A Herd of Unicorns:
Abortion, Evangelicals, Politics — By Joe Carter on May 1, 2008 at 1:00 am
The Myth of Evangelical Political Engagement
Yesterday Phil Johnson, of the aptly named Pyromanics blog, threw gasoline on the flames of the debate about Christian involvement in politics with his provocatively titled post, “How Evangelicals Traded Their Spiritual Authority for a Mess of Political Pottage.” Near the conclusion Phil writes:
How did the evangelical movement get so far off track? I wouldn’t suggest that evangelicalism’s recent obsession with political activism is the only factor, but I do think it’s a major one. If the same energies and resources that were poured into failed political efforts had been channeled into evangelism instead, I’m convinced that would have been instrumental in producing more spiritual good and hindering more of society’s evils than all our lobbying, demonstrating, and voting combined.
I’m a fan of Phil’s work so it’s with some reticence that I criticize his argument. But it’s worth debating because it contains a commonly held erroneous view. Aside from the false dilemma and the assumption that energy and resources that produced a failure would have been successful had they only been applied elsewhere, Phil’s contention fails for the simple reason that his premise is based on a myth.
Contrary to what many secularists claim–and many Christians believe–we evangelicals are not all that politically involved. Sure, like most Americans we talk a lot about politics, especially in an election season. But the claim that we are involved in actual political activities–lobbying, organizing, campaigning, etc.–would be difficult to support with actual evidence.
I say this not only as a self-professed (and self-critical) member of the “religious right” but as one who has direct observation post on the political battlefield. From my vantage point it is easy to see that the commitment–much less the influence–of Christians in politics is wildly overstated.
For example, Family Research Council (FRC)–the premier lobbying organization of the Christian right in Washington, D.C.–has been attempting to collect signatures on an online petition asking President Bush to approve new Title X regulations ensuring that no taxpayer money goes to subsidize the abortion facilities of groups like Planned Parenthood.
To date, almost one million emails have been sent to Christians asking them to do nothing more than add their name. This is about as minor a level of commitment or involvement as it gets yet only about 3% have done so. More Christians voted for the 5th place contestant on last week’s American Idol than have petitioned to defund abortion mills.
This is the typical reaction at the grassroots level to almost every political initiative in the “religious right.” Lot’s of talk; little to no action.
FRC is considered one of the major players in the world of conservative evangelical politics. And yet the organization’s ability to have any influence or impact in the political realm is limited by the lack of grassroots commitment. Though FRC and similar groups attempt to rally the troops, they are unable to lead the army of politically engaged evangelicals because such a group is all but nonexistent.
Phil himself alludes to the lack of political will on this issue, though he seems not to have realized the connection:
Now, consider the bitter irony of this: For more than two decades the number one issue on the agenda of the evangelical wing of the religious right has been abortion.
I would argue that the truly bitter irony is that this is perceived as the “number one” political issue for evangelicals when it really isn’t one of our top priorities. If evangelicals–and Christians in general–truly cared about this issue, abortion on demand would not be the law of the land.
Imagine if every Christian in America vowed not to cast a vote for any candidate of any party for any office if they supported or condoned the killing of the unborn. Imagine if every pastor in America had the courage to stand in the pulpit and deliver the Gospel-centric message that God abhors this slaughtering of the innocent and that for the church to tolerate this sin is a fecal-colored stain on the garment of Christ’s bride.
But it will never happen because the evangelical church isn’t committed as the church to rectifying this grave injustice. We never have been.
In a 1971 resolution on abortion, the Southern Baptist Convention resolved that “society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life.” The largest evangelical denomination in America had a peculiar definition of “sanctity of human life”, however, for the very next sentence called upon Southern Baptists to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion” under such conditions as “fetal deformity” and damage to the “emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Three years later–and two years after Roe codified this position–the SBC reaffirmed the resolution. It wasn’t until 1980 that the SBC finally condemned abortion as a grave evil, a position that has always been maintained by the Catholic Church.
Thirty-seven years later, we evangelicals still haven’t caught up on issues of the sanctity of life. Come to the annual March for Life held in Washington, D.C. every January and you’ll find fifty Catholics for every evangelical. For Catholics it is a moral, spiritual, and political issue. For evangelicals it nothing more than an emotional issue that we aren’t really dedicated to doing much about.
Surprisingly, Phil doesn’t recognize that it is precisely our lack of political will that has caused us to fail on this issue. He doesn’t even draw the obvious inference from his own observations:
Evangelicals have virtually nothing to show for all the time, energy, and resources they have invested in political efforts over the past three and a half decades….
Although by most accounts evangelicals constitute the largest single voting bloc in America, they have been remarkably ineffective when it comes to using politics to reverse America’s moral and spiritual decline. In fact, if you measure their success or failure according to their own stated political ambitions, evangelicals have failed spectacularly in America’s political arena. Over the past quarter century, they have not accomplished any of their top long-term legislative or constitutional goals.
