An evangelical theologian’s sojourn away from radical Christian politics.
While evangelical Christians agree about the central doctrines of the Christian faith, their thinking about social and political issues evidences increasing division and disagreement. Evangelical reflection about social and political issues is like a turbulent river which turns this way and that, and contains several strong currents. Persons who lack strong convictions in such matters can easily find themselves tossed about with uncertainty. To some extent, this has happened to me. Since I believe that this record of my own pilgrimage may help explain how committed Christian leaders can be misled into thinking that the Bible requires a rejection of political conservatism and an acceptance of leftist convictions, I have decided to tell my story. I hope it will help others who are struggling in this difficult and confusing area.
Many evangelicals in our day realize that privatism in faith is wrong. The gospel speaks to the whole of life; its social implications are inescapable. The “great reversal” of which Timothy Smith speaks has in large measure itself been reversed. Many contemporary believers are eager to apply their faith to the issues of life in society. The issue today therefore is what kind of involvement and what sort of action is required by the Bible. We agree that God’s will ought to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But what is His will? The poor ought to be helped. But what specific actions will help them? Unlike the social apathy that often existed a generation ago, we all believe now in the social implications of the gospel. But what program shall we follow and on what platform shall we stand? To which evangelical thinker shall we turn for leadership? What policies and actions will bring liberty and justice in their wake? Finding the correct answers to these questions constitutes the agenda for the 1980s.
My own pilgrimage has been a struggle to gain a degree of clarity in this area. My path over the years has turned out to be a fairly straight line with the exception of one enormous zigzag in the middle. My own quest went through three major phases. Until I began experimenting with political radicalism in 1970, I had moved quite generally in the mainstream of North American evangelical political thinking. My theological conservatism was coupled with valued democracy, our historical Christian roots and capitalist institutions. But in 1970 my political thinking underwent a paradigm shift — a total transformation. Living in the United States at the time, I began to read the Bible from an Anabaptist perspective and soon found myself looking at society through the eyes of the new left. Things formerly valued in American society became targets of my disapproval as I became more conscious of the effects of materialism, racism, injustice and the Viet Nam war. The radical edge of Scripture had caught my attention and I could not ignore the evils of democratic capitalism. It was a new political-theological world to move in and it produced a heady experience which intoxicated me and many others. It led me personally to sympathy and support for the Marxist movements of the world. By 1974, having returned to my native Canada, I even voted for communist candidates in the Vancouver civic elections. Looking back on this radical period now, it seems incredible that I could have accepted so many implausible things and I am reminded forcefully of my human condition. It is now easier for me to understand how people can be swept along in their support of strange causes like the German people in the 1930s. The real excitement that can be created by a new ideology can sweep away a good deal of critical sense.
The third phase in my political pilgrimage began after I had spent some eight years in the radical movement. This new conversion followed much the same course as my earlier conversion to radicalism. Gradually, I began to reassess my position and my alienation from North America began to fade, replaced by a certain critical appreciation of democratic capitalism that I had had before 1970. At the same time, I was becoming more conscious of the reasonableness of Reformed hermeneutics over against the Anabaptist approach. The urgency I had acquired from the radical evangelicals has, with regard to political action, been internalized and applied to my new political orientation. I have not returned to the relative indifference I felt toward politics in my first phase but have picked up some enthusiasm for what I would term neo -Puritan politics. With this brief outline of my sojourn now drawn, let me turn to a more detailed account of my search.
PHASE ONE: IN THE MAINSTREAM, 1953-1969
I was born and raised in a middle class southern Ontario home and a socially respectable progressive Baptist church. I was converted through the witness of evangelical believers and organizations like Youth for Christ. While for a time my theology could be described as fundamentalist, I came increasingly under the influence of the kind of mainstream evangelical theology associated with the old Princeton Seminary. During the years following my conversion, I was introduced to all the major lines of evangelical social thought. I admired Billy Graham and accepted his approach to social change through evangelism. While he taught us to love America, he also helped us recognize her sins. While spending some time at L’Abri in the early 1960s, I came under the influence of Francis Schaeffer. Through him, I learned to emphasize theological over political issues. While Schaeffer sometimes spoke in support of the Viet Nam war, he also spoke out against the rise of secularism in America and showed sympathy for the flower children who needed Christ. What seeds of radicalism I may have picked up from Schaeffer came not so much because he broke with democratic capitalism (he didn’t), but because he identified with alienated youth in a way that appeared to support some of their concerns. Carl Henry also influenced me (in the direction of a cautious reformism) through two books on ethics and his writings in Christianity Today. I also have to admit a fascination and respect for Bill Buckley and the feisty way in which he defended the capitalist way against its critics. (I still do today.)
