The Common Good and Common Grace

Don E. Eberly
Friday, September 1st 2000
Sep/Oct 2000

Every presidential election cycle produces a fresh round of vitriolic debate regarding the role of conservative Christians in the political process. In a few short decades, evangelicals have been transformed from politically indifferent separatists to one of the most controversial political constituencies in America.

As one who has contributed to the debate over religion and society, I believe it has not only become more bitter within politics but is increasingly polarizing the nonbelieving world against Christians generally. Worst of all, the Gospel itself has become confused in the minds of many with right-wing political dogma.

Undoubtedly American society has become more resistant, and in some quarters outright hostile, to orthodox Christian faith. But it is fair to question whether the bitter response to the Christian right political movement is merely another manifestation of this, or whether the reaction is explained in part by the methods and models of these organizations themselves. Do these organizations needlessly pit Christians as a group against their non-Christian neighbors, even those who generally share their moral values?

Liberals and secularists are no longer alone in insisting that something is inappropriate about Christian interest groups operating as they presently do in the public square. Many conservative Christians themselves are having second thoughts. Missing in all of this discussion is a biblically informed public philosophy which bridges the gap between Christians and the world, which sets reasonable goals using defensible methods, and which safeguards the Gospel from politicization. Such a public philosophy would acknowledge important God-ordained differences between the state and other spheres of civil and ecclesial authority, and it would promote a vision of the common good as an alternative to political agendas wrapped in religious packaging. Such an approach would avoid either religionizing politics or politicizing religion.

Politics at the Expense of Culture

My critique focuses on a twofold concern: one, that the priority given to scrambling for political power in recent years combined with the almost complete inattention to cultural concern is misplaced and bound to fail; and secondly, that many of the organizing methods of the so-called Christian right are flawed. These flaws should be of concern to any Christian who loves the Gospel of Christ and wants to protect its integrity.

First, as a matter of long-term strategy it is a terrible mistake to prioritize politics over the culture. As any number of leading philosophers throughout the ages have argued, politics is decidedly “downstream” from the culture. British statesman Edmund Burke, for example, said that “manners are more important than laws” because “upon them, in great measure laws depend.” Abolitionist William Wilberforce recognized the impossibility of passing or sustaining legislation to outlaw the slave trade without first bringing about widespread reformation of manners and morals in society.

The believer’s first job in society is culture formation, not policy prescription. The latter flows naturally from the former. This point was generally acknowledged by evangelicals prior to the 1980s, most of whom grew up repeating what now mostly comes from the libertarian left, namely that “you can’t legislate morality.” It is foolish to think that a culture obsessed with vanity and vice is going to produce virtuous law, and it is a peculiar sight to witness evangelical Christians promoting this idea.

Christians are understandably dismayed that the culture has become unhitched from its Judeo-Christian roots. However, they refuse to acknowledge that in literally millions of decisions made by Christians themselves, this unhitching was produced by a massive retreat from the intellectual, cultural, and philanthropic life of the nation. An excessive search for political power will not aid this deeper foundational recovery and may very well set it back.

The consequences of the great evangelical retreat from the cultural realm can hardly be overstated. While evangelicals count millions of members among their grass roots political groups, and are now, if anything, overrepresented in the legislative arena, the number of evangelicals serving at the top of America’s powerful culture-shaping institutions-like a major university or publishing house-could be seated in a single school bus! The watching world is understandably dismayed by the interest evangelicals have shown in power while simultaneously showing so little interest in arenas of society where one’s only weapons are creativity and persuasion.

Christians can be heard referring excitedly to their evangelical contacts at the top of the power heap in Washington, such as the entire leadership of the House of Representatives. The fact that not one evangelical can be identified running a cultural institution such as CNN, NPR, a secular philanthropy, or a Hollywood film studio, is never even a matter of conversation, much less concerted action. The unmistakable inference from this preoccupation with legal matters is that society and culture are subsidiaries of the state, not vice versa, a belief, which if actually held, is a dangerous heresy. The idea that the state can fundamentally reorder a society is a radical idea; it is neither a conservative belief nor one that finds any encouragement in Scripture.

