I'm Not A Conservative Christian
Dare I say it? I don't need Rush, Sean or O'Reilly to tell me what's important.
by Michael Spencer
When you write for public consumption, there is always that fear that someone is going to read your recent stuff, head back into the archives and announce that you have done the unpardonable- CHANGED YOUR MIND!! This fear stifles many good writers and thinkers, but since I am neither, I will press on. It is entirely possible that some overly scrupulous mind, bent on convicting me of inconsistency (Yes, there are people who live for that possibility) will detect change in this essay. I will deny your charge, and in honor of such scribal temperaments, I will devote an entire paragraph to defending myself.
When the debate requires it, I still happily call myself a conservative. I still believe that Biblical Christianity is opinionated. I still believe that liberalism is about the use of tyranny to make people behave better, which is a very bad thing. I still consider being called "The Rush Limbaugh of Christianity" a high compliment. I still hold that the political philosophy of conservatism is certainly the lesser or all evils at the ballot box, and occasionally can actually be an outright good that allows human beings, such as we are, a measure of civil society, prosperity and liberty.
Now to the matter at hand, which will eventually lead to a declaration that I am more than a little concerned about the label "conservative Christian," and can see some very good reasons for avoiding it.
All this starts with an ongoing discussion on the Boar's Head Tavern (our noted community blog) about whether evangelical Christians are basically optimistic or pessimistic about history. It is my contention that considerable evidence indicates a prevailing pessimism among evangelicals in regard to the advancement of the Gospel in the future. Such evidence would include opposition to reasonable peace plans in the Middle East, the apocalyptic fervor of evangelical authors for describing the impending slide towards the end of the world, the multi-billion dollar consumption of these pessimistic tomes and their accompanying trinkets, a declining interest in cultural renewal through education, the arts, social reform or the public square, a defeatist attitude towards frontier missions, a prevailing, numbing consumerism and a continuing abandonment of genuine church life for individualism and entertainment.
It is my conclusion that evangelicals have become pessimists, and are planning on spending the time between now and that fantasy called the rapture further ghettoizing themselves, head-wagging and hand-wringing over every hop, skip and jump of cultural decline, and taking a decreasing interest in anything beyond the weekly calendar at their local mega-church. They are far more worried about the twenty pounds they want to lose than starving children of suffering Christians in Sudan, and don't want to hear about it. They are continually shocked at the advancement of the homosexual agenda and other signs of cultural decline, but take comfort in knowing that things must get worse before the end arrives, so let's go to Starbucks. Evangelicals are living just this side of the Left Behind universe and find it all very exciting.
Now I am well aware of the many wonderful exceptions to this sort of thing, and I salute evangelical optimists who are turning around communities, doing servant ministry, going to unreached peoples and creating art and literature that is meant to speak hope and truth for generations now and to come. Yet this is not the main program, and I think I know why many do not see it. It is quite possible to live within evangelicalism and only see mega-churches, vast children's programs, and Promise Keepers filling stadiums, and thus conclude that I am dead wrong (as usual). But I am going to persist in my declaration of a deep-seated pessimism. Evangelical pessimism isn't evangelical failure, abandonment or extinction. It is the conclusion that everything in history is getting worse, the influence of the Gospel is getting smaller and there is no particular reason to commit ourselves and our resources to hard things that don't really matter if the rapture is coming any day now.
What does all this have to do with conservatism? Let me make an observation here. It will be blunt, and some of you may find it pious and preachy. If you wish, you may blame this one on my recent weekend with John Piper.
How many conservative Christians are listening to multiple hours of Rush Limbaugh every week? I wonder how many include a couple of hours of Fox News Channel's conservatives, Hannity and O'Reilly, on that menu. I wonder how many regularly listen to Marlin Maddux's "Point of View" program, or Pat Robertson's "700 Club." How many surf Newsmax.com, Conservative News Network or WorldNet Daily.com, the tabloids of conservative web journalism? If we were to take the total hours devoted to these--and many, many other--conservative information and opinion outlets, how would it compare to the amount of time spent under the teaching of scripture? How would it compare to time spent in acquiring a Biblical vision of God? Does the total amount of time spent by that same random evangelical in "the renewing of the mind" with the Word of God come even close to the amount of time spent seeing the world through the eyes of conservative pundits and journalists?
