We have been discussing the need for evangelicals to develop an evangelical, political philosophy in this series of posts. Previously, we discussed the problem of present evangelical engagement with the political culture and the need for a coherent vision for such engagement, using Ron Sider’s book The Scandal of Evangelical Politics as a jumping off point. The last post briefly surveyed the history of Christian engagement with culture, and I argued that evangelicals needed to root themselves in the tradition of this engagement as a guide for future direction. But, there is a problem; even if evangelicals could decide which elements of the tradition are worth retaining and who gets to decide such matters (both of which are very large problems that will need to be addressed later), we still need to articulate our position to the broader culture. What authority generates our political convictions: scripture, reason, experience or some combination thereof? How can we meaningfully engage such a pluralistic society? How can we articulate “our” political message to Hindus, Buddhists, Jewish people, Muslims, Agnostics, Atheists, and other people holding to different worldviews?
Sider points out that political philosophers of all types find believe that some measure of commonality of worldview in culture must be sustained for the society to survive. Natural Law theory (NLT) dominated the Western view of political life. NLT holds, through the use of common (universal) reason, that humans can discover principles or laws in nature that provide for a universal source for governing society. This theory became the dominate view of political life of Europe during the Enlightenment when it was believed that human, autonomous reasoning happened without conditioning by culture, time, history or language.
Both contemporary secular philosophers and Christian theologians largely reject the premise of the Enlightenment, and therefore, they largely reject NLT theory. The reason for Christian rejection of NLT is due to our theological conviction about the Fall and its effects on our noetic structures (ability to reason and know). While we are not as bad as we possibly could be, sin has touched and twisted every facet of our human nature, reason included. Moreover, secular philosophers have rightly pointed out that “reality” is mediated to us through the use of language, and language is socially constructed. Therefore, reality is mediated to use through cultural terms, leaving us no neutral, objective place from which we view and analyze data. Given the sinful bent of our reasoning and the culturally condition nature of reasoning, there seems little hope for NLT.
These insights also help to explain the pluralistic nature of our society. Every tribe has become a truth unto themselves. While we as Christians cannot allow ourselves to slide into the despair of relativism, the current intellectual climate is something of an opportunity. In our culture, preservation of “otherness” is at a premium. One only needs to look at Lady Gaga and her “Little Monsters,” who have something of a religious devotion to Lady, to see that our culture prizes, above all, respect and dignity for the “other.” If we prepare to enter into political conversation with true cross-shaped humility, I believe we can get a fair hearing.
As such, we should rather unapologetically use scripture as our normative source for answering the big questions (what does it mean to be human, how should we govern as humans, what of liberty, vice and everything in between). Human reason alone gets us about as far as the end of our noses, while looking deeply triumphalist and disrespectful to “otherness.” When we claim a political matter is only a matter to true reasoning, by implication we suggest that our view of the would ought to dominate and suppress “otherness.” We also suggest that reasoning that is not shaped like ours is somehow defective, and we assume a posture that looks deeply arrogant. I am not suggesting that posture is anyone’s intent, but that is the effect on this American tribe when we speak the language of reason, making very poor missionaries. As silly as Anglican priests looked in robes carried pipe organs through African jungles during the 1800’s, so we look in today’s culture when we frame our biblical convictions in terms of reason.
Instead, after studying the culture, becoming aware of its rhythms, stories and language, we enter into that world as ambassadors. We lay aside our prerogatives for the lack of “other.” We move with the scriptures in one hand and our iPad full of Lady Gaga, Breaking Bad, Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and the Hunger Games Trilogy in the other. We are cultural experts and translators. We unapologetically read scripture, call upon the Spirit and humble ourselves to dialogue with the natives, making ourselves winsomely persuasive. Meaning, we are those who listen the best, and ask the best questions. We seek first to understand. We seek secondarily offer to explain.
Internally, Christians also need to ask the tough question to each other, “How much of the biblical narrative ought to be public policy in our post-Christian nation?” This move is not nearly as easy as it may seem at first. Should we pass a state law banning gay marriage? Should we appoint Supreme Court justices that will reverse their prior decision in Lawrence v. Texas, preventing states from passing anti-sodomy laws? Should we encourage state legislatures to rewrite divorce laws, demanding that some cause for fault (adultery, abuse or abandonment) must be found by the court before a divorce can be granted? Should there be civil or criminal penalties for adultery? Should we be fighting wars without first meeting all the elements of the classical Christian doctrine of just war? Should tobacco be legally produced and sold? Should state legislatures pass Good Samaritan laws, requiring citizens to render assistance to other citizens in need of urgent and immediate help? We have thus far, as evangelicals, largely been reactive rather than proactive in our thinking about these issues. We have tended to take the partisan battles grounds, terminology and stories as a given and then only seek biblical justification for our engagement on their terms, but Sider is rightly arguing that we need to do the long, hard contemplative work as a community of answering this question before we engage the political process.
So, can evangelicals have an open conversation with each other about which aspects of the biblical narrative ought to be applied as law without assuming our counterparts are “rejecting the authority of scripture” or “setting up a theocracy?”
How interested is the Church (particularly evangelical churches) in becoming students of their culture in ways that “foreign” missionaries become students of their host culture?