Tag Archives: Politics

From Mad Marxist to Compassionate Conservative

Marvin Olasky bicycled across the United States and took a freighter to the Soviet Union before he found Jesus. He was a registered member of the Communist Party who believed religion is the opiate of the masses, but he couldn’t outrun the “hound of heaven.”

Today Olasky is the editor in chief of WORLD magazine, a Christian news magazine founded in 1986 that now has about 400,000 readers. Olasky has worked in academia and served as an occasional adviser to former President George W. Bush. The New York Times referred to Olasky as the “godfather” of the “compassionate conservatism” concept that formed a central plank in Bush’s campaign platform and his presidency.

Olasky was born in 1950 just outside of Boston, to Russian Jewish parents of modest means. He celebrated his bar mitzvah at 13 and informed his parents that he was an atheist at 14. The atheist went to Yale University (just as George W. Bush was graduating), where he eventually discovered and embraced Marxism.

Olasky put his worldview into action. He started a “worker-student alliance,” naming a college janitor as an honorary Yale fellow. He sat for five days outside the Yale administration building fasting, in solidarity with a strike among the cafeteria workers. During this time Olasky also had his first foray into journalism. When he graduated in 1971, The Boston Globe offered him a full-time job, but he declined in favor of bicycling across the country with only a tent, sleeping bag, and one change of clothes.

“In my mind, flush with anti-American rhetoric, I was touring an empire on the eve of destruction,” Olasky recalled in a series of autobiographical pieces he wrote for WORLD.

When he reached the other side of the country, he found a reporting job at an Oregon newspaper, The Bulletin. But he soon resigned in protest of the “capitalist press.” He officially joined the Communist Party. He wrote in his political notebook at the time, “Around the world revolutionary societies are developing; what is holding them back is the power of the American empire.” His views reached extremes:

People are always being killed by governments, one way or another. The point is, how many, and which ones, and why. . . . Some radicals take a soft-headed approach to revolution. They can’t understand that [Communist Party] work is bad work which must be done, sin whose time has come. Communism may be sin, in its revolutionary power enthusiasm, but it is sin going somewhere.

The Communist Party wanted him to go to Moscow as a foreign correspondent, while building ties with Soviet officials—essentially, to be a Soviet agent. He boarded a freighter to the Soviet Union, playing chess with one of the crew members as they crossed the ocean. He took the Trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow.

When he finally arrived, he discovered what he now considers a divinely merciful communication mix-up. No one in Moscow knew why he was there, and the Soviet officials greeted him with blank stares. A week later Olasky headed back to the States where he decided he would work as a reporter at The Boston Globe again. His pieces focused on class struggles.

What if Lenin Was Wrong?

One afternoon in 1973 everything changed. He sat down to read Lenin’s essay “Socialism and Religion.” He suddenly asked himself, What if Lenin was wrong about God? “When I sat down in that chair at 3 p.m. I was an atheist and a Communist,” Olasky recalled. “When I got up at 11 p.m. I was not.” Through the night he wandered, calling out to a higher authority. Over the next few weeks he began reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and essays of ex-Communists in The God that Failed. He tore up his Communist Party membership card.

But he was still several years from professing faith. Olasky compares that period of his life to the experience of the main character in Walker Percy’s classic novel The Moviegoer, who goes to the movies to escape pressing questions about existence. Olasky joined a film club and watched Westerns to escape. But the Westerns got into his heart, teaching him about moral absolutes.

During this time he met his wife, Susan, and proposed to her two weeks later. Together they looked through the yellow pages for a church in their new home in San Diego, where Olasky was teaching. They chose a Baptist church simply because they knew that Christians were supposed to be baptized. (Today the Olaskys are members of the Presbyterian Church in America.) The Olaskys still put off committing to faith, until an elderly deacon came one day to visit. Olasky remembered, in WORLD:

He and I sat outside in the fall southern California sunshine. A simple, kind man, he did not offer any intellectual razzamatazz. He held up a Bible and said, as best I recall, “You believe this stuff, don’t you?” I mumbled, “Well, yeah, I do.” He said, “Then you’d better join up.” Irrefutable logic. My response—”Well, I guess I should”—may have set the record for the weakest proclamation of faith imaginable. Joyfully, Christ’s deeds and words, not our own, are key.

The Olaskys’ young faith—and their family—grew, and he eventually took a job as a speechwriter at the chemical giant DuPont. But he grew disenchanted with the corporate world, declined a promotion, and in 1983 left to take a journalism professorship at the University of Texas at Austin.

In Austin, Marvin and Susan—also a writer—helped plant a church and a Christian school. Susan started a crisis pregnancy center, convinced that the pro-life movement needed to offer more help to pregnant women. They were foster parents. A pregnant teenager moved into their home for [about a year], and she eventually married the baby’s father. They had three biological children and adopted another child. In 1992, Olasky took up editing WORLD magazine.

Tragedy of Compassion

Olasky began writing what would become his most well-known book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, about how 19th-century Christian charities flourished, but with the growth of government services for the poor and suffering, Americans grew less compassionate. He argued that faith-based organizations, rooted in human relationships, provide more lasting help than government programs. As part of his research, for several days he wandered Washington, D. C., dressed as a homeless man to see how different organizations treated him.

In 1995, new-to-power U. S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich discovered The Tragedy of American Compassion, and he made it required reading for Republican members. “Our models are Alexis de Tocqueville and Marvin Olasky,” Gingrich said in his first speech to the nation. “We are going to redefine compassion and take it back.” Olasky’s ideas helped craft welfare reform, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1996. An essentially shy and sometimes stiff man, Olasky became a Washington star, a special guest at expensive dinners. Arianna Huffington (then conservative) asked him to run a charity with her, the Center for Effective Compassion.

