Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Neither Utopia Nor Indifference
By William Edgar
November 10, 2014
The realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously said “Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” During the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, various evangelicals, including Francis Schaeffer, thought there was a new window of opportunity for Christians in politics. Accordingly, various conservative individuals ran for election, and various organizations were created for the purpose of raising consciousness and lobbying politicians and school boards. The best known of these was Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, founded in 1979. Pat Robertson famously asked simply for “a place at the table.” And several evangelicals were indeed elected. The Republican Party, usually the party of choice, courted the New Christian Right (NCR), which often gave them the support they needed in order to stay in power. The title of a conference in 1990, followed by a publication, best expressed the mood: No Longer Exiles.
The window did not remain open for very long. Indeed, all of the presentations at that conference rehearsed both the reasons for the successes, then the reasons for the dramatic failure of the NCR to make a real difference in American culture. Those included lack of resilient organizations, embarrassing divisions among evangelicals, and hostility from the elite media. Several organizations, including the Moral Majority, folded. Various NCR pundits told their audiences that their strategy had been mistaken. Paul Weyrich (1942-2008), co-founder of several conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, urged his constituency to stop hoping in politics. He told them the largest mistake they had made was to put their faith in political saviors. He said that we have bigger battles to fight, “the eternal battle between right and wrong.”
Many young people today, including Christians, have lost faith in politics altogether. In an informal survey taken at my workplace, Westminster Seminary, many of the “millennials” in the student body reported they were not planning to vote in the recent elections. Their reasons? Politics is corrupt. It won’t make a difference anyway. It doesn’t matter anymore which leaders are in office. In a few decades, evangelicals have moved from hoping for an open window to disillusion and even cynicism. Of course, there are exceptions. Many of the students I know are involved with causes such as human trafficking, and they support organizations such as the International Justice Mission, which certainly has a political component. Some of our students from urban backgrounds work hard in local politics and fight to give the destitute access to power. Still, the lack of trust in the traditional political process is striking.
I would like humbly to ask, were not some of the aspirations of the NCR utopian? Did not some believe that if only we could sit at the steering wheel, we could change the course of the country? Then, in its disillusionment, did not some settle for indifference?
What might have helped is a closer look at the biblical philosophy of history. Consider a surprising source: the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30). The parable is the first of three based on things that grow (wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and leaven and flour). All three ask patience of us. If you harvest the wheat prematurely, you might uproot it by mistake. The mustard seed will grow into a large bush, the yeast will eventually cause the dough to become a loaf of bread. But if we lose patience and try to force things, we will do more harm than good. By implication, our dreams should not be utopian. When Czechoslovakia was emancipated from Communism, it did not take long for its people to become impatient. Their elected president Vaclav Havel told them that unraveling the ill effects of their erstwhile oppressors was not going to happen overnight. He said that great damage could be done by going too fast, much like the child, who in his enthusiasm to see a flower grow, yanks it from the ground.
Our present world is a mixture of two great forces, as Weyrich suggested. But attempts at hastening the process of the growth of the good will almost certainly end in destruction. At the same time, this does not for one minute mean indifference. The parables never suggest simply standing by. The kingdom of God will mature in time, and the political process is one legitimate instrument for that to occur. Unlike those who advocate the “spirituality of the church” in an exaggerated way and thus downplay the good of politics, the Bible grants an important role to political activity. Limited, to be sure, but significant nonetheless. But that means real politics. Not utopia. It is not enough to claim a place at the table. Politicians, including Christian ones, need to become involved in all parts of the job, even the less pleasant ones, to work with the opposition, to aim for healthy compromise. Perhaps Niebuhr is right. Some problems are insoluble. But does that mean we should be indifferent to them? No, for the proximate solutions are possible and helpful.
- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”