Gospel and Politics: A Response to John Wilson

Yesterday, John Wilson posted a response to my blog post of last week which was itself a (rather hastily written) response to his review of the new book by Charles Marsh on the partisanship of contemporary American Christianity. I have to admit: I am flattered that of all the responses John Wilson (editor of the consistently excellent Books & Culture) received, he chose to respond to mine in his latest column. Wilson calls Fire & Rose a “thoughtful blog,” and from such a well-read and intelligent person, this is high praise indeed. I am grateful to Wilson for taking the time to read these random musings of mine.

On a side note, while I have not yet read Marsh’s book, I suspect I will agree with its basic thesis. (I agree with Wilson that cries of theocracy are getting a bit old, but I disagree with Wilson in that I think these cries are often on-target.)

I wish to thank Wilson for his thoughtful response. As a 2004 Wheaton College graduate with a major in English literature, I have heard him speak on numerous occasions, often introducing or asking questions of visiting writers. My short response to him is that I certainly hope the conversation continues, and I think there is much about which we agree. I also think my brief statements lack clarity and were too ambiguous to be accurately understood. Let me offer some clarifications of my earlier post:

1. Wilson makes more of my statement that his review was “unnecessarily harsh” than I intended. But seriously, was his review of the new books by Chris Hedges and Dinesh D’Souza an example of political charity? Wilson did not seem interested in starting a conversation with either of them. Do we have Alan Jacobs’ excellent column to thank for his softer side? (I’ll admit to being just as harsh and uncharitable as Wilson often is. Certainly, my words can come back to bite me. I’m learning along with the rest of them.)

2. My mention of idolatry seems rather out of place without my recent criticism of nationalism kept in mind. I did not mean to suggest that people from my hometown are simply idolaters who do not take the gospel seriously. That would be going way too far. I meant to suggest rather that the underlining issue is not merely a partisan captivity of the gospel. Instead, one’s partisanship has its origin in a more fundamental issue—viz. how we understand the gospel. Marsh is only half-right in criticizing the partisanship of American Christianity, and Wilson is only half-wrong when he says that partisan politics is not the main feature of evangelicalism. To both I would say that partisanship is the symptom, not the disease. As a result, it rears its ugly head in some places but not others. A disease can rage undetected for years. I think Wilson happens to experience an evangelicalism where the symptoms are not as obvious, whereas I grew up in an environment where the symptoms were sometimes all I knew of Christianity. The disease, I want to suggest, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the gospel, one that depoliticizes Christ’s call to discipleship and/or attaches it to some earthly phenomenon, forgetting that the kingdom of God is “not of this world” but rather of the new world, the New Jerusalem, which is still sociopolitical in nature. In sum, I am not calling partisan politics itself idolatry, but rather suggesting that partisanship flows out of a distorted (perhaps idolatrous) conception of the gospel.

3. I do not want to suggest in the least that voting based on moral issues is somehow invalid. I am against abortion as much as the next person. Two things bother me greatly, though: (1) the notion that abortion trumps every other moral issue, and (2) that voting for a particular party trumps even the issue of abortion. Both of these were apparent in the NY Times article to which I referred in my previous post. Both of them are guided by a deeply partisan politics that reveals a profound captivity of American evangelicalism. I happen to think war is a more damaging reality than abortion, but I realize many will disagree with me. While I do not want to suggest that voting on the basis of these moral issues is misguided, I do wish to say that to care about one issue without caring for the other(s) is a major problem that needs to be addressed. And if it takes twenty books saying the same thing to get the point across, then so be it.

4. Finally, I am not convinced that we have such moral clarity in any issue that we can let it determine our entire vote. But I do think there is a qualitative difference between abortion and war policy: the former is not tied to a particular national ideology. That is, to support or reject abortion has no intrinsic connection to whether one also supports the Bush administration or feels patriotic about America. The same is not true of the war in Iraq. Both abortion and war are moral issues, to be sure, but war is a national issue as well. Both are also pro-life issues, yet the broad support for the war by American evangelicals demonstrates an extra factor in the political equation beyond evangelical interest in preserving human life—viz. a nationalistic support for (violent) American involvement in world affairs. This concerns me, as it also (apparently) concerns Marsh. I wonder if it concerns Wilson as well. Perhaps he does not think my criticism of nationalism corresponds to the evangelical world he has experienced thus far, but two can play at that game.

In conclusion, I certainly hope the conversation continues. My first post was guilty of some exaggeration (e.g., the use of “infinitely”), but I do think the issue is as serious as I and others make it out to be. Even so, I am hopeful that the less partisan, less politically captive world experienced by Wilson is truer to the way things actually are than I presently realize. And at the very least, I hope we can work together to bring about such a world, if only in our local communities.