The Magazine

SAVING OURSELVES

The Christian Urge to Flee from Politics

May 24, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 34 • By PETER WEHNER
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In the preface to their new book, Blinded by Might, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson write, "We don't pretend to have all the right answers . . . and we don't pretend that some of those whose behavior and actions we critique are all wrong." "In this book," they assure the reader, "we have tried to be fair." And to quell any doubts on the matter: "We are not disgruntled former employees."


But then, Thomas and Dobson -- a former spokesman and a former vice president, respectively, of the Moral Majority -- spend the next 250 pages over-selling their views and denying any credibility to those they "critique."


Blinded by Might is a relentless portrait of the religious Right. According to Thomas and Dobson (who write alternating chapters in the book): The religious Right is harming the Gospel; selling its religious priorities "for a mess of political pottage"; committing heresy by setting America apart and above all other nations; coming across as "a bunch of moralizers who want to force a worldview down someone's throat"; hurting its cause by appearing to be holier-than-thou; quick to demonize those with whom they disagree; seduced by power; hypocritical; idolatrous; acting like "practical atheists." There is more, but you get the point. The religious Right are a thoroughly unloving, and unlovely, lot.


Many Christians, myself included, are concerned about the excesses of some on the religious Right (as well as the religious Left). Thomas and Dobson have successfully identified some disturbing things about these politically active organizations (for example, Thomas's discussion about fund-raising letters, their appeal to paranoia, their obsession with homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, and liberals). It is even true that some leaders in the movement are petty, prickly, too quick to condemn, and too easily seduced by power. For some, politics has become a false god.


Public life holds specific problems for Christians. One's faith can become politicized and one's affections can be drawn away from Christ and pulled toward the things of this world. These problems are real and need to be addressed.


Unfortunately, Blinded by Might is an angry book, unmeasured in its criticisms. According to the authors, the Christian Right is almost always wrong. Its members are never given the benefit of the doubt. They have achieved nothing of worth. There is virtually no acknowledgment that many of them live admirable, balanced lives. They are extended no grace. This is too bad in part because it detracts from the substantive issues raised in the book, foremost among them how Christians ought to view politics and the exercise of power.


Blinded by Might makes two basic arguments. The first is that politics has manifestly failed to improve America's moral landscape. More fundamentally, according to Thomas and Dobson, politics must fail in the task of cultural renewal because "laws do not change people." We are told that "morality is never activated from the top down. It is achieved from the bottom up."


The authors have taken an important insight (about the limits of politics) and massively oversteered. For example, what do they make of New York City during the Giuliani era? The murder rate has dropped 70 percent in six years and is at its lowest point since the 1960s. The number of welfare recipients is down. There is less graffiti. There are fewer panhandlers and fewer "squeegee pests." Times Square is largely free of porn shops. Even the streets are quieter; cab drivers honk their horns a whole lot less than they did a few years ago.


Talk to hardened New Yorkers and they will tell you that the quality of life in their city, the moral climate, and the civic culture are all much better. The explanation for this stunning urban transformation is not a spontaneous moral renewal in the hearts of New Yorkers, or "real change" from "the bottom up" or "better yet, the inside out." The explanation has largely to do with changes in public policies, activated from the top, with political leadership.


Or take welfare, which for decades was considered an intractable social problem. Since the early 1990s, we've seen a 38 percent drop in welfare rolls nationally. This is due in large measure to the 1996 Republican welfare bill, signed into law by President Clinton -- another political reform activated from the top.


Or take the number of abortions, which has declined by more than 40 percent in the state of Michigan since the late 1980s, when Medicaid funding of abortions was banned in the state. Once again, political action proves to have real effect.