The Briefing 08-01-16
The evangelical predicament: What will a faithful vote look like in November?
We are now, it is all too clear, entering into uncharted territory. The last few weeks has served to underline that fact dramatically here in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, also throughout Europe, for that matter, in most places right now in the world. These unsettled times in this uncharted territory include all matters of morality and legal systems, of politics and economics and, of course, of geopolitics and the military situation, including the so-called war on terror. What we have seen just in the last 30 days or so is a dramatic affirmation of discontinuity rather than continuity. We’re now living in times that are so unsettled and for that matter unpredictable that it is hard to know exactly what we’ll face tomorrow or, for that matter, even later today.
In the American political scene, the situation was made so dramatically clear in the two major political conventions. When we went into the month of July, it was already very clear that the inevitable Democratic nominee would be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Equally, it appeared to be inevitable that Donald Trump, having never been elected to any elective office before, would be the standard-bearer for the Republican Party. Now if you go back in time, just a matter of one year, the first of those propositions would have been entirely understandable and predictable. The interesting thing, of course, over the past year on the Democratic side has been the fact that Hillary Clinton had a hotly contested race getting to the Democratic convention. That was not expected. Bernie Sanders was not on the political screen as a major challenge to Hillary Clinton a year ago. But we now know, of course, that Bernie Sanders led to a total restructuring of the Democratic race and, as we shall see in coming days, to a new identity for the Democratic nominee—none other than former Secretary of State Clinton. On the Republican side, it was not just the Republican National Convention but the weeks leading up to it and the days following it that have made very clear that Donald Trump, a populist candidate, is now going to reshape the Republican Party, if not Republican identity.
In terms of worldview issues, it’s hard to imagine anything more significant than the 2016 presidential race and how it is shaping up around us. But the most interesting and startling fact, of course, is that we are now entering what can only be called a period of tumult. And of course we are also now facing a very significant evangelical predicament. I refer to it as the evangelical predicament because it points to the fact that evangelical Christians in the United States who will be voting in November 2016 for president are facing a situation that no recent generation of evangelicals has faced or, for that matter, had even foreseen. But, of course, you can press back further and say that—you can take the qualifiers off that statement—no previous generation of evangelicals in this country, no matter the time, no matter the era, faced anything like the political and moral equation embedded with so much worldview significance that this generation of Christians will face in the ballot box in the United States.
The background to this has nothing immediately to do with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It has to do with the fact that in the postwar resettlement of American politics, in particular in the decades of the 60s and the 70s and the 80s, the two major political parties in the United States, the Republicans and the Democrats, headed into two very different directions. They established two opposing trajectories. As we shall see, that was true especially of domestic policy, though it was somewhat true of foreign policy, but much less true, as we shall see.
On domestic policy issues, the Republicans and the Democrats headed in two, if not diametrically opposed, then clearly contrasting, directions. The Democrats followed a progressivist and liberal vision for the United States, and the Republicans a far more conservative position. Now those words are not without requirement of definition. When we use the word liberal in a classic sense, we’re talking about those who prize liberty. In that sense, virtually all Americans are liberals. But in the more immediate political context, liberalism has been associated with an assertive state. In terms of politics, liberalism has been associated with the understanding that the state, that is the government itself, should stand at the center of planning and of process in terms of all social life, not just politically, but also culturally and most importantly in terms of historic American liberalism, economically. Thus, the liberals have favored the expansion of the state, the expansion of the government, and increased government involvement in virtually every dimension of life.
On the liberal side, the moral situation has also been joined by an argument of expressive individualism, an argument based in personal autonomy, an argument that is also based ideologically in the understanding that previous structures and forms that had been honored by generations before us are more likely to be oppressive rather than liberating and thus should either be redefined or discarded altogether.