Back in Texas, an attempt to end government grants to a Christian substance abuse program prompted Olasky to write an editorial in The Wall Street Journal. The piece caught Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s attention, and he called Olasky. The two connected over the role that faith-based organizations could play in helping those in need. Bush recalled the role faith played in his recovery from drinking. Eventually Bush made “compassionate conservatism” a part of his 2000 election plank, and as president he set up the first White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Under Bush the federal government expanded grants to faith-based organizations.

But Olasky didn’t “play nicely in Washington sandboxes,” in his words. Some press reports characterized him as an oddball evangelical and extreme. After all the political attention, he turned his focus to teaching, writing, and editing WORLD.

Now based in Asheville, North Carolina, at WORLD’s headquarters, he teaches college journalism students the concept of “biblical objectivity.” In his understanding, reporters look at the world not as blank slates but with their faith as a guide to understand and write truth. A favorite Olasky aphorism is, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the streets declare the sinfulness of man.” He wants WORLD reporters to write about both glory and sin. Olasky always expresses intense awareness of his own story of sin and Christ’s glory. Olasky, writing in 2008 soon after he had double-bypass surgery, said, “Christ changed my life a third of a century ago. Every year since then has been a gift. Thank you, Lord.”

How Can Homosexuality Be Wrong if It Doesn’t Harm Anyone?

Whether coming from a spirit of honest curiosity or agitated defensiveness, it’s a common question: How can homosexuality—and same-sex “marriage” in particular—be wrong if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

In a new video, Russell Moore, J. D. Greear, and Voddie Baucham tackle this complex and critical topic. Our starting point, Moore observes, must be determining what sexuality is for. ”If God designed it,” he says, “then there’s a purpose to it.” And, contrary to popular belief, Moore insists, we aren’t trying to disappoint our gay and lesbian neighbors, nor to “restrict” or “keep” marriage from them. We’re simply observing that, based on what sexuality and marriage are, same-sex marriage is impossible.

Reducing immorality to harm is a principle that must be challenged, Greear contends. What about the man who cheats on his wife, but she never finds out due to deft deceit? Are we really willing to deny that’s wrong? Or that the harm will eventually become apparent in many cases?

Moreover, Baucham points out, the pressingly public nature of today’s marriage debate “explodes the myth” that the issue is really just about “what I do in my bedroom.” This debate especially confuses evangelical teenagers, Moore explains, because we in the church have for so long talked as if marriage is a merely individual matter. “We have to back up and root our vision of marriage in Ephesians 5,” he says, for a wedding is far more than just celebrating “a relationship between two people.”

But why not let those outside the church redefine marriage so long as we maintain a Christian view inside? We tried that with the divorce culture, Moore recalls, and it was disastrous—not to mention unloving to our neighbors. Watch the full 10-minute video to see how they respond to the argument that the state should get out of the marriage business.

How Can Homosexuality Be Wrong if It Doesn’t Harm Anyone? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

For more on this topic, watch Tim Keller, Albert Mohler, and Collin Hansen discuss “What Is Morality Other than Harm?” Or read Baucham’s article, “Gay Is Not the New Black.”

Should Christians Try to Legislate Their Morality?

“Don’t attempt to legislate your Christian morality,” we’re told. “This is a secular nation, and the Bible isn’t the law of the land.”

It’s a valid point, at least at first glance. So how do we respond?

As Trevin Wax observes in this video discussion with Kevin DeYoung and Collin Hansen, legislation is always, inescapably moral. The real question, therefore, is not whether we should legislate morality but rather whose morality we should legislate. All laws are morally freighted and, in some manner, discriminatory. Moreover, the idea that traditional marriage is simply “a Christian morality being enforced ignores the fact this isn’t just a Christian point of view, but one held by the vast majority of people in the world.”

Further, DeYoung points out, the purpose of the law is not only to protect rights, but to teach. And it takes some audacity, he adds, to dismiss the traditional view as “bigoted” considering the fact that ”until 15 years ago no country we know of had this alternate form of marriage.” It’s imperative we rightly answer two questions: (1) What is marriage? and (2) What is the government’s role in marriage? To the latter, DeYoung observes that the state’s interest lies in incentivizing whatever type of family structure is best for “societal stability and human flourishing.”

But what’s our standard for making such determinations? As Hansen notes, the question of final authority is a critical one. As Christians, how do we help people find an authority outside of themselves?

To read more on this question from a well-informed, non-Christian perspective, consider Michael J. Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?.

Should Christians Try to Legislate Their Morality? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.


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The King of Kings and the Kings of Earth

In the classic movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart plays the role of young, idealistic Jefferson Smith who is appointed to the U.S. Senate. When Senator Smith arrives in Washington, he dreamily boards a sightseeing bus headed for the capital city’s sites. At the Supreme Court Building, he looks up at the sacred words inscribed in marble: “Equal Justice.” Then in a moment intended to evoke a sense of majesty, he slowly ascends the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial to gaze upon the massive statue of this greatest of presidents. Alas, if only this world’s leaders were as majestic as their monuments! A few short scenes later, Senator Smith finds himself face down in the muck of D.C. corruption and power politics.

Since the history of the world, not one nation has been without corruption. Not one has lived up to the ideals inscribed on its monuments. And it’s on this landscape of fallen nations and futile kings that the story of Israel and its rulers is set.

Same as the Other Nations

As the period of the “judges” came to an end, God was Israel’s only king. But the people called for “a king to judge us the same as all the other nations have” (1 Sam. 8:5). At first, God gave them the kind of king they were looking for. King Saul was tall and handsome. But he was impetuous and foolish, jealous and paranoid. He even massacred an entire city—men, women, and children (22:11-19). “Build your pretty monuments if you want,” God seemed to say, “but do you really want to put your hope here?”

But God did something unexpected. The people might have wanted a king for bad reasons, but God used for good what they meant for evil. God will rule his people through a human king, and he will make his glory known through such a king.

