most intelligent about his beastliness.”
— Whittaker Chambers
“In a good society, politics is peripheral to much of the pulsing
life of the society.”
— George Will
by Rod D. Martin
August 16, 2000
The return of Christians to America’s political life has been one of the most positive developments of the past quarter century. It has, nevertheless, been as frustrating as it has been successful, and many of the new activists are today scratching their heads about where to go from here.
This was inevitable. The modern Church barely knows what it believes (and much of what it professes on paper is virtually unknown to its rank-and-file). It takes moral stands only with difficulty, because there is little agreement on what is and is not moral; how can it be expected to plan and execute strategy when it can barely set short-term goals?
Yet this is not an excuse for retreat; rather, it is a call to immediate action. Never has our culture more needed the wisdom and righteousness of Jesus Christ. The people of God must get their own houses in order; but they must bring the fullness of His light to the world as well. While these two things cannot happen simultaneously, Christians can do much even in the interim, so long as they are willing to do it with humility and wisdom, and with a very clear understanding that they cannot yet do it all.
Total depravity as a theological concept means that, whatever it is God wants, man will rebel against that thing, or else do what is required for the wrong reason. This depravity is inherited from Adam, our first father, and is the manifestation of Eve’s wish to “be like God” (which is to say, to be her own god). Throughout all history, man has ceaselessly rebelled, both individually and corporately, and the setting up of false gods – gods he may control, or at least choose at his whim – has been his most consistent activity. And his favorite god has been the state.
A deified state – and the coinage need not say “there is no god but Caesar” for the state to reach this point – is a very dangerous thing. Governments are not impersonal institutions, but bodies of sinful men: it is they who wield it’s god-like power. And especially in a democracy, as that power grows, they and “their” people will corrupt each other, as everyone takes greater and greater control over everyone, until all of them are slaves.1
America has traveled far down this road, so far that even many pietists have turned activist, most in response to the legalization of abortion on demand (what an earlier generation of feminists called “child murder”). The result has been a revolution in American politics, as the Republican Party has through these new activists established a majority for the first time since the 1920s, and as many heretofore non-issues have been forced to the forefront of public life.2
Yet this revolution has not come without disappointment. Many of the new activists had believed that right would (instantly) make (overwhelming) might. Just like an earlier generation of mostly-secular conservatives fighting alongside Barry Goldwater, they quickly learned this wasn’t true; but they didn’t handle the shock nearly as well. Some of them reverted to pietism; many of them retreated from the fight and became grumbling cranks. Many of the early gains were needlessly surrendered.
Much of this response reflected how Christians became ghetto-ized in the first place: an erosion (and often an outright loss) of their faith in the sovereignty of God. In leaving their pietism and joining the humanists in the belief that political power could “change everything,” many of them abandoned their faith’s first principle – the Fall, with its corollary that any human institution is necessarily corrupt – and that only God’s adoption of individual men through the grace of His Son can bring lasting victory. Equally foolishly, by retaining pietism’s myopia, they failed to see that the regeneration of those men, over time, sanctifies not only the men themselves but every institution of which they’re a part. Few really believed that “all power in Heaven and on Earth” had been given unto Christ at His Ascension; fewer were willing to believe that He exercises that power today, but on His own time-frame.
That merely facing sustained opposition would demoralize the new activists should not surprise. All political newcomers experience this to a degree, and few churches preach doctrine sound enough to inspire sustained action. Moreover, Christ Himself taught that “the sons of this world are more shrewd than the sons of light.”
On the other hand, He didn’t praise this.
Shrewdness is wisdom in action. Insofar as the “sons of this world” have gained ground at the expense of Christendom, they have taken Solomon more seriously than we have. This is foolishness, and God hates a fool. If Christians are to be as leaven, working their way through and thus transforming the whole world, they must stop handing their inheritance to their enemies. Activism – both in the church where appropriate3 and in politics as well – is a vital part of this about-face. Yet it is only a part, and its place must be clearly understood.
Yet unlike justification – which is a final judgement, never to be revisited – sanctification is both declared (definitive) and ongoing (progressive). He parentsHis new, adoptive child, within the framework of His covenant, chastening and rewarding as needed to rear (sanctify) him, with the end result a believer maturing (however imperfectly) throughout his life, finally perfected in Heaven.
This sort of sanctification is impossible for institutions; and yet it is precisely this process by which sanctification of an institution takes place. Again, an institution is simply a group of men. An institution made up of godly men is itself godly. Change the men, change the institution, whether by replacing them or by God redeeming them.
And today’s men need changing, desperately. Despite the wishful thinking of some, America today is not a Christian nation: it is apostate. Yes, Christianity (or at least a shadow of itself) is all around us; it is our heritage as well. But most Americans have self-consciously rejected Christ, and those who claim we live in a Christian nation might as well pretend Asia Minor is still Christian too. The dead outnumber the living.
