Why Romney Wins Primaries But No Victories

by Matthew Raley With Mitt Romney's wins in Michigan and Arizona last night, the race for the GOP nomination may become more stable. But the diminishing political options for Romney's competitors will not change the attitudes of GOP voters. The candidates reflect America's deepening division without giving the leadership Americans need to reunite. Republicans will continue to grumble.

Great political leaders make coalitions that give different interests a place to combine. Ronald Reagan, for instance, is best understood as a coalition builder. He knew that strong unity begins with a dense message, one that integrates many points of view. The secret to his political power was the diversity of people and philosophies behind him. (The left has never understood this, preferring to call Reagan an illusionist.)

The two most significant GOP candidates at this writing, Romney and Rick Santorum, are not going to be great leaders.

Here are some of the cultural changes the GOP candidates reflect.

1. Economic divide.

Santorum and Romney reflect this divide perfectly. Santorum comes from a blue collar district in Pennsylvania, the real rust-belt deal. He articulates the priorities of blue collar people who have seen their way of life fall to pieces. Romney lives in the managerial world of law and finance, and articulates the problem-solving ethos of that world.

Both men talk about freedom. But the blocks of culture they represent need to hear how their specific interests in freedom combine. The question of the hour is, "Where do interests converge?"

2. Educational divide

One chunk of the nation has a college or graduate education. That block has mobility, options, and wealth. The people in it have seen their choices narrow in the last four years because of the bad economy. But they still have options to improve their lives.

The other chunk of the nation has a high school education and, maybe, work experience. This block has little social mobility, few to no options for improving their lives, and little wealth. Men in this group, particularly, do not see how they can make their way back into the economy with anything like the vitality their fathers enjoyed.

This educational divide has hardened into worldview divide. Many in the educated block view their education as a spiritual mission, a means to moral and personal transformation. Most in the uneducated block see the educational establishment as a fraud. Harvard, Madoff -- what's the difference? And this suspicion is all too well-founded (here and here). It is not just anti-intellectual bigotry, as the educated classes love to suppose.

Santorum spoke directly to this split, taking one side of it in unambiguous terms. Obama is a "snob" for talking up college. Santorum's approach is not going to benefit him. It will be seen as unpresidential even by those who might eat it up on a talk show. But, even though candidates do not gain the nomination with boorish jabs, there remains a deep and justified hostility to the socially approved waste of resources by colleges and universities.

Romney, for his part, is a numbers guy, planted complacently on the other side of the divide.

So the question remains: how can the interests of both combine?

3. Family divide.

Charles Murray has delivered another of his virtuoso performances in social science, speaking of numbers. In Coming Apart, he shows the predominance of traditional marriage among those who are educated with a secular worldview, and the predominance of broken families among the less educated. Michael Barone analyzes the Romney-Santorum battle in light of Murray's findings.

Santorum, in his populist flush, seems unaware that the working class no longer lives a traditional family life. Indeed, the most significant reason why the working class has fewer economic and social options is not the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, but the loss of resilience that comes from a committed marriage.

Romney has nothing to say about this. He has the gut of a financier, which, valuable though it may be, seems to leave him incapable of speaking effectively to these problems.

What will the new coalition for the traditional family look like? Actually, it won't be political at all.

The reason the GOP hasn't settled on a front runner is that no candidate is building a coalition.

If Santorum had wanted to be credible, he would have come out of the gate with a coalition message, and he would have made his strategy and tactics in the primaries cohere with that message. As it is, he is merely rallying a constituency, and is blowing an opportunity that only comes once in a generation.

If Romney had wanted to be credible, he would have launched his campaign with a deeper, more cogent assessment of America's problems. But he does not appear to have the imagination to do more than deliver slogans. And by now, he has morphed too many times to sharpen his message.

Gingrich and Paul? Paul does not want a coalition. That was never his game. As for Gingrich, I would never count him out. But the coalition he envisions seems to change every time his mic goes live.

In other words, every GOP candidate wants to be Reagan without doing what Reagan did.

Gingrich and Social Conservatives

by Matthew Raley The victory of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina puts evangelicals and other social conservatives at a crossroads. Gingrich by any measure is morally equal to Bill Clinton, upon whom social conservatives released so much rhetorical lava in the 1990s. Yet one of the GOP's most traditionalist states has just told its delegates to vote for Gingrich at the convention.

The message is hard to misunderstand. South Carolina Republicans could have voted for three family men whose private morality is unquestioned. Ron Paul is one. Mitt Romney lives the way social conservatives say public men should live. His pro-life credentials are weak, but no weaker than George H. W. Bush's were. Rick Santorum also walks the family walk, and has the additional advantage of being publicly acclaimed by evangelical leaders at a summit in Texas.

No deal. It's Gingrich.

According to exit polls, Gingrich won almost every voter category, including independents. Women favored him 38% to Romney's 29%. Married people favored him over Romney 41% to 28%. Gingrich won both "somewhat" and "very" conservative voters by large margins. He swept evangelicals with 44%. Romney and Santorum each took 21% of evangelicals, meaning that even their combined vote wouldn't have beaten Gingrich.

The conclusion is inescapable: the people who wanted President Clinton removed, and who only recently heaved Mark Sanford (R) from the governor's office for his notorious adultery, just said that adultery doesn't matter in Gingrich's case.

The hypocrisy cannot be healed by excuses such as:

1. Christianity is really about forgiveness.

Rick Perry used the line when he endorsed Gingrich. And, to be sure, there's something in this forgiveness thing. But some evangelicals in the 90s, notably Tony Campolo, tried to alert evangelicals to the gospel's potential for President Clinton, and got the smack-down. Is forgiveness only for Republicans?

2. There is a vast left-wing conspiracy that uses the politics of personal destruction.

Yes, the ABC interview with Gingrich's ex-wife was transparently an attempt to sway the South Carolina primary. It was too exquisitely timed. But, when the words were "vast right-wing conspiracy," social conservatives scoffed.

3. The accusations against President Clinton were never about sex, but about his perjury.

Yes, the impeachment process was about perjury. But what really bothered social conservatives at the time was Bill Clinton's cultural significance. He was not merely a 1960s liberal, but a 1960s libertine. He represented the triumph of moral relativism and the mainstreaming of sexual immorality. Or so they said. Why not Gingrich? Why doesn't his behavior equally symbolize the decline of sexual ethics? Symbolize it more?

Bottom line: social conservatives in Bob Jones country voted for Gingrich because they think he can win. And that's always the bottom line in politics, left and right.

I do not believe Clinton's or Gingrich's transgressions tell us much about American culture, in the 1990s or today. In fact, public presidential immorality has been worse in the past. Grover Cleveland assumed responsibility for an illegitimate child in 1884, going on to serve two terms as president. The public shame of such politicians is just the continuing story of power. For the story of American culture, we have to examine what ordinary people do.

