If you live any part of your life within shouting distance of Christian Twitter, you probably heard some of the shouting that broke out last week with the publication of the Nashville Statement. It was a theological statement put out jointly by the Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission that generated a great deal of controversy, even among theological conservatives, for some of its affirmations and denials. One in particular, Article 7, seemed to me to require some nuance, since there should be room within orthodoxy for people like the folks over at Spiritual Friendship, many of whom identify as celibate gay Christians. The statement has engendered some family-room debate on that topic, which I suspect overall has been salutary for the great tradition of the church in dialogue with itself and with holy scripture.
Less salutary has been the reaction of news and opinion writers like that penned by The New Republic’s Sarah Jones, who says that, “the Nashville Statement is the Religious Right’s Death Rattle.” I don’t want to argue with Jones’ piece--I suspect I would end up talking past her, as she talked past the Nashville Statement--but I do want to make two observations and point to some of the tedious, necessary, and heartbreaking work that is set before my generation of theologically conservative Christians in these United States.
First, note well that the Nashville Statement is a theological statement, rather than a political statement. The authors framed the statement as a confession; a set of affirmations and denials with a preamble. There are, of course, political implications of theological statements (theology being the proper queen of all fields of knowledge) but these implications sit rather far down the list of ends at which theology aims. Theology in its proper end speaks truly about God and, if God has spoken, speaks truly about what God has said. Christians believe God has spoken, and so we must confess what he has said.
Jones’ article reverses this distinction: she reads the Nashville Statement as primarily a political text that makes some theological claims to shore up its naked grab at power. To Jones, all things reduce to cultural Marxist and Nietzschean power relations. Everything must be cast in terms of one group aiming to acquire or preserve power over another, and usually this means that the group preserving its power is made of wicked-old-white-men. As they say: when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Jones’ only hermeneutical hammer is a politics of power-relations. Once she gets started driving nails, she takes a swing at shoring up the old calumny about how pro-life people (read: “old white men”) are not really pro-life, but have a secret desire to control the bodies of women, just to tie her article off neatly. The whole thing is, as a professor of mine likes to say, balderdash. But it is balderdash that points to something important: the tangled legacy of the Religious Right for theological conservatives.
We have sinned greatly, pairing the aims of Evangelicalism with the aims of a particular political party. Tucker has written thoughtfully on this blog about Jerry Falwell and some of the other heirs of the old Religious Right and Moral Majority, and how their unstinting support for the actions of our current president does not seem to be rooted in a thorough commitment to a Biblical worldview. Let me add this thought: our sin began when we accepted the premise by which Sarah Jones and the other folks at The New Republic now interpret our theological statements. We aimed to secure power, and in securing power, to control behavior. Or, to put it in terms of my post from last week: we sought to create the liberty of the City of God using the political means of the City of Man. This creates a double tragedy: if successful, it produces a society of legal conformity with no conversion of the inner person; if unsuccessful (as is currently the case), it produces a society in which every theological statement is evaluated not first on its own terms, but first as a political statement.
The great challenge then for Christians of my generation will be consistently disentangling ourselves from the legacy of the Religious Right. This will require an abdication from politics as we have practiced them over the last four decades. At the same time, we must consistently affirm and proclaim the liberty of the City of God: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom we are the foremost. And we must deny everywhere at all times what the Nashville statement denies: that the Lord’s arm is too short to save, or that any sinner is beyond his reach. This good news proclaimed humbly and brokenly is the marching hymn of the church, by which she advances until that day when she enters her rest.
If we would learn a better relationship with politics, we could do much worse than to look to the example of our brother G. K. Chesterton. His poem The Ballad of the White Horse, a short epic about the victory of Alfred the Great in the battle of Ethandune, captures the right relationship of Christians to power and politics. The night before the battle, King Alfred goes to the camp of the pagan Danes disguised as a minstrel. The lords of the Danes sing of the power of their army and the supremacy of their gods over the “meek and monkish folk/ [who bow] to the White Lord’s broken yoke.” Alfred humbly sings in reply, “On you has fallen the shadow/ and not upon the Name/ ...you are more tired of victory/ than we are tired of shame.” This is to say that the victory of Christianity is not found in politics, but in proclamation. We proclaim Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Religious Right and folly to Progressives, but to those who are called, both Moral Majoritarians and Liberals, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. And in this is our hope.