During phase one of my sojourn, I was far more concerned with the problem of biblical inerrancy than the issue of racism. I was fairly skeptical of the effectiveness of governmental intervention in economic matters and in the case of social welfare. I viewed the “Great Society” as a bit of a farce. I thought that society’s greatest need was the conversion of its people. I saw democratic capitalism in a good light and strongly disapproved of atheistic communism. As far as Viet Nam was concerned, I was a Canadian who felt it was an unpleasant American duty to defend freedom in Southeast Asia; I wished them well.
In addition to the possibility that Schaeffer may have quickened the radical impulse in me, my conversion to pre-millennialism in the late 1960s through influences at Dallas Theological Seminary could be seen as another radical seed. Although it is true that dispensational pre-millennialists are notoriously passive politically, it is also true that such an eschatology puts one in radical opposition to the powers that be and makes one a potential radical.
PHASE TWO: OUT ON THE EDGES, 1970-1978
A contagion was in the air for young people in the 1960s and influenced many of our generation. It happened late for me. At Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Jim Wallis gathered a small group of people deeply critical of America and supportive of radical politics and Anabaptist hermeneutics. Out of this circle came first the Post American and then its successor, the widely influential Sojourners. In sympathy with these young people, I too began to be turned off by what we saw as plastic culture, the violence in Viet Nam, and America’s unacknowledged racism. Without my conscious awareness, I bought into a fusion or synthesis of the new left and Anabaptist thought. At that time I perceived the union as enjoying God’s favor.
I can best explain my new standpoint by referring to three corners of a triad. First, there was a deep alienation from North American culture. Some of the mainstream evangelicals like Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and Billy Graham had emphasized the point that America was corrupting herself and selling her birthright, but they had something different in mind. They did not mean that the whole system was evil or that the church had betrayed the gospel. They wanted reform of a basically good culture, not a complete overthrow. But we saw North America as the polar opposite of the gospel. We saw practically nothing to celebrate in it. Our rhetoric knew no bounds. We applauded William Stringfellow when he identified America with the great whore of Babylon of Revelation 17-19. To be fair, we believed in the great American revolutionary heritage as we understood it, but saw no evidence of that tradition at work in the present. In our ideology, America was wholly given over to the Babylon pattern and was a worthy successor to Nazi Germany. Now it is also true that we viewed all earthly systems as evil in line with our Anabaptist exegesis, and if pressed would insist that we disliked the Marxist societies just as much. But it is doubtful if this really was the case. I at least looked wistfully at those “revolutionary” societies which seemed to embody the communitarian ideal more perfectly than my own.
But our concentration was not on political solutions. We tended to be skeptical of those. As evangelicals and Anabaptists we tended toward a new community where Christians would give up their privileges in the middle class, share their possessions and assets, and embody the new humanity beside the poor. That was the solution we were committed to, God’s “original revolution.”‘ In our minds, it was God’s wise social strategy, and it mattered not if the world complained it was not enough. As radicals, we did not accept the ideals of our fellow evangelicals, such as individualism, patriotism, and capitalism, but bought into the denunciation of the Western democracies as a zone of oppression and injustice. It was doomed, and we planned to sing the Hallelujah Chorus when it fell. We were convinced by the crisis mentality of the Club of Rome and found ourselves out of line with almost every policy and behavior we saw our culture pursuing. It was a revolt of the advantaged. We hated those who were successful in the system, and therefore ourselves who had tasted all of its benefits. For me, radicalism served to take away the guilt I felt for being born into an advantaged situation. I do not fully understand the dynamics at work here, and leave the matter to a psychologist.