I'm one of many pastors have been arguing for years that the evangelical political machine is wrong both about the gospel and politics. Those who believe we can take back our culture through political means, and who have been selling us politicians for the last 25 years, have yet to show one cultural transformation. They keep stumbling over their spin. They have failed to understand that the political process rarely shapes culture, but is culture's slave.

The only hope for transforming our nation is for evangelicals to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to people's hearts. When we get our message clear again, we will see God change lives, and our culture will change as a result. Pastors are doing this with leaders of both parties, choosing to see them as men and women who need counsel, healing, and repentance rather than as enemies who should be crushed. Leaders like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. If followers of Christ never said another word about pro-family policies and spoke only of the restoring power of Christ through his death and resurrection, we would be amazed at the results.

The power-game will always be with us. It's past time for us to choose Christ instead.

Santorum's Rise in Iowa

by Matthew Raley When I watched Rick Santorum's debate performances over the last several months, I was struck by two things. First, his answers were unusually direct and fluent. He didn't waste time trying to be charming (like Rick Perry) or delivering scripted zingers (like Michelle Bachmann). He seemed to have no use for evasion. His answers showed that he had become effective taking questions from small groups. Second, he routinely tied his answers to the concerns of Iowans, mentioning their towns and counties with the ease of a man who'd spent a year touring them.

It reminded me of John Kerry's strategy in 2004, disappearing from the national radar as an apparently hopeless candidate wandering ridiculously local precincts. Then he won the caucuses, snatched New Hampshire, and secured the nomination. It helped that Kerry had a post-Iowa plan, and as a northeasterner could make a serious instant play for the Granite State.

Last night, Santorum came within 8 votes of winning Iowa.

Unlike Mike Huckabee, who ran a classic insurgent, seat-of-the-pants campaign after his Iowa win in 2008, Santorum appears to have planned for the campaign after Iowa, and planned realistically. In addition, Santorum is deeper than Huckabee was in expertise and experience. Further, as a Pennsylvanian, he is a near neighbor to New Hampshire -- hardly comparable to a southerner running up there. Santorum also has advantages among the candidates that Huckabee lacked. Bachmann is out of the race this morning. Perry went back in Texas. With Newt Gingrich going negative against Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, just as Romney pounded Gingrich in Iowa, I don't see any reason why Santorum isn't well-placed to win the first primary.

His main problem is that he has not passed the plausibility tests of what Mark Halperin called the Gang of 500, the media and political heavyweights candidates court before anyone votes. Santorum has never been regarded as serious by this group. National Review, only a couple months ago, referred to him as a "no-hoper."

But the group of Americans who will determine which way the 2012 elections go, blue collar voters, don't give a rip what the Gang of 500 thinks. In the dynamic of identity politics, in which people vote for the candidate who most represents their status and way of life, Santorum has the opportunity to walk away with blue collar voters. He lives where they live, and he has a family story that is compelling to them. When he says the word work, his inflection is their inflection.

Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Bachmann have all demonstrated the power of this identification, but lacked the political seriousness and intellect to give it shape. They are creatures of cable: glib, not substantive. On the campaign trial, they seemed to believe that soundbites really would win out.

Santorum may stumble. He may have a secret like Herman Cain. More likely, he may not be able to create the structure of a national campaign quickly enough. If so, he will lose this opportunity. But I'll go out on a limb: I think he'll lock up the blue collar vote.

Predictions aside, the lesson I take from Iowa is that media dominance over society is an illusion.

Presidential campaigns prove every four years that it is street appeal and a solid game on the ground that puts a candidate over the top on election day. These two things have to be real. They cannot be produced through media, and the history of presidential campaigns is littered with candidates who've tried. To be sure, the two can be expressed through media, and must be. The campaign that best expresses the candidate's street appeal through media and integrates its ground game with media will win. But no medium replaces shoe leather.

That is the ongoing relevance of Iowa and New Hampshire to American politics.

And this lesson is a healthy correction to the superficiality that congests our nation's life. No business will survive without addition and subtraction actually revealing a profit. A volunteer organization cannot serve the community with a polished image. No church will build people up with Christianish entertainment, demographically driven activities, and happy slogans.

Down with marketing. Up with work.

The Path To Genuine National Renewal

by Matthew Raley With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.

If there were a prospect that the nation's course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It's incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan's signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.

President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor -- the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush's, but not different in principle.

A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama's options. It might pass Paul Ryan's budgets as written, and they still won't become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.

So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.

Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?

Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there's no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece's all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?

We can rage against Wall Street's greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.

Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It's time to dig up the planted axiom.

None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great -- great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.

If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:

Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.

And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: "You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God." (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)

If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ's grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.

Conservatives' Rising Expectations

by Matthew Raley The generic Congressional polls now predict a Republican thumper in November, recalling the sweep of 1994. When the Republicans took the House and Senate that year, the spread in similar polls had reached 5 points. Today, the RCP average shows a Republican lead of 6.7 points. Last week, the Gallup poll found a record 10-point spread.

Even granting the prudent equivocations -- that two months is a long time in an election cycle, that Republicans have not articulated a clear policy agenda, that the public still does not like them -- it is hard to see how Democrats avoid disaster. Conservative ambitions for radical action are about to balloon.

So I blew the dust off the 40th anniversary issue of National Review, published December 11, 1995, a year into the Republican Congress. Has reality matched conservatives' raised expectations from that time?

What I first noticed thumbing its pages was who had died since publication. William F. Buckley, still going strong then, and Ronald Reagan, who had announced his Alzheimer's disease only a year before. Jack Kemp had not yet been nominated for vice president.

Even long careers are strangely short.

Then I noticed how many debates are still raging: health care, global warming, the federal debt. Next, how drastically media have changed: in one article, Neal Freeman wrote that "Young Media" were talk radio, cable television, and newsletters.

Then, I recalled the subject that had seized conservatives' ambition in the flush of victory: reversing cultural decline.

David Gelernter wrote an essay called, "After Liberalism," the very title of which captures what conservatives dreamed, namely that they were on the verge of delivering a fatal blow to the opposing ideology. But Gelernter was not triumphalist. He ended his essay describing the deteriorating lives of middle class children. Then he observed:

When it comes to family values, Republicans talk a good game and check their children at the door. Values Republicans are eager to show that they are Female-Friendly. Growth Republicans understand clearly that economic disaster would be the consequence were American mothers to walk off the job. We'd all be poorer. Standards of living would drop to what they were in (perhaps) 1965. And so the idea that rearing children and not generating wealth might conceivably be society's first responsibility is orphaned, without a friend anywhere on the mainstream political spectrum.

Spot-on.

In another essay, Digby Anderson wrote of recovering the moral strength of Victorian society, a goal that became a preoccupation of many conservatives in the 1990s.  Anderson wrote,

In the mid nineteenth century [the Victorians] inherited a society with significant crime, illegitimacy, and low moral standards. By the end of the century they had substantially reduced crime, halved illegitimacy, and produced a complex, powerful, and sophisticated moral order. . . . Virtue and been lost. Virtue was recovered.

