The Limits of Winsome Politics
Protestants must be willing to wield power in pursuit of the common good.
The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the third National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida, on September 12, 2022.
The winsome approach to cultural engagement clouds the judgment of Christian conservatives. This is especially true for politics. Winsome politics handicaps us from important work we can and should pursue.
In our intense cultural battles, conservative Christians are often reminded that because we must love our enemies and show the meekness of Christ, we should, therefore, avoid “culture-warring” or “politicizing the faith.” Rather, we are told, we need to be “winsome” and find a way to transcend the divisions of our day. We are to lay down our rights, for the “world is watching.” Any pursuit of power will, supposedly, discredit the church’s public witness.
Any attempt to “win” is characterized by our opponents as a mere power-grab and selfish pursuit of privileges. Critics claim that such pursuits of political victory reveal that we have made politics superior to our faith, that we instrumentalize the faith for partisan ends. They argue that, in so doing, we may win the world, but we definitely lose our souls.
These are tired tropes, filled with sloppy logic and false dilemmas. And this is not how Protestants have always thought about or approached politics throughout our history, and even today it is not how our opponents approach politics.
Such accusations are a way to hamstring conservatives' efforts to serve the common good and love their neighbors through the pursuit of a just social order. I have shared my basic arguments about the errors of a winsome approach to cultural engagement in various places, so I will be brief in recapping those points. Winsomeness makes us think about politics through the lens of evangelism. Thus, our political judgments and actions are filtered through how likely they will make our neighbors to receive the gospel message.
This is foolish for a couple reasons: first, we actually can’t be certain how our political actions will “work” evangelistically—and even here we see a subtle pragmatism; it is just pragmatic in the wrong ways. But even if we were to think along these lines, it is quite plausible to imagine future generations looking back upon our era and wondering: “Who stood bravely against the abortion-industrial complex and the imposition of radical gender ideology onto children in the face of profound cultural pressure and widespread irrationality?” Who knows? For instance, I wonder where the de-transitioners will turn in the future, and whom they will blame for silence and complicity.
But, secondly, interpreting our political activities through an apologetic lens is also foolish because it is a category error. Politics is not about maximizing openness to the gospel message. Rather, politics is about ordering our common life together. It is the prudential pursuit of justice and a just social order.
And the winsome framework inhibits our ability to act in accord with proper political prudence. This tricks us into thinking that we need to highlight the flaws in all sides with equal airtime or to put all issues on the same level, thus resulting in false moral equivalencies on issues and strategies, producing a crippling inability to recognize and publicly admit when there is moral asymmetry between contemporary sides and among the issues themselves.
But we need to be clear: some causes are simply more important than others, some issues are black and white, and some strategies are clearly more in accord with justice. And if we are being fully honest, the winsome pressures are targeted particularly at conservative Christians. They are the ones who are supposedly “culture-warring,” “politicizing the faith;” whereas the political pursuits of our Christian brothers and sisters on the left are characterized as “social justice” and “prophetic witness.”
Only conservatives are compromised partisans; only they are “obsessed with power.” Any scent of a stronger association with explicitly conservative figures, movements, and agendas will get flagged as subordinating faith to politics. But this doesn’t seem to apply to certain Christian demographics and their near-total support for Democratic initiatives.
It is true: political power is dangerous; there are temptations that come with it. Lord Acton is right: it can corrupt. But abuse does not negate proper use, and there is a proper use for political power. And if it is still available to us, as it is, then to leave power to those opposed to the good is irresponsible abdication; it is a failure of love.
Since there is still the possibility of using political power for the good ends we seek, this means that culture-war quietism and political pietism are not only foolish, but immoral. But culture-war quietism and political pietism are what the winsome advocates push on Christian conservatives.
We are all practical anabaptists now, it would seem; or at least conservative Christians are expected to be. Don’t fall for this foolishness. Quietism is untenable in an era of aggressive leftism and woke totalitarianism.
You might not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you and your kids. The battles are on your doorstep; the tentacles of anti-Christian, anti-human leftism are encroaching into every sphere. To ignore the conflict is irresponsible because it effectively baptizes the corrupt status quo; it makes us complicit with the wicked and destructive principalities and powers of our day. Morally responsible persons must act to resist evil and to promote the good.
The other problem is that, even if Christians recognize these real battles and get involved in political sphere, if they operate according to the winsome frame, they will be tempted by the lie that they must only associate with pure persons and perfect methods—becoming what Emmanuel Mounier, a mid-century French philosopher and political activist on the left, called “paraplegics of virtue,” and what I would describe as embracing “political pietism.”
People who are hoodwinked by this logic, for instance, will argue that you can only vote for figures whose lifestyle you can fully endorse. They tend also to get deceived by a veneer of respectability covering over wicked policies. Look: mean tweets aren’t the only kind of meanness. Much of the evil in our society is masked by its banality, to invoke Hannah Arendt, and how we sanitize our atrocities. Think of abortions in sterile clinics rather than in back alleys, or the euphemisms of “women’s reproductive health” and “gender-affirming care.”
Political pietism, in the desire to keep one’s hands totally clean and associate only with political figures who have broad respectability or policies that ruffle few feathers, clouds judgment. This makes it difficult for these folks to act with proper political prudence, to take concrete political action to advance society just a bit in the direction of justice and good order.
This makes Christians hesitant to pursue and use political power. They feel that, to keep their hands clean, they need to stay out of politics. But this leads to a failure to actually love our neighbors.