The message for Jefferson Smith and for us is this: You’re right to place all your hopes in a great Leader, to believe that his government will bring equal justice for all as well as life, liberty, and happiness. But you’re not going to find these in the governments or nations of this world. You’re going to find them in an unlikely place and in an unlikely Leader.

It’s true we should give thanks for just and godly leaders. At the same time, we must never forget that first and foremost, Christians are citizens of heaven. Praise God for leaders and nations that seek equal justice and life, liberty, and happiness. But we must remember that ultimately these things will be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In their absolutely best moments, the governments of this world can only provide a shadow of what our Savior and King—Jesus—will provide.

Work with a Loose Grip

So how does this truth affect our view of earthly leaders? First, we obey human governments, knowing that they have been instituted and authorized by King Jesus. They are his servant and agent (Rom. 13:1-7). We should also pray for them. But we should never disobey Jesus, even if other authorities in this world call us to do so.

Second, we should never let our national identity and national values define us more than our Christian identity and Christian values. Our churches should not be gatherings of Americans; they should be gatherings of Christians who may or may not be American. What can you do to make internationals feel welcome?

Third, we should strive with whatever opportunities the Lord gives us in government—voting, policing, soldiering, adjudicating, legislating—to love Christ and to love our neighbors. Christians should work hard for peace, justice, prosperity, and the safety of our neighbors because we love them. And we should do this so that through our lives and fruit, our non-Christian neighbors get a more accurate picture of Christ and his rule. All of us have been given rule over something, even if it’s just a voting ballot or a Boy Scout troop. And we want to use whatever rule we have to produce good in the lives of others, just as Jesus does through his rule.

Finally, even as we work hard for good government, we do so with a loose grip, knowing that our true Savior and King is Jesus, not our favorite presidential or congressional candidate. Jesus is the hope of the nations.


This is an excerpt from The Gospel Project for Adults Bible Study from LifeWay. The Gospel Project is an ongoing 13-week Bible study curriculum for all age groups that helps people see Scripture as one over-arching story that points to what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Find out more and download one month to review free at www.gospelproject.com

Sorting Out the Election Aftermath

Election Night ended relatively early for political observers anxious to see if President Obama would prevail in his re-election bid and if his Democratic Party could maintain control of the U.S. Senate. Though he did not win in a landslide, President Obama won decisively. He and his allies can be expected to pursue a governing mandate that deeply concerns many evangelicals, especially with regard to religious liberty, abortion, and traditional marriage. How, then, can evangelicals work in the next four years to find common ground with the President, pray for him, and pursue priorities where we disagree?

In the latest edition of Going Deeper with TGC, Mark Mellinger and I connected with Russell Moore to sort out the election aftermath. Dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Moore previously worked on Capitol Hill and still closely follows the candidates and issues across the country. He talks with us about where evangelicals might support President Obama, how our churches should respond to demographic shifts, why the nation opted for status quo, and much more.

As the podcast continues, The Gospel Project managing editor Trevin Wax talks with George Robinson about how the Law fits in the grand story of God’s plan of redemption. The also discuss common threads in the Ten Commandments. Finally, to end this installment of Going Deeper with TGC, Mark and I take a closer look at #TGC13, The Gospel Coalition’s upcoming National Conference, April 6 to 10 in Orlando, Florida. Moore will be there to lead a workshop, “Black and White and Red All Over: Racial Reconciliation and the Gospel in the Local Church” (click here to learn more). We’re also announcing a Christmas special (expiring December 26): now you can save $80 when you add your spouse to registration for only $125. If you’re a student or coming from outside the United States, you can add a spouse for $100.

If we learned nothing else from yesterday’s election, we saw the urgent need for the church to come together and encourage one another to stand fast with the conviction of God’s Word as we spur each other to reach out to our neighbors in the love of Christ with the power of the gospel. Hopefully #TGC13, and especially the missions pre-conference April 6 and 7, will aid in that effort.

You can stream the new podcast below, download the mp3, or subscribe to Going Deeper with TGC on iTunes.

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Going Deeper with TGC, 11-7, with Russell Moore

Why Politicians Are Encouraged to ‘Flip Flop’

Voters in general, and Christian voters in particular, express frustration with the lack of principle that characterizes most politicians, and the “flip flops” they engage in during election campaigns. Yet without winking at the lack of principles, it might help us to understand, and perhaps be a bit more forgiving, if we understand that the institutions of democracy themselves—and of U.S. democracy in particular—create incentives for politicians to behave the way they do. Some of these incentives can be changed; others most will not want to change, even if it would promise a change in the behavior of politicians.

Americans sometimes forget that the U.S. presidential election is not one election, but many. Not only do voters elect delegates to nominating conventions on a state-by-state basis, but the election to the presidency occurs through the Electoral College—chosen on a state-by-state basis rather than by a majority of the popular vote.

Politicians need to win what political scientists call the “pivotal” voter in order to be elected to office. In two-party majoritarian elections with a voters distributed along a regular “left-right” continuum, politicians must win the vote of the median voter. So their policy positions will tend to cluster around the policy preferences of the middle voter.

Why the Median Voter Matters

Consider the effect of the primary system on the policy positions that election-oriented politicians take. The median Republican voter in any state tends to be more conservative than the median Democratic voter in that state. In their respective primary campaigns, Republican and Democratic politicians (again, with exceptions) have an incentive to position themselves to appeal to their party’s median party voter. After all, they will not be their parties’ nominee unless they win their respective primary campaign.

Because election-oriented politicians have an incentive to appeal to the median voter in their respective primaries, “closed-party” primaries—in which only registered party members vote—tend to pull the positions of Republican and Democratic politicians apart.

But all voters subsequently mix together for the general election. That means the median general-election voter in each state is more conservative than the median Democratic-primary voter, and more liberal than the median Republican-primary voter. This, in turn, means that the respective winners of the parties’ primary campaigns have articulated policy preferences during the primary that turn out to be “too extreme” for the median voter in the general election.

