Contrary to expectations of defeat and despair that arose during the Obama years, evangelical political relevance has returned with a bang. The surprising victory of Donald Trump was due in no small part to the overwhelming support from evangelicals, and their continued support has led populist President Trump both to nominate pro-life and conservative judges and change certain abortion policies. Evangelicals seem to be #winning, and they don’t appear to be tired of it.
Evangelical support for Trump and now Roy Moore has however brought controversy and condemnation from both non-evangelicals and fellow evangelicals. Andrew Sullivan has argued that their support for Trump and Moore “is not about faith; it is about power.” Ross Douthat has found it useful to dismiss the “values” of the evangelical value-voter. The New York Times has published opinion after opinion attacking evangelical politics, calling it a “sorry state” and “Moore’s evangelicalism.” Respectable evangelical leaders, those who seemingly have the respect of most major figures in the opinion-generating world, have joined in and pleaded with their fellow evangelicals to end their “unprincipled” support for these candidates. This group is best represented by the ERLC and The Gospel Coalition.
Most of these denunciations have a similar theme. It is not about the potential long-term loss of political power and policy failures. It is not about prudence or wisdom. Rather it is about the pursuit of political ends by immoral means. A common line is: evangelicals have pursued “political expediency” at the cost of “moral principle.” Evangelical politics ought to be witnessing faith and not have any hint of the lust for power. Christian politics is part of the church’s “moral witness.”
Since so much evangelical political theology is a string of tropes and one-liners, this term, “moral witness,” needs to be unpacked. What is the nature of “moral witness”? Who is the audience? Why is it so often juxtaposed with political ends and “political expediency”? In this essay, I provide a theory on the meaning of “moral witness” in contemporary evangelicalism.
Words and Action
In evangelicalism today there is an extreme version of a common feature of Christianity in general: the disunity of words and action. What I mean is that the moral demands of Christianity, which are principally rooted in the Word, often tell man to do both what seems contrary to his nature (e.g., to love his enemies and not to love oneself) and what is unlikely or exceedingly difficult given his nature. Pierre Manent calls this the “Christian situation.” He writes, “Christianity introduced an unprecedented disparity between what humans do and what they say.” The high moral demands of Christianity communicated via words provides significant ammunition for praise and blame, distrust of oneself and others, and hesitancy to act. This means that Christian political thought often has an internal tension between a moral regime of words and the political regime of necessary action. That is to say, the demands of morality, or “moral principles,” seem to come into conflict with what is necessary for political order and civil peace.
Respectable evangelicals today are decidedly committed to the regime of words in relation to politics. Their moral witness trumps achieving desired policies, acquiring influence, and obtaining political power. But their moral witness is not the advocacy for an ideal regime; it is not utopian. Rather their moral witness is tied to their gospel witness whose content is carefully selected and intended for a targeted audience. The end or purpose of evangelical politics is evangelism, not political success. It is speech, not action. Evangelical leaders reign over a regime of morally charged words.
These evangelicals are advocates for justice and achieve things through independent action in civil society. I’m not suggesting that they are “all talk.” But their political activity is a moral project of living up to a self-assigned set of moral-talk that has largely sidelined questions concerning civil order. It has pushed the tension aside. The trend in evangelical political-talk shows little interest in a comprehensive political theory that raises questions of realistic social solidarity, social discipline, war and peace, crime and punishment, etc. Evangelicals can selectively label certain issues “gospel issues,” elevating some issues above others, particularly those that ecclesial communities might broadcast episodes of progress. It is no surprise that these “gospel issues” (e.g., race, sex, gender, ethnicity, immigration, etc.) largely conform to the common interests of their audience of moral witness.
The need for order however does not go away when we avoid its questions. But evangelicals don’t have to worry about political order any more. The modern State has resolved the tension. The State, as the entity possessing the exclusive means of legitimate violence, as the supreme actor of human society, establishes and maintains public order with such efficiency and power that sentimental Christian politics is possible. The State does the dirty work allowing Christians to do the work of heavenly morality, even providing them the opportunity to announce their moral supremacy when the State acts to maintain that order. With a secure state and firm civil order, evangelicals are free to formulate a set of moral-political positions, without reference to or accounting for civil order, whose advocacy is not for political implementation but serves as the public declaration of evangelical public morality. In other words, because the State has resolved the tension by assuming for itself responsibility for the actions necessary for civil order, evangelicals can, each and every time, one-up the world in their declaration of public morality serving as a demonstration of their other-worldly moral excellence. They can be the exemplars of self-denial and denounce the “will to power,” because there is no power left out there to will.
But again this is all dependent on the State’s absolute power in securing order. Respectable evangelical politics is facilitated by the State, is dependent on the State, and gets its greatest moral witness by reacting to the State. Gospel-driven politics is state-dependent moralizing.
The State provides them the opportunity to dwell in a regime of words, a linguistic land with an arsenal of praise and blame useful to browbeat their fellow evangelicals to conform to their project of moral witness. They don’t use their words to condemn non-evangelicals, only fellow evangelicals (and East Coast newspapers are more than happy to provide space for such condemnations). It must be “our” moral witness, so we must be a house united. And this moral witness demands that evangelicals not dirty their hands by engaging in the sort of politics that the state already takes care of. Pursuing “power” makes you the same as the “world.” We are called to be “different.” It is in our difference—our separation from the less savory necessities of political order—that ensures our gospel-witness.
