Ideology Matters: Tim Keller & Politics

on April 4, 2019

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.

(Daniel Strand is a contributing editor to Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy.)

  1. Comment by Alan on April 4, 2019 at 11:38 pm

    Keller and his ilk are right that Jesus isn’t a Republican; however, Keller and similar weak evangelicals fail to see is that the Devil is a Democrat—daily delighting in the mass murder of babies and every attempt by Democrats to destroy religious liberty for Christians.

    I have sympathy for Keller since he ministers in NYC. I have great concern over the likes of Russell Moore who have already declared their surrender in the Culture War.

  2. Comment by Loren Golden on April 5, 2019 at 5:12 pm

    Satan is not so much “delighted in the mass murder of babies and every attempt by Democrats to destroy religious liberty for Christians,” as he is by seeing Christians sidelined from doing the work of the Kingdom of God here on Earth, and ineffectualized by sin—especially idolatry.  And I have noticed that conservative Republican Christians are no less susceptible than Democrats to making an idol out of politics and demonizing the opposing political party.

  3. Comment by Lee D. Cary on April 7, 2019 at 11:51 am

    GOP + DNC = UniParty

  4. Comment by Lee D. Cary on April 6, 2019 at 8:36 am

    “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.”

    I’m thinking that worm turned with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Bismarck’s Germany where the State became god (despite Hegel’s denial of that) and the progressives became god’s (small “G”) angels – in their own minds.

    As for the notion that there are deep, distinctive differences between Republicans and Democrats – I gave that up for Lent a couple of decades ago.

  5. Comment by David on April 6, 2019 at 9:23 am

    The origin of the current “religious liberty” issue was likely the passage of the Civil Rights Act. This was immediately challenged by those who felt that serving, hiring, or accommodating Blacks was contrary to their religion. This argument did not progress very far in the courts. Today, government is offering protections to other groups that have historically suffered discrimination and similar arguments are being advanced again. Is denying others basic human rights a proper exercise of religion or merely bigotry?

    The Pew Research people found in recent years that 38% of US UMC members are Democrats and 58% Republican. Despite the Good Samaritan parable and frequent references to helping the poor, 55% felt that government aid to the poor did more harm than good. Also, 58% felt that most abortions should be legal.

  6. Comment by Lee D. Cary on April 7, 2019 at 11:48 am

    As the advance of abortion rights moves to and then beyond birth, the question to the alleged 58% (not a fan of Pew) who feel abortions should be unqualified legal should anticipate your question, David: “Is denying others basic human rights [in this case, to life] a proper exercise of [secular] religion or merely bigotry?”

  7. Comment by David on April 7, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    Another statistic: nearly 75% of human conceptions abort prior to term from natural reasons. (Please look this up and do not take my word for this.) It would seem that God rejoices more in fetal death than Satan. All those fetal souls escape the clutches of Hell which is not the case for those born.

  8. Comment by Loren Golden on April 7, 2019 at 10:52 pm

    As I told you back in September, sir, miscarriages occur because we live in a fallen, broken, sinful world that is in rebellion against God.  God does not, as you accuse, “rejoice … in fetal death.”  Among the blessings He promised to the Israelites, if they were to “pay careful attention to (the angel He would send before them) and obey his voice, (and) not rebel against him,” (Ex. 23.21) was that, “None shall miscarry or be barren in your land.” (Ex. 23.26)  And again, “Children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward.” (Ps. 127.3)
    With respect to the eternal destiny of children who die before reaching a supposed “age of accountability”, the Scriptures are silent.  We are conceived in sin, and we are sinners from our mothers’ wombs (Ps. 51.9).  Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins (Is. 53.4-6, Rom. 5.8-9, I Cor. 15.3-4), but our unrighteousness is imputed to Him, and His righteousness is imputed to us, thus saving us from sin and its penalty, death, only when appropriated by faith in Him (Rom. 3.28, Gal. 2.16, Eph. 2.8-9) and only in Him (Jn. 14.6, Acts 4.12).  “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Rom. 10.14)  From the womb, the Lord loved Jacob and hated Esau, not because of anything they had done, but because of His purposes in election (Rom. 9.10-13).  And yet, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise.” (Mt. 21.16) So then, it might be that children who die in the womb or in infancy can never be saved from sin and death, because they cannot express faith in Christ; it might be that some who die in the womb or in infancy are saved, while others are not, because of God’s purposes in election; or it might be that all children who die in the womb or in infancy are saved from sin and death, because He regards their “praise” (in the context of Mt. 21.16) as an expression of faith.  Even if we suppose that the sixty million children who have died in the womb at the hands of the abortionist are saved from sin and death and will rise with Christ when He returns on the Last Day, this no more justifies taking the lives of children while they are in the womb, than does the possibility that all members of a particular church are saved by faith in Christ from sin and death justify the actions of a lone gunman who enters that church and murders them all.
    All human life is precious to God, because human beings are all made His image (Gen. 1.26-27, 5.1, Jas. 3.9), and it is for this reason that the death penalty was prescribed for murder under the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 9.5-6).  Under the Judicial Law (which is passed away under the New Covenant), the Lord prescribed penalties against men who strive against one another, when one of them strikes a pregnant woman, thus inducing her into labor: If “there is no harm (to the mother or the child), the one who hit her shall surely be fined. … But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life,” etc. (Ex. 21.22-25)  In the Psalms, David praised God for how he was “fearfully and wonderfully made,” how God “formed (his) inward parts (and) knitted (him) together in (his) mother’s womb” (Ps. 139.13-16).  In the second of the four Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah pointing to Christ, the Servant said, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. … The LORD…formed me from the womb to be his servant.” (Is. 49.1,5)  And the Lord told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1.5)
    Human fetuses, like those who have been born, are human beings made by God in His image.  To deliberately take the life of one (except in the rare case when the pregnancy threatens the very life of the mother) is tantamount to murder, tantamount to murdering God in effigy.  The abortionist’s work is anathema to God, and unless he repents of it and turns in faith to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and salvation from sin and death, he will be eternally condemned for it.

  9. Comment by Diane on April 16, 2019 at 1:31 am

    The religious right-to-lifers and their zeal for religious freedom are pro-baby, not pro-life. My aunt was 42 and suffering complications while pregnant with her 5th child. Her doctor informed her that another pregnancy would put her life at risk. He advised a tubal ligation (which is normally done after a C-section delivery). The Christian right-to-life doctors in her local hospital refused the doctor-advised procedure. Tubal ligations were against their sincerely held religious beliefs. Of course the hospital is subsidized with tax monies – but hey, religious liberty has greater value than a woman’s life. Guess God prefers five children with a dead mom.

  10. Comment by Loren Golden on April 17, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    Your argument, madam, proceeds like this:
    “Mr. Golden is a Christian right-to-lifer.  Doctors at a local hospital refused to give my 42-year-old aunt a tubal ligation, a potentially life-saving operation, after a difficult pregnancy because of their Christian right-to-life convictions.  Because of their refusal to perform this operation, I conclude that they must be only pro-baby and not pro-life, unconcerned with the life of the mother.  Therefore, by implication, Mr. Golden, like every other Christian pro-lifer, must be pro-baby only and not truly life, willing to deny a potentially life-saving operation to mothers, even after the birth of the baby.”
    Your logic, madam, is seriously flawed.  If it were valid, one might say, “Diane breathes air.  Pigs breathe air.  Therefore, Diane is a pig.”
    In point of fact, four years ago, after the birth of our second daughter following an at-risk pregnancy, my Christian, pro-life wife, then 41 years old, had a tubal ligation, and I supported her decision to do so, without violating our Christian pro-life convictions.

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