This creates incentives for candidates to “rush to the middle,” that is, to become more centrist, for general elections. This does not mean that candidates are pandering to party regulars any more than it means that they’re pandering to moderate voters. The behavior, as it were, is incentivized by the institutional structure of the democratic selection process in the United States.

Noting that, however, does not imply that “rushing to the middle” is never costly for politicians. Candidates develop reputations based on what they say during primary campaigns. Moving too fast or too far toward the middle during the general-election campaign may risk losing a candidate’s partisan supporters. Or if a candidate articulates a new policy position, the median voter in the general election may not believe a candidate’s new, more moderate positions in a general election campaign.

Significance of a Candidate’s Reputation

The importance of reputation can be seen in the re-election failure of the first President Bush. In his first general election campaign for president, Bush staked out a clear policy position on taxes: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” He subsequently raised taxes during his first administration, and subsequently lost to Bill Clinton when he ran for re-election.

I’ve heard President Bush address this topic numerous times in his post-presidency speeches. He still argues that he needed to compromise with the Democrats over taxes in order to get Congress to move on reducing the budget deficit.

That may be correct. But what Bush still seems to miss is that his “no new taxes” position wasn’t simply one policy position among many. It was his signature policy position in that campaign. As a result, keeping that policy commitment became a character issue for Bush; his reputation hinged on it. When he compromised with the Democrats to reduce the deficit by increasing taxes (and cutting spending), he set up the loss of his subsequent election to Clinton, in part, because those who supported him in the first election no longer trusted his words.

Nonetheless, many of Bush’s supporters also continued to support Bush. Like the candidates, many voters understand that majoritarian politics means that you get the policies you prefer only if your candidate actually wins. Ideological purity may be emotionally satisfying, but it typically doesn’t win a lot of elections. The institutional structure of democracy sets up the incentive for many voters to accept the “flip flops” of their candidates, as well as setting up the incentives for the candidates to flip flop in the first instance.

Christians and Political Realism

Again, I do not mean to suggest that politicians should not be held to their words. Nonetheless, understanding the incentive structure that politicians face helps Christians and others to have realistic expectations about what politicians “do” do, as opposed to what the “should” do. And in so doing make sounder judgments in expectation that candidates will moderate their positions.

Tracing the Logic of Liberalism

In the American context the labels liberal and conservative are used in an ahistorical way—more as terms of opprobrium than as accurate designations for what people actually believe about political life. Liberals and conservatives alike differ less on fundamental principles than on who can better claim custody over the same principles—the principles of, well, liberalism.

The liberalism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. After all, the Declaration of Independence is a liberal document, unquestioningly accepting that popular consent stands at the origin of political authority. As Alasdair MacIntyre has put it, in the Western world there are conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals, but all adhere to the basic principles of liberalism.

So what accounts for the differences between Democrats and Republicans, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? What separates them is that each represents a different stage in the larger development of liberalism. Those who do not like what liberalism has become in recent decades have not repudiated it as such but have tried instead to hold onto it and return it to an earlier form—one thought to be purer and closer to its original meaning. I believe liberalism can be traced through five stages of development.

1. The Hobbesian commonwealth

The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes set forth an alternative story to the biblical redemptive narrative of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. For Hobbes, history consisted of a grand movement away from a chaotic state of nature and toward a civil order presided over by a sovereign capable of keeping the peace. The key to this change was a contract among individuals motivated by fear of a violent death to seek a more peaceful state. Only an all-powerful sovereign could put an end to the war of all against all and bring about more agreeable conditions. Hobbes’s sovereign could do no wrong legally and morally speaking, because he was the source of law. But there were real practical limitations on his power, for if he pushed his subjects too far they might decide to take their chances with the state of nature once again and try to unseat him.

2. The night watchman state

This second stage in liberalism’s development is most associated with John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson. The narrative structure is still the same. According to Locke, the state of nature produces certain inconveniences that can be remedied only by individuals entering into a contract to establish a civil government. If the Hobbesian sovereign is established to protect life, the Lockean government is set up to defend life, liberty, and property—or, as Jefferson put it, the pursuit of happiness. Government remains small and allows sovereign individuals to pursue their own respective goods as they understand them. With respect to economic life, government limits itself to setting and enforcing the rules of the game, allowing the players to seek their own advantage. The net result will be a spontaneous order emerging, almost providentially, out of all this self-seeking.

3. The regulatory state

In reality, of course, self-seeking, while undoubtedly producing certain material benefits, did indeed lead to abuses, such as those engendered by the early factory system: excessively long work days and weeks, dangerous working conditions, and low wages due to a surplus of potential laborers in the marketplace. In its third stage, liberals call on government to rectify these abuses. Theodore Roosevelt is a paradigmatic figure, in so far as he brought the power of government to bear in checking an “industrial baronage” represented by the large corporate concerns. The U.S. Congress passed the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts in 1890 and 1914 respectively as means of restoring competition to a marketplace now dominated by monopolies. The breakups of Standard Oil in 1911 and of AT&T in 1984 were motivated by this concern.

4. The equal-opportunity state

Each of the previous stages sees the proponents of liberalism undertaking to expand individual freedom—first from fear of death, second from threats to property, and third from economic monopolies. The shift from stage 2 to stage 3 sees a necessary expansion of the apparatus of government. However, many liberals regard this as insufficient. In particular, if the quest for economic advantage is likened to a game, and if government sets the rules of the game, contestants inevitably have an uneven start. Unlike Parker Brothers’s famous Monopoly game, in which every player begins with $1,500, real life sees people entering the marketplace with greater or fewer advantages than others. The effect of the Great Depression of the 1930s accentuated the feeling of many liberals that a small night watchman state and even a regulatory state are not enough “to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness,” as Franklin Roosevelt expressed it in 1944. This, of course, necessitated another expansion in the apparatus of government, leading to what we now know as the welfare state.

