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Editor’s Journal: The competence factor

Yale University historian Harry S. Stout identified the dominant influence in colonial New England as the local church. In his book, The New England Soul:  Preaching and Religious Culture in New England, he reveals that the local pastor wielded great authority in the early communities across America precisely because his sermons were heard and later read as “authority incarnate.” The preaching of the text(s) of the Bible was often so powerful that no one could escape the gaze of a penetrating and deeply practical challenge from the pastor. Sermons were regarded as vital for “spiritual enlightenment” and “social meaning and order.” Stout states that for the early Puritans, “purity, power and liberty constituted a sacred trinity of thought and action; each depended on the other for balance and meaning.”

The sermons of this era reflected a high standard of learning and erudition that combined the best thoughts from the likes of Cicero and Quintillian (notable political orators) and fused these speaking techniques with the doctrines of the Bible to bring forth a sermon that could rival the leading thinkers of the day. Most pastors were trained at Harvard or Princeton and were consulted in their communities on spiritual matters to be sure, but they were also voices of information and help on matters of economics, politics and social thought.

Fast forward to the modern day, and many consider pastors little more than hired guns for Jesus. For many, the modern pastor has been relegated to that of a salesman for something that no one wants to buy. He is seen as a beggar pitifully calling modern sophisticates away from their iPads and mobile devices to believe and trust in a Being, who resembles someone from an out-of-date novel—something which might be enjoyable to hear from time to time, but not to be taken seriously. What good is studying Greek, Hebrew and theology when political theory, the political economy, international relations and public law now dominate the halls of government and society?  What counsel could the church intelligently offer when complex algorithms of finance and difficult issues of the modern welfare state dominate the world?

When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee first declared his intent to run for President, he was met with many questions as to his qualification to hold public office. The question articulated by many journalists and political elites: “What does a preacher know about government?” Huckabee always expressed amazement that few understood that the serious study of theology demanded a thorough study of modern culture as well as practical measures to combat the growing social maladies of the day. During the 2008 presidential debates, he would always receive questions about evolution, while other “serious” candidates would be questioned about the economy and jobs.

When James Lankford, a Baptist minister and director of Falls Creek, vaulted into a runoff for Congress, he was immediately barraged by questions of competence. What could he possibly know about government and how it works? What this line of questioning actually illustrates is the all-consuming theater which American politics has become. Congressmen now function as celebrities, and candidates for that office must transform into made-for-television stars to even be considered at all. Statecraft is now more art than science; more drama than dogma; more entertainment than reality.

Political theater, as the modern realities of the nation now reveal, always gives way to the hard work and grim realities of governance. Terrorism is an ever-present reality. The very definition of marriage is now under legislative scrutiny to actually proscribe in detail not what marriage means, but what marriage is. Welfare reform, originally passed in 1996, is a topic of concern as to its long-term viability. Social Security recently ran into the red and shows no sign of solvency. Healthcare remains an issue: Who should have it; who should provide it; and who should pay for it?

The ideas which shape government emerge from competing perspectives which are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile. Consensus—that all-important goal of the political game—is becoming more difficult to achieve. Public policy debates are now to be undertaken with little or no appeal to tradition or moral absolutes. Such statements are considered “religious” in nature and, as such, are not permitted to corrupt the modern ideas of the public good. Leave the real work to the political theorists and politicians. The “God-talk” is best left outside the legislative chamber.

If Christianity can be publicly caricatured as just another special interest group vying for a place at the table of political shenanigans, then the war is over, and secular theorists have won. What should be constantly stressed is often something evangelical activism all too quickly fails to sound forth. All social policy positions are, by their very nature, advanced by value-laden motives. Someone’s values are being advanced. Just what those values are requires more than a “scientific” microscope. Questions such as, “Why is it right to give public money to the poor? Why must those funds be confiscated through a tax system where those in the society who are most productive subsidize those who are bereft of a work ethic? Is government the final authority on what is right and wrong?” bombard the public sector incessantly.

More foundationally, “What is right? What is good? What is law?” are, without doubt, religious issues. Policies are shaped around particular answers to such questions, and those answers are settled long before the public relations machines of modern politics are revved up.