I note this not out of paranoid fantasy, but out of watching my friends immerse themselves in this new world of conservative media. Whether it is the Christian variety or the secular flavor, it doesn't matter. Millions who seldom open a Bible are spending hours under the "preaching" of the conservative political movement in America.
I'll step to the front of the line and say that I have spent hours a day with these folks when I could, and in the same week spent minutes in personal devotion times. And it showed up in what I thought was important in that week. It showed up in what stirred my mind and emotions. It showed up on the thermostat of optimism that controls my energies in ministry. It showed up in my classroom demeanor, preaching, evangelism and worship. And the result was not a good one.
Those were the weeks I looked at my students and saw troubled youth listening to rap instead of young people God brought from the ends of the earth to sit under my ministry. Those were the weeks I was disgusted at what was on television instead of being thrilled at what was in Psalms. Those were the weeks I thought about the war in Iraq and not missionaries in the 10/40 window. Those were the weeks that I was mad over whatever hacked off Bill or Rush or Sean and not all that excited about the Holy Spirit showed me in the greatest news broadcast of all time. I was upset at how the government was spending my money, and not troubled at all at how I was using God's money in my checkbook.
Does the agenda of "conservative Christianity" come from scripture or from Dobson and Falwell? I know those are good men who seek to hear the voice of God in scripture, but does anyone ever feel that agendas other than the Kingdom of God have crept in? I do not doubt that Biblical Christians have strong opinions on Biblical, political and cultural matters, but I do wonder if these issues--as emotional as they many be--really weigh into the Biblical view of history as heavily as we seem to make them.
Let me give an example. Here in Kentucky, "wet/dry" elections frequently occur in cities where alcohol cannot be sold. Southern Baptists--if you haven't heard--tend to side on the "dry" side, at least officially. This does not account for the considerable amount of alcohol consumed by those same Baptists, but that is another column. What fascinates me was the sheer emotional and physical energy that these elections brought out in the churches I served. No event--not a revival, not a building program, not a UK basketball championship--could approach the intensity of these elections. Election night would have all the drama of a vote on whether to send our children into a war zone. These are "conservative Christians" convinced they are dealing with an issue of serious importance in the Kingdom.
Now, how did such a political issue come to this kind of significance in these churches? Clearly, the Bible is not interested in "wet/dry" elections. The explanation is complex, but we can see that cultural conservatism has more energy and influence than a Biblical view of the Kingdom. In this instance, the church has compromised itself to a totally alien agenda, and "baptized" that agenda with all the urgency that should go to the work of the Kingdom.
Does this produce pessimism? Well, look deeper. Why is the church convinced that political action and not the expansion of Gospel's influence through conversion, missions and evangelism is the way to go? Why are the tactics of political persuasion employed rather than leaving these matters to the leadership of the Spirit and the conscience of the Christian? Why is alcohol sales perceived as such a terrible threat? Why is a moralistic agenda more animating than a spiritual one? Why is scripture not heard from, or worse, mangled into saying what a party wants it to say? I leave the answer to my readers, but I conclude that there is underneath this agenda fear and pessimism, not confidence and optimism.
So now that I have come this far out on the limb, let's go a little further. Are we as Christians ready to state, without embarrassment, that many conservative media voices are either not Christians--and do not pretend to be--or do not represent anything close to the Christian worldview? "What would Jesus do?" and "What did Hannity say today?" are not always one and the same thing. Are we OK with saying Anne Coulter is sharp, but her manner cannot be our manner, for it is seriously lacking what we know matters in the witness we bear to others?
Many conservatives are not Christians, and they aren't required to be. Take, for example, Jonah Goldberg, the excellent conservative columnist for National Review Online. Goldberg is Jewish, highly secular and freely admits he knows little about evangelical Christianity. I cannot take Goldberg as representing the Biblical worldview, even though he often does so accidentally, because he has absolutely no Biblical priorities. He does not love the Lord Jesus or worship Him as King. He does not look at the Kingdom of God as the Kingdom that matters most of all. These are important differences, and they color everything I read from the pen of this excellent writer.
I know I am heading for sacred ground, but Rush Limbaugh is not close to being spiritually on target. I know his Methodist roots, but I have listened to Rush enough to make an intelligent judgment that his religion--at least as it is presented on radio and in his books--approaches a benign deism more than anything else. (The one exception to this is a rather reluctant affirmation of Christ as Savior I read many years ago in the old Wittenberg Door.) Without posing as an expert on Limbaugh's personal spiritual commitments, I can say with some expertise that what he presents on the radio is not identical with a commitment to the priorities of the Bible. What excites, bothers and enthuses Rush is an agenda of conservatism that can be at wide variance with matters the Bible feels have revolutionary importance. Rush is King in his world, but he can't be in mine.