It’s not that evangelicals have no concept at all of culture; it’s that their ideas are mostly wrong. Evangelicals do culture all right. They send billions of dollars annually to “Christian” television, radio, magazines, and publishing houses which only perpetuate the parochialism and isolation of Evangelicalism. They spend billions more on “Christian” merchandise, such as reflected in the current end-time fiction fad. To address the corruption in the majority culture, they send millions of dollars to protest organizations, whose impact on popular culture has been negligible at best. The idea of shaping the culture in a positive way outside of the evangelical subculture remains, with very few exceptions, foreign.

The same impulse was at work in producing Christian right politics. Creating a special interest group uniquely for Christians came naturally for a group of people who functioned well as a subculture. The Christian right political movement, which was not even founded by evangelicals, has injected into American Evangelicalism’s bloodstream spiritual toxins that have received very little internal examination until recently. The movement organized itself around a paradox: It adopted the world’s methods to promote allegedly Christian ends. I will long remember challenging a prominent direct mail company owner who was profiting richly from a large Christian right group for his blatantly hateful direct mail rhetoric. With a dumbfounded look in his eye, he responded by informing me “but, this is a Christian cause.”

The Christian right was born during the 1970s out of a reaction to certain specific threats, such as the Internal Revenue Service treatment of Christian schools, Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision, the loss of prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Its posture was defensive; its goals modest. By the 80s and 90s, this movement was transformed into one confident enough that it was heard threatening to take over the Republican party around a dramatically expanded agenda.

Pride Coming Before a Fall?

The movement was steadily plagued by a remarkable hubris. At one point, a leading Christian right operative was boasting that the Christian right was bigger than the two parties combined. Having worked on Capitol Hill and then in the Reagan White House during this time, it is impossible for me to forget the triumphalist rhetoric of party takeovers and impending revolution. No less remarkable is how this very movement around which the Republicans built their majority now appears on the verge of implosion, thanks in large part to the conduct of Christians.

While modest, incremental progress can be expected on discreet public problems that fall within the scope of legislative policy, producing a broad-based social and moral renaissance through conservative politics was never in the cards. Neither was this idea of promoting political revolution all that conservative for that matter. Many conservative activists now watch in bewilderment as the social hurricane continues to swirl around them, disoriented and numbed by the letdown of it all. It was not supposed to work this way.

Some, like Moral Majority cofounder Paul Weyrich, essentially have called for an exit from politics altogether, concluding that those of conservative morality are now a distinct minority. It is a remarkable spectacle to witness evangelical conservatives careening all over the American highway, first firmly embracing separatism for much of the twentieth century, then veering suddenly in the direction of an aggressive political engagement to the exclusion of other spheres of influence, and then, to complete the cycle, rethinking the whole thing again. This lurching about erratically, which must be amusing for the watching world, only points to the profound theological impoverishment of Evangelicalism in our era.

The issue isn’t, and never was, that politics is unimportant, whether as a professional craft to be practiced by individual Christians or as one means by which the Church dispenses salt to a dying world. This year’s election will decide who controls the Supreme Court for a decade or two to come, an institution more important at the present time than the White House itself. Who can deny the importance of this? There are profoundly important challenges underway in the arena of law right now (perhaps most importantly the legal definition for marriage).

God has called and gifted each one of us to touch the world around us. A theological embrace of the biblical notion of vocation would include many activities, not the least of which is political. Our calling is not to engage in one thing one day and when that doesn’t work try something else. Our calling is to be faithful to Christ unto death, consistently and across the entire spectrum of life: personal, ecclesiastical, social, and political. In that respect, it would be impossible for an authentically Christian people to not impact all facets of their society.

Great Expectations for Politics

The real problem is the exorbitant expectations that many brought to politics in the first place. Even if one succeeds at building working majorities, the lawmaking process can at best suppress the symptoms of cultural disorder. It can do very little about the underlying causes. Politics cannot begin to put the connecting tissue back in society. It is ill-equipped to reconstruct traditional moral beliefs where they have evaporated.