Evangelicals often are accused of utilizing overt war room theologies portrayed as nothing more than cosmetic attempts to steer the ship of state toward religious extremism. To reverse that perception, Christian churches should be able to offer answers on issues such as abortion, gay “marriage,” stem cell research, government entitlement programs and economic theory. Moreover, they must be a people who labor to read Holy Scripture well and mobilize their churches to be commissioned agents of the biblical ethic.

Social policy is never advanced apart from politics. Yet, when churches and other para-church agencies battle only in the arena of the political, the theological domain has already been conceded to the enemies of the Christian Gospel. The great task remains both as opportunity and obligation for the Christian church. Will she do the hard work of thinking biblically and carefully speaking out to a culture of decadence, or will she succumb to the spirit of the age and only involve herself, like her unredeemed counterparts, in the machinations of political theater? Will Christians avoid the world of Washington only to stand on the sidelines bemoaning the decline of the culture? The world awaits the answer.

Author: Douglas Baker

View more articles by Douglas Baker.

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  • Gary Capshaw

    While Christian’s certainly have an obligation to vote their conscience and their faith, involving the church in the political field is what’s led us to the current situation. Too often, the church is identified as the agent of a certain political party, not the Kingdom of the living God, and each time the church takes a political stance on an issue, it alienates everyone on the other side. We need LESS involvement, not more.

    Our Christ-given mission is to take the Gospel to the world, not drive away those of a different political persuasion by “standing up for God” in the world of politics. If we truly want to transform the political system, and the nation, the key is to win a majority of our citizens to Salvation once again, not to force them to accept Biblical morality in the form of secular laws. That does nothing to transform hearts and that’s what we’re supposed to be about.

  • David Crane

    I would like to respectfully suggest that the author of this article is much closer to the truth than the view of Mr. Capshaw. As the author pointed out at the beginning, pastors in New England were once ascribed a level of respect that reflected the prevalent cultural belief that the Bible is the chief and best source for determining what is right, good and just. The pastors of that day did not refuse to speak out on matters related to economics and politics in general, but freely shared their views. It could most likely be argued that had the church’s leadership of the 18th century taken Mr. Capshaw’s stance there would never have been an American Revolution. Certainly there are Ana-Baptists groups out there which have always taught that the church of Jesus Christ is to have nothing to do with politics, fighting in wars, etc. But the church as a whole in the US has rejected such claims. The author calls for the church to maintain a balanced stance. The balance he’s calling for is between maintaining a high level of fidelity to biblical teachings and commands, while at the same time entering the public domain in a Christ-like manner. The latter forbids believers from ever opting for mere glitz, and glamor over real substance. The former requires them to do just what Mr. Capshaw rightly points out are the main foci of the church, i.e. making disciples, carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth, etc. But the balance that the author calls for might prove tough in local churches which have already allowed too much of the world’s preferences and thinking to creep into their planning.

    • Gary Capshaw

      Mr. Crane:

      You may be right about all that, but I still cannot find any Biblical justification for doing what you and the author suggests. After all, the Bible should be our guide, not what we think is a good idea. Nowhere in Scripture are we told to involve the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in politics. In fact, we are told to honor and obey the government as it is instituted by God for our benefit. Yes, that includes this administration and Congress too.

      Also, these times are different from back in the pre-Revolutionary days. Back then, the local church was the center of the community, a place not only to worship but to socialize and pick up the latest news. Now, we have 24 hour news and a much wider variety of socializing venues. That the church is no longer at the center of it all should hardly be surprising as advancing technologies and means of communication has made it less important in the day to day lives of our citizens.

      I would also submit that the church is no longer relevant to people on a daily basis because of our failure to take the Great Commission seriously at home. We’ve drifted off into the realm of political action and other distractions, leaving the lost and our own members, who we should be discipleing, to themselves. The solution is not more of the same.

      You mention the American Revolution and I can’t help but point out that the Revolution was born as much in the local pubs as it was at the local church, and very often by the same people. I would also point out that while we love our democracy, it’s not Biblical either. The ideal government found in the Bible will be the one we’re all supposed to be working for and looking forward to: the reign of Jesus Christ. That will NOT be a democracy; it will be an absolute monarchy.

  • The Baptist Messenger has indeed been blessed by the commentaries offered by Douglas Baker, Editor-in-Chief. Each one grabs my attention and deserves my careful reading. “The Competence Factor” is an outstanding example.

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