Post-Partisan Evangelicals, Perception Versus Reality, and the Moral Primacy of the Abortion Debate

I was pleased to see that Jonathan Merritt responded to my “open letter” — especially since his new book inspired my post.  He was of course not the only one to respond, but I’m going to try to focus on Jonathan’s response.  Jonathan emphatically disagrees with my embrace of partisanship (of course he would; I hardly expected my letter to persuade him to repudiate the book he just wrote), and in so doing repeats many of his core points.  Here they are:

  • Culture warriors overestimate the power of government to change the hearts and minds of the people it governs
  • Culture warriors operate on a faulty and unbiblical definition of power
  • Culture warriors have adopted a tone that is utterly foreign to the one we find modeled by Jesus himself
  • Culture warriors allowed the Christian church to be reduced to a voting bloc and the handmaiden of a political party
  • Christians who fight in the culture wars have produced an anemic, partisan church that is driving away non-believers in record numbers

With these bullets (and to be fair to Jonathan, bullet points hardly contain the depth and nuance of a book, but he chose them so I’ll address them) I think Jonathan accurately describes a number of myths about the culture wars — myths successfully created and perpetuated by our secular opposition.

First, culture warriors do not overestimate the power of government to change hearts and minds.  We do recognize, however, that the law and government are well-equipped to protect human life and that is in fact one of the core, biblically-ordained roles of government.  Sadly, however, our government enforces with the power of its sword the “right” of a woman to pay a doctor to kill her child.  In an ideal world every child is a wanted child (and we should never cease to pray and work for such a world), but even unwanted children have a right to live and a right to the protection of governing authorities.  Every “culture warrior” I know understands that the ultimate answer is the Gospel.  Every culture warrior I know also understands that the government can and should do more to protect innocent life.

Jonathan’s second point is closely related to his first, but I find that when you look at the actual policy arguments put forward by culture warriors (and we’re both using the term broadly, I know), they’re quite limited in scope.  End legalized abortion.  Maintain current definitions of marriage.  Maintain traditional free speech standards.  Maintain the traditional place of religion in the public square.  Each one of those positions is a specific reaction to specific legal changes initiated by an aggressive, opposing cultural force.  You will note that (mainstream) culture warriors do not advocate any governmental position that mandates belief or violates the rights of conscience of any individual.  We are not asking too much of power — only that it not be used for improper ends.

Third, which of Jesus’s many tones is Jonathan referring to?  The tone he took when driving money-changers out of the temple?  The tone he took when calling the Pharisees “white-washed tombs”?  The tone he took with the woman at the well?  The tone he took when he healed the sick?  The tone he took while dying on the cross?  Jesus’s tone varied greatly depending on the circumstances and the message — and so does the tone of the “culture warriors” I know and work alongside.  To be clear (and as I said in my post), we make mistakes all the time, but the culture warriors I know are diligently and prayerfully following Christ’s call on their lives in both message and manner.

Jonathan next gets directly at a point I make in my letter.  Just because that is the image of the church in the eyes of many does not mean it is the reality.  The reality is the church is by every objective measure focused on helping the poor more than fighting the culture war, but that fact is largely unknown because we don’t control our image in popular culture.  The other side would have us change not by different messaging but through an abandonment of the field.  Al Mohler wrote on Monday: “But when my phone rings with a call from a reporter these days, the question I am asked is never adultery or pornography.  It is about homosexuality.”  When it comes to homosexuality, we are addressing the obsessions of others.  (Don’t believe me?  Here’s a test: track your pastor’s next 25 sermons.  How many deal with homosexuality?)  When it comes to abortion, the blood of the innocents cries out for justice.

Fifth, when Jonathan talks about an “anemic, partisan church,” which church is he referring to?  Take a look at the chart below:

Putting aside the Muslim faith (where immigration is playing a very large part in growth), the denominations that are growing are hardly known for their timidity in the culture wars.  The denominations that are shrinking are those that have largely abandoned the field on, say, abortion and gay marriage (they are partisan in other areas but not known as “culture warriors”).  Even more striking, these denominations have shrunk in size even as the population has grown.  So, yes, believers are leaving certain churches in droves — just not the “culture war” churches.