Listening to Rush without thinking it through, some conclude that Christians are Republicans and non-believers are Democrats. Now the fact that there is some statistical evidence that is somewhat true does nothing to take away my point. Christians aren't a subset of some political group. Politics is the art of compromise, it makes strange bedfellows, and our participation in it is always with a greater hope and a greater loyalty: to the Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
I know Sean Hannity is a good Roman Catholic, but I must say the same thing about him. None of us who believe the Bible can give the loyalty and importance to these kinds of issues that Hannity models. The business of heaven must excite our hearts and stir our minds more than the latest Zogby poll on the President's popularity or the most recent Supreme Court decision. I agree that freedom and righteousness in America demand my attention to political issues, but how naive is it to assume that true freedom and true righteousness come at the hands of political operatives or the victory of a conservative movement?
For the record, Bill O'Reilly thinks we are fanatics. His support of abortion and contempt for evangelicals and serious Christians is off-putting to anyone who loves the Word of God. To hear O'Reilly call a pro-life activist a "fanatic" is offensive. I know he is hard-hitting, entertaining and often on target, but I am not part of what he is selling. I am part of something far more important. If Mr. O'Reilly would read the Bible, he would find out about the ultimate "no spin zone"--the judgment of a Holy God.
Am I picking on conservative pundits? Certainly, but I am hoping to make a point. Let me try to do it in short form without sounding preachy.
Christians should never be surprised at the shocking condition of our world, our nation or our fellow man. Romans 1 describes it very, very well. No gay agenda, no public display of sin, no media venture into the dark side of unrighteousness ought to surprise us. We may weep as Jesus wept, or turn over tables as he did, but it should never be out of shock or political anger. This is a world that is daily demonstrating the wrath of God on the unrighteousness of men who have kicked out their Creator and exchanged His glory for garbage. For two thousand years, the Bible has described this world. The evidence we see and read day by day doesn't make it more shocking or true.
It is very easy to lose our perspective in such a world, because that perspective must come to us through the faithful unfolding of the scriptures, which is a very rare gift in the unfaithful church of this culture. We must be renewed "day by day" in a focused vision of God and in an appreciation of His Kingdom's optimism, mission and triumph. This takes discipline and passionate devotion in the Christian life, and it is a rare thing. There is a temptation to buy into other agendas that seem more possible from a human point of view; agendas that we can bring about through our anger, emotions and efforts. These agendas often have much to commend them, but these are, at their best, only marginally related to the Great Kingdom priorities of the Bible.
"Conservatism" as a cultural movement has much that Christians can affirm, but we must admit the dangers of identifying ourselves with this movement as "Conservative Christians." This particularly brings weakness, I believe, to the very discussion of cultural issues that often occurs in our culture. Our views on homosexuality, abortion and the family are not political. They are Biblical, and all Christians who submit to Christ ought to affirm the Bible and what it says. If the Bible does not make itself clear, or make an issue a priority, then we ought not to make that issue a priority of our efforts and energy.
Scripture is very clear that Christians can live for Christ, honor Christ, pursue the great work of taking the Gospel to the nations and discipling those who believe, in whatever country and political situation they might find themselves. The election of a liberal is not the end of anything God is doing by His Spirit. A Supreme Court decision does not affect the King of the Universe or the Kingdom that will come.
Should I even call myself a "conservative Christian?" I will do so much less than before. I'll do some repenting of letting the media and the pundits set my "thermostat" for me. I'll look into the greatest news account of all, and see what God is doing to bring the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and how I am included in what I do today.
I believe there is a great current of optimism in scripture that the pundits on either side cannot and will not see, because it is a stream that starts in the Garden of Eden, runs to the cross and continues in God's work in the world today. It is a stream traced in the pages of the despised Bible. It is stream of light and truth that illuminates Christ Jesus the Redeemer and King. The Holy Spirit has poured this Good News into my life in advance of its realization in history, and so I do not need the politicians, pundits and journalists to do my thinking for me. I'll fight the good fight to believe the promises, and work to see the Kingdom come a little more each day in this fallen world of ours.