Tim Keller’s New York Times autumn op-ed was a timely reminder that Christians should not be sucked into the black hole of partisan politics currently consuming our society. It reflects Keller’s own very moderate temperament, which I personally share and admire. But Christians need to hear in this age of hyper-polarization that the Christian faith cannot, must not, be completely aligned with any political party. Political idolatry is ever-present and we must vigilantly fight against it.
Keller is a famous pastor in New York City (the words “famous pastor” and “New York City” rarely go together) who has found a way to navigate the cultural and urban challenges that often keep urbanites away from evangelical churches. His sophisticated and compelling Gospel presentation has built a very large and orthodox Presbyterian church in Manhattan, which is no small feat.
Keller counsels fellow Christians that “while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.”
Perhaps his point seems obvious, but it is a good reminder that evangelicals in particular must take seriously. Keller wisely points to the dangers of eliding the distinctions between faith and politics. Largely from a pastoral perspective, Keller is concerned first and foremost with evangelizing and church ministry. His reputation for wisdom and circumspection is well-earned and the piece communicates this practical advice well. He seems mostly focused on speaking to evangelicals since most of his positive examples of political engagement are issues championed more by Democrats, such as racism and poverty.
Keller ignores a wider reality. Political parties today are not merely defined by the issues they advocate or the more practical debates about how much government should or should not be involved in our lives, but the ideologies that define them and guide them. Most of our political differences do not revolve around the specifics of policy positions but the deep and growing divisions around first principles. The dilemma we face is a deep and growing divide over visions about the world, sexuality, economics, and the meaning of life itself. Keller’s piece stays away from this more controversial point to make a safer point about political affiliation.
But political visions are not neutral. They communicate fundamental values and commitments, and Christians should be taught to evaluate these visions. Keller is a very smart person who specializes in pre-suppositional apologetics, so no doubt he has thought of this point. When it comes to politics he stays above the fray, which may be an advisable position given his context in Manhattan.
Rod Dreher, senior editor at the American Conservative and author of the popular The Benedict Option, is dispositionally the opposite of the moderate Keller. He is effusive and personal and in many ways more incisive and insightful when it comes to politics and our deep cultural divides. Dreher is a cultural commentator and Keller is a pastor, so many the comparison is not fair. Still, there is an honesty and bluntness that the even-keeled Presbyterian, when it comes to these hot-button issues, shies away from.
What Dreher does so effectively, if at times a bit histrionically, is explain the underlying logic of various political and cultural events. Whether it be transgender or other issues, Dreher is clear-eyed about what he is up against.
It’s important to point out that ideology is not everything. Ideology informs behavior but often we hold many ideas that don’t necessarily sit well together, or at least are in some tension.
The downside of Keller’s more moderate position is that moderation itself has its limits. Thomas Jefferson dictum: “everything in moderation, including moderation” remains true today. MLK was not a moderate. Winston Churchill was sounding the alarm on Hitler long before any other British politicians were, and for that he was often ridiculed. What these great visionary leaders embody is a willingness to make judgments, often very unpopular ones.
What many evangelicals object to, aside from particular issues, is the way liberal and progressive political activists hold to an ideology that is little different from a religion. While I have reservations about statements such as “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” I do think they are at least trying to address the ideological undercurrents through a theological lens. However we may disagree about those conclusions or their interpretation, that is the discussion we need to have more forthrightly.
The reason religious liberty has become a hot button is because progressives, even if they have religious sympathies, see state power as the primary way to enact their vision of society. The idea that the state is limited and does not have authority to encroach on certain areas of life, such as one’s views about marriage or other religious convictions, is controversial because it seems an affront to their basic views of justice. They are told they must respect views that they find repugnant.
More importantly, Supreme Court cases about cake bakers and nuns who refuse to provide contraception get to the heart of deep fundamental theological convictions about the limits and scope of politics. Can government coerce people to violate their deeply held religious convictions? The first amendment was a triumph because it sought to maximize the scope for religious practice and protect religious conscience from state coercion. When that principle is attacked, as it has been recently, we should be extremely nervous.
As a basic point about party affiliation, Keller’s op-ed is a good reminder, but that’s only part of the story. We must be attentive to both the issues being discussed but also the ideological projects at work.