Of Poverty, Privilege and Politics

An exchange in yesterday's Democratic Party presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan is generating a lot of social media buzz, if not attention from the mainstream press. In response to a question from one of the moderators about what "racial blind spots" the candidates might possess, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), stated:

When you are white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor, you don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you are walking down a street or dragged out of a car...We must be firm in making it clear that we will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system.
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The Reckoning

As I write this, the Republican primary in my home state of Virginia is in the books, and Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul who has flipped the political establishment on its head with his improbable run for the presidency, has won. His performance on "Super Tuesday" was not as dominating as perhaps Mr. Trump and his supporters had hoped, but it did make the path to the nomination much more difficult for his opponents. It seems that now would be a good time to consider the long-term implications of this current political season, at least from my limited vantage point. Donald Trump's ascension marks the end, in my opinion, of several coalitions which have held sway over American politics and culture for decades.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Reconciliation

I wrote recently about how the Lord has been taking me through a season of change using a variety of events, both personal and external, to point me toward the conclusion that, while I thought I was placing Him first in my life, I was wrong and still had a distance to go. I shared how truly putting him first meant letting go of some idols to which I subconsciously still cleaved, and that doing so had liberated me to receive who I am in Christ and what He would have me do with the rest of my life. It's an exciting moment when you arrive at "the place God calls you to", to quote theologian Frederick Buechner, "the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." A friend at church who had read my book approached me unexpectedly a few months ago, excited to share with me a vision he had of me having an impact on the culture regarding the topic of race relations. He led me to the realization that my temperament, my spiritual gifts, my skills and abilities, my life experiences, and even the public platform I've built so meticulously over nearly a decade, ostensibly for political reasons, could be used as a bridge to bring blacks and whites in my home country together, beginning with the church, where He commands us to be one in Him, and radiating from there out into American society as a whole.

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What’s Your Worldview? – A Book Review

Do you know why you believe what you believe? It sounds like an odd question on the surface, but it actually goes to the heart of a book by Dr. James N. Anderson, What's Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life's Big Questions. Anderson, a theology and philosophy professor and ordained minister, has created an unusual and engaging way for his readers to determine how they view the world, and you don't even have to read the whole book to figure it out.

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Author Q&A: Ron Miller

Author's Note: The following is the unedited version of an interview I gave to Liberty University Press. The official version can be found here. Feb. 18, 2014

Black History Month is a reminder to reflect on the heritage and contributions of the black community in America.  To celebrate, we caught up with Ron Miller, author of “Sellout: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch and associate dean of the Helms School of Government, to talk about faith, race, politics, and his writing process. 

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Should Christians Go Galt?

As a longtime observer of politics, I am just a little bemused by the hand-wringing and navel gazing taking place within Republican Party circles, simply because every party that loses an election immediately goes into panic mode, and they always propose some version of "moving to the center" and discarding the "extremists" at the fringe. The Democrats went through a similar period of introspection after 12 years out of the White House, and again following the 1994 Republican Revolution that captured the U.S. House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic Party control. They pilloried the "extremists" and said they needed to move to the center, thinking it was the key to their long-term political viability. The party labels may change, but the song remains the same.

I was discussing this cycle with a pastor friend of mine since many in the GOP have decided to turn on the social conservatives, the heart, soul, hands and feet of the party who are, for the most part, evangelical Christians.

"Maybe the voters would love us more if we abandoned the principles of our most loyal supporters, and adopted some of the positions of our opponents," they opine. Well, that may not be how they would present their argument, but that is in fact what they are suggesting.

Strictly from a political perspective, this is ludicrous.

If voters are given a choice between committed Democrats and Republicans trying to be more like Democrats, guess who they're going to pick?

The whole notion of an opposition party is to promote and defend an opposing worldview, and offer the electorate a choice. To those who think the GOP is going to see a surge of electoral support without the passion and principles of the social conservative movement, I say "Good luck with that." Moderates generally don't sacrifice their time, talents, and treasure the way social conservatives do - that's why they're called moderates - and, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, if you think the GOP is a defeated party with social conservatives in it, wait until you see what it looks like without them.

