Future of Evangelicalism
The Dead Are Not Raised by Politics
So it's a chastened view of politics, but it's not anti-political. People should have firm, clear political convictions on what justice means, without becoming so ideologically wired that they have over-expectations for what can happen in the public policy realm. It's a Christian cast of mind. Having that cast of mind can help nurture a form of Christian civility that is really important in these times, when we have a culture that is more shrill than ever.
One of the great representatives of political realism, in the 20th century, was Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is often cited as one of the current President's favorite thinkers and inspirations. Is President Obama practicing what Niebuhr preached?
The President seems to have a great admiration and respect for Niebuhr. People all over the political spectrum claim Niebuhr as their mentor. The question is: What part of Niebuhr has the President bought into?
That's a debatable proposition. When there's a problem, the President's instinct is clearly that the state needs to solve it. So there seems to be a lack of appreciation for mediating institutions and the roles they play, as the first instinct is to have government solve all of the many problems that we have. So it's not clear to me what part of Niebuhr he appreciates.
It is clear that Niebuhr's thinking on foreign policy has not influenced President Obama. Niebuhr knew the nature of totalitarianism and critiqued it constantly; he was anything but an advocate of moral equivalence. There's a tendency with President Obama, because he thought Bush bellicose, to believe that he ought to do the opposite. So rather than talking about the virtues of living in a free and democratic society, he has spent a lot of time apologizing for America's problems.
You talk about utopianism and the ethics of rhetoric. Candidate Barack Obama used soaring language and utopian images. Do you think that he raised expectations so high that they could not possibly be met? Did he purchase an electoral victory at the cost of inevitable post-election disenchantment?
I agree with that. The rhetoric was so soaring, and so promising that it led, as you say, to a crash and great disappointment. What surprised a lot of people in this town was how quickly the disappointment came. And the disappointment came as well for people who are very much on the Left end of the spectrum. There are all kinds of disappointment in the Democratic party.
Some of that disappointment could have been dissipated if Obama had not overly inflated his promises and goals. It's a real art to call people to their highest aspirations and at the same time keep them grounded in a realistic sense of what the policy arena can solve and what it cannot.
There is something about President Obama's wonderful speaking style, the beauty of the rhetoric, and the historic significance of his own person and his election as President of the United States, that led to a whole cast of almost magical expectations of a historical moment. That may have blinded some people to the policies he championed as a young Senator.
Let's talk strategy. You help Christians learn how to engage the political arena fruitfully. Imagine a group of Christians who come to Washington to address the issue of sex trafficking. What moves would be wise and unwise in regards to aligning themselves with political parties or power structures?
One of the first moves has to be made before you even come to Washington -- and that's to come academically prepared. If your concern is sex trafficking, then you should become academically conversant with international law and international relations. Be prepared intellectually in the field of your concern.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.