On Russell Moore, Evangelicals, and Political Engagement

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on January 27, 2014.]

The sharp-sighted cultural commentator Russell Moore strikes again. In “Evangelical Retreat?”, published in the December edition of First Things, he responds to the concern that younger Evangelicals’ drift away from conservative political activism is underlain by closet liberalism, political disinterest, or perhaps some other infelicity.[1] His answer, which I think is correct, is that most young Evangelicals are not withdrawing; instead, they are engaging in ways which are more deeply theological and ecclesial.

Moore begins by noting certain concerns expressed by Christians outside of the Evangelical orbit: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square” (p. 46). The concern stems from several factors, and central among them is the breakdown of the religious right as a centering force for Evangelical cultural impact. In the wake of this breakdown, where and how will Evangelicals engage the culture? Will they try? This is a concern held not only by Catholic friends, but also by old veterans of the Moral Majority.

Moore notes that “engaging the culture” has changed in Evangelicalism because the present generation defines these terms differently from previous generations. No longer does “engage the culture” mean “get out the vote.” Rather, young Evangelicals regularly engage the culture at the congregational level primarily and the political level secondarily. As Moore points out, “They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability [the healthy union of one man and one woman], family accountability [including the sanctity of life], and personal responsibility [the practice of purity and community]” (p. 46). These actions are underlain by deep and profound theological and ecclesial concerns.

For this generation of Evangelicals, faithful and appropriate public action sprouts from the rich soil of orthodox theology. Moore observes:

As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture––especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt––it grows increasingly committed to the ‘strangest’ aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed ‘political’ isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. (p. 46)

In this case, “engaging the culture” will not look like Evangelical public action of the past. “As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right.” Evangelicals have begun to realize slowly “that they are no ‘moral majority’” in America (p. 47). So a more expansive theology, rooted especially in the Reformed Tradition, has replaced extensive campaigning.

Such theology also undergirds a more rigorous church polity and accountability. “Unlike the Bible-Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements . . . The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition . . . He is pro-life and pro-marriage” (p. 47). The challenge for many “young Evangelical” pastors and elders (a growing trend, too) is not whether to teach all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20), but whether public engagement fits within the mission of the local church. This is because he has most likely seen attempts at packaging “a transcendent message for decidedly worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levels of power” (p. 47).

With every theology and polity comes a worldview, or vice versa. As such, Moore observes, “To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people.” This refers to the biblical narrative but also to personal narratives. Personal testimonies demonstrate the reasons young Evangelicals worship, for example, in Reformed and liturgically oriented churches. These churches are decidedly different from, for example, the theologically vacuous and/or super casual churches in which they grew up. And as Moore notes, “What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement” (p. 48).

Moore also clarifies that the term “young Evangelical” is also confusing for many. The theological conservatives of whom he speaks are quite different from the “young Evangelicals” often sought out by the national media. “It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic” (p. 46). So “liberal” does not describe the “young Evangelicals” of whom Moore writes.

The current status and ethos of Evangelicalism, then, reflects a return to the evangel. “Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel.” But this does not mean that such “Gospel-centered Evangelicals” should retreat from public engagement (p. 48). The past mistakes caused by divorcing the Gospel from the kingdom cannot and must not be repeated. How then do we engage?

Moore argues for prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. He contends that the increasing secularization of America “ . . . will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts––and thank God. The engagement will be first congregational . . . ” (p. 49). Moore also encourages Evangelicals to look to Rome for help: “Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive . . . .” Likewise, though, Evangelicals can remind Catholics that natural law is as good as far as it goes, but that the universe “is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). So Evangelicals are still here, still engaging, albeit in new, more theological ways. “You can call that a ‘Rapture’ if you want, but don’t call it a ‘retreat’” (p. 50).

I agree with Moore’s assessment, and add only a few thoughts.

First, I hope that Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptist Evangelicals in particular, will take Moore’s lead, learning from him how to engage in public political conversation in ways that are not only theologically robust but also gracious and kind. If we fail to do so, the resulting combination of theological vacuity and dispositional snark will kill our gospel witness. If we succeed in doing so, the potent combination of truth and kindness in civil discourse portrays the gospel faithfully and strengthens our ability to be persuasive.

Second, I hope that Evangelicals will not neglect the fact that politics is a function (and a part) of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Religion’s influence expands outward across the entirety of culture (through the arts, the sciences, business, schools and universities, sports, home life, the public square, etc.), and it is this entire culture-religion complex which influences and underpins the political sector. For this reason, Christian “political” involvement must be “political” in the very broad sense (concern for the public well-being, including the spheres of culture listed above) as well as the narrow sense (concern with public policy, public administration, etc).