The best policies cannot recover courtship or marriage, make fathers responsible for their children, restore shock or shame where it once existed, or recover legitimate social authority to institutions that have been hollowed out by a pervasive ideology of individual autonomy. The best politics would be to get government to do those things well that it is called upon to do, and otherwise to simply do no harm. The vast majority of moral problems that trouble us cannot be eradicated by law, and even if they could, it is Christians who should be skeptical about them.

Contrary to widespread perception, there is little encouragement from either the Scriptures or Christian history to suggest that national righteousness emanates predominantly in the law. Jesus and the early Church existed within one of the most politically and culturally corrupt societies in history and offered few specific political prescriptions outside of “giving to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”

The Bible recognizes many evils but does not supply a specific mandate for outlawing all that believers consider immoral or improper. As theologian Thomas Aquinas put it, “The law cannot command all virtues and forbid all vices.” Laws can only forbid those things, he said, that are “injurious to others, without the prohibition of which society could not be maintained.” In other words, the law plays a minor role in the ordering of society. The New Testament scriptures seem to suggest a minimalist approach to the state. In no place in the New Testament is the slightest suggestion given that Christians should attempt to commandeer political or governmental institutions. In the brief New Testament passages that even address the issue, believers are called upon to submit to and respect “every authority” without a hint that they be worthy of respect as a precondition.

None of this denies that the Gospel, which should reign over all aspects of the believer’s life, does not have profound social implications. Surely it does. But where social and moral reform is pursued, the method of choice should not be political action, as if God ordained the state for Christians to achieve their purposes. When evangelicals turned to social reform in the nineteenth-century, says historian John West, they “did not seek to enact the Bible into law.” They tried to change habits, beliefs, and behaviors. The objective of Christian engagement should first be social and cultural change, which almost always precedes or at least accompanies political change.

The Christian right is guided by a set of mythologies which, at a minimum, weakens its chances of achieving even modest goals. Worse, they practically assure self-marginalization. Worse still is the fact that the political toxins of which I speak can quickly erode the integrity of the Gospel. Let’s examine them briefly.

Myth 1: America as a Christian Nation

The first myth is one that is rarely articulated but is nevertheless a part of the consciousness of many and that is the myth that America is, or historically was, a Christian nation. This is a false gospel which must be repudiated. The term Christian is mostly a noun, not mostly an adjective, and it most assuredly cannot be applied to a nation if we are to take the New Covenant seriously. Except for ancient Israel under the Old Covenant, there never has been a nation that had special favor with God.

True, the early Puritans experimented with the idea of a Christian commonwealth based upon God’s law, but even that is different from the status of an elect nation. Creating even a small-scale society premised upon biblical law is problematic and, as the Puritans themselves discovered, impossible to sustain unless one is willing to keep outsiders out.

It is frequently remarked by evangelicals today that the founding fathers were Christian believers, or that they at least held to a Christian worldview. If that is true, Christians today might question why their early American brothers did not create a Christian republic grounded not on reason, nor on nature and nature’s God, but entirely on biblical revelation. Except for the preamble, God isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution.

The founders framed a constitutional republic, predicated upon a rather thin theism, not a muscular, prescriptive Christianity. Perhaps in doing this they were acknowledging that New Covenant Christianity is about the redemption of elect individuals, not special covenant relations with elect nations. In other words, they might have done what they did precisely because it is the most biblical ordering of the state, and because the idea of a Christian state is an oxymoron.

Myth 2: Social Reform Requires Christians and Christian Language

The second related myth is that social reforms are neither effective nor legitimate unless the concepts are advanced by believers and are presented in biblical language. It is odd that American Christians have a need to present their reforms in Christian terms, conveying several false ideas to a watching world: one, that Christians believe in preferentially appointing or electing Christians, as if they are more worthy leaders; and second, that there is something unique or superior about morality that carries a Christian label. Neither of these principles was considered true by Reformation theologians. Recall the famous quote by Martin Luther, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian” or John Calvin’s expression of confidence in the natural capacity of the unredeemed to rule justly.