5. The choice-enhancement state

The welfare state received another boost in the 1960s with President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Now the focus shifted yet again to enabling citizens to expand their range of choices, the ordinary constraints that life imposes on one’s options now being deemed oppressive. To be sure, there were positive advances for society as a whole in that era, as African Americans, women, and other minorities were incorporated more fully into the body politic and into social and economic life as a whole. Nevertheless, the legitimate liberation of people from past wrongs quickly became a general quest to emancipate everyone from a variety of norms and standards impinging on their own wills. This had immediate effect on sexual mores. Norms inhibiting consensual sexual behavior were discarded, with the state increasingly refraining from judging among a variety of sexual relationships. As Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously put it, “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.”

Paradoxically, however, this changed attitude towards sexuality called for an even larger government apparatus. A government may refrain from judging the choices individuals make, but it cannot decree that these choices will have no negative consequences. With a rising divorce rate and the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, government is increasingly called upon to step in to neutralize their negative effects on the population. Fifth-stage liberals typically call on political authorities to cushion the effect of a wide variety of personal choices whose consequences would otherwise be destructive. If divorce exacerbates poverty, government is expected, not to make divorce more difficult since that would limit the right to choose, but to commit more funding to the broken families themselves.

Is Liberalism Circular?

Are there only five stages in liberalism’s development? What lies beyond the fifth stage? We cannot say for certain, of course, but there is much to suggest that we may end up doubling back to the first stage. In short, the development of liberalism may prove to be circular. How so? The most famous sentence in the United States Supreme Court’s notorious decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) holds the key:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

This is heady stuff. Just imagine: defining my own concept of the universe and of existence itself. I didn’t know I got to do that. Now imagine everyone doing the same thing and you get a pretty grim picture of what could be in store for us. Hobbes had his own expression for it: bellum omnium contra omnes—“the war of all against all.” For which, once again, he prescribed the Leviathan, a sovereign ruler knowing no legal or ethical bounds, only practical ones. Is this where we are heading? Are we destined to repeat the whole process again?

The Alternative to Liberalism

We should be aware that all of these stages follow the basic redemptive narrative conditioning the liberal worldview: the pre-political state of nature, wracked with the attendant dangers to life and liberty, followed by the establishment of a civil commonwealth to escape these dangers, by terms of a contract whose parameters are set by its parties. If the commonwealth and the magistrate set over it fail to live up to its terms, the parties to the contract are justified in reclaiming the freedom they sought to protect in the first place. (Notice that circular pattern again.) If government is deemed an obstacle to this freedom, they will then try to keep it as small as possible. If, on the other hand, government can be enlisted to expand this freedom, then so be it. This is how both opponents and proponents of “big government,” who seem so diametrically at odds with each other in political debates, can fit under the larger liberal umbrella.

What is the alternative to this overarching liberal framework? One that recognizes what I call the pluriformity of authorities in society. Human society is made up, not just of individuals and the state, but of a variety of authoritative agents, each of which has a unique task in God’s world. The diversity of God’s creation is not limited to the natural world but includes the rich array of human institutions, communities, associations, and relationships. This creation, in all its fulness, is caught up in the drama, not of a continual expansion of individual freedom and a liberation from perceived oppressions, but of redemption in Jesus Christ—a redemption he will bring to fruition in his own good time at his return.

‘The Weightier Provisions of the Law’

When I first came to Washington in 1991 and began working for Sen. Dan Coats, one of the more noteworthy aspects of my professional skill-set was inexperience. Although I had some modest political experience, I was unprepared for the maelstrom of Capitol Hill. The conflicting priorities, personality clashes, turf battles, and draining expenditures of time and energy were more than a bit of a shock.

Adding to this was the exhilaration of “being in the mix,” of being “on the inside” and attending the kinds of meetings reporters discuss in knowing terms on public radio. I also got to do a lot of fun things, and work with some people who remain friends to this day.

Yet apart from the stress and the rush, several things emerged pretty quickly as important lessons.

The Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Myth

First, I came to see I was not God’s unique gift to the American body politic. The government had been running for some time before I arrived, and I was not the first person to come to D.C. with ideas, convictions, or energy.

I quickly realized there were a lot of bright, talented, well-read people on Capitol Hill, some of whom actually had the audacity to disagree with me. Experiencing the reality that intelligent people could evaluate the same set of data and come to fundamentally different conclusions because of a moral and intellectual framework different than my own was something I knew, of course, but with which I had limited experience. That changed pretty quickly.

Second, the vision of “Mr. Smith Going to Washington” was just that—a parable, not a representation of daily reality. While James Stewart fought valiantly against corruption and, in one dramatic scene, triumphed, I came to see that at any given time there were a number of critical battles being fought . . . and those on opposing sides were unlikely to run into the Senate foyer and, like his cinematic nemesis, try to commit suicide.

The blur and intensity of legislative activity shook me. It wasn’t neat or systematic. On any given day, there could be a rider on funding for African drought relief attached to a major agriculture bill—an agriculture bill loaded with special deals for grain-state Members . . . a proposal to advance a major weapons system that would mean jobs for thousands but which, in tests, just didn’t work very well . . . and a federal grant to study train crossing signals in Indiana, which was far more important to the state media with whom I worked than issues of national or international moment. And all of that might be before noon.

There are rare moments of high drama in politics, to be sure, times and places when decisions are made that affect millions, born and unborn. We witnessed one earlier this year when the Supreme Court ruled on the President’s health care plan. But even in those infrequent moments, usually the decisions are made in the quiet of a small office by a few men and women around a table, not in epic speeches from the well of the Senate.

Disillusionment and Discouragement

Third, there was a pervasive sense of disillusionment among many of my colleagues, one that I began to share acutely. The discouragement and sense of moral compromise we felt was due to a startling and ongoing realization: philosophical and ideological purity and the formation of public policy often don’t mix.

