What Gerson Got Seriously Wrong

What Gerson Got Seriously Wrong March 13, 2018

Michael Gerson, whose article in The Atlantic is gaining a wide hearing in spite of its length and belabored points, begins on a very tired — what to call it — theme, is right on this:

One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.

Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.

This is acceptable even if overcooked:

How did something so important and admirable become so disgraced? For many people, including myself, this question involves both intellectual analysis and personal angst. The answer extends back some 150 years, and involves cultural and political shifts that long pre-date Donald Trump. It is the story of how an influential and culturally confident religious movement became a marginalized and anxious minority seeking political protection under the wing of a man such as Trump, the least traditionally Christian figure—in temperament, behavior, and evident belief—to assume the presidency in living memory.

What did he get wrong? Right here:

For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).In practice, this acts as an “if, then” requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.
So where do evangelicals get their theory of social engagement? It is cheating to say (as most evangelicals probably would) “the Bible.” The Christian Bible, after all, can be a vexing document: At various points, it offers approving accounts of genocide and recommends the stoning of insubordinate children. Some interpretive theory must elevate the Golden Rule above Iron Age ethics and apply that higher ideal to the tragic compromises of public life. Lacking an equivalent to Catholic social thought, many evangelicals seem to find their theory merely by following the contours of the political movement that is currently defending, and exploiting, them. The voter guides of religious conservatives have often been suspiciously similar to the political priorities of movement conservatism. Fox News and talk radio are vastly greater influences on evangelicals’ political identity than formal statements by religious denominations or from the National Association of Evangelicals. In this Christian political movement, Christian theology is emphatically not the primary motivating factor.

First, it is oh-so-common to say evangelicals don’t have a theory of social engagement and Catholics do. Hogwash. Who are we talking about here? Intellectual leaders? If so, that line is wrong on both sides. The Catholics and evangelicals have all kinds of leaders who have thought through this stuff carefully. Go to any respectable evangelical college, go to their political science department, and have coffee.

Now, if we are talking lay folks, yes. Big deal as that’s always been the case. I have never met a Catholic layperson who knows what subsidiarity is; I have met many who jumped on the Reagan-Bush bandwagon for abortion. Nor have I met many evangelicals who have a theory of social engagement.

Second, here’s another area he’s wrong. Gerson went to Wheaton, which meant that he read H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. For Pete’s sake, Gerson, every Wheaton student reads a book on theories of social engagement and, from what I am told, the professors are mostly “influentialists” or “transformationalists.” So, let’s not say evangelicals don’t have a theory for they do: they think they are called to exercise influence in the public sector by invading all areas of social life in order to make a difference toward the kingdom of God.

Third, Gerson gets something else in his idea that evangelicals don’t have a theory, and it’s right in front of him. His name is Abraham Kuyper, and he was behind — in the biggest sense of the word even when they leaders had no idea or were inconsistent — the resurgent political activism of the Reagan era. Maybe the most important intellectual behind that resurgence was Francis Schaeffer and he had a theory and it was Kuyperian at some level or Kuyperian in a new age. Falwell and Dobson and Kennedy (who was Kuyperian and Presbyterian) were given more platform by Schaeffer’s accessible writings, and it was a theory of influentialism through engagement.

Fourth, in the years of the resurgence there was a very public engagement between two intellectual thinkers on social engagement, both noticeably evangelical: Richard Mouw and (the now disgraced) John Howard Yoder. They debated not if but how evangelicals could best engage culture. Mouw was Kuyperian and Yoder was anabaptist/Mennonite. The former is an influentialist by social engagement, the latter an influentialist by way of witness to an alternative kingdom of God to be found in the church.

Gerson is propagating a very popular — critics of evangelicals love to hear him criticize them — but mistaken understanding of history.

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