Jul 24, 2017

Christianity Today Betrays its Heritage in Addressing Public Policy

For the past several years, Christianity Today has advanced the idea of “Beautiful Orthodoxy” in its pages. The magazine’s role in advancing a Beautiful Orthodoxy is described as one that “strengthens the church by richly communicating the breadth of the true, the good and the beautiful gospel.” In practice, as described on CT’s website, this involves avoiding truth-telling that is shrill, and falsehood that is winsome.   To some extent, this message is not far removed from the values presented in the very first issue of Christianity Today in October 1956, where editor-in-chief Carl F.H. Henry described the good and the true as “durables” which were the underpinnings of political freedom.

As applied in 2017, however, Christianity Today has drifted towards defining the beautiful as that which conforms to a center left political perspective, and those who disagree are the worst sort of ugly--they are racists. This is best illustrated by the editorial “Loving All Types of Sojourners” in the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, by Mark Galli. Galli is the editor-in-chief of CT, as was Carl Henry in 1956. The approaches to a winsome orthodoxy by both are remarkably different from each other.  How the world has changed in 61 years. In 1956, it would have been inconceivable to think that someday Evangelicals would be described as racist for disagreeing with the editorial position of CT’s editor.

Galli’s editorial argues at its core that church-going Evangelicals, “steeped in the Bible” should find President Trump’s refugee policy “repulsive.” Typical of the rhetoric of his argument, are comments like “You would think these people [non-church-attending Evangelicals] would try to make at least some allowances for illegal immigrants” and “Who is teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” Of course, lest Galli be hoisted on his own petard by looking a little too unmerciful himself, he back peddles slightly.  “We cannot lump all unchurched Evangelicals into the same basket, as they tend to do when they think about Muslims and Mexicans.” In short, by generously excusing a few of them, Galli does not stoop to the level of the poor non-CT-reading Evangelicals who voted for Trump because they are stewing in hatred for Muslims and Mexicans. A Beautiful Orthodoxy indeed.

Galli points out that “social and political scientists in survey after survey have tried to unravel the mystery of the 80 percent of white Evangelicals who voted for him.” Let the scientists stop their surveys. We can clear this up with two simple explanations:

1. Given two less than ideal candidates for president, those Evangelicals who voted for Trump did so because they believed he might be closer to their views than any alternate candidate.  That is an approach to voting embraced by many voters, left or right, throughout American history. Galli may despair of Evangelicals who rely solely on the abortion issue in voting for president, but does that really make them what Galli describes as “racists and xenophobes” who have confounded our best social and political scientists?

2. The fact that the cause Galli supports involves admittedly “illegal” activity may mean more to some Evangelicals than it does to Galli. These individuals may align their prioritization between lawfulness and concern for immigrants differently. It is possible that balancing the difficult conflict between these two values, compassion and law-keeping, may be ordered differently by sensible people for sound reasons The advocates of law-keeping do not need Galli’s pity and condescension..

The latter issue is the one that is likely of most interest to readers of this blog. What shows how far Christianity Today has come from its early days is the simplistic argument that if you do not show compassion by a willingness to breaking a law, then you must be racist.

Balancing the values of law-keeping as taught in Romans 13:1-6 against violating immigration law can be a big challenge. I say it can be because these values need not necessarily be found in conflict. Immigration law can be changed. Critics from across the political spectrum find current immigration law to be out of date and inadequate. Elected officials gain little personally by addressing the issue, so we remain constrained by laws designed to address the immigration issues of the mid-twentieth century. Of course, it does not take many dedicated voters to make an issue a high priority for Congress. To the extent that Galli were to harness the forces of Evangelicalism behind this cause, it could make a difference. The power would be even greater if Galli mobilized all kinds of Evangelicals he describes—the churchgoers, the racists and the xenophobes.

The biggest question not answered by Galli is how to determine when illegal activity should be actively engaged in by the church. As it happens, a great deal has been written on this topic over the centuries. These sources could have been cited. In fact, Carl Henry alone has written enough on this topic to fill pages of the current issue of Christianity Today. Were this issue to have been addressed in CT a la 1956, the theology of civil disobedience would have been the foundation of the article. In fact, at the time of Christianity Today’s first issue, Evangelicalism was working through a political issue that was just as complex as those faced today—how to address Communism without adopting an excessively nationalistic fusing of patriotism with faith.