Many of my colleagues had come to the nation’s capital to affect genuine, comprehensive, beneficial change. Instead, they were working late at night to insert highly technical legal language into a public housing bill or, worse, finding that they had to support legislation or policies with which they disagreed in order to advance the agenda of the Member for whom they worked or achieve a larger political or substantive purpose.

The Cost of Compromise 

Principled compromise often is the coin of the Christian’s political realm. Of course, there are times when to compromise is to violate the Bible’s demands. This is never justified. Better to lose in time than in eternity, whatever the temporal cost.

Yet frequently, finding a course where principle can wed with effective if incomplete action is the holy grail of evangelical political engagement.

And this naturally leads to the question: for what purposes should evangelicals be engaged in the political marketplace?

Our American founders grasped that government was about recognizing human nature for what it is and protecting human interests in the context of ordered liberty. Thus, human life, human liberty, and the “pursuit of happiness”—a classical idea grounded in the belief that virtue created fulfillment—were their priorities. “We, the People” rested on the apex of their political and cultural priorities.

They also recognized government as the guardian, not the source, of our rights. If our rights derive from God, then government’s role is intrinsically limited since God is the ultimate authority and the Person to Whom we must give primary account.

In addition, the reality of human precedence in creation suggests, perhaps, that if some creatures have greater value than others—namely, us—then some things might be more important to our Creator with respect the attention we should pay them.

Weightier Provisions

Jesus affirmed this view. Consider the severe judgment he pronounced on the Pharisees who, he said, tithed “mint and dill and cummin, and . . . neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23-25).

Again, in his interview with Pilate, the Lord said, referring to Caiaphas, “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11).

And in his commissioning sermon to his disciples, he assured them of his care by saying, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).

“Weightier provisions.” “Greater sin.” “You are more valuable.” Not everything is equally important to God.

If, then, people are the most valuable of all of God’s creations, the defense of human dignity should be the core governmental occupation, and protecting it from those policies that endanger human dignity most immediately and profoundly should be the primary occupation of Christians in political life.

Our Biblical Duties

In practical terms, this means that the indisputably biblical duty to defend the right to life, defend the God-ordained social institution most at risk (marriage), and defend the religious liberty that is foundational to all other freedoms rank at the top of the believer’s civic duties.

The Manhattan Declaration puts it well:

While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.

These are matters of Christian obligation and clear Scriptural teaching—unlike, say, the federal system of Medicare, about whose merits honorable and clear-minded Christians can and should debate. This large latter category calls for the thoughtful application of biblical principles to issues whose ethical and practical resolution can be subject to honest debate. Prudence, humility, compassion, and study are the requisites in this kind of discussion and the decisions flowing from it.

Federal anti-poverty programs are a particular case in point. A number of Evangelical leaders have signed a document called “The Circle of Protection.” This statement essentially endorses federal “anti-poverty” programs. Ironically, a persuasive case can be made that many of the programs the “Circle” calls upon policymakers to sustain have created dependency, intergenerational poverty, inadequate housing, weak public education, and so on.

The Bible calls on believers to care for the poor but does not endorse the secular state as the means by which persons in need can most effectively be helped. The Bible indicates that the two causes of poverty—oppression and sloth—must be addressed by individual and philanthropic efforts and by public policies that strengthen, rather than weaken, initiative and self-reliance. Arguably, the “Circle” calls for the perpetuation of the very things its well-intended authors desire to eradicate.

Overstepping Our Prophetic Authority

When Christians step outside the Bible’s explicit moral teaching and advocate for laws, rules, or court outcomes whose ethical dimensions are at best ambiguous, they overstep their prophetic authority and become just another interest group in the cacophony of public voices.

Let me summarize with two examples:

  • Should we fight poverty? Of course. Does this mean we should support specific federal or state programs whose efficacy is at best dubious, and do so under the rubric of Christian sanction? Much more debatable. Prudence, research, prayer, and caution are what each believer should apply to the myriad of similar policy matters.
  • On the other hand: If a human being comes into existence at the fertilization of the egg by the sperm, that person—based on irrefutable biblical teaching—merits the right to life and, thus, the protection of law. Regarding this, we can proclaim, “Thus says the Lord” with confidence. Such matters are very few in number, however.

Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “Victory is never final. Defeat is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” Moral courage grounded in Scripture, combined with wisdom, diligence, and prayer, should be the integrating factor of the Christian’s political decision-making and action-taking.

Let us never forget that we are running for an eternal crown, a wreath of triumph that will never wilt. May we, by God’s enabling grace, run in such a way that whether temporal success is ours or not, we will one day hear the voice of the Master announce, “Well done.”

The Christian Calling to Citizenship

When Stephen Colbert appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air” earlier this month to promote his new book America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t, the comic title wasn’t his only nod to confusion. Colbert professed perplexity that evangelical Christians “have to base all [their] political decisions on absolute biblical truths that must not be denied” in a political arena where such truths often are denied.

It wasn’t clear whether the Roman Catholic satirist or his on-air character actually was befuddled. It is clear, however, that many evangelicals are genuinely confused about just the issue Colbert raised: how to apply biblical principles to politics in an increasingly pluralist culture. Should we aim to regain majority political support for a biblical worldview? Should we focus on cultural renewal and stop pressing a Christian viewpoint politically?

Questions framed at the level of strategy and tactic, however, already have zoomed in too close to the confusion to consider adequately the fundamental biblical principles that should guide Christian civic engagement. A biblical worldview ought to produce a distinct political apologetic about why and how to engage in politics for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.

Christian Citizenship: What and Why?

Whether daunted by the complexity of the issues, reacting to partisan rancor, or dubious about the value of the political process generally, many believers simply keep their distance from politics. But disengagement is not appropriate—or even possible. The exercise of citizenship is a matter of stewardship for the Christian.