Second, about the same time there was a resurgence of Anabaptist theology and it facilitated the radicalizing process by providing theological foundations. When it dawned upon us, we had the feeling of a second conversion. It was Christ-centered and biblicist and so appealed to our evangelical instincts, but it was radical and subversive of every status quo and so confirmed the cultural alienation we felt. It taught us a way to go back to our conservative churches and preach the new gospel of Christian radicalism in an evangelical modality. The Bible teaches a radical message, we said, and that was that. Anabaptist theology was made to order for our situation. It told us that North America, like all cultures, was a fallen order with which the Christian could not compromise. Jesus Christ had come to smash all such systems, not by violence, but by speaking of a new order in which all systems of domination in regard to money, rank, and hierarchy will be overthrown, and those who are first in this world will be last in that one. The great mistake of the church, committed first by Constantine, was the decision to ally herself with satanic power and betray her radical identity. The call was for the faithful to come out from Babylon, including the apostate evangelical churches, and form radical communities which would take their courageous stand against the materialism and violence of our culture. Simple lifestyle, nonviolence, economic sharing, equality, communitarianism — these were the signs of the authentic church today. By this means perhaps the world could be changed through the effect of a light that cannot be hid. Anabaptist theology supported our alienation admirably. To be a Christian was to be a radical and a subversive! We exist as sojourners to call the establishment into question, and to live our lives for others. It was also a hermeneutic which interpreted the New Testament, and particularly the Sermon on the Mount, in a radical way. Historically it led believers to avoid the use of oaths, personal or military force, legal justice, and at times even the possession of private property. It also tended to cause them to withdraw from political and social life and to a strict separation of church and state. As radical evangelicals, we did not withdraw from public life, but our involvement in it was always counter-cultural and never culture-reclaiming. There was a dualism between the pure community and the evil social order and a situation of constant tension.
Third, the political context of the radical movement of which we were a Christian segment was the new left. It was alienated from America and could say why in non-theological terms. Corporate capitalism was the root of America’s degeneracy and the source of its injustice, violence, and racism. It was a system which raped the environment and ruled the world on behalf of the wealthy minority. It was a corrupt system and had to be overthrown. Without being ideologically left myself, I was in considerable agreement with what the new left said both by way of criticism and suggestion. I remember being asked if I realized the Marxist content of what we were saying in the Post American and being puzzled by the question. I was a babe in political thinking and was saying things based on what I thought were exegetical grounds, the importance of which I did not fully understand. I felt that the poor were poor because the rich were rich, and what was needed was state intervention and voluntary poverty on the part of Christians. It seemed reasonable to think of the rich as oppressors, and the poor as their victims. The Bible often seemed to do the same thing. It was obvious to me that the welfare state needed to be extended, that wealth ought to be forcibly redistributed through taxation, that the third world deserved reparation from us, that our defense spending was in order to protect our privilege, and the like. I did not require proof of such propositions — they all seemed obvious and self-evident. The excitement of the change of thinking suppressed even the small amount of critical judgment I had acquired before 1970.
Socialist ideals also provided allurement. Was socialism not a grand vision of a just and humane order which distributed its resources fairly and equitably among all its people according to their need? Was it not true democracy where decisions were made not by the wealthy elite but by the people? Without equating the two, it was so easy for me to associate in my mind the socialist utopia and the promised kingdom of God. There was a high-mindedness to the vision which made it compelling. It was this attraction which had drawn churchmen in the ecumenical movement to the left for decades prior to our conversion. We admired what we thought was happening in the new China under Mao, and we hoped that the Viet Cong would win out against American forces. Our radicalism was a fusion of Anabaptist hermeneutics and new left political orientation.
