An Open Letter to the Religious RightPolitics — By Joe Carter on March 25, 2008 at 11:16 pm
[Note: This post is an adaptation of an address I recently gave for a conference of pre-law advisors at Regent University Law School which itself was originally based…on a previous blog post.]
I’m honored to be able to speak to you today for I am a great admirer of your work. Indeed, it is my opinion that pre-law advisors are significantly undervalued despite the fact that you carry out one of the most important tasks in the legal profession–talking people out of becoming lawyers.
While it is true that the bar exam and law school admissions officers perform the same function, though perhaps more brutally, pre-law advisors provide the first line of defense in preventing people like me from stumbling into a career in law.
In 1987 I entered the University of North Texas as a freshman with the intention of someday becoming an attorney. The first week I was there I scheduled an appointment with the pre-law advisor, expecting him to tell me that I could choose any major I wanted, as long as what I wanted was to major in political science.
Instead, the first words out of his mouth were “Why do why to be a lawyer?” I was so caught off guard that I ended up answering truthfully–telling him that I wanted to be part of a profession that made a lot of money. He then set about ripping my response, explaining why this was a terrible justification. I gave him another lame reason and he shot that one down too. That went on for several minutes before I laid out the dumbest rationale of all. I told him that my friends and family always told me I’d make a good lawyer “because I was good at arguing.”
He leaned forward in his chair and gave me a pitiable look generally reserved for fools who are about to make a disastrous life choice. “Mr. Carter,” he said, “how good could you be at arguing when you can’t even make an argument for why should be a lawyer.”
That day he planted a seed of self-awareness’ within me. I realized two things about myself: (1) I really would make a terrible lawyer and (2) I’m really not all that good at arguing.
So today I won’t even bother trying to argue my case. Instead I’ll just throw out a pile of assertions and conjectures and let you sift through it all to see if there is anything of value.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was purportedly asked if God was on his side.
“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side,” said the President, “my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
Ironically, though Lincoln is often praised for this remark, it contains three of the most controversial ideas in American politics: that God should be invoked in the political sphere; that God’s existence matters, much less that he is always right; and that since He takes sides on certain issues, some people will be divinely justified while others will be in opposition not only to their political opponents but to the very Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.
If you find these ideas absurd and repugnant, you are most likely a secularist. If you find them to be embarrassing truths, then you may be on the religious left. If you find them so obvious that they hardly need stating, then you are probably a member of the so-called “religious right.”
I embrace them whole-heartedly, which makes me a certified member of the religious right. Although I’ve often been uncomfortable with that term, I find it fits me more and more, as if I’m growing into it. So be it.
For the past few years I’ve served in various positions that have allowed me the opportunity to engage with people who express firm religious and political convictions. I work for the nefarious Family Research Council. I’ve advised the shawdowy Arlington Group. And I worked on the political campaign of the scary Christianist candidate Mike Huckabee. The experience has been was encouraging, funny, provocative, aggravating, frustrating, and, on occasion, downright weird.
But I remain optimistic about the role of politically conservative Christians but there are a number of things that give me pause. I tend to be a “Yes, I agree…but…” kind of guy fellow. While I could talk today about the “Yes, I agree” stuff, I think it’s the “…but…” that is far more interesting so I want to use this opportunity to share a few thoughts on that. I have ten “buts” and since I’m still not very good at arguing, I’ll simply throw them out as raw assertions in the form of an open letter to my fellow members of the religious right.
One– As a matter of political liberty I believe it is important that we support such issues as prayer in schools and public displays of religious symbols. But I can’t imagine that on the Day of Judgment I’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant–you have faithfully fought to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.” More likely we’ll all be asked why we didn’t spend more time concerned about our neighbors in Darfur or fighting the pandemic of AIDS. Perhaps we should rethink our priorities and put the first things first.
Two — Being Right doesn’t mean we are always right. I know we claim we understand that but it would probably help if we acted like we believed it as well.
Three — We have ideological enemies (such as Islamo-fascists) and we ideological opponents (such as secular liberals). While our ideological opponents want us to lose elections; our ideological enemies want us to lose our lives. That’s a crucial distinction that we should always keep in mind. While we have to love them all, we shouldn’t lump them all together.