Citizenship is one of our callings. When the subject of calling comes up, we tend to think first of the occupation that fills the bulk of our time, but our callings also include other roles, relationships, and responsibilities. Our first call is to glorify and enjoy God, and our everyday callings are the ways we pursue that end. For example, one of my callings is working in public policy, but others include being a church member, sister, neighbor, and citizen of Virginia and the United States. Stewardship of these relationships and responsibilities means directing them to God’s glory.

The blessing of living in a self-governing society carries particular responsibility. In a free society, citizenship involves a wide range of decisions that require much reflection. Good stewardship in this case requires at least a basic understanding of civics and issues of debate, but a Christian’s grasp of the matter ought to go beyond an 11th-grade government curriculum. A biblical worldview should shape our diagnosis of the problems politics seeks to address and our vision of how to resolve them.

That begins by understanding the integration of politics with the rest of life. Politics isn’t just election season and what happens in Congress. It’s not primarily about the endless debate on Fox News or MSNBC. Politics is about the way we order our lives together, and servants of the Creator and Lord of the universe make a vital contribution to that endeavor. Politics is the way we figure out how to meet everyday needs, solve problems, and sort out our differences. It’s about harmonizing diverse interests and building consensus about what’s worth pursuing as a society. We work out issues in all kinds of forums—from family room to boardroom to congressional hearing room, each with its own authority structure, each exercising a variety of roles and responsibilities.

We ought to approach all these arenas with a coherent biblical worldview. It is necessary and proper for Christians to enter the public square with a biblically shaped perspective. This is not unique. Everyone brings fundamental assumptions to public discourse, whether they call those commitments “religious” or not. Voting is an exercise in expressing a worldview. Every public policy expresses a moral judgment about what is good, from seat belt laws to tax reform to the definition of marriage. To apply a Christian worldview to such questions of public policy isn’t self-interested. It’s serving our neighbor.

After all, we serve the God who defines the common good. The first cultural task God gave human beings was to order society and care for creation in a way that reflects his design for human flourishing. Applying that charge in our American public policy context today means seeking consensus that reflects that design. We use reason to persuade, recognizing that competing presuppositions sometimes may cloud the capacity to reason together. Even so, we appeal confidently to the best interest of the other on the basis of our beliefs because we know that God has placed eternity in the hearts of all human beings—a longing for the transcendent, for fulfillment, for wholeness.

Christian Citizenship: How?

Christian citizenship begins with solid systematic theology. A political philosophy is most secure when it rests on the bedrock of biblical anthropology. A biblical worldview provides a unique vantage point on the individual as image of God and on institutions ordained by God for certain roles and responsibilities in society. What we believe about the nature and purpose of human beings shapes our perspective on public policy, from abortion to welfare to international relations. What we know about the roles and responsibilities of family, church, and government influences our understanding of the society ordered toward true human flourishing.

One way to think about human flourishing is in terms of right relationships, among both individuals and institutions. Human beings are made for relationships, and we can think of this relational capacity in four dimensions: a person’s relationship with God, self, others, and the material world. Brokenness in any of these areas mars human flourishing and often ripples into other areas, starting a cycle of relational breakdown. A fatherless child, for example, is more likely to have a child of her own outside marriage. A gambling addict’s misuse of money may cause family hardship or disruption.

The cultural mandate makes each of us responsible to strive for wholeness—shalom—for our neighbors in all these relational dimensions. We do so through individual relationships and through our participation in various social institutions, especially the family, church, and government. God has ordained these institutions with distinctive responsibilities that help meet the needs of individuals and communities. Looking at political questions through this institutional lens can help us discern more clearly how to think about government’s particular role versus other institutions.

Throughout Scripture, the family has the primary role in human society. The family is responsible for the many needs—material, relational, emotional, and spiritual—of all its members. Intimate, loving, permanent relationships provide accountability and comprehensive care.

No individual is an island, nor is any family. Some needs exceed the family’s capacity, and other social institutions help to meet those. The church is equipped to meet a broad range of needs, and particularly transcendent needs that go beyond material well-being.

Government is established by God’s common grace for the good of fallen humanity. Its charge is to keep the peace through the rule of law and the use of force to punish evildoers. Much of government’s role in maintaining a just society is to protect the space in which other institutions such as the family and church pursue their respective roles and responsibilities.

The capacity for human relationships expresses itself in many other ways as well—in businesses, Boy Scout troops, and book clubs, for example. Family, church, government, business, and civil society institutions all play a part in meeting needs, solving problems and cultivating human flourishing.

We should seek public policy that respects these institutional roles, with incentives that reflect the reality of human nature. Take the question of domestic poverty, for example. The government safety net provides material resources for those in need, but poverty in America goes much deeper than material need. Poverty remains unacceptably high despite $1 trillion annually in government spending on antipoverty programs. For too long we have overlooked the relational character of poverty: among poor families with children, 71 percent are headed by a single parent. Children in these households are more likely to repeat the cycle of dependence on welfare as adults.

Tackling poverty requires responses from multiple institutions to restore a culture of marriage and to reform the government welfare system. The safety net should help those truly in need. Able-bodied welfare recipients should be required to work or prepare for work. For public policy to do otherwise would be to deny the human dignity of those whom welfare is supposed to serve.

Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent. Churches have enormous relational capital to help rebuild a healthy marriage culture. This begins with sound preaching on the theological as well as public significance of marriage. A congregation animated by the Bible’s extraordinary vision of marriage should swell with creative ideas for outreach to neighbors suffering from the collapse of the institution.

Government policy also shapes the culture of marriage. One of the reasons to oppose same-sex marriage is that it would further disconnect childbearing from marriage and codify the absence of a mother or a father in a child’s life. No-fault divorce laws ought to be reformed, and marriage penalties should be eliminated in the welfare system.