My proposal is that we need to retrieve a version of Christian realism. Christian realism is grounded in Augustine’s political thought, starting from the recognition of the depth and scope of sin’s effects and, therefore, leading to limited expectations about what can be accomplished in the temporal order.
Key Protestant thinkers who further developed Christian realism in the 20th century would be Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey. Politics is about the pursuit of good social ordering, but it must be prudential. It is the art of the possible. Christian realists recognize the reality of sin and the inherent limitations on all social projects. They embrace the necessity of political compromises. They are willing to collaborate with flawed figures and employ imperfect methods in their pursuit of justice.
Christian realists know that power is inescapable, and that Christians shouldn’t absent themselves from its use. Winsome types will accuse us of something nefarious here. But, again, power is an inescapable fact of created existence, and it is not inherently evil. Governing authorities are ordained to use it responsibly to promote justice and peace. Thus, it is a means to express charity.
Politics is one way we love our neighbors. The idea that, because there are disagreements about theological, metaphysical, and moral matters, we must therefore leave others alone and restrict the pursuit of the true and the good to our private affairs is a failure of love. For instance: abortion, the disruption of the family, and the pushing of radical gender ideology on kids hurts them. Do you love your little neighbors? Politics must promote the good and protect the weak.
Yes, we are called to love our enemies. But winsome types struggle here, for their framework makes them extremely hesitant to even admit that we have enemies; but we do—Scripture says so. Here’s how Puritan Richard Baxter defines them: “he that hateth you, and seeketh or desireth your destruction or your hurt as such designedly.”
There are such entities that seek our ill in a systematic fashion. We must admit this, yes, and we must persist in loving our enemies. But does this entail letting our enemies get whatever they want in the social and political order? And might love of neighbor also include protecting them from enemies?
You cannot claim to love your neighbor while remaining indifferent to the things that destroy them. Within our love for our enemies, we need to restrict their ability to inflict evil on other neighbors. Letting socially destructive actions persist, letting enemies run roughshod over the polis and do harm to our neighbors, these constitute a failure of love.
I think here we have much to learn from a more recent Protestant figure: Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer was a leading Protestant voice in the old “New Right.” He was also highly critical of precursors of “winsomeness” in his day. He saw through the squishy appeals to “love” which inclined Christians to avoid confrontation.
He repeatedly proclaimed that truthful love must confront destructive wickedness, and he was committed to the use of political means. He was fervent about waking a sleepy church from its blindness to evils in the culture and its unwillingness to act. He helped rally Protestants to oppose abortion. Dobbs, in some ways, is his legacy.
Schaeffer also critiqued the pietistic Christians of his day who thought it categorically wrong to partner with non-Christians in a common cause. He promoted two terms—“allies” and “co-belligerents”—to explain types of partnership that are needed for politics in a broken world. An “ally” is a Christian with whom you agree on most things, but who inhabits a different tradition. A “co-belligerent” is a person who may not have the proper theological reasons for the positions he shares with Christians, but with whom we can partner for particular causes.
These Schaefferian concepts are clarifying as we move forward. And Schaeffer is also instructive for his not letting the putdown labels like “fundamentalist” or “New Right”—today we could add things like “Christian nationalism”—distract or hinder him from pressing on. Schaeffer said these types of terms are just used to refer to anyone who is ready to stand against the downward slide of the culture rather than going along with accommodation.
I submit that we are in need of a new, and doubtless very different, Francis Schaeffer—or many of them. We can retrieve Schaeffer’s spirit while also resisting some of his theological errors. One need not take on his commitment to premillennialism, for instance. We can also correct his political limitations. In particular, the New New Right will reject his libertarian leanings. I would also advise countering the crude populism that characterized the Old New Right that he helped inspire, and which continues to tempt the new right of our day.
Yes, we need to hear the concerns of the people and curb the influence of corrupt elites; but elites are unavoidable. We need to promote and platform serious leaders and not let our movement be hijacked by incompetent demagogues. But we need to hold onto Schaeffer’s spirit. He called Christians to wake up, to be bold, and to fight the evils in society. And his apologetic background did not make him hold back from this. Though the winsome types like him, they tend to ignore his late writings, his political activism, and his role in the emergence of the Moral Majority and Religious Right.
My view is that we need leaders today who share the spirit of Schaeffer—who perceive the issues of the day clearly, who rally Christians to act with regard to important causes and partner with allies and co-belligerents to get things accomplished. Such leaders will not worry so much that they might not be equally balanced between the contemporary parties, the various sides, et cetera. That is a weird and arbitrary imposition on our politics. Resist that lie.
But we need to ground our Schaefferianism in a more robust political theology, to avoid the insufficiently theological pragmatism of the Old New Right. This can be achieved through things like the important work of historical retrieval being done by groups like the Davenant Institute. But we must combine this with Schaefferian activism (and here I commend the work of American Reformer, which combines serious retrieval work with an eye toward contemporary cultural and institutional reform).
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We can, and should, try to win—not just for us, not just for our kids (though certainly for them), but also for our neighbors. If you love your neighbors, you should be willing to win—not at any cost, but embracing the cost of getting hit with negative labels from those who disagree. Losing beautifully is no virtue.
Certainly, we must be willing to lose, and we must not lose our souls in the pursuit of winning. But we must intend to win in the political realm as we seek to promote the good, protect the weak, and love our neighbors. We must ignore the accusations that cripple those who, appropriating the winsome approach, are too concerned about how Christians are viewed by others.
Focus on seeking justice, speak the truth, and stand firm. Don’t let an obsession with appearing winsome hinder us from a robust pursuit of winning some of our cultural battles for the common good.