In this connection, we might ask: What exactly is Christian about the Christian Coalition? Is it that it is comprised mostly of Christians? Is it that its agenda includes issues that are somehow peculiar to Christianity? Whereas tax reform, educational vouchers, and a host of other social policies pursued by Christian conservatives can be said to be prudent, sensible proposals, what precisely is it about these issues that qualifies them as Christian?

Moreover, we might ask what difference exists between the conservative political gospel and the liberal social gospel, especially as the Christian right’s message is perceived by a confused society. Liberals embraced the social ethics of the beatitudes; conservatives talk endlessly about biblical law in areas of sex, morality, and religion, often communicating, perhaps inadvertently, that the Christian Gospel is about a moral or political agenda. The premises of liberals and conservatives, at least as understood by a biblically illiterate culture, are nearly indistinguishable.

The Importance of Common Grace

Biblical faith informs our social ethics, but Christianity is not primarily an ethical system. What very few Christian activists seem to appreciate fully is that institutions such as the state, marriage and the family, and culture are common grace institutions. They existed prior to the revelation of redemption. When evangelicals confuse the work of moral and cultural renewal with the redemptive work of Christ, they give the appearance of promoting cultural Christianity, civil religion, or worse, a gospel, not of grace but of morality and legalism. As sociologist Peter Berger has stated, anytime we embellish a particular cultural, political, or moral agenda with the authority of the Christian Gospel, the result is a manifestation of “works-righteousness” which is “ipso facto, an act of apostasy.”

Christian moralism in the public square produces another outcome: a low and condescending view of unbelievers and the appearance of self-righteousness among believers. As Westminster Seminary professor Michael Horton has argued, this is to think that “conversion is the only answer to temporal problems or to assume that unbelievers are worse then they are (denying natural capabilities for justice, truth and beauty) and that believers are better than they are (denying the ongoing sinfulness of the Christian).”

Quite simply, this approach does not take full account of sin even in the life of believers, nor of the natural capacity of the unredeemed for responsible action. Horton states: “The Gospel is not the answer to everything. It is not the solution to the welfare crisis, to environmental decay, to health care. These are temporal problems demanding temporal solutions. Even if everyone were to become a Christian, the world would still require government courts, policy, and prisons because Christians are sinful.”

New Testament Christianity presented a Savior; it did not present a new moral system. The idea, says C. S. Lewis, “that Christianity brought a new ethical code into the world is a grave error.” Lewis adds, Christianity’s founder and early followers “came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness in Christ, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken. Moral law, along with numerous other facts of our existence, including the institutions of marriage, the family, the state, the social order, all came to us via God’s creation, and are thus a part of his common grace.”

Many Christian reformers in history appreciated the importance of appealing to the time-honored idea of natural law. C. S. Lewis treated the natural law as an inescapable set of principles that form a moral common ground that undergirds all people and all societies, which is part of God’s general revelation (what Lewis called the Tao, which is found in all successful civilizations).

The reformers embraced this notion of general revelation, or natural law, even though they were clear that it is inferior to special revelation. As Calvin captured it, “We cannot assume that there is in men a full knowledge of the law, but only that there are some seeds of justice implanted in his nature.” He continued: “The law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and that conscience which God has engraved on the minds of men.” The fact that the law of God shows up in so many ways, for example, the role of the Golden Rule in all world religions, was regarded by Calvin as evidence of some kind of universal moral law. Natural law, to Calvin, was also evidenced by such facts as that the redeemed and unredeemed alike institute religious rites and make laws to punish things such as theft, murder, and adultery. Calvin concluded that there must be “a certain natural knowledge of the law.”

Many evangelicals find this embrace of natural law reasoning in the public square not “Christian” enough. But we should ask: Which is more faithful to biblical Christianity, the approach that conflates morals and the Gospel or the one that refuses to do so for the sake of the Gospel? Ironically, those who embrace a model of politics that is pluralistic and understands politics to be directed toward temporal not eternal concerns, in which common, not saving, grace is the operating principle-in other words those who organize politically and socially outside of the Christian right model-are those who are taking the greatest care to safeguard the gospel of Grace.

