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Salt of the Earth

by Ralph Reed

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner (Moody, 144 pp., $19.99)

On November 2, the American electorate delivered a stinging rebuke to Pres. Barack Obama and the Democrats. According to a post-election survey conducted for the Faith and Freedom Coalition by Public Opinion Strategies, 32 percent of all voters were self-identified conservative Christians, and they cast 78 percent of their ballots for Republican candidates and only 20 percent for Democrats. Nearly 9 million more religious conservatives went to the polls than in the midterm elections four years ago.

Understanding the motivation of religious voters is therefore very important as we head toward 2012. In City of Man, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, two veterans of the George W. Bush White House, provide a thoughtful take on the intersection of faith and politics. The authors are devout Christians who have spent decades laboring in the vineyards of public policy. They offer a theology of Christian civic engagement suffused with practicality and informed by prudence. They acknowledge that much of the social-conservative agenda remains unachieved, but credit Christian activists with advancing what Pope John Paul II called “a culture of life,” and thwarting the triumph of secular liberalism.

The authors do fault religious conservative leaders for theological and rhetorical excess. They take Religious Right founders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to task, highlighting Falwell’s ill-advised remark after 9/11 blaming the ACLU, the abortion lobby, and gays for lifting God’s protective hand from America. Here the authors’ presentation is rather strained, in suggesting that a comment Falwell swiftly apologized for (and that Robertson disavowed) was somehow broadly representative of the entire movement.

One hopes that a more balanced treatment of Falwell and Robertson will emerge with time. They are significant figures in American religious and cultural history. Falwell ushered fundamentalists back into the mainstream after three generations of self-imposed exile. Acting as midwife for independent Baptist churches affiliating with the Southern Baptists, he helped pull the largest Protestant denomination in the world back from liberal drift. Like the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, the triumph of conservatives within the Southern Baptist Convention signaled an engaged, self-confident church prepared to meet the twin challenges of Soviet Communism and encroaching secularism.

As for Robertson, as a social entrepreneur, he has few peers. He founded the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Operation Blessing relief organization, Regent University (of which Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is a graduate), the Family Channel, the Christian Coalition, and the American Center for Law and Justice. (I worked for Robertson as executive director of the Christian Coalition.) The verdict of history will likely be that both these men led millions to saving faith and changed the political trajectory of the United States in a positive direction.

Still, Gerson and Wehner are correct that religious conservatives have not always acted or spoken in a way that reflects the full measure of God’s grace. Their zeal sometimes exceeded their knowledge of the ways of politics. This pattern has also prevailed in other social-reform movements: Suffragists chained themselves to the gates of the White House, temperance advocates took axes to saloons, anti–Vietnam War protesters hurled rocks and bottles at police, and the civil-rights leader Malcolm X declared John F. Kennedy’s assassination the chickens of a racist society coming home to roost. Against this backdrop, the gaucheries of religious conservatives look rather tame.

The movement is now undergoing a generational transition the authors see as an opportunity for new personalities to emerge. They point to Rick Warren, the bestselling author of The Purpose Driven Life, and Tim Keller, a highly influential pastor in Manhattan. But neither Warren nor Keller has shown great interest in politics. Social conservatives may be moving in the opposite direction, from pulpit-based to lay leadership. Among the brightest stars in the social-conservative firmament are Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, and such savvy political entrepreneurs as Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List and Penny Young Nance of Concerned Women for America.