PHASE THREE: RETURN TO THE CENTER, 1978-1984
Late in the 1970s each of the three points of the radical triad began to lose their power over me. First, I began to awaken out of my radical dream, and to see once again the positive tendencies of democratic capitalism which had been eclipsed. I began to view such things as free speech, limited government, an independent judiciary, genuine pluralism, and a concern for human rights to be evidence of the promise of America in a world so largely lacking these privileges. It now struck me as somewhat ridiculous to overlook those positive features of North American life which had incidentally made it possible for radicals like me to express and live out our concerns. How could I have had such deep contempt for a culture which surely stands as a beacon of hope in this suffering world? How ironic to call for “liberation” in the very place there is probably more of it than anywhere else in the world, and to be sympathetic toward those societies where neither liberty nor justice is in good supply. It began to dawn on me that if one was looking for Babylon in this present world, one might rather look toward the threat of totalitarian government which seeks to usurp all sovereignty in a culture. What really endangers liberty and justice in our world is not a flawed America, but that political monism, whether of the fascist right or the communist left, which declares itself to be absolute and answers to no transcendent value. How ironic that the Reader’s Digest, which we refused to read in the 1960s, should now seem to have grasped the truth about the world, and Ramparts, which we read avidly, should have been so blind. But it is so. We radicals thought we loved peace and justice, but we simply did not grasp the nature of tyranny in the modern world. We thought Stalin was an aberration in the history of socialism rather than its symbol. We refused to see that communism was fascist and spelled the destruction of the human spirit, as Solzhenitsyn put it, “a leveling unto death.”
Once freed from the hold of the radical perspective, many of the old issues took on a different aspect. For example, I used to find discrimination everywhere, whereas now I do not. What impresses me now is the degree we have been able to overcome racism and the fact that our society in North America is remarkable for its open pluralism. On the ecological side, the old crisis mentality seems quaint. We are not running out of energy or natural resources, but are finding abundant new ones. We are not running out of land or food — production outstrips demand. Pollution is not insoluble, but decreases as soon as we take the problem seriously. Even the Viet Nam war looks quite different now. Although the peace movement meant well, it addressed itself to the wrong powers and as a result led to the enslavement of large parts of Southeast Asia. Solzhenitsyn does not exaggerate when he says that we radicals were accomplices in the betrayal of those nations. Christians must be peacemakers, but surely that does not mean we have to assist totalitarian powers gain still more slaves. Will we ever learn the lesson of Neville Chamberlain?
In one respect, though, my politics continues to be radical. Not radical in the directions I now disavow, but in the direction of a neo-Puritan vision. Still a millennialist, I now see a greater realization of the kingdom in society before the eschaton. I anticipate Christ’s enemies being put beneath his feet and his rule extending to all nations in history. He commanded us to disciple all nations, to bring them under his sway, and now I have a stronger faith this will actually be done. Like the post-millennialists of an earlier era, I look forward to the day when Jesus shall reign wherever the sun, as Watts puts it, and the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth. This is, of course, the old Puritan eschatology and vision, and we see it undergoing a resurgence on many sides, in the recent work of Schaeffer, in the ministry of the New Right, and in the Chalcedon movement for Christian reconstruction.
Although I do not believe the program we should follow is yet complete or beyond criticism, I do think it is a positive direction and constitutes a major new form of evangelical social theology. One of the implications is that the church need not find itself perpetually in a counter- cultural posture. In cultures like our own where the gospel has taken deep root and penetrated many areas, the task of the church can be to encourage the christianization of the culture and call the nation to the will of God, and to assure people that God will surely bless the nation whose God is the Lord. Christians should be busy calling for fiscal responsibility, effective law enforcement, limited government, the right to life, the stability of the family, adequate defense, the needs of the poor, the problem of pornography, and the like. I agree with the radicals that the gospel is meant to have far-reaching social implications, and look for the coming of God’s kingdom and a society governed according to his law.
Second, just as the cultural alienation of the second phase required an Anabaptist hermeneutic to sustain it, so this phase is in keeping with a Reformed one. To affect the shift from one to the other all one needs to do is recover the Old Testament as the foundation of New Testament politics. The Anabaptist reading of the Bible pits the Old Testament against the New at many crucial points. It turns away from its emphasis on the legitimacy of earthy powers and the responsibility believers have to exercise them in a godly manner. It finds virtue instead in a repudiation of such power and delights in powerlessness as the mark of the Christian. The true believer is supposed to refuse to try to manage society even if he has the opportunity and to avoid all coercive activities. But this makes no sense in the context of the Old Testament, where blessing is pronounced upon the godly rulers. It seems to me now that it is unnatural to read the New Testament as if it rejects the Old Testament framework in these areas. We are told to pray for the governing authorities because they are ordained by God. The gospel affirms the abiding validity of God’s law, including such things as the proper responsibility of civil magistrates and their duty to resist evildoers. While it is possible to read the Sermon on the Mount differently, it is not necessary to do so. I have returned to the view that evangelical political work ought to have an institutional as well as intentional component. It is not just a question of building new community, but also of bringing society under God’s law. Human societies need not be under Satan’s sway and the goal of political theology ought to be to conform to God’s scriptural will. In the case of our Western democracies, it seems plain to me now that the Christian heritage operating in them is profound and precious, and renders them worthy of critical support and reforming efforts. The future is open. It belongs to the Lord of history who intends to reclaim the whole creation. Therefore, we ought to be hopeful and energetic in pressing the crown rights of the Redeemer.