The greatest threat to the church is not fighting abortion or voting in droves for Republicans.  The greatest threat to the church is the path taken by the Mainline — abandoning orthodoxy.  Of course we can do a better job in presenting our message to the culture.  We’re fallen and flawed people, after all.  But let’s be clear, to be accepted as “post-partisan” we have to give up any effective advocacy against legal abortion.  The instant you are effective is the instant you are no longer post-partisan.

You’ll note (as my critics certainly have) that I place abortion at the center of my argument.  My argument against post-partisanship is not free-standing.  In other words, it’s driven by the context of our times, and much like during the slavery debate prior to the Civil War, our relevant political parties have chosen sides on the issue of life.  They have chosen sides in a way that is different in kind from their marginal differences on war and peace (Obama continued every single existing Bush war policy and tactic), entitlements (where the primary argument is over rate of growth, not their existence), and tax rates (where again the difference is over small changes in percentages, not existence).  Even in the arena of gay marriage there is more in-party diversity than exists on the abortion question.

The intentional, legally-protected taking of human life on an industrial scale is a moral monstrosity condemned by every single strand of Christian orthodoxy.  Every one.  There is no coherent comparison between abortion and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Are unborn children trying to kill their mothers?), where our nation faced — and still faces throughout the Middle East — governments and individuals bent on killing as many Americans as they can.  While Christians can certainly debate the wisdom of any given conflict or military tactic, to compare our response to 9/11 and the 33 year Islamic Jihad against America (beginning with the hostage crisis in 1979) to the legally-protected intentional killing of millions of innocent children is, quite simply, depraved.

Jonathan claims that my tactics and the tactics of those who fight with us have “failed us so miserably.”  Yet the last five years have seen a record number of successful legislative efforts to regulate and restrict abortion and now the number of Americans who call themselves “pro-choice” is at a record low.  And that progress has occurred in the face of decades of relentless demonization of pro-life advocates, not just at the hands of the mainstream media and pop culture, but also — sadly — at the hands of Christians who are ashamed of the movement’s steadfast efforts.

When the “culture warriors” of 1860 looked to cast their vote, they had but one real option.  But now, with the benefit of hindsight, Christians are rightly proud of the stand that they took, the witness they presented to our nation, and the votes they cast.  Sure, not all the Republicans of 1860 had truly biblical views of race, slavery, and individual liberty, and the party was deeply flawed on a number of levels, but their view of human life was fundamentally different in kind than the competing views of the Southern Democratic or Constitutional Union parties.  Simply put, until both political parties embrace not just the repeal of Roe v. Wade but the legal protection of innocent life — from conception until natural death — I will be a partisan of the only party that has made the correct choice.

Catching up on the debate:

My original post: “An Open Letter to Young, Post-Partisan Evangelicals

Jonathan’s response:  “Faulty Logic and False Choices: A Response to David French

Jonathan’s book:  A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars

  • Carlos Weinheimer

    It is interesting that the catholic church has dropped 5% yet it has been on the forefront of the cultural war.

  • PuritanD

    Great article Mr. French. I too have aligned myself with being active in the political realm more so than in the past. The issue of life is very important to me. I appreciate the light you have shed on the “culture warriors” and really how small they are.

  • Chris Robin

    What do Merritt and others do with examples like Wilberforce who was vehemently despised for his continual push to end slavery in England? I don’t have opinion polls from then but I’m sure slavery wasn’t hated by the masses. Yet his constant push for its end pushed opinion polls, changed the law, and even the culture. I don’t see how this doesn’t on some level parallel our current state of affairs.

