Christ Before the Cause: The Rise of a New Evangelical Politics

Peter Wehner’s recent guest post here at Philosophical Fragments — “The Callous Theology of James Dobson“– was shared on Facebook and Twitter over 40,000 times. It helped to provoke an important conversation about the Christian response to the Sandy Hook school massacre and the responsibilities of those who represent evangelical opinion in the public marketplace of ideas. Mr Wehner is a friend and an influential political thought-leader who is both a committed evangelical and a principled conservative who has served in three Republican administrations. A central part of the vision of Patheos’ Evangelical Channel has always been the cultivation and promotion of new generations of evangelical leaders — so I’m honored now to publish this follow-up reflection.

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Christ Before the Cause: The New Evangelical Politics

By Peter Wehner

In a piece I wrote for Patheos a few weeks ago, I referred to the “callous theology” of James Dobson, whom I correctly identified as the founder of Focus on the Family. What I didn’t say then, but I believe is worth saying now, is that several years ago Dr. Dobson severed his ties with Focus on the Family. The organization is therefore quite different now — and I would argue a good deal more winsome and effective — than it was.

The reason has to do with institutional leadership. Jim Daly is now president and CEO of Focus on the Family. It still devotes a huge amount of its work to strengthening marriages and offering parental counseling — something at which Dobson was quite accomplished and for which he deserves credit. But there has been a fairly dramatic shift in style, away from the “culture war” mentality to a more irenic approach. Mr. Daly has shown a much greater willingness than Dobson to engage in dialogue with those who disagree with him. And it’s fair to say, I think, that Daly — while theologically orthodox and socially conservative — is a person who is cut from a different temperamental cloth from Dobson. Mr. Daly is less abrasive and combative than his predecessor.

Beneath their stylistic differences, however, lies something important. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that some of the most prominent Christian figures in politics radiate a sense that their work is essential if the Lord is to accomplish His goals on earth. Because they believe so much depends on them, they develop an aggressive, anxious, even desperate spirit. They seem to believe that only they and a few others are strong enough to resist compromising with evil. And over the years they have demonstrated a barely contained disdain toward those who do not share their zeal for their cause. This can create its own set of problems.

I’m reminded here of the cautionary tale of Sheldon Vanauken, who in A Severe Mercy wrote about his days in the anti-Vietnam war movement. “I was one of those caught up in the mood and action oft the 1960s,” Vanauken wrote:

Christ, I thought, would surely have me oppose what appeared an unjust war. But the Movement, whatever its ideals, did a good deal of hating. And Christ, gradually, was pushed to the rear: Movement goals, not God, became first, in fact — not only for me but for other Christians involved, including priests. I now think that making God secondary (which in the end is to make Him nothing) is, quite simply, the mortal danger in social action, especially in view of the marked intimations of virtue — even arrogant virtue — that often perilously accompany it. Some may avoid this danger, perhaps. But I was not obeying the first and greatest commandment — to love God first — nor it is clear that I was obeying the second — to love my neighbour. Hating the oppressors of my neighbor isn’t perhaps quite what Christ had in mind.

Over the years, some politically active Christian leaders seem to believe that at stake in their work is nothing less than the influence of Christianity in America, as if Christ depends on them instead of the other way around. There are multiple effects to such a mindset, including apocalyptic rhetoric and absolutism. At some point, though, characterizing every election and every important piece of social legislation as a moral tipping point for America begins to wear thin.

My own sense of things is that an increasing  number of evangelicals, particularly younger evangelicals, want their brand of politics to be less partisan and bitter than in the past, as well as more high-minded and more firmly rooted in principles. They want their leaders to display a lighter touch, a less distraught and angry spirit, a more gracious tone. In short, they seem to be looking for a politics that is both moral and civil. And they are thirsting for more serious Christian reflection on human society and the human person — on first principles.

Which brings me back to Jim Daly and his impressive efforts to Re-Focus on the Family in a manner that strikes me, at least, as principled and effective. He carries himself and his institution in a way that seeks the welfare of the city to which we have been exiled — and understands that while the City of Man is our residence for now, the City of God is our ultimate home.

Peter Wehner co-authored City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era with Michael Gerson, and Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism with Arthur C. Brooks. After serving in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, he served as head of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives under George W. Bush. Presently he is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and writes frequently for Commentary.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    “My own sense of things is that an increasing number of evangelicals, particularly younger evangelicals, want their brand of politics to be less partisan and bitter than in the past, as well as more high-minded and more firmly rooted in principles. They want their leaders to display a lighter touch, a less distraught and angry spirit, a more gracious tone. In short, they seem to be looking for a politics that is both moral and civil. And they are thirsting for more serious Christian reflection on human society and the human person — on first principles.”
    As one of those “younger Evangelicals” I’ve been struggling to figure out how to take strong, principled position based out of a strong, basic framework without turning into a panicked idealogue. Apathetic hipsterism isn’t the answer, neither is world-denying political abandonment, but the happy “middle”, that 3rd way is still something that evades me.
    All this to say I’m highly interested in your book now. Thanks again.

  • http://stowellbrown.blogspot.com/ Flyaway

    The answer is to pray about everything and then step out in faith. We need to love others enough to tell them the truth.

  • Josh Lyman

    So, Focus on the Family is better now? So they no longer make partisan videos like this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=MG0qJQ8N27U

    Or mailouts like this:
    http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2012/images/10/31/mailer2.jpg

  • http://awell-wateredgarden.blogspot.com Annette

    Not only is Dobson “from a different personality cloth” but Dobson is from a different generation period. His generation had less tolerance for and were more bold about certain issues. My dad was very similar to Dobson’s opinions and voice. I believe the newer generations are looking for a more peaceful approach to issues we do not agree with. We may not agree with what others are doing, but we do not want to be aggressive and provoking. As for me I want my life to show I am a Christian, and that above all else I love Jesus. I do not want to just say I am a Christian, but to live my life in small things and large things that I am a follower of Jesus Christ.

  • rvs

    I especially appreciated this character sketch in the blog post: “Because they believe so much depends on them, they develop an aggressive, anxious, even desperate spirit. They seem to believe that only they and a few others are strong enough to resist compromising with evil.” I am reminded of the scenario in which the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards got kicked out of his pulpit by a vote of 200 to 20. For Edwards, of course, only 20 had found the truth.

  • Rick

    I agree with Josh Lyman above. Focus on the Family is still a curious mix of nice family advice (“men, be kind to your wives”) and nasty partisan politics. Also, I’m not sure I necessarily agree with the author that younger evangelicals are less itching for cultural fights. The language that I’ve seen during the 2012 election and in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre doesn’t exactly convince me that evangelicals respond calmly to, uh, suggestions that we need a few more gun laws.

  • CS Stump

    Wow. This is very disappointing. No, disgusting. The James Dobson you describe is not the man I listened to on the radio for over 20 years and the author of so many excellent books I have read. Rather, Dr. Dobson is obviously an incredibly compassionate and decent man. To define him in terms of a single sound bite, probably lifted out of context, is a huge disservice to the Christian body. And, to criticize him for mentioning homosexuality and not divorce in the original article. Are you serious? His life was dedicated to preserving marriages and families. It just so happens that at this particular time in history homosexual activists, and their allies in the media and pop culture are dangerously close to distorting institution entirely beyond recognition through lies and bullying. Unfortunately, some Christians seem to be ready to throw in the towel to accomodate to the world rather than standing firm against our cultural rot. Yes, proclaiming the truth in love is essential, but that is exactly what Dr. Dobson has done.


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