The Church has contributed greatly to this disaster. In fact, the Church’s enemies – understanding the concept of institutional sanctification (and reprobation) far better than we – have consistently used the church itself as the means of reaching their goals. This has been especially true in the past 170 years, as the humanists have advanced on several key fronts which I have termed “The Four Ds”: Darwinism (evolutionary process replacing the transcendent God, timeless Law and inspired Word), Dialectical-Materialism (or Marxism: sanctification of the masses through a deified state), Deweyism (the transfer of primary responsibility for education from fathers and churches to a state monopoly designed to catechize children in Darwinism and Dialectical-Materialism), and, the coup de grace to the faithful remnant not yet subverted by the first three, Dispensationalism (the fusion of Arminian soteriology, anti-covenantal theology, and pessimistic eschatology; which is to say, the evisceration of the Gospel).
Against this onslaught, the church simply withered. America’s “mainline” denominations had gone Modernist by the early 20th Century, and with them, most American institutions of higher learning (the graduate schools, modeled on their German counterparts, had started out that way). With even conservative Presbyterians rejecting Genesis for Darwin, and embracing a centralization of their church into the hands of a bureaucracy that ultimately destroyed them, it is little wonder that Modernist Presbyterians were in position to lead the charge for the Social Gospel, and that a Presbyterian ruling elder, Woodrow Wilson, launched America on its course into modern statism. Moreover, armed with millions of Scofield Bibles, it is little wonder that, after the Scopes trial, millions of Christians, certain of their impotence, either cursed the darkness or just went along.5
To many present-day readers, the fact that for over a century, unregenerate political leftists labored endlessly to take power in the various Christian denominations would likely come as a shock, at least as shocking, in fact, as that such men would bother with an institution so foolish, primitive and impotent at all. Yet the committed, consistent, vocal orthodox Church is anything but impotent: it is the most powerful, influential organization in any society, and its mere existence robs its enemies of many opportunities, even when it is in the minority. The humanists understood this very well, and further understood that their own, radical vision for society could not be implemented in the face of a strong, orthodox Church. The subversion of the Church became, therefore, the essential pre-condition for the entire 20th Century. Likewise, its resurgence represents the sure destruction of what the humanists have built.
So politics is limited. But does this mean it is pointless? Of course not, any more than a computer is limited because it can’t be a car. Politics is a tool, and the issue is how to use it profitably.
We must clearly understand what “profit” means in this context. Profit does notmean forcing our faith on an unwilling people.6 Profit does mean moving the culture in a direction which leads to greater righteousness and discourages continued idolatry (the most obvious idolatry in modern life being state-worship). Moreover, to be profitable, it must be understood that attempts at wholesale all-or-nothing change will largely fail: unlike God’s instantaneous conversions of sinners, societal changes – particularly those advocated by minorities – are inevitably gradual things, and rushing them often leads to horrific reversals. Higher critics could not have captured American Presbyterianism in 1800, any more than they could have been dislodged from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1970. The impatient need not apply.
For a Church that is in the minority, profitable Christian political action falls primarily in two categories: changing specific institutions, and (more broadly) altering men’s presuppositions.
Changing institutions is usually more straightforward, and has the benefit (once accomplished) of giving Christians an additional base of influence for future fights. Often, it can be done with almost ridiculous ease: in many states, anyone who can learn the party rules, organize, and turn out twenty people can elect their slate of officers in a Republican county committee.7 Obviously, this becomes more complicated in larger areas and at higher levels of the party, and just as obviously, the organizers will face opposition as they proceed. That said, anyone who doesn’t just assume and even welcome these caveats doesn’t need to be involved in politics.
The primary issue in institutional change is always the same: what are the organization’s rules (both by-laws and rules of order)? Not everyone instinctively grasps the full implications of various rules, and wise strategists must be sought who do; however, everyone involved must learn the rules themselves. This is absolutely mandatory, especially in organizations governed by some variant of Robert’s Rules of Order. If the organizing group – both leaders and rank-and-file – has a solid grasp on the rules, and can back that up with sufficient numbers, it is almost always unbeatable, not least because their opposition often hasn’t taken this advice. This is how Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson defeated and removed the liberals from control of the Southern Baptist Convention’s agencies, boards and seminaries in a little over ten years’ time.
Clearly, this won’t work in every case. Some institutions have so little ideological common ground with the new activists that their mere presence will provoke an immediate and insuperable backlash against them (espousing higher criticism in 1730s Northern Presbyterianism would have done this, for instance). Likewise, a great many institutions – such as the great philanthropic foundations, many appointive boards and commissions, and other “closed” structures – cannot be directly assailed at all. Additionally, some institutions by definition cannot be reformed: a Christian-led Communist Party, for instance, or a Christian North American Man-Boy Love Association, is both impossible and ridiculous.
Yet there are few institutions in modern society which are completely unreachable, even if they may only be reached indirectly and at great expense of time and money. The issue is simply where that time and money may be best spent.
This brings us to the other sort of profitable political action, changing men’s presuppositions. This is impossible for us, of course, in an absolute sense: unregenerate man inherently rebels against God. But man does not rebel against every good idea: in fact, short of literally committing suicide, he cannot.