Conservatism on the other hand, has held to basically opposite positions. Conservatives have understood that it is the free market that is to be a far more equitable agent and platform in terms of economic progress than the state. Conservatives look at a history of central planning, especially central political and economic planning on the part of governments, and see a legacy of disaster, famine, and for that matter even worse, because this requires the coercive power of the state which so often leads to tyranny. Furthermore, one of the central insights of the conservative political philosophy and of free market economics is that it is individuals who were in the best position to make the economic decisions that will lead to their own definition of happiness and fulfillment.
In terms of other issues, and in particular moral issues, the conservatives have held the opposite position of the progressivists or the liberals. Whereas the liberals saw that structures of human living of previous generations were likely to be oppressive and thus, as we have said, either redefined or discarded, conservatives have believed that those very structures hold the essence of what leads to human flourishing and are thus to be respected and defended, supported and honored. Just consider the institutions of marriage and the family in terms of contemporary cultural, political, and moral controversies and you see exactly how these two sides have generally lined up.
I mentioned that foreign policy was an issue in which there was less division, although still Republicans and Democrats held to at least some foreign-policy distinctives. But the interesting thing over time is that from the postwar period at the end of, say, 1945 until at least the last few years, there’s been an amazing foreign policy consensus over time between the two parties.
Now all of that brings us to August 2016, and now we understand why we’re in such uncharted territory and why we’re living in such unprecedented times. It is because neither of the two major political party nominees, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is exactly a predictable product of the parties that have produced them, or at least the parties in which they are now the leader and presidential nominee.
Let’s look first at the Republican side. Donald Trump is one of the most disruptive political characters in terms of American public life. When we use the word unprecedented with reference to Donald Trump, it is not an exaggeration. We’re talking about someone who has never previously been elected to any political office whatsoever. We’re talking about someone whose basic economic philosophy is not consistent with the tradition of Republican conservatism, but rather there’s a great deal more in common with the kind of activist governmental involvement that has characterized the Democratic Party.
On a host of other issues, Donald Trump is simply a blank slate in terms of what policies he would actually put into place. He got the Republican nomination largely by the fact that he was running on a nativist and populist platform in a time in which there is clearly a populist resurgence in the United States, for that matter, in both parties. In terms of moral issues, Donald Trump may now hold, at least in some sense, to positions that are more consistent with the Republican Party, but that would be an innovation for Donald Trump, who has at least previously held to very extreme pro-abortion positions and also has at least made comments very favorable concerning something like same-sex marriage. Where he stands now only he knows where and why, but as it became very apparent to the Republican National Convention last month, Donald Trump is at least standing his distance from the positions on these moral issues that were affirmed by the Republican Party platform even this very year.
On the Democratic side, the situation has to do with the former Secretary of State gaining the Democratic presidential nomination. The fact that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee is really a surprise to no one. The issue is, which Hillary Clinton gained the nomination? Which Hillary Clinton accepted that nomination with a speech that after all, would define her candidacy going into November? It was a Hillary Clinton decidedly to the left to where Hillary Clinton was when she began her presidential campaign this time; it was a presidential candidate, the Hillary Clinton considerably to the left of where she ran when she first ran for president in 2008. It was a Hillary Clinton considerably to the left of the Hillary Clinton who ran for the United States Senate at the end of her husband’s two terms as president. But it just might be that an argument can be made it is the Hillary Clinton who was first on the nation’s radar at the national level as the First Lady of Arkansas.
As we’ll see as we continue in days ahead to try to understand what’s going on in terms of the American political process and, in particular, the presidential election, we’re looking at a transformation of both parties. But when it comes to Hillary Clinton, the Hillary who accepted the nomination last week as she addressed the convention in Philadelphia was far to the left of the Hillary Clinton who introduced herself even once again to this party just months ago, and that is due to the fact that the disruption in the Democratic Party was not only named Senator Bernie Sanders, it is named by another name, a name that would’ve been even a year ago conceptually unspeakable in the Democratic Party, and that word is Socialist. Democratic Socialist is how Bernie Sanders described himself as the Independent Senator from Vermont launched his presidential campaign, a presidential campaign that did demonstrate a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton on her way to Philadelphia.
