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sophisticates away from their iPads and mobile devices to believe and trust in a Being, who resembles someone from an out-of-date novel—something which might be enjoyable to hear from time to time, but not to be taken seriously.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.