Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Troubling Decline of Evangelical Social Engagement

Michael J. Gerson


by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

One of the most disappointing developments of the current presidential season has been a decline in the quality of evangelical social engagement. 

Candidates such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry have made very public statements about their faith.  They have also confirmed some of the most disturbing stereotypes of the religious right.  Bachmann has argued strenuously to deny the children of undocumented workers public benefits – including elementary school education and medical treatment.  She has spread false, dangerous rumors about vaccination in the name of “family values.”  Rick Perry’s recent commercial titled “Strong” treats school prayer as a defining national issue and asserts that President Obama is engaged in a “war on religion.” 

You’ll find plenty of hostile parodies of Perry’s ad on YouTube.  But the problem is that Perry’s ad is itself a parody.  It is the summary of a political agenda – and an example of apocalyptic political language – that would have been more at home in the 1980s. It sounds like the Moral Majority on its worst days.    

There are, of course, political reasons for this type of approach.  The religious right still has a large influence in the Iowa caucuses – as it has had since Pat Robertson did well there in 1988 as a presidential candidate. 

But this is an explanation, not a justification.  Both Bachmann and Perry have every right to argue for their views, which certainly seem sincere.  But they don’t have the right to assume that their views are the obvious or authentic expression of Christian involvement in politics. 

Twelve years ago, I participated in the campaign of a conservative Christian candidate for president: George W. Bush.  He was a free-market Republican.  But he also talked about promoting the work of private and religious charities in helping the poor, homeless and addicted.  He recognized the aspirations and human dignity of illegal immigrants and their families, even at a political cost to himself.  As president, he saved millions of lives through ground breaking AIDS and malaria programs – helping men, women and children who had no voice in American politics.  Whatever disagreements people may have had with President Bush, he was not a caricature.

This wasn’t that long ago.  But sometimes it feels much longer.  Some of the candidates seem to believe that public evangelicalism is identical to uncompromising conservatism or libertarianism at every point. This is always a warning sign – as when people believe that Christian engagement is identical to liberalism.  This approach reduces Christianity to a pawn in someone else’s power game.  It limits the appeal of the Gospel, reducing the church to a partisan club.  And it ignores the fact that the Christian views of justice and human dignity challenge every party and ideology at some point. 

How do we explain this decline in the quality of evangelical social engagement?  Are politicians to blame?  Are churches and Christian colleges not teaching a distinctive view of politics and justice?  In the end, politics is only as good as the voters – which means the responsibility is our own. 

-Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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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.”