It’s been fascinating–and sometimes dispiriting–to watch the media coverage of evangelicals during this campaign. Perhaps best-known of the recent stories is James Dobson’s scathing e-mail about Senator Thompson. After months of rumors that Senator Thompson was the last, great hope of Dr. Dobson and other conservative evangelicals, this obviously suggests that things are in flux. But there’s more. For instance, I’ve been thinking about a recent Congressional Quarterly story. It’s called “A Crisis of Political Faith for Evangelicals,” and it begins this way:
In almost every presidential election of the past three decades, social conservative and evangelical voters didn’t need anything like their own debates or special summit meetings with the candidates. That’s because their choices were so obvious early on: In 1980 there was Ronald Reagan, who coyly told the members of the evangelical Religious Roundtable that, while he understood its membership was barred from endorsing him, he felt free to endorse them. In the past two elections there was George W. Bush, who describes himself as a born-again Christian and won his second term with the support of four out of five evangelicals.
So far in the 2008 campaign, though, evangelical conservatives have been facing a very different prospect: No obviously viable candidate to rally behind and an increasingly restive mood in their ranks.
And now, topping it all off, Newsweek is out with a story detailing the Democrats’ latest efforts to reach out to evangelicals. Summary: They are intensifying. So, looking at the whole picture here, we’re squabbling among ourselves, we’re disappointed in the Republicans, and in the meantime the Democrats are picking off whomever they can.
I must admit that I see a serious problem at the core of this–and quite frankly, it’s not that the GOP candidates stink. It’s the way we have put absolutely inordinate faith in politics. Put another way, it’s not the speck in their eyes–it’s the log in our own.
To see what I mean, read the CQ article–and the frustrations therein about the lack of progress on “our agenda.” And read any of the many stories that have come out this year about the evangelical right’s yearnings for “the right candidate.” Here is an example:
With the GOP having controlled the White House and the House for the previous six years — and the Senate for the previous four — social conservatives expected much more progress on their agenda in Washington. Although they are happy that Bush has used his veto power to stop an expansion of federal stem cell research, signed a law banning the procedure opponents call “partial birth” abortion and won confirmation of two solid conservatives to the Supreme Court, the Christian right’s rank and file say they’re frustrated that Washington has not pushed for more-sweeping restrictions on abortion and gay rights.
Meanwhile, the president’s support for granting a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally has further strained the GOP’s relations with the evangelical base — a voting bloc Perkins estimates as one-third of voters in the GOP primaries, enough to make or break any candidate. And the past year’s trio of Republican A-congressional sexual scandals — centered on Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho — has only fed the climate of disillusion. “Certainly,” Perkins said, “there is reason to be concerned about the future of the relationship” between social conservatives and the Republican Party.
And that has led Perkins and other religious leaders to push for the closer-than-usual examination of the GOP aspirants. “What I hear and see is that if you were a Republican candidate in the past, you got a pass on close scrutiny on key issues,” Perkins said. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case anymore. They are going to have to verify their credentials in order to gain the support of social conservatives.”
I’d summarize this view this way: We evangelicals stayed away from politics for about 50 years until the late 1970s. We got back in because we wanted to make a sea change in terms of morality in America. It hasn’t worked. Therefore, we need to scrutinize our choices for the next presidential candidate with extra vigor. If we pick the right one, we can reverse our country’s slide.
That’s an oversimplification, but such are summaries. In the main, I think it’s an accurate summary. And I think the mentality it summarizes is mistaken, and dangerously so.
First, let’s say one thing that is often forgotten. Progress has been made on the social-conservative agenda during the last seven years. And even if there were nothing else–which, as CQ points out, isn’t true–I’ve got two words for you: Roberts and Alito. Don’t forget that previous Republican presidents did not exactly bat a thousand on getting conservative justices on the Supreme Court. We can thank President Ford for John Paul Stevens, probably the biggest liberal on the court today. President Reagan appointed two justices who voted to uphold Roe v. Wade in the Casey case: Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. And the first President Bush gave us one more: David Souter. But this president put up two brilliant and conservative nominees, one of whom replaced the moderate O’Connor. That is a huge and enduring achievement–because we can’t do anything really serious about abortion unless we change the Court.
Of course, that is a limited achievement. That’s what the purveyors of the worldview I outlined above will respond: “Yeah, Roberts and Alito are great! But what about moral renewal?”
Look, I’m all for moral renewal. But I’ve got to say: If we evangelicals came back into politics so we could bring about moral renewal, we better take our ball and go home right now. Politics will never bring about moral renewal. Politics will never save the world. This world is going to end, and the Bible says quite clearly that things are going to get bad before that happens. The only remedy to all of that is Jesus, whose power is limitless. Politics, on the other hand, is a very limited exercise. It calls for limited goals. In politics, one can only accomplish certain things–like getting good justices on the Supreme Court, or banning partial-birth abortion, or regulating what the government recognizes as a marriage. You can’t change hearts. We should be trying to do this other ways.
Now, what does all of this have to do with the 2008 presidential race? A great deal. And I must say it’s something I’ve been struggling with. Because as evangelicals come to us asking us to explain why we think they should support Governor Romney, many of them are implicitly asking us to tell them why he’s the guy who fits with the above vision of politics. They want to know why he’s the next great hope–why he’s the guy who will push through their whole agenda and bring about moral renewal in America. And so I’m tempted to make that case.
But I don’t. Because here’s the truth, brothers and sisters. Moral renewal is just not going to come from the White House. That’s not what the president is for. Sure, he can and should set a moral example. Governor Romney would do that as president, as we’ve said. But the president’s main job is to run the government, to run it well, and to make progress on certain limited objectives, like the ones I mentioned. It’s not to singlehandedly bring about moral renewal. And if your answer is that well yes, he shouldn’t do it singlehandedly but Congress should help–I bet you haven’t been watching Congress for the past couple of years. If moral renewal comes, it will come from the churches, and ultimately from the Lord–not from the District of Columbia. This should be the last place you look for such a thing.
And it’s with this vision–running the government well and making progress on limited objectives–in mind that I decided to support Governor Romney. Haven’t we learned over the past seven years that we really need a president who can run the government well according to our objectives? One who will see that disaster recovery and postwar reconstruction are done efficiently, for instance? One who will be an excellent communicator and constantly re-explain to people the need for the continuing war against jihadists? I think we are all thirsting for this, and that’s good. But too many of us are thirsting for something more–for a figure that intermingles various features of both president and pastor. That, I think, is why so many people are determined to have a president who shares their exact theology.
That is a mistake, friends. Concentrate that righteous and godly zeal on your church. Get the right pastor, and work to bring about moral renewal in your community. As for government, let it govern, and choose leaders who will do that well.
Or, as the title of this post says, get real. We’re probably one Supreme Court justice away from overturning Roe v. Wade, lest you forget. Barring some calamity, the next president will pick the next justice. But instead of making certain that’s our guy, too many evangelicals have their eyes fixed on the horizon, watching for some political superhero. He’s not coming–and if you’d turn your gaze to the options they have and the job they are really supposed to do, we’re in fine shape. And until we rouse ourselves to do that, those who want to keep abortion legal and so forth are getting ready to beat us nine different ways in 2008.
The consequences are real. We should be fighting accordingly.