This provides our opening for reform, because it means that even those who disagree with the Christian worldview may well be persuaded of the utility of a particular Christian idea. Homeschooling, for instance, did not start with New Agers, but once Christians pioneered it, New Agers adopted it and have fought for it. Likewise, the free market is Biblical, and yet billions of lost people prefer it (at least generally) to Marxism.
This fact presents endless opportunities; and yet the greatest opportunity – and the one Christians must focus on for the foreseeable future – is the failure of the deified state itself. The 20th Century was to be the century of the omniscient, omnipotent state which would “plan” our way into security and prosperity. All it would cost was our freedom. Most were happy to pay (and all did pay, happy or not). But today, the failure of the humanists’ Babel-like monstrosity is all around us. Two “hot” world wars, and a third “cold” one, drained the world of its sons and its wealth. The great centrally-planned states are gone, collapsed of their own weight or, like China, still authoritarian but embracing the capitalism its very existence supposedly opposes. In the West, the great welfare schemes have visibly failed, state health systems and pensions8 are bankrupting, and government schools are in collapse. Everyone agrees that “something must be done;” and the wind is mostly blowing the right way.
That right way is toward freedom, and an end – or at least diminishing – of the state-worship of our age. The key for Christians is to pick battles which, once won, will convince the broad majority that the newfound freedom really does perform better than the old state “benevolence”, and will cause them to clamor for more. A program here or there is not the point: just as the Left has lead people from one socialist program to the next by creating an inexorable cycle of perceived need (and, through income tax withholding, a very fuzzy idea about the personal cost of any of this), Christian activists must collapse those pillars underneath the über-state which will inevitably topple others as they fall. At a time when central authority is largely distrusted, and the grand schemes of the wise men have visibly failed, this, though difficult, will prove a great deal easier than it seems, not least because this sort of fight is not one which Christians need fight alone.
The profit here should be obvious. Apostates aside, even modern Christians are largely syncretists, looking to God for an afterlife but to the state for “real-world” blessings and curses, not to mention ethical direction. Showing men – all men – that their own self-interest is better served by genuine freedom, and leading them to that goal, would destroy the pretentious god of this age, and create a better world for every man, woman and child.
The political work of modern Christians is not, therefore, to “Christianize” anything per se – that is the urgent calling of families and churches. Rather, it is to reduce and, insofar as possible, eliminate the evils of a government horribly disfigured and overgrown. Put another way, the Christian activist’s job is that of making men free. It is simply one aspect of that greater freedom which is the work of the Church itself.
- This, albeit from a secular perspective, is what Nobel Prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek called “the road to serfdom.” F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1944). James Madison more prosaically called it “the people voting themselves theft.”
- An additional result has been a growing intellectual schizophrenia in the church, as premillennialists begin to “polish brass” on the allegedly sinking ship, and as pastors attempt to reconcile their pietistic theology with their presence in pro-life marches.
- For an example of essential (and successful) church activism, see Paul Pressler’s account of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, the only example of a denomination, having been lost to humanists, being restored: A Hill on Which to Die (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999). For an example of the opposite, see Gary North, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996).
- To better understand this, think of a traitor against the state. He might take care of a thousand orphans and be very sweet to his old mother, he is still a traitor, and will still be placed before a firing squad if caught. So it is with the King of Kings.
- Outside America, where the decay was far more advanced, the disaster was also far worse. “Post-Christian” Germany, the progenitor of higher criticism (not to mention Marxism) and the model for 19th Century America’s Modernist churchmen, was considered “the most civilized nation on Earth”, but became a ghoulish totalitarian nightmare and was obliterated in 1945. So did Orthodox Russia,” which after enslaving half the planet was itself buried by 1991; while post-Christian, socialist Britain and France watched their empires – among the largest in history as late as 1947 – shorn away like so much wool in only a quarter-century’s time. God can be mocked. You just better be willing to pay the price.
- This is not to say that we should not defend our legitimate place in the current society, such as our right to assemble, to speak our faith where and when we choose, to worship in churches where the pastors may preach as they wish without losing their tax exemption, etc. It is merely to say that man cannot sanctify what God will not, by force or otherwise. To attempt to do so is to practice the “power religion” (as North puts it) of the humanists, not the orthodox religion of God.
- Note that the organizational structure of the Republican Party is such that any group who controls a majority of the county committees in a state rapidly comes to control the state and executive committees, and elects the state’s three national committee members as well. The conservative California Republican Assembly accomplished this very thing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as did the Christian Coalition in a number of states during the latter part of that period. That said, getting there is relatively simple; staying there is harder, because few Christian activists (or political conservatives generally) have sufficient unity, or even attention spans, to stay in the fight longer than one or two election cycles.
- It’s worth noting that even socialist Britain has been forced to privatize its retirement system, with the truly astounding result that Britain’s newly-private pension accounts have quickly exceeded the value of all European government pension systems combined.