This narrative, backed up by historical and social scientific research from thinkers like Gertrude Himmelfarb and Charles Murray, and amplified among evangelicals by Chuck Colson and others, drove such policies as welfare reform, enacted with Bill Clinton's triangulating signature in 1996. Grabbing congressional majorities fueled a sense that conservatives could restore virtue to the culture by handing power back to ordinary Americans.

Problematic group, those ordinary Americans.

On the one hand, Richard Brookhiser wrote about promising trends among baby-boomers. There was a "revival of religious enthusiasm, amounting to a Fourth Awakening." There was an increase in those who "teach their children  around the kitchen table out of McGuffey's Readers." There was also a new interest in virtue itself, signaled by the success of Bill Bennett's The Book of Virtues. Those were indeed striking trends then.

But by the end of the 1990s, pornography and gambling had been culturally mainstreamed, household debt was spiraling, rates of divorce had not significantly changed, and cohabitation outside of marriage was increasing. In 2006, Republican domination of Congress came to an end amid scandals that featured every kind of financial corruption and sexual perversion.

A thumping Republican victory this November will be a significant event. But politicians and their hangers-on are always too quick to believe their press. Political change does not so much alter as reflect culture. The 1994 victory reflected American culture quite accurately, in all its grim corruption.

I turn a page in this old National Review issue and see an ad for Newt Gingrich's book, To Renew America. A fellow pastor loaned me a copy of it in 1997, telling me how much he admired Gingrich's stands, how crucial it was for the moral stamina of the nation to follow his prescriptions. A few weeks later, that pastor was in prison for molesting a minor.

Political power is not enough to renew America. Not even close.

The Political Role of Churches

by Matthew Raley The religious right asserts that America must be turned back to biblical values through legislation and judicial decisions. It assumes that correcting the laws will free a godly citizenry to restore American culture. Thus, today's social conservatism tends to be defined by what politicians will do.

Over a series of posts (starting here), I have rejected all three points.

Start with the assumption that evangelical Americans are godly, and therefore have the capacity to restore the nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evangelicals have shown little capacity even to restore their own churches, much less America.

If the assumption about a godly citizenry is mistaken, then the religious right's whole strategy is flawed. Without citizens who actually follow Christ, the legislative and judicial changes sought by the religious right will not restore our culture.

Even further, what the religious right proposes is not conservatism.

Anglo-American traditionalism of the Burkean variety does not put up with abstract principles. Genuine social conservatism says, "The state must deal with the culture it actually governs, not the theoretical culture it desires." The ethics and ways of the people rule the nation. This is not only the view of conservatives from Burke to Eliot, it is the basic view of the state taught in the Bible.

Conservatives know that healthy cultures change through strong mediatorial institutions, especially families and churches. Conservatives call them mediatorial because they stand between the individual and the government. These institutions pass on and enforce ethics. They nurture relationships that mold people through influence rather than punishment. If the state tries to change a culture by force -- and the law is force -- it will only twist people's ways.

In this analysis, the ruinous effect of political liberalism has not been to impose sinful patterns on a citizenry that would never otherwise choose them, but to weaken the mediatorial institutions that, for evangelicals, pass on the Gospel. The pastor has been replaced by the therapist, the church by the welfare agency, and the family by the social worker.

I agree that our nation needs to return to the biblical worldview. But it will never do so until those who profess the name of Christ actually follow him, and follow him institutionally. If evangelicals want a political impact, they need to do what the founders of America envisioned: they need to govern themselves.

Therefore, I see two political goals for churches in American society.

1. Churches and families must campaign and vote for the preservation of their liberties. Aggressively, they should make the case that freedom of association is foundational to a healthy, peaceful society. No faction should be allowed to impose its principles on the consciences of others. The approach has complications. But if we base our arguments about specific issues on this principle, we will find broader agreement, and we will preserve our local spheres of influence.

2. Churches must not only grow, they must govern themselves with the Gospel. They should stop trying to be malls, and return to their natural mandate, both from the New Testament and from Western culture at large, of being strong mediatorial institutions. If churches return to the calling Christ has given them, a cultural and political impact will follow.

The religious right's populist tactic of blaming elites for our cultural problems is tempting, but it is not conservatism. Conservative Christians must come to grips with the fact that the departure of the nation from a biblical worldview is not a failure of the federal government, but of self-government. If we govern ourselves once again, there can be a return of our culture to Christianity.

The Colossians 1.28 Plan, Concluded

by Matthew Raley The tired line on ministry is that it's not our job to produce results, only to be faithful. Unfortunately, I hear this most often from people who agree with me theologically.

I am convinced that God alone produces spiritual life. I hold and teach the reformed understanding of salvation, that Jesus Christ has purchased a finished redemption for his people, and that he sovereignly works out this redemption in their lives. This includes opening our eyes to his truth and enabling us to believe him.

Life is God's alone to give.

But some pastors in this doctrinal camp, when discussing the practice of ministry, misapply these truths. They're too quick to explain a lack of spiritual growth in their churches as God's problem, not theirs. Many failings of craft can be responsible for people not growing in Christ. If a pastor doesn't make truths clear but masks them in technical language, people will not grow. If he purposefully opens the Bible to both mind and emotions, life will blossom in most.

The sovereignty of God should not be twisted into an excuse for inattentive, self-satisfied workmanship.

God has given congregations tasks to do. He declares that he will give spiritual life in Christ through specific methods, like preaching. Devoting ourselves to these tasks with fervency is at the heart of what I am calling the Colossians 1.28 plan. I am so crass as to call it a business plan: we can direct resources into this toil and expect a return on the investment, namely, maturity in Christ. We should be bold in this expectation because God has declared that he is in this business.

So, I have laid out five outcomes for which we should toil (here and here), sketching the nature of the resources that need to be directed to toward them. I believe that, without these outcomes, church life is mere words.

Here is the final outcome I see as essential:

6. Public integrity in spiritual governance.

Spiritual governance consists of the actions and systems by which elders help restore people from specific sins. Jesus teaches his process for restoring people in Matthew 18.10-35. The purpose of confronting a sinful action or pattern is to arrive at forgiveness and repentance. The purpose is not to punish (which is why I increasingly feel the common label "church discipline" is inaccurate).

When spiritual governance is effective, the average church member understands his or her responsibility to keep relationships clear of breaches, lies, and grudges, doing everything possible to give and seek forgiveness. In this atmosphere, there is an informal ethic that limits gossip. Individuals seek counsel how to resolve their conflicts respectfully. Personal conflicts, in the vast majority of cases, do not break out into public feuds.

I am not talking about theory. In ten years here at Orland, this is the ethic the congregation has demonstrated over and over. Our life together has never been without conflict. But we have seen continuous restoration.

This is long-term, constant, exhausting work. In Orland, it has the been fruit of many senior pastors striving against bitterness over many decades. I teach on this issue regularly, and the elders are constantly advising people about conflict resolution. The counseling and discipleship systems I described last week are essential.