The Democrats, after all, once thought they should discard their "extremists" if they were going to win, yet they currently hold the White House and the U.S. Senate with a platform that is more left of center than at any time in their history.

It is precisely the devotion and commitment of evangelicals to the political process, however, that has my pastor friend apoplectic, and he threw down a proposal to me so radical that I can't help but share it.

In some respects, his proposal reminded me of John Galt, a key figure in Ayn Rand's book, Atlas Shrugged, who grew tired of being used and demeaned by the state and the "takers" of society, and decided to lead a movement where he and producers like himself would go on strike, "stopping the motor of the world" and showing them the futility of a society without the creators, innovators and producers.

Conscientious Christians on both sides of the political aisle have been used by the political process for decades now, and if they are honest with themselves, none of the goals they sought to achieve through these earthly institutions have come to pass in any meaningful way.

Whether you declare yourself to be on the left and look to politics to care for the poor, the sick and the hungry, or you land on the right and expect politics to protect the unborn, affirm the family, and promote life, liberty and the fruits of one's labor, if you are honest with yourself, you will admit that you've gotten very little return on your investment of time, skill, money and passion.

So, my pastor friend suggested that it's time for Christians to remove themselves from politics altogether - no voting, no running for office, no time, money or talent toward achieving political success. They will continue to obey the law, but they will completely disengage from politics.

In other words, it's time for Christians to "go Galt" on the political process.

Have I got your attention?

The more I thought about his proposal, the more I thought it warranted a deep and serious discussion of its merits and its faults. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and martyr to the Nazis, told his seminary students that every good sermon required, as his friend and mentor, Anglican bishop George Bell would say, "a shot of heresy." Sometimes a dramatic dissent from conventional wisdom, a paradigm breaker, is what is needed to spur critical thinking and deeper reflection, and it might even sharpen one's defense of the prevailing view, so it is in that spirit that I am examining my pastor friend's proposal.

Of course, this proposal is not new, although it might be more draconian in its suggested implementation. Two of the better known books embracing this idea are Why Government Can't Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism, by famed pastor, teacher and author Dr. John MacArthur, and Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can't Save America, which was notable in that one of its co-authors, syndicated columnist and pundit Cal Thomas, was a faithful lieutenant in the social conservative movement as a vice president for the Moral Majority, the leading organization of the so-called "Religious Right" at its zenith in the 1980s.

While I recommend you read them both to gain a full appreciation of their point of view, they generally challenge the reader to "count the cost" of extensive Christian involvement in politics, and I will attempt to summarize their arguments, and that of my pastor friend:

1) Just another special interest group: Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has historically held the role of America's moral conscience, transcending the worldly quest for power, and operating independently of the political and cultural currents of the day. The founders believed that only "a religious and moral people" could successfully govern themselves under a constitutional republic, and so they envisioned the church as the guardian of virtue. Some would argue that the church's deep involvement in the political process has reduced it to just another special interest group seeking to have its demands met through the mechanisms of government, and therefore stripped it of its transcendent nature, and the power it gave the church to inform the conscience of the nation.

2) Millenials hate politicized faith: In the book "Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity ... and Why It Matters," authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons cite extensive data from The Barna Group, a market research firm specializing in religious beliefs and behavior, which indicate young Americans believe Christians are "primarily motivated by a political agenda and promote right-wing politics." The authors do a credible job of addressing this perception and discussing the complexities and challenges it presents, pointing out that there is no easy or pat answer to the question of the means through which Christians should influence the culture. I would add that political involvement is not exclusive to Christians who self-identify as conservative, as organizations like Sojourners and its founder, Christian activist Jim Wallis, demonstrate, but the "Christian left" is somehow spared the ire of the culture, and while I have my opinions as to why that is the case, this isn't the time or place to air them. Ultimately, the consequence of the perception that Christians are too wedded to right-wing politics is that young people feel disconnected from the church, and they miss the good news of Jesus Christ.