This refusal to embrace the work of remoralization in the framework of natural law or common grace accounts more than any other factor for the huge chasm between Christian activists and the world, even within the conservative coalition in which they operate. Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus captured it well: “By separating public argument from private belief, by building a wall of strict separationism between faith and reason, fundamentalist religion ratifies and reinforces the conclusions of militant secularism.” By refusing to translate Christian principles into public philosophy and language that is accessible to all, evangelicals reinforce the secular idea that faith is a private thing, they strengthen secularism, and they further their own isolation.

As a practical matter, why would a movement permit itself to appear to be imposing a sectarian agenda on the state when the same moral principles can be derived from general revelation and natural law reasoning? Far more importantly, why would Christian leaders, especially the preachers and television evangelists who created the Christian right, ever want to give people reason to confuse the Gospel with moral living, social action, or a conservative political agenda? Perhaps the chief failing of the Christian right is that it has been organized predominantly by Christian preachers or television or radio ministers. This represents a profound confusion of both leadership roles and spheres of authority. One need not be a secularist to be offended by the image of a television preacher praying for a healing miracle one minute and rushing out to defend his favorite Republican presidential candidate on CNN the next.

There is something deep within the American character that reacts very strongly to this. Writing in the 1840s, French critic Alexis de Tocqueville presented a description of the role of religion-and especially of clergymen-that many today would find surprising. He said religion “exercises but little influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of community, and by regulating domestic life, it regulates the states.” The clergymen, he said, were careful to preserve the unique and honored station they occupied in society. Ministers of the Gospel “eschewed all parties,” filled no public appointments, and were “excluded by public opinion” from serving in political roles.

In short, clergymen kept their distance from partisan politics, and they did so in order to preserve their honored position in society as sources of spiritual and moral truth. In light of this, it is an unsurprising irony that high-profile evangelical preachers are at the same time being marginalized for their partisan escapades and possessing no meaningful moral authority in their public roles as preachers or prophets. No prominent evangelical figure, with the possible exception of the aging Billy Graham, has any genuine moral authority with which to address the moral life of the nation. Turning preachers into power brokers and Political Action Committee (PAC) operatives has cost the standing of evangelicals generally.

Conservatives and orthodox believers should advocate the proper ordering of things. The answer to officially backed separatism is not government advocacy of Christianity. The state has never gotten religion right, and certainly has not been a help to the Gospel of Christ. It will likely be evangelicals themselves who come around to advocating a healthy separation of Church and state. Evangelicals seem to have abandoned their search for a workable plan for the restoration of school prayer having realized that in a hyper-pluralistic society, a prayer by an evangelical one day would likely be followed by a Buddhist, Muslim, or New Ager the next.

The movement to elevate the Ten Commandments has already displayed some of the same problems. Where the Ten Commandments have been adopted thus far in high schools, they have been forced to share space with other religious documents, including those of religions which otherwise have no public platform to speak of. Backers of a Ten Commandments display in Altoona, Pennsylvania, high schools were forced to accommodate the Wiccan “faith,” information on gay rights history, and atheism. Faced with these circumstances, the Ten Commandments advocates abandoned the entire idea.

What is communicated in this post-modern milieu is that the moral law of Jehovah God is only one of many sources of moral values. It is possible that we have arrived at the point where any state promotion of the religious precepts which emanated from the Jewish or Christian faiths can have only trivializing and corrupting effects.

All of this takes us back to where we began. If Christians want a nation that is more thoroughly Christian, it will not start with politics and law. It will start with what Chuck Colson has referred to as a massive “re-evangelization of the culture.” That work starts with souls of course, but it moves outward to communities and institutions, and especially those strategic institutions that set the pace for the culture, such as academia, and the elite professions, in such fields as publishing, library sciences, and philanthropy. In other words, the whole spectrum of culture must be reseeded with biblical truth and until then, its politics will produce disappointing results. So let the Church be the Church and Christians be salt and light in a society desperately in need of a preservative.

Friday, September 1st 2000

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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