Because churches have committed so many resources to entertainment, they have no time or energy left for this labor. They simply are not governing in the way Christ called them. Pastors are continually "putting out fires" rather than teaching people how to keep from starting them.

The outcome of governance has to be public integrity. Part of this integrity is the leadership's record of discretion and achievement in helping people be restored to each other in Christ. Another part of it is simple justice. Known sins that go unaddressed, hasty judgments, inaccurate public statements, vendettas, and ignorance of Scriptural application will harm the leadership's public integrity. The aim of governance to build a confidence, even amid many imperfections and mistakes, that leaders are going to initiate restoration in appropriate ways, at the right levels.

The word for this is trust. Without it, the whole spiritual life of the church degrades into mere words.

Here is the heart of what I have been saying over the past few months.

Local churches have been fooling themselves that they can accomplish God's business by toiling in politics and entertainment. As a result of this confused planning, churches are closing. Let churches toil at God's business again, and we will see amazing results.

A final thought about how this relates to genuine conservatism next week.

The Colossians 1.28 Plan, Continued

by Matthew Raley I believe churches need to have a business plan to reverse their decline, a plan that directs resources toward the New Testament goal of moving people to maturity in Christ (Colossians 1.28-29).

The reason local churches are in decline is that they have confused goals, and incoherent business plans. They direct resources toward activities and programs that contribute nothing to a person's spiritual maturity -- even detract from it. Consequently they get zero New Testament return on investment.

Last post, I gave three outcomes that a church business plan needs to produce. I think we either "toil" to produce this kind of maturity in Christ, "struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works" within us, or else admit that our church life is nothing but words.

1. Submission of heart-and-mind to the Bible. Evangelical churches say they want this outcome, but mere pep talks will never produce it. Significant resources have to go to preaching. A pastor has to labor in scholarship, and in honing his rhetorical craft.

2. An individual, daily practice of worship. Again, churches say they want this. But ask leaders what operations they have put in place to produce it and the response tends to be vague.

3. Obedience to the fifth commandment. Many evangelicals don't want to honor older people. There is little emphasis on it, much less any clear operational thinking on how to teach it, much less any resources devoted to it. Indeed, I've never heard an evangelical leader say that honoring parents is a decisive part of nurturing healthy congregational life.

I also promised additional outcomes. And here are two:

4. Daily faith in God financially.

The people I know who are gaining Christ-like maturity are trusting God economically. I have found that people who want godliness without growing in their practice of work, giving, and spending restraint are deluded.

People must be apprenticed in trusting God with money, and this can't be done solely in a classroom. Trusting God economically is learned through counseling, or through a trusted friendship, or through that great but neglected teacher, an employer. I am convinced that churches need to become junctions of faith, work, and entrepreneurship.

Much of our discipleship in Orland actually happens on the job. Our leaders invest their personal time and finances heavily in job creation. Many of our people, some profoundly weak in crucial skills, have been trained by our employers spiritually. These employers do not put up with excuses. The process takes hard, daily, purposeful, prayerful work. It can only be done by employers who believe Christ transforms people.

A promising young guy named Matt moved to Orland without a job several years ago to attend our church with his new wife. We were just starting WestHaven Assisted Living, and our hard-nosed-employer-in-chief, Wade, offered Matt a job. After a few short years, Matt is a skilled manager, churchman, husband, and father. He is a self-controlled director his time and money, and a multi-generational asset to this community. He will tell you that God's power working through his boss is a major factor in his growth.

Building a community to provide this kind of organic discipleship costs money, hundreds of hours of paid and volunteer time, expertise, and requires a willingness to say no to many decent but ultimately frivolous activities that dissipate energy. It is also slow going. But ...

Return on investment: By apprenticing people economically, the church gains disciplined volunteer workers and generous financial givers. Capacity for ministry expands here.

5. Gospel-focused spirituality within the trials of divorce.

Divorce is today what slavery was in the 1st century: a common form of servitude for Christians. But if a church uses its resources wisely, it can toil in the power of the Spirit and succeed at producing godly people even amid the emotional, sexual, and financial losses of divorce.

To accomplish this, a church must reject the lie that divorced people are hopeless, and believe that Christ will use them to build his Kingdom. A church must deploy staff both to offer intensive crisis counseling and to train people in the congregation to equip each other biblically. Orland began putting resources into this kind of equipping system years ago, even putting one of our women through a M.A. program in biblical counseling. The work is slow and costly, but ...

Return on investment: we have a growing team of lay disciple-makers, a documented crisis intervention system that has successfully interacted with welfare and court systems, and a lengthening roster of saved marriages. And we are a small church.

More outcomes next week.

What T. S. Eliot Would Say to the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley Dr. Gil Stieglitz, western district superintendent of the Evangelical Free Churches of America, says, “The older pastor tends to think about electing a Christian president and being only one or two Supreme Court justices away from ‘winning.’ The most common point of view among younger pastors is that the culture war is over and we lost."

Culture wars have been lost before. I have been comparing the American evangelical situation to T. S. Eliot's description of pre-war Britain in The Idea of a Christian Society. How did illusions of "winning" politically fare then?

Eliot wrote (pp 6-7), “I am not at this moment concerned with the means for bringing a Christian Society into existence; I am not even primarily concerned with making it appear desirable; but I am very much concerned with making clear its difference from the kind of society in which we are now living.” To call Britain a “Christian society” was “an abuse of terms.” Eliot said, “We mean only that we have a society in which no one is penalised for the formal profession of Christianity; but we conceal from ourselves the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live.”

Among his many probing observations, Eliot said that the institutional structure of Britain had turned (pp 17-18). Believers now had the problem “of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society.”

It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals [emphasis original] holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. Anything like Christian traditions transmitted from generation to generation within the family must disappear, and the small body of Christians will consist entirely of adult recruits.

We have seen evidence that the implication of American evangelicals in networks of non-Christian institutions is profound.

While formally professing a biblical view of the family, a large proportion of evangelical households are not only living contrary to that profession but are captive to the social engineers of the state. Many churches themselves are exiled to a media Babylon, with vision and mission that live parasitically on the marketing strategies of larger organizations, lulling the people into an infotainment stupor, giving them a diet of consumer cake under a biblical glaze. And the financial condition of churches tells the story: overhead is up, giving is down.

The more disturbing reality is that evangelicals seem unaware of the problem. As Eliot said, they are being “more and more de-Christianised” by “unconscious pressure.” That pressure, I believe, is coming from their own churches. The little platoons of evangelicalism are weakening because they have de-Christianised themselves.

Because of this change of values, it should come as no surprise that a new political atmosphere among evangelicals has been developing for some time. With the death or retirement of conservative organizers like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and the rise of liberal evangelical leaders like Brian McLaren and Donald Miller, the grass roots structure that supported conservative causes is troubled.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported on the new atmosphere as early as October 28, 2007 for The New York Times Magazine. As polls then showed, "White evangelicals under 30—the future of the church—were once Bush's biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders." Kirkpatrick wrote that the “sharpest falloff” in evangelical identification with the Republican party was among the young.