In a classical statement of ecumenicity, St. Augustine once said, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.” Those of us on the religious right should adopt a similar principle and clearly define the boundaries between what is essential and what is non-essential in matters of policy and politics.
Protecting the sanctity of innocent human life and defending the traditional definition of marriage are clearly essentials. Those matters are based on principles that can be clearly derived from the Bible. Other issues, however, are often less opaque. For example, can someone truly be on the “religious right” and not support the war in Iraq?
The fact that question can even be asked shows how we’ve muddied the waters. While I personally think that, on the whole, the war was morally justified and a necessary humanitarian intervention, I can respect those who disagree. Indeed, the alternate opinion may be as rooted in Biblical and conservative principles as, I believe, is my position. We should be very, very careful where we draw the lines of political heresy.
Four — I can’t make excuses for us on this one anymore: Christians have to take a firm stand against torture. Yes, there is a debate about what exactly is meant by that term. Let’s have that debate. Let’s define the term in a way that consistent with our belief in human dignity. And then let’s hold every politician in the country to that standard. Our silence on this issue has become embarrassing.
Five — We must keep in mind that term “religious right” encompasses two unique spectrums. Because of our commitment to the faith, we will often find ourselves in agreement with the religious left. And because our conservatism is informed by our religion, we will also find ourselves in disagreement with the secular right.
Our political alliances, therefore, will often be tenuous and shift based on particular issues. For example, two years ago at Family Research Councils Values Voter Summit, the Southern Baptist leader Richard Land said he’d vote for a Jewish pro-life politician who promised to raise his taxes before he’d vote a Christian pro-choice candidate who promised to cut them. The rousing applause he received would be as disturbing to most Republicans as it would to most Democrats.
Six — It is not enough to simply baptize the conservative agenda; our political beliefs must be derived from our Biblical worldview. Doing that, however, requires developing such a worldview and knowing how to derive political policy prescriptions from the principles. While the difficulty of the task makes it easier to accept off-the-rack conservatism, we need to be able to tailor our policies from the fabric of our faith.
Seven — Whenever you hear someone say that the religious right is attempting to install a theocracy, simply say “You;re an idiot” and move on. We’ve wasted too much time on this nonsense already. It’s a desperate attempt to create a term that has the affect of “racist” or “sexist” so that when its applied, it automatically paints an opponent as beyond the pale of political discourse. Really, anyone who says that-no matter how much they may try to nuance the word-is an idiot.
Eight — In the 1950’s, William F. Buckley, Jr. and National Review led the move to anathematize the John Birch Society from the ranks of respectable conservatism. Today, we religious conservatives need to follow that precedent by purging the most odious hangers-on from our company. I propose that we start with the obnoxious, hate-spewing Ann Coulter.
Why do we justify the vile rants of Coulter and her ilk? Is it excusable because they direct the bile at liberals? We sully our own reputations–and disgrace our Lord–by associating ourselves with such hateful speech. The sooner we shun them the sooner we can return to the path of serious discourse.
Nine — Our beliefs are often informed by tradition and sacred texts. This does not, as our ideological opponents often claim, make them invalid. But it does make it necessary to ?translate? them when we bring them into the public square. I firmly believe that the Bible is true and authoritative for both the Christian and the non-believer. But premising a political argument on “Because the Bible says so?” is rarely effective or convincing.
Fortunately, God also gives us general revelation-conscience, rationality, empirical observation-which is often more effective in expressing His foundational principles in a way that non-believers can accept and understand. We must use these tools to make obvious the connections that are often overlooked. For instance, we can use logic to show how same-sex marriage affects religious liberty or use empirical research to show how family structure influences poverty. It is not enough to be right. We must also be persuasive.
And finally, number ten — America is not a “Christian nation”, though we should aspire to be a nation of Christians. America is not a “shining city on a hill”, though we should let our light of freedom be a shining example for the entire world. America is not the “greatest blessing God gave mankind”, though it is a great nation worthy of our conditional adoration. Patriotic sentiment has its place but we mustn’t let it expand beyond its acceptable borders. We are citizens of both a country and a Kingdom and must always be careful not to confuse the one for the other.