Third, such broad-based political engagement does not, of course, preclude activism, but such action must always come from something deeper and broader. We have a hope that paves the way for us to simultaneously move forward with boldness and lay down our swords to pursue interactions in a civil manner. We aren’t fighting to protect a Kingdom that is dependent on us for its very survival. We are on mission as part of a Kingdom that is already here.

[1] Russell Moore, “Evangelical Retreat?” First Things (Dec 2013: 45–50).


Briefly Noted: Why Scholars Tend to Be Awful Writers

Hmmff. In a recent blog post, “On Writing Well,” Stephen M. Walt (Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University) tackles the question of why academic writing is often quite poor.[1] Walt believes there are some real reasons why academic writing suffers, but this is not because either “no one encourages future academics to write well” or “because of poor editing at journals or university presses.” He offers a couple of surface level reasons followed by two deeper reasons academic writing is “frequently abysmal.”

One reason academic writing is difficult to read is “because the subjects being addressed are complicated and difficult and hard to explain with ordinary language.” Academic discussions on philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, or epistemology, for instance, can be very technical. Walt notes, however, that this is no excuse because writer should still set forth his prose as lucidly as possible.

Another reason is that many scholars fail to “appreciate the difference between the logic of discovery and the logic of presentation.” By this Walt means academic writers should not explain their argument in writing in the same order or manner in which they built their argument while researching. Good writing, Walt argues, requires the researcher-writer to craft an argument with clear, logical connections. The point of writing for an audience is to help the audience to understand the argument and be persuaded by it.

A third, and deeper, reason that academics set forth such turgid and torturous prose “is that many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity.” That is, scholars often use confusing prose and slather their essays with technical jargon in an effort to sound intelligent. Yet as Walt indicates, a convincing argument does not require stuffy, specialized prose even if the academic might be writing about a specialized topic.

A final, and similarly deep, reason is “fear of being wrong.” If one writes clearly, one’s work is easier to understand and therefore easier to critique. In order to avoid this some academics may write in an intentionally obscure manner. As Walt claims, “bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.” I second Walt’s point, and quote historian of philosophy Bryan Magee, who once put it this way: “The desire to communicate and be understood as widely as possible often comes directly into conflict with the desire to impress. This gives many people an incentive not to be clear, because what they have to say does not amount to much, and so the more clearly it is expressed the more obvious that fact will be.”

Whatever the reasons for bad writing, Walt proposes some solutions. He encourages his own students to read books about writing. He recommends the classic by Strunk and White, Elements of Style, particularly for its emphasis on concision. “Most of us tend to overwrite . . . and shorter is almost always better.” He also recommends Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments for sharpening one’s argumentation skills. Second, Walt encourages students to “emulate writers they admire.” Of course, this piece of advice requires students to read a good bit and therefore know that they actually do admire certain writers. Those who read (and read well) write better than those who do not.

Walt’s article is spot on, and I’ll offer two thoughts in response. (I’ve thought about this topic a bit, especially in light of the felt need to make my own writing style less awful.) First, Walt is correct that scholars often are poor writers. Of the “Great Book” authors, Herodotus, Hegel, and Kant come to mind. In fact Hegel’s prose is such an obfuscation that Caird described it in this manner: “the height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously been known only in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most bare-faced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a monument to…stupidity.”  I shudder as I remember early in my career trying to explain Hegel to my wretched flock of imprisoned undergrads, as we slogged hopelessly through his Phenomenology of Spirit.

Second, Walt’s four suggestions strike me as reasonable explanations for poor academic writing. Scholars often address difficult ideas, follow the logic of discovery rather than the logic of presentation, try to sound profound, and seek to shield themselves from criticism by writing in an intentionally obscure manner. In addition to Walt’s suggestions, several others present themselves immediately to my mind. Some scholars are never told that good writing takes hard work and many layers of revision. In addition, some scholars are never offered the services of a writing center or the tutelage of a skilled professor of rhetoric. Finally, some scholars are not fascinated by words and have little interest in crafting excellent sentences. In a word, they don’t really care about language.

Third, Walt recommends Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments. In addition to those books, I recommend two more. First, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Zinsser’s book is, ahem, very well written and serves as a fine introductory text to the task of writing. Second, Joseph Williams’ Style. Williams’ book is the field standard for aspiring academic writers.

Three cheers for Stephen M. Walt, who reminds us that our writing is often quite poor and that we should work hard to make it better.

[1] Stephen M. Walt, “On Writing Well,” http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/15/on_writing_well; Feb. 15, 2013.