There was further evidence of the slide in Republican support in exit polls from the presidential election in 2008. John McCain won the evangelical vote 57% to 41%. But in 2004, George W. Bush won evangelicals 65% to 34%. McCain’s showing was nearly identical with Ronald Reagan’s in 1980, a strong one. But the most telling number may be that Barack Obama’s 41% was ten points higher than Bill Clinton’s in 1992, and seven points higher than John Kerry’s in 2004.

Those evangelical votes may shift back. But there cannot be any question that they are in play. The only way the religious right can retrieve them is with populist appeals to "Christian values" that many Christians themselves no longer have. Those appeals will probably work, at least in the near-term. But the spiritual fact of the matter is -- and pastors need to face this -- populism is not Christianity.

What would Eliot say to the religious right? You need urgently to face "the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live.”

The Erosion of the Religious Right By Divorce

by Matthew Raley The political organizations of the religious right are dependent on evangelical churches, but many churches close every year without enough new ones to replace them. Regardless of whether the alliance between evangelicals and conservatives should continue, I question whether it will.

As we have seen, churches are now financially entangled in a secular way of life, their programming increasingly dependent upon the multi-billion dollar parachurch sector. The smaller the church, the more it focuses on surviving the steep overhead increase. The larger the church, the more it has gamed the marketplace to grow.

But there are deeper indicators of trouble. The condition of evangelical families is symptomatic of a broad cultural decline in churches.

The Barna Group has repeatedly found that evangelicals divorce at high rates. In its most recent study of this problem, published March 31, 2008, 33% of the American adult population has had at least one divorce, and the same is true of 26% of evangelical adults. While the evangelical divorce rate is lower than the national average, it still shows that more than a quarter of people who profess a conservative view of Christian doctrine have broken homes.

This statistic is more than a public relations black eye.

Dr. Gil Stieglitz, superintendent of the Western District of the Evangelical Free Churches of America, says, “The family in evangelical Christianity has unfortunately allowed itself to be boiled in the cultural milieu. No family dinners, no family devotions, too much TV, little fatherhood, over-commitment to sports and materialism.” The high divorce rate reflects the disappearing Christian ethic of family life.

When we consider what the divorce rate means in practical terms, the cultural weakness of evangelicalism becomes alarming.

Divorced people with children are automatically under the thumb of the family legal system. They no longer control their schedules, their practice of parenting, or even, in extreme cases, their most basic interactions with their children. They are vulnerable to inspection by county officials, restraining orders, and a stream of court dates.

Nor is divorce the end of the entanglements.

Illegitimate births are common among evangelicals, as any pastor can attest. While I haven't been able to find specific studies of evangelicals in this regard, I do not lack stories. The trials of Sarah Palin’s family are common among regular church-goers, and Palin’s handling of her daughter’s pregnancy won her strong identification from grass roots conservatives for this very reason. But a child born out of wedlock is likely to end up under the indirect supervision of social workers, with a young parent, grandparents, and pastors often struggling to safeguard a Christian parenting ethic from official intrusion.

A hidden impact of these problems on churches is on the grandparenting role, that key informal link in the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Evangelicals in their fifties and sixties, who would normally be entering a period of comparative freedom with their time and money, are frequently raising their grandchildren instead. Thus, the resources grandparents would otherwise put into their churches, they devote to their families in crisis. Further, they struggle to demonstrate godliness to grandchildren growing up amid the moral chaos of a wayward adult and the psychologized ethics of social workers.

All this leaves people in the prime of life discouraged and heartsick.

For all practical purposes, then, a sizable proportion of evangelical families and their children are under the management of the state. Evangelicals in this system are no longer as free to pass on their ethics, even when they might otherwise be capable of doing so.

Here's the reality of leading a church.

If you have 400 people in your congregation, figure that 100 of them are (or have been) in the family court system. Their finances are almost entirely devoted to maintaining two households where there used to be one. And unless they have an unusually high personal income, they are not keeping up. Their emotional strength is spent trying to survive the strife and the loneliness. They have little time or energy to devote to their walk with the Lord.

100 people. Even when the economy is good. And the ripple effect spreads the weakness.

Yet the business plan of churches, as they struggle to survive the slow liquidation, is to attract more such people, betting that staff can disciple them cost-effectively by sending them to conferences and showing them Focus on the Family videos. The bet that this plan nurtures strong Christians is not paying off. (More in a couple of weeks on why Orland EFC has not followed that business plan, and on what plan we are following.)

The first problem here is the hypocrisy of pushing "values" on secular people while tolerating divorce in churches. The loss of integrity has deepened the cynicism not just of secular people toward churches, but of the people in churches themselves.

The second problem is even worse. Systemically and culturally, not in their finances alone but in their family lives, many evangelicals are living like non-Christians.

T. S. Eliot predicted the future of British politics by analyzing “the substratum of collective temperament, ways of behaviour and unconscious values” that provide the material for a nation’s political philosophy. In the 1930s, he found that substratum to be pagan. Six decades later, the last prime minister to represent a biblical worldview, Margaret Thatcher, left office without a traditionalist successor. The pagan culture of Britain is no longer implicit.

If American evangelical culture is intoxicated with anti-biblical ways of life, there is no mystery why its churches are closing. The political results must follow.

Megachurches and the Religious Right's Decline

by Matthew Raley This week I got an email that epitomizes the alliance between evangelicals and political conservatives.

A megachurch pastor from southern California wrote that he can no longer be silent about the health care bill before Congress. What issue has driven him out of reticence? Married couples, he said, will pay more for health insurance than cohabiting couples, and as marriage goes, so goes yada yada. And why did he write me? Because there's a webcast I need to watch involving U.S. senators and the Family Research Council. It's going to be "saturated in prayer." Would I please forward the email approvingly to my congregation?

This email is the fruit of a spinmeister power lunch.

The issue is exactly right to get my attention. The government's imposition of financial burdens on married people ticks me off. I agree that this is the way morons do statecraft. Furthermore, given the anger many people have about the nation's course these days, electrifying my church with unity and passion is easy as clicking "send."

But how many hits of this drug can a congregation take before it's hooked?

These days, I'm arguing that the alliance between evangelicals and the conservative movement will not last. The grass-roots base of the religious right is in churches, and churches are closing. Last week, I described the economic strains behind many closures. But I left one matter open: hasn’t the growth of megachurches enabled evangelicals to reach out to the larger culture? Shouldn't smaller churches close so that resources can be used more efficiently in large ones?

To be sure, the number of megachurches has burgeoned. Warren Cole Smith notes the finding of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (A Lover's Quarrel With the Evangelical Church, pp 17-18) that there were less than a dozen churches in America with attendance greater than 2,000 in 1970. In 2004 there were more than 1,200. But Smith finds a significant hole in this apparent success. Citing David Olson’s research, he reports (p 150) that from 1990 to 2000, a decade in which the number of megachurches more than doubled, average Sunday attendance at a Christian church fell from 20.4% of the population to 18.7%.

