culture politics Theology

Evangelicals, Politics, and Church History

Have you ever wondered why our intense conversations within evangelicalism about politics, character, and voting almost never end up citing major figures in church history? These are pretty important debates, after all. Navigating the moral failures of elected officials and choosing some sinners rather than others to wield authority over the public square seems like a fairly serious intertwining of Christian ethics, Christian social theory, Christian forgiveness/repentance, and even Christian eschatology. There’s a lot going on in the question of why a Roy Moore or Donald Trump may or may not be a suitable choice for a believer. And yet most of what is brought up as wisdom is radically contemporary. Is 2,000 years of Christian thought and church praxis just insufficient to shed light on the Republican and Democratic Party?

I have a theory as to why.

Behind the “lesser of two evils” debate stands an unspoken but very real theology of work. Most American Christians do not feel that the moral demands of the gospel comprehensively inform how they labor. Their “on the job” performance is one sphere. Their spiritual life is another. To borrow one equally unfortunate phrase, work and faith are considered non-overlapping magisterium. For many evangelicals especially, the paradigms of the gospel, the teachings of Christ, the narrative sweep of Scripture, and the mission of the church are singularly vertical concerns between them and their Creator, and possibly them and their pastor. Practically, these truths make next to zero difference in how—and why—they carry out their 9-to-5 existence.

So, when you try to tell an evangelical Republican that character counts, and that not even a pro-life politician is automatically worthy of a vote if there is credible, serious allegations against his moral character, you are asking him to apply a standard to this politician that he does not even apply to himself. Evangelicalism’s politics are downstream from their praxis; because there is no viable theology of work, because most evangelicals view how they do their job, how they interact with subordinates and superiors, and why they labor at all as a self-referential sphere disconnected from the euangelion, demanding that they connect New Testament ethics to politicians sounds ridiculous. What the President of the United States says about women shouldn’t affect our judgment of whether or not he can be a good president. What a senatorial candidate did in his car or at the mall years ago with underaged women doesn’t mean he’d be a bad senator. Of course, you might not want either of those men are your pastor or even your son-in-law. But that doesn’t remotely affect how they’d do as your president, does it?

This hard detachment of role from revelation is what, I think, the great figures of church history would have found stunning. Listen to what these church history giants have to say about the relationship between a civic ruler’s character and the actual consequences of his reign:

“The studies and character of priests and bishops are a potent factor in this matter, I admit, but not nearly so much so as are those of princes. Men are more ready to decry the clergy if they sin than they are to emulate them in their good points. So it is that monks who are really pious do not excite people to follow their example because they seem only to be practicing what they preach. But on the other hand, if they are sinful everyone is shocked beyond measure. But there is no one who is not stimulated to follow in the footsteps of his prince! For this very reason the prince should take special care not to sin, because he makes so many followers in his wrongdoings, but rather to devote himself to being virtuous so that so many more good men may result.”


Augustine argued that a king has to be master of himself before he can master people, and should “prefer mastery over their base desires” to lordship of nations. Christian rulers rule well when they “offer to their true God the sacrifice of humility and mercy and prayer” for their sins.

What both Erasmus and Augustine assume here is a close, even inexorable connection between the duties of the magistrate and the magistrate’s soul. This is not a theology of labor that you hear in modern evangelicalism, particularly in parts of the country where “God and country” civil religion has played tentpole to an un-virtuous capitalism. What would the chagrin of Christian business owners be like if their local church elders had knowledge of how they treated their employees, and possessed the theology to confront them with the demands of their faith in all aspects of their life?

What’s missing from all these debates about politicians and virtue is the voice of our religious forefathers. If we hear it, we will have to admit that it cuts deeply against the grain of our personal autonomy and theological poverty. Even more startling: It sounds nothing like Fox News.

culture politics pop culture

Capitalism and the Cleveland Browns

Stakeholders in the NFL cannot lose—at least not under the league’s current structure. Owners split money from the league’s massive TV deals and other media revenue streams. That stream is so dependable, so huge, and so guaranteed that it’s done what large, intractable pools of cash have done since the invention of markets. It has altered and distorted the very thing that created it, and broken the basic exchange between consumer and seller that made the NFL successful in the first place…

That approach towards maximizing your dollar with the bare minimum of effort became more sophisticated over time. As the league’s revenues boomed, they became something less like points of civic pride run as passion projects by the locally wealthy, and something more like attractive investment properties with a promising rate of return for billionaires — particularly those billionaires who entered the NFL as strangers to the league, but as intimate familiars of a corporate culture dependent on squeezing every profitable dollar, and trimming every wasteful one from the budget.

For instance: The legend of [Washington Redskins owner] Dan Snyder tells a story of someone who was “passionate” about the Washington franchise on a personal level. It sometimes leaves out his ruthless economizing of the franchise, a focus on the bottom line interrupted periodically by splashing free agent signings to keep fans semi-interested in the team. That he keeps them in the worst stadium in the league, charges for everything short of oxygen, and rolls out a consistently mediocre product doesn’t matter: His great gift as an NFL owner, after nearly 20 years, has turned out to be a deep understanding of knowing exactly how little actual quality he could slip into the product without breaking the customer’s dependence completely.

This is, I think, a good example of why some younger Christians are questioning capitalism right now. In the standard conservative Christian political pedagogy, competition is the most important factor in mitigating the greed and avarice of wealthy corporations. But the stagnation of the NFL illustrates the problem with this idea. What if corporations can still get filthy rich without having to compete? What if the rules are actually drawn up so that a bad product, bad services, and bad faith don’t cost you anything?

