Dec 12, 2011

The possible political positions for Evangelicals

Every election season, across the United States, Evangelical churches display and distribute non-partisan voter guides. Not all Evangelical churches, of course. But a lot of them. Enough.

The critique of such "voter education" efforts is typically that they're not really non-partisan, but rather political efforts passing under the tax-exempt guise of non-partisanship.

The Family Research Council's voter scorecard, e.g., claims to merely be "Examining the Pro-Family Voting Record of your Member of Congress," but rates all the Republican representatives of Georgia (to pick the state where I vote) at 90% or more, while all but one of the Democrats come in at only 10%. The ranking is based only on whether the representative voted for or against what the FRC was lobbying for or against, never noting possible conflicts or complications, or possible alternative reasons for those votes besides being simply pro- or anti-family. The Christian Coalition's presidential voter guide from 2008 never makes an explicit endorsements, but also avoids all the issues where politically conservative Christians might have felt uncomfortable with John McCain, overstates the differences between McCain and Barack Obama, actually misstates a number of positions, and dramatically oversimplifies issues in the way they're framed. Vision America -- a less known group in the same vein -- distributed a flyer last year to "patriotic pastors," which, according to the disclaimer on the flyer, was "intended to help voters make an informed decision." To do so, the flyer ranked "All Republicans" as "Excellent," "All Democrats" as "Poor," and included a single, bold bar-graph depicting the difference.

These efforts are not apolitical. But, arguing that they are political misses the primary affect of such efforts.

The voter guides and other such materials need to be understood as arguments.

This is an argument within Evangelicalism about plausible, available public positions Christians can take with regard to politics.

Most Evangelicals, when you talk to them, are more or less not political. For most, politics is not a central issue, not central to their understandings of their lives and their daily activities, or to their faith. Generally they're uncomfortable with politics, and find it distasteful. Sometimes this is in the manner described by Mathew Sutton (and Thomas Frank) as standing distrust of government, and sometimes the distaste is expressed as disappointment and dislike for the tone of contemporary political discourse. These are the people for whom George W. Bush's promise to be a "uniter, not a divider," and to "restore honor and dignity to the White House" meant something. While there's a minority that's hard core, most Evangelicals are just not that into politics.

That's why these efforts exist in the first place. If one takes voting guides as representative, they make no sense, as the voting guides wouldn't be necessary. If this were just how Evangelicals, en mass, saw the world, there would be no need to produce and pass out such "voter information." The assumption of these documents is that Evangelicals don't know or don't care about such things. Without that assumption, there wouldn't be any point to them.

Their whole purpose, their function is to move Evangelicals to political action.

The argument of these efforts is that a Christian must be politically engaged. And that, further, there's only one specific way to do that.

This, actually, is the affect of these voter guides being non-partisan. While, certainly, they're non-partisan (to the extent that they are) so as to avoid possible tax issues and exempt status violations, what happens is they present the politics and issues of the Religious Right as the normalized, generally accepted, simply Christian position.

This has meant, practically, that in many Evangelical churches in America, one can present oneself as a conservative, or as not interested in politics.

Those are the socially accepted options.

Anything else is considered problematic, at best, and is often taking to be a kind of rebellion and acting-out. Certain political positions have been precluded.

One precluded position is liberal, obviously, but it also gets more complicated than that.

It's unacceptable or at least very difficult in most of these churches to take a traditional anabaptist position of complete separation from politics. There's lots of social resistance making it hard to hold the position that one's identity in Christ necessarily is incompatible with a nationalist identity, that citizenship in heaven means one is not an American citizen. Even just being critical of American flags displayed in the fronts of churches is often viewed as being strangely aggressive, needlessly controversial.

Third way positions, likewise, such as libertarianism as held by some Evangelicals, and the sort of New Left politics popular with some Southern Baptists and others who would self-describe as Born Again, are considered quite alien. Even if they accept as the goal the same end as the Religious Right, the alternative means are considered so beyond the pale as to not even merit consideration. A libertarian who agrees with the FRC et al position about the importance of families, e.g., but argues that the government shouldn't have anything at all to do with defining marriage is unlikely to get a hearing. An Evangelical who thinks Clinton-esque reformed welfare that retains people and gets them jobs and that that is good for families is also probably going to have that "pro-family" argument dismissed out of hand in most Evangelical churches.

This is the affect of the political efforts that are presented as non-partisan in Evangelical churches. This is what the voter guides and education efforts do: they make certain things, positions and issues and frames seem normal, and make others invisible.

They make it so certain positions are felt to be implausible, unnatural, and strange, establishing a social milieu where one political orientation and only one political orientation can be taken for granted.

It's in this context that reports of "new Evangelicals," so called, and the "emergence of 'a new kind of Christian social conscience'" concerned about social justice issues and leaning leftward should be understood.

Pretty much, with every major election in the United States in recent history, there are reports of a "new movement" of left-leaning Evangelicals. Without fail, there are one or two data points, reports of Evangelicals who are not voting Republican, and an extrapolation that "something new" is going on. There's a story told, without fail, about younger born-again Christians who, while still pro-life, etc., also think their faith makes other political issues, such as war, poverty and the environment, of real concern.

One hears, for example, as Marcia Pally wrote in the New York Times last week, that
"A sizable portion of evangelicals have left the right, so to speak, in what the theologian Scot McKnight called 'the biggest change in the evangelical movement,' nothing less than the emergence of 'a new kind of Christian social conscience.' These new evangelicals focus on economic justice, environmental protection and immigration reform — not exactly Republican strong points."
Pally's piece is actually pretty good. She does include a bit of the history of Evangelical political action in America, and talks about how, for example, financial issues were once really important to Evangelicals, taking a central place, even, in the first presidential campaign of a Christian fundamentalist. She mentions that about a quarter of voters who self-identified as Evangelicals voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and that some of Bush's policies divided his Christian base.

Framing this as a movement and understanding this as a kind of counter-force or emerging opposite to the religious right misses the more essential and more subtle conflict. The issue at stake here is not what kinds of politics an Evangelical should have, but what kinds of politics an Evangelical can have.

It's about plausible positions that can be expressions and outworkings of this faith.

As Pally says, "where once there was the appearance of an evangelical movement that sang out in one voice, there is now a robust polyphony." This probably overstates the way it is in most Evangelical churches today, taking as fait accompli exactly what is being struggled over. But the point is, it's the possible of polyphony that's the matter of contention.

The argument coming from what gets called sometimes the Religious Left is not -- decidedly not -- about forming a counter-movement to the Religious Right. It's not about being a movement. It's not an argument about the Christian position on this issue, that issue of the other.

It's an argument for the plurality of Evangelical Christian values, and the diversity of possible ways those concerns can legitimately be engaged.

Likewise, the argument from what's left of the Religious Right is about politicizing Evangelicals, but, more than that, it's about dramatically limiting the ways in which good Christians can engage with social issues, precluding certain issues from consideration and concern, and ruling out certain certain sorts of responses to the surrounding society.

The choice Evangelicals face and are facing is consistently misrepresented as between left and right, where really it's about uniformity and creative diversity.