Larger church size is not compensating for fewer churches. But it is sucking pastors into the non-profit sector's media point-scoring game.

Racing to be found among the churches that survive the slow liquidation, many pastors use issue- and media-oriented appeals to create a sense of momentum. They become vendors for “parachurch” ministries that have annual revenues in the tens of millions of dollars, organizations like Focus On the Family, Promise Keepers, and the Family Research Council.

Smith notes that the number of religious and charitable tax-exempt organizations nearly doubled in the 1990s, to around 750,000 (p 18). “A majority . . . were evangelical parachurch organizations.” Solicitations aimed at me, like this week's email, are unending. I am invited to purchase all forms of media for curricula, to give financial support to these organizations from the church budget, and, in a practice Smith notes (p 37), to purchase blocks of tickets to mass rallies. (“If the church is not able to resell the tickets to its members, it either gives them away or the seats remain empty. It is not unusual for an event that is officially sold out to have 20 percent of the seats go unused.”)

A pastor has every incentive to buy congregational life off the parachurch shelf. I can get a curriculum for men’s groups that kicks off with a stadium conference nearby, that feeds weekly meetings with study guides, and that allows me to push play on a DVD rather than preparing a talk. The content will be okay, and I can ride the larger promotional efforts of a marketing team, guaranteeing at least decent involvement.

Whenever I can push play, I have another half-hour or so to manage a crisis.

The lure of achieving significant outreach through media attractions often proves impossible to resist.

In 2004, Pastor Rick Warren (not the author of this week's email, by the way) led evangelicals to embrace Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. For the first time on this scale, evangelical pastors became movie promoters, advertising the film, walking through neighborhoods with door-hangers, buying blocks of tickets in local theaters, and preaching sermons timed for the film’s release. These efforts were not just aimed at outreach, but at showing demographic clout to Hollywood.

The pressure pastors were under to march in this parade was intense. One of my prominent local colleagues, in a fit of world-historical ecstacy, called the film “the biggest evangelistic opportunity in 2,000 years.” (Our church skipped the parade.)

Subsequent church attendance numbers in America didn’t budge.

In an attempt to build energy, then, churches large and small have become media vendors. They have wedded media cycles to the pulpit. Pastors devote time and money to marketing instead of the slow, hard-earned relational work of teaching the disciplines of the faith. Listening to many evangelical preachers, you’d be forgiven for thinking the road to heaven is paved with DVDs.

Megachurches have not reversed the decline in church attendance because they tend to produce media-driven church cultures. Such cultures are degraded, incapable of nurturing godliness.

Which is why I will neither promote nor watch tonight's webcast.

The Declining Economic Viability of the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley In reevaluating the alliance between evangelicals and the conservative movement, I have moved from asking whether it should continue, to asking whether it will. Conservatives are assuming that their grass-roots base is vibrant, perhaps more energetic than ever.

This assumption is all too easy to make, with Sarah Palin storming the country and selling books in vast quantities. There are long lines at her book signings and the evangelicals whom she represents are fired up. But a media frenzy is not the same as grass-roots strength. Many a politician has imagined that he or she could surf to power on a wave of media without troubling overmuch about organization.

Media attention is fleeting and capricious. Organization wins.

Last week, we began to face the reality that the religious right is in slow liquidation. Evangelical churches are closing. Let's look closer at why.

The economic viability of churches is waning.

One factor is size. Christ Community Church, which I sketched last week as having an attendance of two hundred, had to compete with megachurches of five- to ten-thousand, with specialized staff for all ages and lifestyles. The church drew in part from military bases in the area, which meant that its attendance could fluctuate severely as committed people were moved on. This was in addition to an already transient exurban population. As a simple matter of size, the church did not have a large enough attendance to offer a variety of programs or market itself to new people. The larger churches did.

Another economic strain on churches like Christ Community is the housing market. During the housing bubble, the cost of replacing or adding pastoral staff went up with the price of real estate. Even the current depressed home values have not returned prices in all regions to where they were ten or fifteen years ago. Thus, when a long-serving senior pastor resigns, small- to mid-size congregations face sticker shock when they begin to negotiate the new pastor’s salary. Sometimes a church cannot pay a pastor enough to live locally. Such a church might call a pastor who commutes, or it might return to the parsonage model, building a house on land it already owns and treating the house as in-kind compensation.

The housing environment here in California has been particularly hostile to churches, but the same issues can be found in many other parts of the country.

No matter how a church faces such challenges, the cost of doing ministry has escalated. To the strains of maintaining programs to attract people and of adding staff with expensive compensation, we have to factor in escalating premiums for all forms of insurance, and the hidden costs of protecting a congregation against threats like lawsuits and sexual predators.

To make matters worse, financial giving has not kept up. In December, 2008, Christianity Today’s cover shouted, “Scrooge Lives!” Rob Moll’s story surveyed giving patterns among Christians in America. Citing sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell, whose study Passing the Plate was published by Oxford University Press, Moll reports that only 27 percent of evangelicals tithe, or give a tenth of their income. “Thirty-six percent report that they give away less than two percent of their income.” Ten percent give nothing. “The median annual giving for an American Christian is actually $200, just over half a percent of after-tax income.” And these figures were pre-recession.

Moll notes that American Christians earn $2.5 trillion every year. “On their own, these Christians could be admitted to the G7.” If they tithed, they could add $46 billion to ministries domestically and around the world. But their personal finances are devoted to the same consumeristic lifestyle other Americans maintain.

I'm not saying churches should keep running the same business plan, or that the atmosphere of competition among churches is good, or even that Christians should keep paying for expensive programs in churches just to attract more people. As I will argue in a couple of weeks, all of these things need to change. But we do have to open our eyes to the economic realities we face.

My point is this: Focus on the Family and other organizations like it are nothing without churches. The organizational and fund raising prowess of the religious right depends on the continued vitality of small, local institutions that nurture people and pass on a way of life. If churches close at the current rate, the people who support conservative causes will be fewer and more dispersed.

The economic viability of the religious right is joined with the viability of churches. As churches go, so goes the vast  infrastructure of the religious right.

I am convinced that Christians need to revive biblical views of the state, of the economy, and of our national heritage. In view of the urgency of that task, why are we wasting resources on media blitzes, stadium rallies, spin doctors, lobbyists, and politicians? Why aren't we nourishing a genuine cultural change by giving resources to churches, and to planting more of them?

More on that next week.

The Slow Liquidation of the Religious Right

by Matthew Raley One Sunday morning in the exurbs of California’s bay area, I watch the faithful of Christ Community Church gather. The church has been active for two decades, and has converted a business complex into an auditorium, offices, and classrooms. On this morning in June, 2005, the church has a wide range of age and ethnicity, attendance of about two hundred, and a full schedule of programs.

