To Change The World, Week Six

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

Today’s reading is about the religious right. I know some of you are conservative and some of you are liberal. Whichever camp you align with, I encourage you to read both this chapter and the next chapter (on the religious left) carefully, seeking to gain sympathy for the side you oppose. I also encourage you to read the attached essay “The Problem With Conservatism” by J. Budziszewski, a Christian political philosopher at the University of Texas. He has a companion essay about liberalism which I’ll send next week — so whether you are liberal or conservative you’ll find a chapter that describes your views fairly while also encountering a thoughtful critique of your tribe.

Anyway, on to today’s insights. Hunter is fair and insightful in describing the Christian right:

“In the present world order, many if not most of the principles [politically conservative Christians] most esteem have come under fundamental challenge. There has been a challenge to heterosexuality, to monogamy, to marriage as a life-long commitment, to the sacred responsibility of parenting, to the authority and autonomy of the family. There has been a challenge to the sanctity of human life, most clearly in the earliest stages of life but also life at its most vulnerable and at its end. Not only has there been a challenge to the truths of the Christian faith and the traditions and scripture that express them, but there has been a challenge to the very concept of truth as well. And there has been a challenge to the moral authority of the church. These challenges have been expressed intellectually, educationally, and artistically, but also commercially, through advertising, and in the range of entertainment media. Not least, all of these challenges have also been expressed legally and politically.” (page 111)

I would be surprised if you have not heard similar sentiments in the lobby after church. In response,

Conservative Christians “defend a prominent role for religion in public life, a traditional nuclear family, and traditional morality.” (page 122)

Hunter deeply understands the perspective of conservative Christians. It makes me wonder what churches he has attended. Even in small things he gets their self-understanding. I think it would surprise many at Stanford to learn that most politically-engaged conservative evangelicals consider themselves to be the true activists who pursue human flourishing in the face of an unjust culture.

“In this view, the Tocquevillian legacy that celebrates the active role of religion in public extended into the modern age through the abolitionist movement, prohibition, and with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and it extends to the present in the movement against abortion, homosexuality, and the like. In their own view, conservative Christian activists are anything but strange. They are, rather, the “rightful heirs” of progressive Christianity.” (page 114)

Having said all of that, Hunter addresses something that I hear often: many conservative Christians are fed up with the Republican party because they feel taken for granted.

This is the problem with electoral politics in our time. Politicians cannot get nominated without the support of the grassroots activists, but they cannot get elected and govern without moving to the political center. It is inevitable that politicians who do get elected betray their most ardent supporters by moderating (p.126) their positions. Needless to say, this comes as a source of terrible frustration to the movement leaders. Movement leaders regularly and probably rightly accuse Republican politicians and officials of “just ignoring those that put them in office.” (page 125–126)

Having said that, as long as the Democratic party continues on their current trajectory it is difficult to imagine a large-scale drift of conservative Christians from Republican to Democrat. As I said in the runup to the election, I could not in good conscience vote for either Trump or Clinton and so I cast my ballot for a third party candidate. But I know many of my friends who voted for Trump as a way of preventing a Clinton victory. I think if I was to ask them why they would say something like this. “Sure, Trump is crazy and personally immoral, but Clinton is disciplined and devoted to promoting wickedness. I think America will be better off under the crazy sleazebag.”

It is difficult to overstate the centrality of the Supreme Court to the thinking of most of my conservative Christian friends. Hunter nails it with this paragraph:

If there is an epicenter of the problem, though, it is seen in the judicial system—“the last great bastion for liberalism.” Some have called “the secular-liberal takeover” of the judiciary the greatest assault representative self-government has ever faced; an assault that is “more dangerous and successful because it comes from within and aims to destroy not just our physical defenses, but the moral ideas, habits and practices that sustain our character as a free people.” The principal instrument for their assault has been “an abuse of the judicial system,” and in particular the Federal judiciary’s assertion of supreme and unchecked constitutional power. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has arrogated to itself governmental power that the Tenth Amendment unambiguously reserves to the States, arbitrarily withdrawn the protection of the community from generations to come, interfered with the public celebration of religious festivals and observances determined by the people, and now seeks to remove all references to the Creator, God, (p.117) from public declarations adopted by the people. The campaign of “liberals and progressive forces” has been nothing less than “insidious.” The problem, then, is not just the fact that the courts are complicit in “trying to erase our Judeo- Christian heritage.” “The courts have also imposed immoral decisions on the American people.” The courts’ decisions liberalizing the practice of abortion and homosexuality are particularly galling since the majority of Americans oppose them. Cumulatively, these actions amount to “judicial tyranny.” (pages 116–117)

My friends who voted for Trump felt a huge sense of vindication when Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Trump could do everything else wrong and get the Supreme Court right and my friends would say, “I made a good call. Thank God Hilary Clinton is not president.”

I am very eager to see how he portrays the religious left in next week’s reading and then how he critiques them both afterwards.

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