Surprise! Evangelical politics isn’t univocal
Religion & Liberty Online

Surprise! Evangelical politics isn’t univocal

“Letter on Immigration Deepens Split Among Evangelicals,” trumpets a story from the Washington Post. Ever since evangelicals received such credit in the election and reelection of George W. Bush, the ins and outs of evangelical politics has recieved a greater share of media attention. A great part of this attention has focused on so-called “splits” among evangelicals, as a way to highlight the newly recognized reality that all evangelicals aren’t card-carrying Republicans.

So from issues like immigration to global warming, the press is eager to find the fault lines of evangelical politics. And moving beyond the typical Jim Wallis-Jerry Falwell dichotomy, there are real and honest disagreements among evangelicals on any number of political issues.

This stems from the fact that political policy is most often about the prudential application of principles, and thus is a matter where there can and should be a variety of informed and committed voices. Thus, says Aquinas, human law should not seek to make illegal everything that is immoral, but only that which is necessary for the maintenance of a just society.

He writes, “many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man. Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like” (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

For Aquinas then, human law is the result of the prudent and contextual application of the natural and divine law. And it’s not surprising that among a diverse group like evangelicals, different opinions will exist as to what considerations are relevant to the construction of a particular policy.

With respect to immigration reform, for example, the previously noted Cooperman article reports that a letter signed by numerous evangelical leaders outlining four major points of emphasis was sent to members of the federal government (original letter here in PDF). Among the national evangelical organizations that signed on to the letter are the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the World Evangelical Alliance.

Notably absent, however, was the National Association of Evangelicals, and the lack of support for the bill was noted as the occasion for the Cooperman headline. According to the NAE’s vice president for governmental affairs, Rev. Richard Cizik, “the NAE itself did not sign the letter because its members are divided on how to deal with immigration.” Since the letter makes rather specific policy proposals rather than general moral and theological guidelines, many evangelicals are not ready to endorse the statement.

The same is true for the statement of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which endorses particular policies with respect to global warming. This is another example of a statement where a number of prominent evangelical leaders signed on, but the NAE did not. As I reported earlier, this was the result of a bit of backtracking on the part of Cizik after it became clear that evangelical support for the climate initiative did not reach the level of consensus.

Cizik’s name and affiliation still appears on the ECI ad campaign, for example, despite the decision for the NAE and its representatives to abstain from signing. This is presumably because the ad copy deadline preceded the letter from the dissenting evangelical leaders. (See the Christianity Today print ad here [PDF 2 mb]). The underscores what is at best inconsistency and at worst duplicity on the part of the NAE on the issue of climate change.

Even so, the prominent evangelical leaders on both the immigration and climate change letters clearly include their institutional affiliation, as if to implicitly say that the institutions they represent also endorse the statements. It is one thing for this to occur with para-church and other organizations, such as is the case with Ron Sider and Evangelicals for Social Action. It is another, however, for the head of an ecclesiastical body at the denominational or higher level to sign these kinds of statements.

This is why the NAE eventually backed off from the climate change letter and did not participate in the immigration letter. Calvin P. Van Reken, professor of moral and philosophical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, wrote a succinct overview of this problem in his essay, “The Church’s Role in Social Justice,” Calvin Theological Journal 34 (1999): 198-202. (This essay is the first of a two part discussion with Peter Vander Meulen, director of the CRC’s Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action. Unfortunately, I cannot find an electronic version of this document on the web. It is in the same issue of CTJ, running from pages 202-206.)

Speaking of the church as institution (as opposed to the organic view of the church), Van Reken writes, “normally, the church should not take it upon itself to entertain the political question of how a particular society can best achieve this goal. That is, the institutional church should, in general, avoid policy statements.” He outlines a number of reasons for this, and the article is worth reading in its entirety so that you can appreciate his full argument.

Again, he says, “the institutional church may outline the broad goals or ends of social policy but normally should not endorse specific policy proposals.” That is where the respective letters discussed above falter. They do endorse specific policy proposals, and on these matters of prudence there is great disagreement. Van Reken does say, however, that the institutional church should speak out in favor or against specific a specific policy “when the policy is clearly immoral.”

One of the dangers of an institutional ecclesiastical endorsement of a specific policy is that it does not recognize the principle of prudence. He writes, “The truth is, however, that most political issues, in the Western world at any rate, are debates between two or three morally permissible policy options. Choosing among such options requires a kind of worldly wisdom to which Christians as such have no special claim.” If anything, the church even has a kind of naivete when it comes to political matters.

I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulates a similar vision when he writes that there are three main ways the church can engage the state. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “there are three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state: in the first place, as has been said, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.” This corresponds to Van Reken’s argument that the institutional church can outline the broad moral goals of public policy.

The second way the church can act is to “aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. ‘Do good to all men.’…the church may in no way withdraw itself from these two tasks.” The first is the extent of the policy lobbying the church may do. The second is the direct task of the church to act charitably in service of the gospel. This is actually Van Reken’s primary concern, and I share it with him, that political lobbying will compromise the church’s gospel mission.

The third and final way the church can act in Bonhoeffer’s view is direct political action, “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” This roughly corresponds with Van Reken’s criteria that specific policy statements can only be made on policies that are clear moral evils, such as slavery, apartheid, and abortion.

What does this all mean? The NAE is right to avoid officially endorsing specific policies that are not morally obligatory either immediately or through its representatives. The CRC, whose executive director is a signatory of both letters and of which I am a member, should learn from the NAE’s example. I happen to agree, for example, with the position articulated in the immigration reform letter but disagree with the proposals of the climate change letter.

If individual Christians, leaders or laypeople, want to speak out on a particular policy, they should do so. But they should do so within the framework of their own personal convictions, representing themselves or under the auspices of a voluntary association or para-church organization, such as the Evangelical Environmental Network, Evangelicals for Social Action, Focus on the Family, or the Acton Institute.

This is an important distinction between the nature of ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical institutions. The lack of a clear church polity, government, or relationship to ecumenical groups contributes to this problem, but it is not only present at the level of ecumenical associations.

When denominational and supra-denominational officials sign these kinds of specific policy statements, and include their affiliation without any sort of sanction from their governing bodies, they go beyond the scope of their authority. In such a case, they cease to faithfully represent the diversity of voices within their churches.

One final point…the Evangelical Climate Initiative tries to steer around these difficulties by including this caveat with their letter: “Institutional affiliation is given for identification purposes only. All signatories do so as individuals expressing their personal opinions and not as representatives of their organizations.” The print ads have the caption, “The above signatories sign as individuals, and not as spokespersons for their organizations.”

This really is a bit much. If it’s true, then why not just include the city and state of residence for each signatory? That would solve the problem of getting the Rev. Jim Wallis of Washington, DC confused with all the other Rev. Jim Wallises around the country. The answer really is that in the case of most of these signatories, their individual name recognition is quite low, and so it is not enough for “Rev X of Springfield, MA” to sign the statements. The fact is that these letters and campaigns need the institutional recognition, respect, and authority that goes along with being linked to a denomination or ecumenical body.

Again, my concerns don’t address voluntary organizations, but rather the various entities of the institutional church, especially at the denominational levels and above.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.