Six months later, after the founding pastor resigns to join a seminary faculty, services are cancelled, the congregation disperses, and the property is up for sale. Why, with so many apparent resources and without any scandal, did this church close? And why do many evangelical congregations make the same decision each year?

Political conservatives have been able to rely on the evangelical right for three decades. Election after election, evangelicals have delivered money, grass-roots organization, and votes. Evangelical passion for such issues as abortion and gay marriage has framed stark, simple choices for middle American voters.

The foundation of the religious right’s support structure has been local churches, institutions where Christian ethics and spirituality are taught, encouraged, and above all practiced. In purely social terms, a church is a gathering place for people with a shared worldview. In political terms, a church is a little platoon of citizenship and service, embodying what T. S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society called “the substratum of collective temperament, ways of behaviour and unconscious values” that provide the material for a nation’s political philosophy.

In evaluating the alliance of evangelicalism and conservatism biblically over the past several weeks, I've found that there is a broad agreement in priorities between biblical teaching and the conservative movement. The Bible's view of the state, many of its economic teachings, its command to honor parents, and its examples of national loyalty will consistently incline an American church that teaches these things toward political conservatism. I do not mean that the Bible is politically conservative in every sense, or that political conservatism is without spiritual or ethical problems. I only mean that it will continue to be the natural political home of Bible-believing Christians.

But I have also found that evangelicals do not deeply teach or practice these biblical principles. Indeed, evangelical churches practice them less and less.

While evangelical sophistication in grass-roots organizing has grown over the last thirty years, the local church’s ability to perform its primary mission of nurturing people ethically and spiritually has declined. A range of indicators shows this weakening of evangelical culture, and we will survey the data over the next several weeks.

There are ominous implications for the future of American political conservatism: every time a church like Christ Community folds, conservatives lose a gathering place. American evangelicalism shows disquieting similarity to the Christianity Eliot described in pre-war Britain, a faith that no longer influences the national way of life.

A superficial but telling indicator is the number of American churches.

Warren Cole Smith, editor of the Evangelical Press News Service and author of A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church (2008), gives a statistical sketch that can be found in numerous publications (pp 18-19). “In 1900 there were twenty-seven churches per 10,000 Americans. In 1985 there were only twelve churches per 10,000. Baptist Church Planting magazine estimated the number of churches per 10,000 Americans today at less than ten.” Smith adds that 4,000 churches closed in America each year during the 1990s. Church starts were typically less than half that number.

David T. Olson of The American Church Research Project reports that evangelicals started more than 7,000 churches from 2000-2008, but that over the same period more than 24,000 new churches would have been needed to keep up with population growth. Further, Olson reports that throughout the 1990s growth in evangelical church attendance was 1%. By 2006-2007, the growth rate had slowed to 0.3%.

Whatever else these data mean, the bottom line is clear: American evangelicalism is in a slow liquidation.

The issue is not so much that churches close. Christ Community, for instance, didn't close because it had abandoned the faith or because the congregation didn't care about ministry. They honestly felt the closure was right in light of what they faced. The issue, rather, is that believers are not planting new churches. They simply don't believe deeply in Kingdom priorities.

With churches declining, the conservative movement is also in decline at the grass-roots, even though it looks strong as ever. Over the next decade, its ability to mobilize evangelical voters will precipitously diminish because the organizational structure won't be there.

The more important implication is this: American culture is transforming into the frigid steppes of post-Christianity not because unbelievers are winning political battles but because believers no longer believe.

On Patriotism and the Christian Life

by Matthew Raley Put the words patriotism and evangelicalism in the same sentence and you conjure the stars and stripes waving on a massive screen behind a megachurch pastor -- a use of symbols that I see as sentimental and dangerous.

I am reassessing the evangelical alliance with conservatives these days, seeking to find a theology of citizenship that is biblical. Covering various aspects of the conservative movement, we have surveyed the Bible's teachings about the state, about work, property, and profit, and about the unity of generations.

Today, I examine the idea that our country deserves our honor and loyalty.

I am not in sympathy with the way this idea has been expressed in churches over the last decade.

In waving the flag next to the cross, we're in danger of perpetuating two theological aberrations. One is that America is the New Jerusalem, or should've been, and that God gave an Israel-like benediction to our founding. The other is that, in order to advance Christ's Kingdom on earth, we have to take political action. (Dominion theology advocates have been pretty cagey about this agenda as they've raised money from dispensationalists.)

Digital flag-waving at church is also egregious sentimentality. It stirs populist emotions by using images to evade questions. Typical mass media schlock.

But ...

Patriotism belongs in the Christian life.

Consider the significant role that Jewish patriotism played in Paul's trial speeches (Acts 22-26). Paul's repeated emphasis on his good conscience as a Jew was not a rhetorical ploy, but a key point of honor.

The scene: Paul returns to Jerusalem after establishing churches around the Roman empire. He goes into the temple to keep a vow, and is spotted by Jews from Asia, who seize him and whip up a crowd (Acts 21.17-27).

The charge (Acts 21.28): "Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place."

During the trials focusing on this charge, there are several ways Paul communicates that he is a faithful Jew.

Paul addresses the temple crowd in Aramaic, not Greek (21.40-22.2), a signal of identification that the crowd recognizes. In the Sanhedrin, he submits to the high priest, even though the priest is treating Paul unjustly (23.1-5).

Before the Roman governor Felix, Paul expresses the depth of his commitment to his nation in at least three statements: that he worships "the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the prophets" (24.14), that he went to Jerusalem "to bring alms to my nation" (24.17), and that the Jews found him "purified in the temple" (24.18).

When Paul arrives in Rome, having appealed to Caesar, he summons the local Jewish leaders to make his case (28.17-22). He states that he had "done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers." Even though he was unjustly accused, Paul states that he has "no charge to bring against my nation." He is imprisoned "because of the hope of Israel."

Two observations about Paul's example.

Paul might have found many reasons to disavow his nation, both theological and pragmatic. Had he been motivated by bitterness, he might have abused his people before the Romans. But he did none of these things, consistently identifying as a Jew, and doing so with evident devotion.

Further, Paul makes all these points before both Jewish and Gentile audiences because they concern his personal honor, and therefore the honor of Christ. A person cannot glorify Christ by being disloyal to his nation. Paul makes no pretense of having been liberated from such bonds.

Patriotism, biblically considered, is a species of humility and gratitude.

We will not bring honor to Christ by bashing our homeland. The fashionable self-hating American is only aping humility, being someone who benefits from freedom and wealth while decrying it. It is decadent and self-serving.

It is a blessing to be an American. Our freedoms are precious because, among other things, they secure a peaceful society. The heritage of laws we have received is a marvel. The dignity that comes with self-government is priceless.

I fear that because many evangelicals have embraced consumerism, mass media, and populism, we are not nurturing patriotism in churches, but merely engaging in rabble-rousing. Churches could go so much deeper in fostering citizens who serve their nation and glorify their eternal King.