Third, there is an ideological component in all this too. I have changed my mind about democratic capitalism. Like Peter Berger and many others, I have come to see it in a very different light. Far from being the enemy of the poor, it now seems to me to offer both liberty and prosperity in abundance and to deserve our cautious support. Socialism, on the other hand, has a dismal record of providing neither.
I am not an expert in economics, far from it, but I can now see why North America is rich and many other nations are not. It is not because we have exploited the third world and robbed them of their wealth. Quite the contrary, the world is poorest precisely where there has been no contact with the West. What prosperity there is in the third world has often been the result of contact with it.” No, the rapid economic growth we have experienced is largely the result of a set of factors including the rise of industrial capitalism. In Britain alone in the nineteenth century there was a 1600 percent rise in goods and wages. It was as if the human race had at last hit upon an effective formula for raising whole populations from poverty to unheard of standards of wealth. The capacity of capitalism to generate wealth is un-paralleled in history, and quite possibly one of the greatest single blessings bestowed on humanity. No system has been so helpful to the poor and provided such opportunity to rise out of suffering. It has done so chiefly by reason of the fact it allows wealth to be diversely controlled and be freely in-vested in new causes. Real wealth is not the possession of natural resources. It is human creativity and ingenuity and that is what democratic capitalism releases in good measure. Any system will prosper which gives liberty to this ultimate resource. It is irresponsible for me as a theologian to be ignorant of what will help the poor while claiming piously to be in solidarity with them. We have to say what is needed if the standard of living of the poor is to rise; namely, a commitment to economic growth and liberty for economic agents to undertake the kind of risks and investments which will lead to an accumulation of wealth for the people. Democratic capitalism has a proven record in the area of wealth production; if we care for the poor, we ought to promote it rather than condemn it. In addition to providing material prosperity, the system also produces liberty, since it is an economics in which individuals can operate at will and the state does not take charge. Political freedom is consonant with a free market. As Milton Friedman has said, “I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity.””
Should we go so far as to say that the Bible supports this economic policy? I think we should be cautious in this area. If the Bible does teach this policy, it is strange why we did not discover it earlier. It is also risky to tie the Scriptures to any such system, thus repeating the radical mistake of regularly linking it to socialism. Nevertheless, the Bible offers many insights which bear upon economics and are at least consistent with market practice. It calls upon all of us to be stewards of resources and to have dominion of the earth. It implies that it is a moral activity which we choose or refuse to do. It praises diligent and honest labor. It prohibits theft of property and promises wealth to the godly. It insists upon stable currency, just weights and measures. It does not see the role of the state to be active in this area except to ensure justice. Scripture teaches us that long term economic growth flows from obedience to God and that stubborn poverty is the result of disobedience. It defends the rights of the disadvantaged and calls upon the godly to help them get on their feet by means of the Lord’s tithe. God is not on the side of the poor in some abstract general sense, but he is moved in mercy toward the oppressed and commands his people to show mercy in speaking on their behalf and extending favor to them. Often when we hear talk about Christian economics, it is actually secular economics imported into theological ethics. What we need to do is study and utilize the biblical materials on this subject more fully.