There is a reason why advocates of open borders tend not to build their case on a theology of civil disobedience. There is too great a risk that once the principles of morally permissible civil disobedience have been established, one of two undesired results will likely happen. Either a conclusion will be drawn that complicity in aiding unlawful entry into the United States does not rise to the level of legitimate and morally defensible law-breaking, or it will set the bar so low that greater law-breaking will be justified than conscience will permit. If the immigrant can flout the law because our nation is profoundly more prosperous than its neighbors, then must the Christian concede the moral goodness of breaking and entering into the property of the rich to satisfy the needs of the poor?

It turns out to be very difficult to move from generalities to specifics when discussing the theology of public policy.  Personal experience and individualism become a larger part of the discussion the more specific the application of public policy concepts to real problems becomes. The godly landlord is going to have a different idea of the most just system of landlord/tenant law than the godly tenant will. Wisdom comes from distinguishing the point at which we should press our argument further, from the point where we should desist from claiming a universal principle and allow for individual difference within the bounds of goodness.

Presumably, all Evangelicals would agree that there is a point at which civil disobedience is appropriate or even mandated. Wisdom suggests that finding that point is a difficult challenge. However, as a church, we are stronger if we engage in further discussion in the hope of seeking understanding in this challenging area rather than opportunities for name-calling.  Certainly, Galli’s editorial accomplishes little but allowing him to self-identify as “we who do not succumb to the sin of racism.”

The Trump presidency is proving to be divisive for Evangelicalism. But this is nothing new. There has been probably no greater time of difficulty for public Evangelicalism than in the middle 1970’s after Richard Nixon had been embraced by Evangelicals who perceived Nixon as one of their own. Nixon was a law and order president, and seemed so much aligned with Evangelical values that his downfall was viewed as a personal betrayal. If there was one lesson learned from this, it was that the actions of leaders must be critiqued as acts, not as tools for characterizing the leaders. The need for this was eloquently stated by Senator Mark O. Hatfield in the pages of Christianity Today in June 1973 as President Nixon’s reputation was beginning to slide. Hatfield himself would later illustrate the insights of his article in his own career. His commitment as an Evangelical Christian was never in doubt. However, over his long career he himself was subject to ethics investigations best understood by reading his 1973 article in Christianity Today.

Mark Galli’s editorial is a significant event, primarily because it is written with an imperial tone by the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. The magazine stood for a very long time as the leading voice of Evangelical messages that thoughtfully applied careful biblical analysis of contemporary issue, accessible to pastors and thoughtful laity.

The article in the same issue as Galli’s editorial on the age of innocence is a rare reminder of what Christianity Today once offered: a thoughtful, well-founded discussion of various viewpoints on a topic on which there is reasonable dissension.

But the change in Christianity Today generally is a watershed event. CT was founded in part to raise the intellectual voice of a movement that had been dismissed as being “pre-critical,” to quote a description from its first issue. The Galli editorial illustrates a decline into a post-analytical tirade that mirrors the lack of thoughtfulness CT was founded to cure.

There are no voices left quite like what Christianity Today has abandoned. There remain academic journals at the seminaries, and Evangelical denominations still provide vehicles for reflective thought. However, the leading journals that speak to pastors and laity are more broadly ecumenical. They may accept the views of Evangelicals, but they are not edited by them.  Those publications are excellent, but the lack of a widely disseminated Evangelical voice on these matters is a huge loss. It would be difficult to imagine, for example, First Things publishing an article like the age of innocence article that CT just published.

The Beautiful Orthodoxy ideal is a noble one. But it is not an easy one. Truth may be comparatively easy to identify, although claiming one’s opinion as truth is itself an untruth. Goodness and beauty are not always visceral and impulsive. For example, history suggests that freedom of speech is good. However, inherent in defending free speech is the act of defending at times that which is bad, false and ugly. How can that be good? Experience has suggested that we gain insight into the good, the true and the beautiful by seeking to have a very light hand of regulation on its opposite.

Mark Galli may have identified an issue that should be a priority for the “people steeped in the Bible” to address seriously. But certainly, the aspect of this that should be made a central focus is how to align immigration law with Christian compassion. The lowest priority should be reducing the views of those with whom we disagree to nasty caricature and name-calling.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Dean Steeves. I read the same editorial and had to re-read it several times to make sure it wasn't parody.