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Tim Keller And Christian Realism

Further thoughts from James Wood on the challenges to Christian political engagement in the post-Christian world
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James Wood has further thoughts on his controversial — unjustly controversial, in my view — First Things essay gently criticizing famed pastor Tim Keller. It was unjustly controversial because some of Keller’s friends took unnecessary umbrage at what struck me as a balanced piece written by a man who greatly respected, and still respects, Keller, but who thinks that Keller’s mode of pastoral engagement is insufficient to the times.

In this new piece in American Reformer, Wood goes further to explain his view. Excerpts:

The Kellerites propound to abhor division among Christians, and yet I have found them far more divisive than they admit. This is captured in the common trope: “Punch right, coddle left.” Those who are devoted to the third-wayism of Keller generally appear to assume the worst from one side of the political spectrum and give the benefit of the doubt to—or at least provide an apologetic for—the other. (Case in point: David French’s recent piece on my essay.) Kellerites make up a significant portion of the “never Trump” movement among Christians, and this movement is unforgiving of those who have chosen, for whatever reason, to vote in that way (full disclosure: I did not in either election). They are also quick to join in the chorus of denunciations of “Christian nationalism,” which is often a bogeyman label for any robust pursuit of conservative Christian influence in politics. Make what you wish of Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds schema, but I think it is a bit obvious that, for example, in recent years conservative Christian political engagement that would have been seen as somewhat innocuous in previous years is quickly and regularly denounced as authoritarian “Christian nationalism.” I think this is itself partial validation of the Renn thesis, however much we want to debate the specifics of the timeline. And Kellerites are often quick to join in the denunciations.

Wood says that the Kellerites and their “winsome, third way framework,” approach politics through the lens of evangelism. This causes they to worry too much about people thinking ill of Christians over how they (Christians) approach politics. Wood goes on:

I have two primary problems with this approach to political judgments. First of all, I question our capacity to augur such eventualities. How do we know what the future holds for the public’s perception of Christians and their attempts to love their neighbors through political action? We might be surprised what the judgments of history have in store. Not only do I question the certainty we can have in these assessments about how our political actions will impact our long-term gospel witness, but I also think this is a category error. Politics is not about minimizing offense in order to maximize openness to the evangelistic message. Politics is, rather, focused on the pursuit of justice and the just ordering of society.

Here is where the Kellerites, and also the Christian center-right, could really learn from the left (including the Christian left). Politics is the prudential pursuit of justice. The left is quite clear on this. Most Christians on the left are passionate about the pursuit of justice (as they perceive it), and they are not overwrought in concern about how their political actions will help or hinder the reception of the gospel message. They have, I would argue, a better understanding of the nature of politics.

It has been said that I advocated the position that “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and that my critiques of the methods of “winsomeness” as a cultural and political strategy for the present moment must mean that I jettison the Christian virtues and the biblical imperatives to show “gentleness and respect” and to love one’s neighbor. I absolutely want to dispel such concerns. If I thought Christians should just get nasty, then I would have been nasty in my piece, which I don’t believe I was. Christians are called at all times and in all places to love their neighbors, even their enemies; no shift in context repeals these imperatives. I just think that much debate is needed over what it means to love one’s neighbor through politics in the negative world.

Read it all. This is definitely a discussion worth having.

Like Wood, I hate the idea that some Christians have that to be hated is to prove your virtue. When I was an undergraduate at LSU, there were these twin brothers who were student evangelists. They were fundamentalists, and presented a gospel that was, frankly, repugnant. They seemed to draw energy from the hatred they provoked in others. Granted, college students aren’t likely to be open to the Gospel in the first place, but these young men, with their hard edges, made Christianity seem like a thing to be shunned. In those days, I was searching for a Christianity I could believe in, and had ruled out liberal Christianity as not worth taking seriously. I was, in the broadest sense, sympathetic to the boldness of those young men, even though I wasn’t really a committed Christian. But the pleasure they seemed to take in being hated, in the vindication they appeared to enjoy, was perverse.

That said, I think Wood is onto something about the religious Left and politics. They believe in doing what they think is correct, and let the chips fall where they may. One important difference, though, is that for many on the religious Left, religion is the Social Gospel — that is, the pursuit of this-world politics. I heard a really good podcast interview the other day between Father Daniel French and Calvin Robinson, both Anglicans (the podcast is “Irreverend”). Robinson is an Anglican seminarian who is a political and theological conservative. Robinson is really smart and interesting, and has a big media platform already. The liberals who run the Church of England have put a stop to his ordination. If you listen to the podcast, you’ll see that Calvin believes — no doubt with absolute correctness — that the cosmopolitan liberals in charge of the Anglican Church don’t want to reach people unlike themselves. If true — and I believe it is — then it is a betrayal of the Gospel. They have over-politicized evangelism.

But then, politics is not religion. Let’s use the extreme example of Syria to illustrate the logic. The only thing standing between the slaughter of Syrian Christians by Islamist head-choppers is the authoritarian government of Bashar Assad. Do you think that Syrian Christians love Bashar Assad, and approve of his ruthless methods? Maybe some do, but I’m guess most do not. But they are very, very happy to have him there, because without him, they would be dead.

Should Syrian Christians worry about how supporting the Assad regime compromises their witness? What would it even mean to be a “winsome” Kellerite Christian in Syria? The question is a silly one, obviously, because the US is not Syria. But you see the point. Sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — pious angelism is an obstacle to justice. If Roe vs. Wade is overruled by the Supreme Court, it will have been because Donald J. Trump, a man I found too immoral to vote for in 2016, was president. That right there is a huge challenge to my own angelism, and I have rethought it. I am rethinking it.

I’ll give Wood the last word:

The view of politics I am promoting here does not mean that the ends justify the means. No; but we need to be clearer about the proper ends of political action. Again, our political stances should not be developed, articulated, and pursued primarily in view of minimizing offense so that the gospel can be heard. The ends are justice and the temporal common good (and we can continue to discuss how the temporal common good relates to the supernatural common good; but that would bring us far afield for this essay). As we become more clear about our understanding of the ends, we then must think clearly about the means available to us. We need a good dose of Christian realism, I propose.

I agree. Like I said, I’m having to rethink my own approach. I need to think about what “Christian realism” means for us right here, right now. For example, a very senior legal scholar whose field is religious liberty told me a couple of years ago that the federal judiciary is likely to be the last line of defense of conservative religious believers in post-Christian America. What does that mean for my vote, and yours, in the future?



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