, not just those duties that make us look nice.

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[1] Pierre Manent, The Metamophoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, 7.

[2] This regime of words is attractive to many evangelicals, especially Millennials, because in our modern age of vanishing certainty on human moral ends, it provides them a set of moral tropes perfectly sized for Twitter and a set of actions for serving one’s neighbor that exclude any judgment on one’s neighbor’s lifestyle, public decency, conformity to social order/customs, and any other particularities other than those clearly contrary to liberalism’s “no harm principle.” The world’s moeurs are not objects for evangelical judgment. But the platform does provide an opponent: the non-conformist evangelical.

[3] Opposition to abortion is one of few exceptions. But the pro-life movement is now being transformed into a “truly pro-life” movement, which insists that “pro-life” must include social democratic policies related to motherhood.

Stephen Wolfe
Contributor

Stephen Wolfe is a PhD candidate in political theory at Louisiana State University.

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