Although there have been some significant achievement, Phil’s basic point is correct. But he fails to draw the obvious conclusion from the data. Rather than assuming that evangelicals are a large, powerful, committed political bloc that, for some inexplicable reason, is completely ineffective, the more realistic conclusion is that politically engaged evangelicals are like a herd of unicorns: powerful and abundant in the imagination while not actually existing in the real world.
There are some other parts of Phil’s post that are not necessarily germane to my point but that I felt needed to be addressed. I hope this is not taken as a personal shot at Phil, who I admire and respect. But because he is an influential Christian blogger and because many others would agree with him on these matters, I felt they were worth discussing.
In his post, Phil makes some general comments about Sen. McCain:
The candidate who it now appears will be the Republican nominee is a man who has been wobbly on the issues of abortion and same-sex unions, and he has repeatedly made it clear that he doesn’t share the passions of evangelical voters. He once referred to evangelical Republicans as “agents of intolerance.”
I’m not particularly fond of McCain and have taken many shots at him myself. However, I believe it is proper to clear up the confusion about his record. While McCain’s previous support of embryo-destructive research has made him inconsistently pro-life, he has not been wobbly on the issue of abortion. As Gerard V. Bradley notes:
[McCain] has served in Congress for 24 years, and cast a lot of votes on
abortion legislation during that time. His record is not merely
exemplary — it is perfect. McCain’s votes on abortion really could not
As for the marriage issue, since Jeremy Pierce has addressed McCain’s position in detail I’ll not rehash that here.
Also, it is not quite true that McCain referred to evangelical Republicans as “agents of intolerance.” During a speech he made the following comment:
The political tactics of division and slander are not our values, they are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country.
Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.
Personally, I agree with McCain’s claim that Robertson and Falwell have used “political tactics of division and slander.” He was right to criticize them for such behavior and wrong to pander by later retracting his statement.
Despite our outspokenness on selected issues in the political realm, American evangelicals have sent a mixed and often flatly contradictory message to anyone who looks at the big picture. Evangelical pulpits are notoriously weak and shallow.
The pulpits are notoriously weak? Does that include the pulpits filled by Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, C. J. Mahaney, and Albert Mohler? Or what about Tim Keller, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R. C. Sproul? These men are some of the most influential leaders in evangelicalism. Are they all shallow?
It’s a common refrain that evangelical churches are all but worthless…except, of course, the churches that are headed up by our own pastors. No one can dispute that evangelical churches have problems. But even the apostle Paul–the greatest church planter in history–had trouble keeping his congregations focused on what truly matters. I can understand the point that Phil is trying to make, but I think it is unfair for him to make such a broad claim against the evangelical church.
For more than a decade now we have been hearing poll data that suggest people who identify themselves as evangelicals are just as susceptible to divorce and alcohol addiction as their unbelieving neighbors–which can only mean that our church rolls are filled with unconverted people. In fact, just about the only significant difference remaining between evangelicals and unbelievers is how we vote.
Contrary to Phil’s view–which is shared by many–there really is no significant difference between evangelicals and other voters. In 2000, ten million white evangelicals joined other Democrats in voting for Al Gore. And turnout among the members of the “religious right” was a mere 56 percent “only slightly higher than the national average–and actually lower than that of devout Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews.” (There is some evidence that voters who say they go to church every week usually vote for Republicans while those who go to church less often or not at all tend to vote Democratic. But the difference is similar to other factors that correlate with activities that connect a person to their community (e.g., owning a home).)
Phil also makes much ado about Ted Haggard, stating:
Consider the fact that almost no one in the evangelical world had more political savvy than Ted Haggard, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Anyone who has ever interacted with Haggard would likely disagree. I met Haggard once at a political event and found him creepy and rude. He is certainly not a smooth political operator nor did he ever wield much true influence.
His title as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a group that uses Southern Baptist math to inflates its rolls (they claim 30 million “members”) got him a sit down with the President of the U.S. But the people who typically credit him with having any real influence are the same theocracy-phobic liberals who think that Haggard’s personal creepiness is a trait shared by all evangelicals.
In fact, it is my conviction that because they have invested so much in the political process, evangelicals have weakened their own movement with a tendency to compromise; they have sacrificed evangelical distinctives, and they have gone far off message from the central truths of the gospel.
I’m not sure exactly what he means by this. Have we failed to be distinctive because we have aligned with theological opponents on issues like abortion? And what political message have we embraced that has replaced “the central truths of the gospel”?
Political activism has been a disaster for the American evangelical movement on every front. Not only have we completely failed at the political process; we have failed even more egregiously to remain distinct from the world.
That has echoes of neo-Fundamentalism, a position that I’m sure Phil would reject. I suspect the same claim was made about Christian abolitionists who used the political process to protect their fellow man.
I want to be clear that I’m as opposed as Phil is to the
politicization of the pulpit. While I think he goes a bit far in his assessment,
he has a valid concern. I would expand the range and say that it is easy for
Christians to become distracted by politics as they are by sports, money,
business, and other pursuits. We must always be careful not to put anything ahead of the Gospel.
But I also must add that I think you cannot preach the
Gospel without also giving a full-throated condemnation to abject injustice.
While there are many areas of politics that the church would do well downplay
or to avoid completely, the destruction of innocent human life is not one of