Sorting Out Our Lives Together

Politics brings together fallen human beings with transcendent longings to sort out our temporal lives together. Christians are called not just to engage in but to ennoble that endeavor. With a biblical understanding of the nature and purpose of human beings as individuals and in God-ordained institutions, Christians are equipped to pursue human flourishing in its fullest sense.

As citizens of a self-governing society, one of our callings is to steward the rights and responsibilities of our political order. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Some are called to public policy; some have an avocational passion for politics proper. But all are called to basic stewardship of the gift of political freedom and the goal of true human flourishing.

Developing a basic framework about individual flourishing through relational wholeness and about institutional roles is a good place to begin pursuing our lifelong calling of citizenship.


One resource that provides further investigation of this relational/institutional framework is Seek Social Justice, a DVD study guide produced by The Heritage Foundation, WORLD Magazine, and Compass Cinema.

Militant for Justice, Not for ‘Culture War’

The problem of the “culture war” is dividing evangelicals, especially in the rising generation, into two camps. This conflict is going to determine the future direction of evangelical political engagement. My problem is that I’m on both sides.

One camp says we should pull back from politics. Because of the culture war, political struggle has become an act of enmity toward the neighbors we’re supposed to be loving and serving. What appears to be a fight for justice is really, functionally, an effort to conquer people and subjugate them to our will, imposing Christianity upon them by force.

The other camp mostly agrees that politics today is defined by a power struggle between Christians and non-Christians. However, they say we have no choice but to fight for justice. That’s part of what it means to be the “church militant” and answer the call to defend the weak and the helpless. How many babies should we allow to die so we can feel like we’re being nice to the abortionists? We need to love our enemies, but we still need to fight them. At some level that means we just have to accept the culture war and ensure that our side wins.

The one thing these camps agree on is that we have to make a stark choice. We can fight for justice in politics, or we can build civic solidarity with our unbelieving neighbors. We can’t do both.

Not me. I say we can have our cake and eat it, too!

Fighting for Justice, Not Imposing Christianity by Force

We have a moral imperative to be the church militant and fight for justice; we also have a moral imperative not to impose Christianity on people by force. God did not create a chaotic universe. Therefore, a way to do both at the same time must exist. Our job is to find it.

I am a political guy and always have been. Politics affects every aspect of human life. The things we say and do in politics are the most important single factor controlling what people throughout society perceive to be just and unjust. That’s why we have such an important responsibility both to be involved in politics and also to keep our involvement faithful to real justice.

However, I have also come to realize how dangerous it is when political people like myself start to view everything in society as merely “downstream” from politics. Church, family, the economy, and other social spheres also have an effect on every aspect of human life, just as much as politics does. We have to preserve the integrity of these other spheres rather than merely subordinating them to politics.

In every society and every era, one evil has always been the most deadly temptation in politics. From the Old Testament to the New, from the prophets to the parables, Scripture rings out with condemnation of this vice. Political philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Locke all focus their energies on denouncing it. James Madison identified it as the key danger that the U. S. Constitution was designed to counteract.

This evil? Taking the desires of one faction or social subgroup and identifying them as the will of the whole nation, or as the common good of the polity. When we talk about the culture war and its dangers, this is the real issue. Taking a hard and sober look at the rhetoric of the past, I think it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that American evangelicals have very often spoken and acted as though our views represented the public will simply as such, or that whatever policies we favored had to be identical with the general good. That must stop.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers worked out. But here are three concrete steps I think we can take to fight for justice in politics without imposing Christianity on people by force:

1. Detach moral victory from religious victory.

The way the issues are presented to people now, if you vote for justice on issues like life or marriage, you’re effectively voting in favor of putting Christians in charge of society. We need to clearly demonstrate that a vote for these issues is not a vote for neo-Constantinism. We can do this by identifying our positions on these issues as representing the basic moral values of human civilization in general, rather than as exclusively Christian commitments. That will not only be true (which is a considerable recommendation by itself) and bring our support for these policies into alignment with humane treatment of our neighbors. It is also the only way we might actually hope to win the battle on those issues. Constantine doesn’t poll well these days.

2. Deinstitutionalize enmity.

The festering of the culture war over the last generation has deeply ingrained into our politics a default assumption that moral disagreement implies radical hostility. We can’t disagree about justice without becoming mortal enemies. We have to bend over backward to demonstrate that we do not view our neighbors as enemies simply because they disagree with us.

Of course, we can’t always avoid enmity. It takes two willing parties to make peace, but only one willing party to make a war. When the mayors of Boston and Chicago announce—in flagrant violation of the law—that Chick-fil-A is not welcome to build restaurants in their cities because it supports marriage, they have made themselves Chick-fil-A’s enemies. There is nothing Chick-fil-A can do about that. (God bless New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for rebuking his peers on this! He had nothing to gain and much to lose by doing so.) But it’s clear, at least to anyone who looks at the facts without prejudice, that the enmity comes from the mayors’ side. That’s what matters.

3. Prioritize religious liberty for all.

American evangelicals have always been this country’s strongest and most grateful supporters of religious liberty. Let’s reclaim that role. If we’re looking for moral issues to fight for, you can’t find a better one. And it’s a timely issue! If you don’t think your right to worship and live out your faith is endangered today, you’re not reading the news.

It’s also great for evangelization. The more people feel secure that their rights as citizens are protected regardless of whether they’re Christians, the more open they will be to the gospel. As J. Gresham Machen once put it, freedom of religion is the foundation of effective evangelization because “persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument.”

But it’s also the best way to defuse the culture war. Religious liberty means liberty for all. Let’s prove, with words and deeds, that we value our neighbors’ religious liberty as much as our own. We want America to be a place where people of all faiths are on equal civic footing and can all live in accordance with their consciences. That, more than anything else, will show our neighbors that they have nothing to fear from us.