Being in a regime of words, evangelicals are hyper-sensitive to charges of hypocrisy from those on the outside. Their project, after all, is a moral one. They have to live up to their words for their moral engagement to work. This explains why some issues receive the adjective “gospel” and others do not. To have a moral witness with no hypocrisy, the moral goals must be publicly demonstrable and we must be able demonstrate them together, even excel at demonstrating them. We must unite around a political vision not with a view to Christianizing society, but to posture ourselves before the world in the best possible recognizable light. Our vision must be therefore a very particular moral platform, engineered by those experienced in “cultural engagement” and suitable for our cultural milieu. Successful evangelical politics then is formulating and presenting the best possible morality-talk that appeals to the object of our witness and thereby makes our gospel-persuasion winsome and attractive. Politics is the continuation of evangelicalism by other means.
But the demand for a particular set of words and unity around those words requires control over the regime of words. While respectable evangelicals will condemn those who use civil power to achieve evangelical political ends, they wield a remarkable degree of rhetorical power over their own to unite evangelicals around a particular moral platform. The generalizations, shaming, the casting of labels, the extensive and repeated use of political-theological tropes, the exclusion of certain perspectives and voices, the moral denunciations, and willingness to dismiss others all point to a willingness to exert rhetorical tyranny over fellow evangelicals in the interest of rallying evangelicals around their platform for gospel-success. They have pursued dominance over intra-evangelical discourse at the expense of rhetorical principle.
Notice that this pattern of denunciation and control is not much different than the “modern epic of denunciation” that characterizes our contemporary public discourse. Respectable evangelicals are indeed respectable for their participation in it. Despite denouncing others for their “worldly” use of power, they have adopted the world’s instrument of social conformity. But this is expected. Since their end is moral witness to the world, they must pattern their public speech around the world’s method of moral dramatization. But this is power, a subtler form of power; but nonetheless it is power. Covert (rhetorical) power is used to attack overt (political) power. Their end is not to conform the evangelical will to his right reason or the Spirit. Rather it is to conform wills to their particular moral program.
This regime of words is attractive to many evangelicals, especially Millennials, because in our modern age of vanishing certainty on human moral ends, it provides them a set of moral tropes perfectly sized for Twitter and a set of actions for serving one’s neighbor that exclude any judgment on one’s neighbor’s lifestyle, public decency, conformity to social order/customs, and any other particularities other than those clearly contrary to liberalism’s “no harm principle.” The world’s moeurs are not objects for evangelical judgment. But the platform does provide an opponent: the non-conformist evangelical.
One major disadvantage of this view is how useful it is to evangelicalism’s opponents to stifle evangelical political action. When you posture yourself as “above politics,” any perceived use of political power for evangelical ends is an occasion for effective accusations of hypocrisy. Put different, one could use the respectable evangelical faith/power opposition to challenge the legitimacy of any evangelical political action. Hence, establishing an evangelical political vision of moral words in opposition to “power” and in the name of being “different” than the world hands the opponents of evangelicalism rhetorical ammunition to call out the hypocrisy of any and all use of power. Evangelicals are then further cornered into of regime of words with little to no outlet for action, save those strictly on the world’s terms. “Thou shalt not judge” is what we’ll hear. In the end, the tailor-made platform for gospel-witnessing allows non-Christians to tailor-make Christian action to practically support the moral chaos of modern liberalism—to become an instrument in the maintenance of licentious liberalism. (See this for example.)
This is exacerbated by the extreme word/action dichotomy of evangelicalism. One can know and speak what is right, but cannot have nearly as much confidence in acting on what is right. The principle, means, object and end of the action must be good, and there can be no sign of domination, privilege, earthly power, self-service, and self-reliance in the action. But since the ultimate end of the action is moral witness to non-believers, confidence in action is supplied in large part from their approval and praise of the action; and actions that meet their disapproval are likely actions of Christian “domination.” So Christian diffidence in action hands the dominating forces of our society an additional means of restricting Christian action and conforming it to their purposes. Respectable evangelicals are exemplars of their secular overlord’s approved list of just moral social action. In witnessing to them, they work for them, and they are unwitting censors on behalf of secularist interests.
This discussion explains to my mind what evangelicals mean when they talk of “moral witness.” It is a particular moral posture towards the world, dominated by action-stifling words and yet facilitated by the State as supreme actor, in order to both eschew the world and try to appeal to those of the world. While refusing to exert political force in any way that might upset non-evangelicals, evangelicals use rhetorical weapons to force fellow evangelicals to conform to a moral project whose content is carefully selected not for political success but for gospel-witnessing. To choose “political expediency” over “moral principle” then is ultimately to have a false end of political action; it is to have political ends as the ultimate ends of political action.
 Pierre Manent, The Metamophoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, 7.
Stephen Wolfe is graduate student in political science at LSU. He lives in Baton Rouge, LA with his wife and three children.