3) Poor return on investment - Whether it's aid to the poor, protection of life from conception to natural death, the defense of marriage, or any one of a number of noble goals the church seeks to achieve, a case could be made that turning to government as the primary means through which to accomplish them hasn't worked. The so-called "War on Poverty" launched nearly half a century ago hasn't appreciably changed the lives of millions for whom poverty is a legacy passed from generation to generation, despite tens of trillions of taxpayer dollars spent and an unprecedented expansion of government into a sphere of influence for which it is ill-designed. Even liberal observers have been forced to admit that many government poverty programs have perpetuated dependency rather than eliminated it, and led to the unintended consequence of crushing the human spirit under the weight of hopelessness and despair. The battle for the sanctity of human life at all stages of development has netted some victories, but abortion on demand is still the law of the land, and assisted suicide is legal in three states. Marriage and family, the bedrock of civilizations for centuries, are at risk of being redefined into non-existence, and nearly half of American children are born out of wedlock, putting them behind the starting line before the race is even run. The Bible describes the role of government as punishing the wrongdoer and rewarding those who do good, and the only way government can fulfill its role is through the use of force, whether it's the law, police, the courts, or the armed forces. In short, government is designed to be a blunt instrument for keeping order and administering justice, and trying to use it to do what Christ called the church - His church - to do is using the wrong tool for the job. The results should make this readily apparent.

4) Making disciples - or enemies? - Another unintended consequence of relying too much on government is that the prime directive for all Christians, the Great Commission, goes unfulfilled. Jesus uses our works not just to meet the physical needs of the hurting and helpless, but to minister to their souls as well, and give them the desire to know Him more. When we outsource our compassion to government, we have effectively surrendered any opportunity to make disciples for Christ. Moreover, using the force of law to achieve our ends is unbiblical, and it makes adversaries of the people we are supposed to be reaching. From the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, God has always allowed us free will, and it is contrary to His nature to compel anyone to love or obey Him.

5) Voting for Pharaoh - My pastor friend likens our participation in the electoral process to "voting for Pharaoh." Certainly, government has been indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the values of the church, yet we show them a level of deference that he equates to embracing our oppressors.

6) Politics as the golden calf - Idolatry in ancient times took the form of graven images, and the old saying "putting someone up on a pedestal" describes how we often elevate some people as if they are greater than the rest of us. Watching the behavior of people at a political rally, however, really brought home for me the concept of idolatry, or counterfeit gods, to use pastor Timothy Keller's term. I've seen more emotion and expressiveness at political rallies than I see in many churches, and the outpouring of our personal wealth, time and devotion to politicians and political causes is not only unhealthy for a nation founded on the precepts of human equality and the rule of the people over their government, it is essentially worship for someone or something other than the Creator of the Universe.

7) The church divided - This is perhaps the most heart-rending outcome of politicized Christianity, at least for me. There should be no "left" or "right" in the church, but the reality is that Christians take opposing stands on political issues which result in such categorization, and I believe it grieves the heart of God. Too many Christians put their politics ahead of their faith, in deed if not in word, and the church, rather than standing as one and acting as God's messenger to the world, is just as divided and in conflict as everyone else. The church is meant to be an influence on society, yet it often allows itself to be consumed by society, and elevates acceptance to a higher plane than righteousness.

My pastor friend cites as his rallying cry Philippians 3:20 ("But our citizenship is in heaven") and Malachi 3:7 ("Return to me and I will return to you"). He says it's time for the church to stop using secular institutions to achieve Godly ends. Certainly, after examining the cost of politicized Christianity, he makes a compelling case for Christians to "go Galt."

Bible professor Wayne Grudem, however, in his book, Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture, rejects the notion of total disengagement from the political process, along with four other "mistaken" views on Christian involvement in politics, and instead defends the view of "significant Christian influence on government." He states, "I wrote this book because I was convinced that God intended the Bible to give guidance to every area of life - including how governments should function!" Regarding his conclusions, he says "I see these positions as flowing out the Bible's teachings rather than positions that I hold prior to, or independently of, those biblical teachings."

I've spoken with colleagues and other pastors on the topic, and I'm continuing to read Dr. Grudem's book, which is very comprehensive and firmly grounded in Scripture. The next installment in this series will tackle his view of the Christian's role in politics.

In the meantime, let me ask you - should Christians "go Galt"? I welcome your thoughts.