For the past several decades, Christian activists have been concerned to apply Christian standards to the political and moral issues of our day. I support the effort in principle, and agree with much of the substance. Yet something is missing. In their obsession with discovering biblical standards they haven’t paid sufficient attention to biblical rhetoric. We need not only to explore what God says is right and wrong. We need to be sensitive to the rise and fall of rhetorical heat. Not only: What does God say? But: What gets God heated up?
Twice in the legislation of Exodus 21-23, Yahweh turns from general rule-making to warn Israel directly that He will enforce Torah with eye-for-eye justice if Israel oppresses strangers, orphans, and widows (Exodus 22:23-24, 27). The Torah regularly reinforces the demand for fair treatment of the poor by reminding Israel of their own enslavement in Egypt (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 5:15; 15:15; 16:9-11).
Similarly, the ideal king of Psalm 72 “vindicates the afflicted of the people, saves the children of the needy, and crushes the oppressor” (v. 4). Israel’s prophets reserve their most stinging attacks for abusers of the poor (e.g., Isaiah 1:10-15; Jeremiah 7:1-11). What makes Israel “Sodom” and a harlot is her contempt for justice (Isaiah 1:10 in context; Ezekiel 16:49). Conversely, the prophets pronounce “woes” against the wealthy and well-connected who take advantage of the weak (Isaiah 5:8; 10:1-2; Jeremiah 22:13; 23:1-2; Amos 6:1; Habakkuk 2:6, 9). Jesus captures the theme most succinctly: “Woe to the rich” (Luke 6:24).
Yahweh gets riled and raises His rhetoric to a pitch when the powerful mistreat the vulnerable.
In the U.S. of late, biblical rhetoric and biblical standards have been divided and parceled out between Left and Right. The Right promotes biblical morals; the Left monopolizes the rhetoric of justice.
President Obama cites Jesus to support his health care program, but ignores Scripture and Christian tradition when he endorses a radical redefinition of marriage. James Dobson stands for traditional values but says little about structural evils. When was the last time an analyst from the Left wrote about the breakdown of moral and marital values as powerfully as Charles Murray does in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010? Why don’t biblicists on the Right attack Mammon with as much vigor as a secular theorist like Michael Sandel in his What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets?
Forced to choose, I go with the advocates of biblical standards, but no one should have to choose. Biblical standards and biblical rhetoric ought to work together, and Christian political witness suffers when they do not. Without attention to biblical rhetoric, advocates of biblical morality misconstrue God’s priorities and are apt to turn into prissy moralists and busybodies. Without grounding in biblical standards, biblical rhetoric is easily coopted to justify gargantuan extensions of state power and to promote policies that damage the people they claim to help.
D. G. Hart has recently observed (From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism) that Christian efforts to transcend the divide of Left and Right can betray a “political perfectionism.” This can revert to fundamentalist quietism: Because there is no “pure” Christian political alternative, Christians avoid politics altogether. Hart is right: Perfectionism is a mistake. Still, Christians should not be satisfied with a half-biblical witness. Renouncing perfectionism does not prevent us from forging a public presence that embodies biblical politics more fully.
Point taken. Still, I smell a political opportunity. Younger evangelicals have little attachment to the Religious Right of the ‘70s and ‘80s. They are far less nationalistic than their parents. As Marcia Pally (The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good) has documented, they are concerned about militarism, consumerism, poverty, treatment of immigrants, care of the environment. They resonate to biblical rhetoric about justice. The great danger is that these newest “new evangelicals” will leave behind biblical standards and become the inverted images of their parents: Not the GOP but the Democratic Party at Prayer.
What would happen if a candidate spoke out forcefully against American military adventurism but defended America’s role in the world; uncompromisingly defended the unborn and traditional marriage; offered non-apocalyptic policies of environmental stewardship; attacked greed and the abuse of the poor by the powerful with the passion of a biblical prophet; and denounced the growing cultural divide between rich and poor that Murray so chillingly documents? What would happen if a party presented a platform rooted in the whole word of God, pressing biblical standards with biblical priorities using biblical rhetoric?
In the end it’s impossible to say whether or how such a platform would play. But we won’t know unless we try.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, June 25, 2012 at 9:18 am
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