A key contention of Gerson and Wehner is that religious conservatives became too close to the Republican party. But one wonders what choice they had. The Democrats’ attitude about religion after Jimmy Carter has ranged from awkward discomfort to outright hostility. One need only ask soon-to-be-former Democratic congressman Bart Stupak how well he fared with advancing pro-life views within his party. An independent party is a fool’s errand (as the Tea Party has also rightly concluded). The authors disapprove of pro-family groups’ passing out voter guides and scorecards focusing on such issues as GOP tax cuts, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and abolishing the Department of Education. Here they conflate faith-based public-policy groups with the church qua church, when in fact, pro-family groups do not claim to speak for the church, nor do they argue that increasing the child tax credit to $1,000 (a provision of the Bush tax cuts) is “Christian” tax policy. Rather, they assert it is sound public policy to reduce the tax burden on families by transferring money from Washington to mothers and fathers. In the dance of a modern political party, it is not always clear who is leading and who is following. The Republican party would not have adopted its pro-life, abstinence-education, or pro-family tax-cut stances without the influence of religious folk.

The same is true when the church uses its moral authority to address matters of public policy. Gerson and Wehner rightly warn that there is always a risk of damage to its primary mission of saving souls. But the church has a responsibility to speak truth to power. One may disagree with the National Council of Churches’ lobbying for a nuclear freeze during the Reagan administration, but one man’s heresy is another’s moral high ground. The worse error is one of omission, remaining silent in the face of evil. This was the case with too many churches during the eras of slavery, fascism, and segregation, to their shame.

The rub is knowing when and how to speak, and here there are no clear rules. The Episcopal church opposed military action in Iraq while evangelical leaders Richard Land and Chuck Colson delivered a letter to the White House proclaiming it a just war. Reasonable people will disagree. (But surely it is no coincidence that the Southern Baptists, whose public-policy arm Land heads, have more adherents than the three largest mainline denominations combined.) The best, indeed the only, strategy is to let a thousand flowers bloom.

Citing Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, Wehner and Gerson argue that the politicization of the church has turned young people away from organized religion. “The religious right, it turns out, was not good for religion,” they conclude. But the empirical evidence indicates that religious devotion follows marriage and child-bearing. Young people are delaying marriage and childbirth longer than ever, and this, not political activity, may explain their declining religiosity. In any case, a survey by the Pew Research Center has found that the mentioning of candidates from the pulpit and the passing out of political literature in churches has fallen to a recent low. This hardly fits the stereotype of a politicized church. And according to Public Opinion Strategies, 29 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 years identify themselves as members of the conservative Christian political movement, nearly the same percentage as the overall electorate. Gerson and Wehner point out that younger voters tend to be more pro-life than baby boomers, and this, too, bodes well for the movement’s future.

The authors are at their best when they urge believers not to equate their faith with a given political agenda. In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the Devil directs his charge to ensnare a new believer in political action, hoping the seed of faith will be choked of fruitfulness by the brambles of political combat. One cannot usher in the kingdom of God by electing politicians or passing bills. Gerson and Wehner counsel believers to treat political engagement as a form of Christian witness rather than an attempt to usher in the Promised Land. If more followed this advice, the movement would be more effective in both the kingdom of God and the city of man.

The book is less persuasive in its critique of the jeremiad, which historically has associated national calamity with God’s judgment for collective sin. To be sure, not all natural disasters, famines, and wars are signs of God’s disfavor. But the idea of the New World as a City on a Hill and a type of Israel whose protection and prosperity is inseparable from its devotion to God permeates the American character. “Let us consider what we have done to displease [God], wherein we have provoked God to anger, and what share we have had in drawing down such judgments of God against us,” Jonathan Edwards thundered in 1729. This theme persists throughout our history, and it is hardly unique to the Religious Right. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address interpreted the Civil War as God’s judgment on a sinful people for holding others in bondage, echoing anti-slavery jeremiads that had flamed from evangelical pulpits from the Founding. Americans respond to national trials with intense spiritual introspection that almost always leads to personal sanctification and societal reform. Good things, both.

Refreshingly, Gerson and Wehner conclude that far more good than harm has come from religious people’s exercising their citizenship, especially when they have done so with humility and with grace toward their opponents. We are often told religion and politics are not appropriate topics for polite conversation. Fortunately the authors of City of Man ignored that proscription, and those who read this volume may well be better citizens and believers as a result.

– Mr. Reed is CEO of Century Strategies and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

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