In weeks and days ahead we’re going to be looking very carefully at this evangelical predicament, a predicament in which evangelical Christians in the United States now find themselves in which there is no easy answer to some of the most basic and fundamental, even inescapable political questions in terms of our contemporary life. This is especially true when we look to the 2016 presidential race. All of the sudden, issues of character when it comes to a presidential candidate loom larger than we might ever have imagined. And this is true in both parties, and it is especially true when centered in the two major nominees, both of whom have massive character issues that would have disqualified them from American public life, not to mention presidential politics, in any previous generation.
Just over the weekend, The Economist of London ran a major article on what it called the new political divide in the United States and in this they referred to the eclipse of left versus right. Farewell to that, they said, the contest that matters now is open against closed. Now that particular analysis fits the globalist perspective of The Economist, but even evangelical Christians, or perhaps especially evangelical Christians, looking at the very same political reality come to understand that we do indeed say farewell to the predictable political structure we’ve known in the past. We are in this unsettled time in uncharted territory. We are facing an unprecedented set of decisions, and it’s going to test every dimension of our evangelical conviction and our ability to think as Christians in terms of the Christian worldview. This is going to require a great deal of thinking by us, and it’s going to require a great deal of thinking on our feet as issues and events unfold all around us. We do not know some of the issues we’ll have to talk about at the end of this week, much less next month. But we do know this: faithfulness to Christ is going to require us to be very, very careful and discerning, not to mention prayerful and faithful, as we seek to understand how we negotiate all the challenges we now face, how we think them through, and how we come to understand our responsibility when we can’t simply draw a direct line from the evangelical past to the evangelical present. In coming weeks we’ll be breaking down these issues in order to speak about separate parts while trying to keep an understanding of the big picture.
Violence, terrorism, and global unrest in July shook the foundations of civilization
But meanwhile, we have to turn to the fact that we are also, as the last several weeks have made very clear, living in unprecedented times in terms of shocking violence and terror, both at home and abroad. In the United States, the big headlines have justifiably been directed towards Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On July 7, Michael Xavier Johnson unloaded a deliberate attack upon policemen there in Dallas, Texas, killing five and wounding 11. In Baton Rouge, just about 10 days later, on July 17, another gunman unleashed violence leading to the deaths of three policemen and the injury of three more. Law enforcement officials had not experienced the grieving of deaths in this number since September 11, 2001.
Meanwhile, those headlines came fast on the heels of other headlines having to do with the arrests of African-American men and the deaths of at least two of those as they were being taken into police custody, or at least had an encounter with the police. This has led to the ongoing national sense of crisis and the urgency of a national conversation concerning policing, issues of racism, long-term incarceration, and any number of other both structural and moral issues facing the nation along the black-white divide. Clearly, there’s a great deal of work to do even in determining how we can think rightly and faithfully about these issues. But at the very least, America was shocked in the past month by the headlines coming out of Dallas and Baton Rouge and the fact that we are talking about something that can no longer be put on the back burner of our national conversation. It also points to the importance of the 2016 presidential election and the need for a president who can speak to this nation in morally credible terms and actually deal with the confrontation that is taking place in such a way as to bring about something that will lead to human flourishing and security, not to greater division in this country.
But we also have to turn to the international scene where the headlines have been absolutely shocking beyond anything that we could’ve expected as we went into the summer. On July 14, that is France’s Bastille Day, in a town of France on the French Riviera, a man entered a truck and sent it rampaging through a crowd gathered for the occasion, killing at least 84 and wounding hundreds more. It was later discovered that it was a 31-year-old man of Tunisian origin, who had not only driven the truck through the crowd of such murderous intent, but as was revealed just over this past weekend by French security authorities, is now known to have planned the event of the attack for months and to have had at least some who were either accomplices or at least were in the understanding of what the man had planned to do there in Nice. And of course that came just eight months after the murderous attack in Paris by the Islamic State that led to the deaths of 130.