Although I do see democratic capitalism as a resource of relative good and hope in this fallen world, I do not think its future is necessarily bright. We have become secular and materialistic and risk losing all we have been given. We have succumbed to the very materialism which has produced the communist tyranny. We no longer stand tall for the great values that lie beneath our feet. There is nothing to prevent our civilization from ending up on the scrapheap of history. God’s law makes it plain that while he will bless the faithful, he will not hesitate to judge the unfaithful. Consider the enormous deficits we have amassed which rob future generations, inflate the currency, and slow the engine of growth. Think of the irresponsibility of our banks which have lent out vast quantities of our resources to unworthy debtors, thus placing our own economy in jeopardy. In many ways we are drifting and deserve ruin and judgment. We have a great opportunity to exercise leadership in the world, but it is not certain that we have the ability and maturity to do so. Instead of presenting a spiritual alternative to the Soviet barrenness, we have ourselves fallen into self-centered materialism which reduces everything to a monetary value. The same God who promises to bless his faithful people and those who respect his law also threatens to curse those who refuse to follow his statutes (Deut. 28:1-68).
Aligned to this reawakened belief in the promise of democratic capitalism came a corresponding disillusionment with the socialist ideal. I have come to feel that socialism represents false prophecy and a cruel delusion. It is an enemy of the poor because it destroys prosperity. By uniting economic and political power in one center, it produces tyranny. Marxism promised to explain and then change the world, but it has done neither. It exists as an orthodoxy to justify and legitimate total power. As Kolakowski puts it, “Marxism has been the greatest fantasy of our century…. It neither interprets the world nor changes it: it is merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organize various interests.” Worst of all it has led to a nightmare of oppression and totalitarian control.
Even in its democratic form as in Sweden and North America, it threatens our liberties and bankrupts our economies. Even the welfare state which seems to be such a genuine response to the plight of poor people and which as a radical I thought ought to be expanded is no solution. Its general effect on the poor is to destroy their families (because the payments are better if the husband has left the family) and lock them into their sorry condition (because its payments make the unattractive entry-level job seem even less appealing and encourage permanent joblessness). Welfare is an enemy of the poor and friend of the vast and expensive bureaucracies which it creates. It prevents poor people from taking the only road that leads out of poverty: development through hard work and accumulation. It is important to be truthful when it comes to poverty and not perpetuate myths regarding the morality of the rich and duties of the poor.
Living in Canada has afforded me daily examples of how to destroy the private sector and prosperity and how to expand government so that it gains control in every possible area of life. Pierre Trudeau has led what amounts to a socialist government for a dozen years and has brought Canada to its knees economically by eating up about forty percent of the GNP and introducing government regulation into every sector. The budget is out of control. The state owns 175 (at last count) “crown corporations” whose financial affairs are not under close parliamentary scrutiny. It has a national energy policy which has devastated the petroleum industry and diverted huge funds into the state treasury instead of fresh exploration and development. We have a huge bureaucracy, a million officials for only twenty-five million Canadians. Although the country is rich in space and resources, it is in pathetic shape because of socialist policies on every hand. Ironically, the Catholic bishops are calling for more government intervention and handouts. They do not explain how one can redistribute wealth not available or how one creates jobs if industry has been brought to its knees. But it is quite typical for theologians to dogmatize political matters in which they have no expertise.
This has been my pilgrimage to date in political theology. I hope I have been making progress. Certainly I am learning from the struggle to achieve clarity. The process has not been painless. One does not embrace and then break with a radical movement without being viewed with suspicion and resentment. I feel badly that some who appreciated my writing during the radical period now find me some distance from those ideals. I realize that our idea was to convert mainline evangelicals to the radical vision and not the other way around. But this is what happened to me and I set it forth as a possible lesson to all. The zigzag experience in and out of radicalism confirmed for me the considerable truth of the hermeneutical circle. We are deeply affected in our reading of the Bible by our circumstances. It is virtually impossible to disentangle the threads of biblical teaching and cultural experience. In particular it compels me to ask at this time in my life whether my present position is really scriptural or reflects my own class setting. At least one valuable remnant of my earlier radicalism is the fact I have to ask such questions of myself. In the late 1960s evangelical social thought jumped forward in a passionate radical expression which continues to impress itself upon an important minority of our movement. Now in the 1980s we see the rise of a liberal (people call it neo-conservative) neo -Puritan cultural vision which is sweeping large numbers into its program. Though viciously criticized from the left and often shallow in its thinking, this democratically-oriented social movement is the new liberation theology of our time, and in the days to come a great debate will take place around the issues it raises. Given my meandering, I have to wonder where it will lead.