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 Theology

Why Men Wound Women

The really startling thing about the tidal wave of sexual abuse and harassment floating to the top of our public consciousness is how much of it flies in the face of our common wisdom about morality. Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose are feminists; their rhetoric, their careers, and their campaign donations say so. Roy Moore is a traditionalist conservative who believes what the Bible says about sex outside of marriage and about treating women with purity. Yet all three men face, to varying but nonetheless appalling extents, credible accusations of prolonged, repeated, and enforced sexual crime against girls and women who were vulnerable before them. If one’s worldview determines one’s life, then we must conclude that none of these men actually believe what they say they believe.

I don’t think that’s necessary. I don’t think Roy Moore secretly ignores 1 Corinthians, and I don’t think Charlie Rose is a covert operate for the patriarchy. I think both of them mean what they say when they say it. Their sexual sins require, I think, a better explanation.

Part of that explanation is that the natural (meaning, human nature) arc of a man’s heart bends toward manipulating, exploiting, and hurting women. The urges that are common to the male soul are, in their natural, un-attended-to state, cruel and self-absorbed. The scientific principle of entropy applies to Adam’s sons just as much as it does to Adam’s soil; unless something intervenes, things will go bad. When it comes to how men think, feel, and act toward women, something has to intervene if anything other than selfishness is to happen.

This is an extraordinarily unpopular perspective. Those whose political and religious loyalties resemble Roy Moore’s dislike it because it challenges deeply held convictions about “chivalry” that prop up even bigger convictions about an America that exists in their memory. Conservative Christians want to believe that the Sexual Revolution—in its Woodstock-going, flag-burning, Hugh Hefner-making mythology—is wholly guilty, and that courtship, chaperones, and kissing dating goodbye are the antidotes.

On the other hand, progressives resist reminders of human depravity because they press hard against optimism in human nature and the irresistible force of progress. The university, the modern temple of the secular liturgy, is supposed to be the altar on which patriarchy and inequalities are sacrificed. Educated, urbane, “woke” people are not supposed to force women to look at their naked bodies. They’re not supposed to want to.

But all the gender studies programs in the world haven’t been able to curb campus hook up culture, just as all the visible Ten Commandments monuments in American courthouses weren’t able to stop evangelical support for a thrice-married Playboy cover man. So we are left with a paradox that seems to add a layer of horror to the endless revelations. The men who say all the right things, who seem to embody all the right things, are nonetheless dangerous in the dark.

In a New York Times editorial, one writer locates the source of this rampant sinfulness just below the belt. It is the male libido itself, the author argues, that has enjoyed enjoyed unchecked privilege for far too long. Only a Freudian understanding of the extent to which men are utterly controlled by their nether regions can let the justice begin:

Sex is an impediment to any idealism, which is why the post-Weinstein era will be an era of gender pessimism. What if there is no possible reconciliation between the bright clean ideals of gender equality and the mechanisms of human desire? Meanwhile, sexual morality, so long resisted by liberals, has returned with a vengeance, albeit under progressive terms. The sensation of righteousness, which social media doles out in ever-diminishing dopamine hits, drives the discussion, but also limits it. Unable to find justice, or even to imagine it, we are returning to shame as our primary social form of sexual control.

The crisis we are approaching is fundamental: How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal? How are we supposed to create an equal world when male mechanisms of desire are inherently brutal? We cannot answer these questions unless we face them.

These two paragraphs don’t actually say anything, but they appear to, mostly because they borrow the language of Christianity and merely substitute the most important words for psychologically amenable jargon. To say the “male mechanisms of desire” are inherently brutal is acceptable to a secular mind only if what you mean by “mechanisms of desire” is something that is wrong with those people over there, not with “me,” and that’s precisely what this author means. To say that human nature tends toward abuse and harassment takes him too close to an ancient way of thinking that he suspects—rightly!—will have much more to say than he cares to hear. To say that that the male mechanisms of desire are inherently brutal is much safer, because, as the author admits in the final paragraph of his piece, the solution is knowledge.

Accepting what Christianity teaches about human depravity is far more challenging. In order to confess that every imagination of man is evil from his youth, one has to claim membership in the accused group. This is the conclusion Jesus was pushing us toward when he said that any man who looked lustfully at a woman had already committed adultery in his heart. The laws and customs and social shaming that manage to control some human behavior do not control the heart, and Jesus’s clear teaching was that the heart of the matter was the heart. What you do is not who you are.

Why talk about sexual harassment this way? Two reasons. First, I may be tempted to comfort myself that I am not Charlie Rose or Roy Moore, much like Charlie Rose and Roy Moore likely comforted themselves that they were not Ted Bundy or Anthony Weiner. As long as we keep dividing the world into “good” and “bad” people, and keep telling ourselves we are obviously good because we look nothing like the bad, we are perpetuating the myths that fuel sexual abuse. I have heard people object to the “Billy Graham rule” on the grounds that it sounded like one was confessing a total inability to control themselves around the opposite sex. This is a caricature of the rule, I think, but my response would be simply, “Where did we get the idea that the best way to protect others is to trust in ourselves?” Wherever we got that idea, it probably wasn’t from those who have been victimized sexually. Seeing myself as capable of any sin against any person is the necessary first step to asking for and seeking the grace to not commit the sin. The Pharisee who thanked God that he wasn’t like the tax collector was more like the tax collector than the tax collector was, because he didn’t even see his true nature.

Secondly, this awareness of human depravity should take precedence over tribalism. There are right now voters in Alabama who attend church every Sunday morning and would vote for Roy Moore even if they became convinced all the allegations against him were true. Why? Because he’s their guy. He’s in their tribe, and their tribe is worth infinitely more than the other tribe. You can only think this way if you’ve long ago given up the biblical idea of human sin. An inclination to believe the accusations against your rival tribe and a disinclination to believe same accusations against your tribe is unspeakably evil. But we fall into this unspeakable evil so easily because we define evil down to mean, “The Democratic Party.”

The human heart is bent toward evil. Men have to be taught and disciplined to treat women with respect and care, and then they have to be regenerated in order to treat women like Jesus treated the church. The reason feminism and Sunday School fail to prevent sexual abuse is that our real problem goes much deeper, clings much harder, and entangles much more than we imagine. If it were not so, would we need a Savior?