  • Michael Snow

    Those churches that have taken the ‘PC’ route on issues have essentially changed the key characteristics of the faith to which they claim adherence. Basics like love, prayer, and forgiveness have become tools of therapy rather than marks of a Christian. If the faithful who remain in them wish to be salt and light and see a revival of truth, it will take a back to basics movement that relies on the authority of Jesus Christ.

  • John Haas

    “Yet the last five years have seen a record number of successful legislative efforts to regulate and restrict abortion …” You include no hot-link with that statement. Can you specify what those are please? And what has been their impact–if that’s known–on the number of abortions?

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  • Rick Middleton

    French says: “Simply put, until both political parties embrace not just the repeal of Roe v. Wade but the legal protection of innocent life — from conception until natural death — I will be a partisan of the only party that has made the correct choice.” Good for you, French. It probably helps you feel good about your party (the party that loves children and everyone else, right?) to not think too much about how that Party is continually pushing to cut the social safety net. So in the not-too-distant future, children are not aborted as often but the lack of food stamps, WIC, reduction of unemployment benefits, welfare cuts, housing aid, continued deterioration of the value of the minimum wage, and the Right’s desire to eliminate Obamacare will push these children into Dickensian levels of want, need and neglect. The Catholic Bishops recently told one of their own, pro-life poster boy Cong. Paul Ryan, that his draconian budget was not at all in keeping with Catholic values of compassion and looking out for the needs of society’s vulnerable. This is the dark side of pro-life Righties — they want the babies to live but are fairly heartless after that. Much better, IMO, to embrace a more holistic ethos, as has been espoused by Democrats for Life, the Bishops, and others.

  • mcurt2s

    Recognizing that the unborn are protected by the 14th Amendment is the civil rights issue of our time. Where is the Wilberforce of our generation? Abortion is the Holocaust of our time. Where are the Bonhoeffers of our generation?

  • mcurt2s

    The notion that Mr. Middleton raises, that Republicans do not care about the poor, is a straw man. Republicans care about the poor and give more, per capita, to the poor than liberals. Conservatives just differ in how best to help the poor. I was a member of my university’s Young Democrats until I taught in an inner-city school and saw what generational dependency had done to my kids. I was glad for the safety net that protects the ones who laAck ability. Yet many of my kids were whip-smart, but completely uninterested in achieving their potential. They said they would “go into narcotics,” or “My mama ain’t never had to work. I ain’t never gonna work.”

    Look at John 12:4-6 for a picture of many people’s attitude toward the poor. They don’t really care about the poor, they just want their votes and to pay themselves handsome salaries for redistributing taxpayer money to them.

    Abortion kills the poor and blacks in far greater numbers than their proportion of the population. This is helping the poor?

  • Myles

    Roe v Wade was not the start of abortion in America. It was the start of safe abortion in America. Research by WHO has shown that the rates of abortion increase when the procedure is made illegal. I agree that this war needs to stop but we should come together and work on strategies to stop unwanted pregnancies rather than ban abortions. Are you in favor of comprehensive sex education, gay adoption, access to emergency contraception(which contrary to popular belief, works like the birth control pill and is not an abortifacient) are you in favor of increasing the amount of financial support necessary to take care of the children that will be born to families that cant take care of them?

    Abortion will always be necessary as long as ectopic pregnancy and rape occur. Women should not be forced to be life support systems for another life anymore than you should be forced to donate a kidney to somebody on dialysis.

  • Todd

    It doesn’t change the direction of the article. But, the LDS church (Mormons) actual grew at a pace of about 18%. The data from the stastics people wasn’t wrong, however, the LDS church changed how it officially reports the numbers this last decade. Prior to 2000 the LDS church did not include members who are on church records but can’t be located. The new reporting includes these people and is in line with how other churchs report. Anyway, the 45% jump is a one time jump that will likely be closer to 20% in the next decade.

  • Peter Novochekhov

    There was a number of intellectuals and clerics during the Russian revolution that refused to fight Communism. Lenin used to call them “useful idiots”. Not fighting Communism in that situation meant support for the Bolshevics.