The Christian Urge to Flee from Politics
May 24, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 34 • By PETER WEHNER
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.
And there is nary a word about the collapse of communism -- a monumental moral achievement in human history, for which political leaders deserve much of the credit. Blinded by Might is blinded by its settled disposition against politics.
Not all of our social and cultural problems are better, of course, and some areas remain largely beyond the reach of politics. But politics can do a lot more good than Thomas and Dobson argue. In the early 1980s they placed utopian (and profoundly unconservative) hopes in what politics might achieve; in their own words, "We were on our way to changing America. We had the power to right every wrong and cure every ill and end every frustration that God-fearing people had been forced to submit to." Now, in the late 1990s, they place almost no hope in what politics might achieve. It would have been better to avoid both extremes.
The second and more interesting argument made by Thomas and Dobson is that political involvement by organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition has hurt Christianity's witness and effectiveness. They believe political involvement is not only ineffective but often pernicious. It politicizes the Gospel, obscures the real message of the Christian faith, and draws energy away from better (non-political) strategies and methods. The authors are at their best when discussing how a full embrace of politics can easily vulgarize religious witness. As Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out, Jesus' entire ministry was directed against the pretensions of earthly power. This deep insight is often lost in our time.
Yet Blinded by Might insists that "believers must be energetically engaged in politics" -- presumably because both Thomas and Dobson do believe political acts can have profound human consequences. Their thesis appears to be that Christians should remain politically active but adopt an approach different from the religious Right's -- and here they may be on to something quite important. Although they should be following the message of Jesus, the authors argue, religious people on the right are mimicking "political parties and interest groups and compete for a share of the power."
But what would it mean, in a practical way, to be politically involved while following the message of Jesus? To be "energetically engaged" in politics while remaining deeply skeptical of worldly power? How is it possible to be meek and merciful, gentle in spirit, pure in heart, imitators of Christ's humility, and still succeed in electoral politics -- where (to put it mildly) no premium is put on these attributes? Thomas and Dobson, both bright and talented writers, might have been able to help us navigate these tricky theological waters. But unfortunately they never really address them.
Blinded by Might has already provoked discussion in Christian circles and beyond, because it raises legitimate grievances. But the argument would have been better, and more persuasive, if it had been written in a more generous tone, in a more even-handed manner, with greater nuance and less rigidity. What's also missing is winsomeness, a light touch, a gracious spirit.
Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson reflect often on Christianity's highest virtue, love. Dobson says that when he decided to devote himself to being a full-time pastor, "I decided that we are to love people unconditionally just as God loved us. I decided that my ministry would not be one of condemnation. . . . I longed to be known as one who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, not a message of hate and condemnation." And Thomas says of television preachers: "How many can you name who are associated with confession and forgiveness? More often their messages are full of condemnation and judgment."
True enough. But it would have been nice if Thomas and Dobson had shown a little more love, and a little less condemnation, to their former friends and colleagues.
Peter Wehner is executive director for policy at Empower America.