In the month of July, Germany had its first major Islamic terrorist attack. It sent a clear signal to Germany about what it too might face as a part of the war on terror. On July 26, it was France again, in Normandy, where two 19-year-olds who identified themselves with the Islamic State entered a Roman Catholic Church and slit the throat of a priest, killing him before an absolutely horrified congregation. It is now known that of the two 19-year-olds who identified with ISIS, one had actually been in French custody and was only allowed to go free four hours a day in terms of how he was being supervised and within a certain district. That church, it turns out, was in that particular area. We now know that the other 19-year-old had been the subject of an advisory from French intelligence and military authorities just days before the murderous attack in Normandy, but French police in the area had not picked up on the threat.
One of the most interesting aspects of these developments in France is that there is now very little national debate in the nation of France as to whether or not that nation faces a direct attack in terms of those who are motivated by Islam. There is now a decreasing amount of the kind of political correctness that has become institutionalized in the United States on this issue. The Financial Times of London asked the obvious question, and that is this: of all these European nations, why is France so singularly at the center of the target of the jihadis? The answer to that, it turns out, is rather complex, but it is rooted in the fact that not only is France now a leading partner in terms of efforts militarily against the Islamic State in the Middle East, but France, of course, has a long history in terms of colonialism and engagement with Muslim cultures that has led to centuries and generations of resentment. Furthermore, France in recent decades has had a very open immigration policy, especially when it came to the immigration of Muslims from territories that had been traditionally related to France such as Algeria. And there of course is also the problem, as the Financial Times makes very clear, that France has not been successful at assimilating these immigrants into the national French culture; to the contrary, it has allowed the congregation of those who have come as immigrant communities into almost entirely different zones unto themselves in terms of France, and especially the nation’s capital of Paris, not to mention cities also like Marseille further towards the Mediterranean. But there is another issue the Financial Times clearly understands, and that is the fact that France is ardently, in terms of its government, committed to secularity, if not to secularism. That, of course, makes France uniquely vulnerable to those who are animated and motivated by a theological worldview, and it also makes France almost singularly incompetent to know how to respond. There is amongst the French intellectuals now a virtual inability to understand anyone who might operate in terms of worldview from any kind of theological motivation and basic structure.
Shifting to the United States, we come to understand that the same basic pattern is detectable here, the intellectual elites in the United States are so increasingly and pervasively secular in terms of their worldview that they not only lack sympathy for anyone who operates out of a theological worldview, but they seem to lack also the ability even to understand how that kind of commitment in terms of worldview might operate.
Meanwhile, July also made clear that one of the most important nations of the world, that nation that straddles Europe and Asia, is itself inherently unstable in terms of politics, the military, economics and also of worldview. That is the nation of Turkey, where on the 15th of July there was an abortive coup attempt against its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan represents a new shape of Islamism in terms of his political philosophy and, of course, he is increasingly an autocrat. And what we saw was an abortive coup attempt that may in the end provide the political and military rationale for Erdogan basically to take over the country as what would be, in effect, a strong man. But if he is successful, and it appears he is likely to be so, Erdogan will basically have turned his back on the secular commitment of the government, going all the way back to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and will be forging a new form of Islamism.
But what’s really interesting and concerning here is that we’re not talking about a nation in North Africa or in the Levant, or in the Middle East for that matter, but we’re talking about a nation that includes in at least part of its landmass an identity that is inside of Europe.
The month of July demonstrated in such graphic terms the fact that the headlines are never merely the headlines; every single one of these major headlines, headlines that rocked the world, the United States, and virtually every local community, every one of them came with explosive worldview significance. It is our responsibility to seek to think these issues through, to understand not only what is coming to us in terms of the headlines, but even more importantly, what is coming behind them. As the singular month of July made clear and as we now enter into August in the new season of The Briefing, there is no danger that we will have an insufficient number of issues about which we have to think and through which we have to talk. I appreciate the fact you’ve now joined us for this new season of The Briefing as we try to think these issues through together.
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