I mean, in pro football, “competition” is literally the core value, the chief good. But that hasn’t stopped franchises like the Redskins, Browns, Jaguars, and Rams (sniff) from trotting out bad products year after year, while their owners still profit enormously. These teams don’t just become bad. They stay bad, year after year, then decade after decade. And why not? If someone told you you could make $50 million by being excellent at your job, $45 million by being OK, and $40 million by being lousy, how motivated are you going to be to be consistently excellent?

The NFL is a case study in the skepticism toward capitalism. Capitalism’s conceit is that the way to create a quality and equitable market is to let consumers reward excellence and shun non-excellence. But in the NFL, the guys making the rules (eg, Roger Goodell) are answerable only to the guys looking to make the money (the owners). The rules favor the owners, not the consumers. And that dynamic persists year in, year out, because the money is locked up in a closed system. Is it really that far fetched to think this is basically how it all works in America, not just pro sports?

Christianity Music pop culture

How to Save Christian Music

Let me tell you about a recent Christian concert I attended.

There were four bands performing. The first was the warm-up act, a young, shaggy-haired rock band out of Nashville, whose lead singer is, I’m told, the son of a famous contemporary Christian music artist. The boys in this band were talented and had good stage presence; they won over the audience quickly.. From what I could tell, most of their lyrics were either about relationships or the general angst of life (think Foster the People). These weren’t Sunday morning worship songs. I’m sure most people at the show had no idea who the singer’s father was, or even cared. The audience bought the band’s energy and musicianship.

The rest of the artists were the three co-headliners. There was a alt-folk singer who sang about wanting to live forever and sang about that like it was more than a fantasy. Then there was the heartthrob, lanky piano man, whose most powerful song is about depression and sadness; the audience sang loudly with him as he crooned, “You don’t need Jesus…until you’re here.” The final group, a Southern arena-rock band, exploded amplifiers and eardrums with anthems about being “washed in the water” and “singing hallelujah.” The man sitting five feet in front of me held his third or fourth beer in his right hand and made something like a fist pump with the other as the band shredded guitar solos to an impressive light show.

This was no pseudo church service or youth camp showcase. It was a rock show. But it was, obviously to anyone not inebriated, a Christian rock show.

There were no times of “testimonies,” no clear Gospel presentations, and no theological meanderings from the artists between songs. This wasn’t a “worship” time, it was rock and roll time. The only visible Christianity came from the audience; I saw more than one head-bobbing attendee wearing a t-shirt with a New Testament verse on it. More than once during the evening dozens of hands were lifted as someone who was clearly not a “worship leader” sang a song about needing forgiveness and healing.

All of this made an impression on me because  I realized, as a lifelong “insider” to contemporary Christian music, that Christian pop and rock can be, and often is, quite good. When I got home, I felt a new awareness come over me that it is indeed possible for artistic merit and Christian belief to intersect with one another, and sometimes in a way that brings the believer and the unbeliever together. There need not be a choice between “spiritual” and “entertaining.”

I cherish this feeling because it has not been commonplace for Christian music fans over the last several years. Far too many shelves in Christian bookstores have been stocked over the last few years with music that’s produced and promoted merely because it manages to appeal to a particular target demographic that some “Christian record label” executive is trying to slice into. When it comes to quality, the secular acts have a monopoly. The goal is so often not to produce something outstanding in its own right, but to  convincingly ape a superior artist, adding only watery, non-denominational jargon.

The simple fact is that contemporary Christian music has not been good for some time. Christian record labels have inundated the industry with so many copies of both successful secular acts and successful Christian ones (how many new Christian radio singles sound just like that Casting Crowns song you’ve heard 1,000 times?) that the question of what even constitutes a Christian song or a Christian band is a hopelessly self-referential discussion. Christian FM radio is banal; historic music festivals for Christian artists are going bankrupt.  Many of the Christian retailers who were formative in building the industry are now fighting for their own existence, and I would not hesitate to claim that part of that struggle stems from the evaporation of interest in the CCM industry.

But, as in the Gospel itself, there is hope. The artists that I heard at my concert came to their audience as entertainers, song writers and storytellers, rather than worship leaders or evangelists. Their Christian identity was not located in what label represented them a  or what retail chain sold their LP; rather, it was in the art itself. Completely absent from this concert were the trappings of the tragic “modern worship movement,” a fad that is as much to blame as anything else for the stagnation of the Christian music industry. No one came to the show for a sermon, they came for songs and for stories. They left with a little bit of all three.

I’m absolutely convinced that if there is any hope for a Christian music industry–by which I mean an viable marketplace for Christians to make art and entertain while keeping convictions intact–this is where it all has to go. In all my years of listening to Christian radio, I have never heard any of tonight’s artists on it (the final band excepted). Why not? Because the industry is so tied up into its airtight categories, buffered by retail strategies that don’t even work now. That simply will not keep Christian music alive.

If CCM is to survive, it needs more than performers. It needs artists. Real artists playing real songs, written to tell stories and delight all kinds of people from all walks of life. What a contrast this would be to the spectacle of half-talented guitarists strumming 4-chord “worship” choruses that could have been plagiarized from any middle-rate pop love ballad, with all feminine references simply swapped to more metaphysical ones. One of those sights has a future in an increasingly marginalized Christian culture. The other does not.