And churches must.

Honor Your Father, Unless You're At Church

by Matthew Raley The ten commandments get plenty of evangelical attention if they are engraved on courthouses. But tucked away in Exodus 20, not so much. The reason, I think, has to do with evangelicals' informal hermeneutic: the parts of the Bible that are "culturally specific" do not apply today because "culture has changed." Like other people with the issue of ethics, evangelicals preserve their wiggle-room.

So, some parts of the Decalogue fare better than others. The command against murder is still cited, as is the command against bearing false witness. The commands against coveting or breaking the Sabbath are usually ignored. The other commands receive lip-service, like the command against making idols, but only scant consideration.

The command to honor your father and your mother is in this last category. Groups of children are guaranteed to hear that they should obey their parents, and they will also hear Paul's comment about an attached promise in Ephesians 6. But there's a little detail you've probably never heard -- just a bit of trivia, I suppose, but I find such arcane matters entertaining. The original audience for this command was composed chiefly of adults.

The idea was that every grown-up would honor his father, and not just while his father lived, but also in memory. In this way, children would be taught by example, not just homily, that an elder is to be treated with reverence, deference, and attention.

I bring this up because I'm thinking through the political alliance evangelicals have maintained with the conservative movement. I've noted that there are three strains that constitute the movement, and that each one needs fresh biblical evaluation so that evangelicals can reform their view of citizenship. We've looked at the Bible's broad teaching about the state, and about the concern of the libertarian strain of conservatism for property, work, and profit.

A second strain of conservatism is traditionalist. As I've already written, these conservatives are primarily concerned with the preservation of inherited ways of life, and of the union of generations.

This kind of conservatism grew out of biblical soil.

Consider what it meant practically for an Israelite man to honor his parents. In the first place, the God his father and mother worshiped would remain his God. The fidelity his parents maintained -- fidelity to God, to each other sexually, to truthfulness and the rights of others to their lives and property -- he would continue to foster in his own heart and in the hearts of his children. Doing so, he would ensure "that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you."

In other words, the command to honor father and mother is the command to pass on the Decalogue itself, and to reform practices that have departed from it, as an expression of familial loyalty. It is a command to guard the comprehensive inheritance you have received, materially and spiritually. It creates a society that measures itself from the past forward, not from the future backward.

There is no way to keep this command on the surface of your life. It can't be done with postmodern irony. It can only be kept from the depths of your heart.

Further, this is not a "culturally specific" item that can be discarded. It is essential to the ethical world of the Bible. A society that has "outgrown" this command is a society we must defy.

Here's what bothers me.

Evangelicals have devoted vast resources to political battles for conservative policies. They have poured money into state referenda, gaining majorities on councils, and electing candidates for national office, all with a rhetoric that calls for "traditional values."

But if you look at the local churches evangelicals have built, you find no emphasis on honoring your father and your mother -- the molten core of  biblical civics.

Indeed, evangelical churches have transformed into youth-oriented, age-denigrating activity centers. Bill Hybels and his ilk have spent the last three decades railing against "dead traditions" and effacing the inheritance of symbols, songs, and doctrine from public worship. Most churches will not consider pastoral candidates over 50 anymore. I know a man in his 60s who has led international organizations, whose churches have grown, and who is wiser than ever, but whose resume cannot attract attention. The Christian psychology industry, when it is not busy advising divorce, is telling adults to cut off their parents.

In politics, traditional rhetoric. At church, wisdom-deleting practice. I am not denying the many complexities of staying flexible in a changing society, but the degree of evangelical refusal to pay honor to elders is hypocrisy -- or lunacy.

For churches truly to advance traditionalism, they would have to teach and practice the 5th commandment. And that would turn their operations upside down. Instead of age-segregation, they would mix generations. Instead of dumbing down their preaching, they would restore accurate measures of greatness -- the measures of biblical history, not youthful fantasy.

The Bible teaches that the ethics of the people rule the nation. And the fruits of evangelical rule are . . . ?

The Bible, the Market, and the Meltdown

by Matthew Raley When I started this series on the evangelical alliance with political conservatism, I noted three questions to explore biblically. Evangelicals should act as citizens from a biblical framework, not an ideological one. So, does the Bible teach a worldview of citizenship that coheres with conservatism?

Last week, we surveyed the Bible's view of the state in general, finding that government is set up by God for a nation's justice and security, and that government must not control worship. The real governor of a nation is the ethic of the people, the way citizens live day-to-day.

In this context, the first of my questions is, "What does the Bible teach about work, property, and profit -- the preoccupations of contemporary libertarianism?"

The Bible teaches that work is one of the most basic ways human beings glorify God. Proverbs 22.29 is typical: "Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men." Working skillfully to generate a return of abundance is at the heart of the mandate God gave human beings in the beginning (Genesis 1.28; 2.5-15).

Laziness is condemned, sometimes in comical terms, as in Proverbs 26.13-16. "As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth." In Proverbs 24.30-34 the wise man passes by the field of a sluggard, "and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down."

The Bible teaches at length about caring for the poor, but it always calls for work as an expression of their dignity. For instance, farmers were to leave the corners of their field unharvested so that the poor could glean what they needed (e.g. Ruth 2). This perspective continues in the New Testament, as in 2 Thessalonians 3.6-12, where Paul commands, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."

I was struck by PBS's American Experience this week, which told the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt envisioned building up a generation of young men through hard work, a vision that came from a biblically formed worldview. Anything like the CCC today would be viewed as heinous cruelty because our concept of work is messed-up.

The Bible's teaching on property is summed up in the 8th commandment (Exodus 20.15): "You shall not steal." The words of Proverbs 22.28 are frequently repeated: "Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set." (Note the cross-references.) The act of taking property is, in biblical terms, one of the lowest forms of wickedness. A key proof of King Ahab's villainy, for instance, is his seizure of a vineyard (1 Kings 21).

Indeed, it's not too much to say that the entire law of Moses is founded on the distinction between Mine and Not-Mine.

We have a society today in which we call things Mine when they are purchased with unsecured debt, and in which asset-backed notes can back other notes (which the Bible would call fraud, since the same surety backs two debts). We have a messed-up concept of property.

One of the best places to see the Bible's teaching on profit is Proverbs 31.10-31, a description of the wise woman. She works hard, directs laborers, trades goods, manages and expands the family's properties, and makes a clear profit. Her life is ennobling, both for herself and her community.

The Bible puts limits on the profit motive by making a distinction between work and exploitation. The 4th commandment about the Sabbath, or ceasing, applied to all servants and animals, not just masters, on the seventh day of every week (Exodus 20.8-11). Every seventh year there was a Sabbath for the land (Leviticus 25.1-22). There were also strong protections against the exploitation of the powerless in the law, comprehended in Proverbs 28.8.

Two observations about all of this.

First, the Bible's concept of civil rights is strong, but is not founded on abstractions. It is tied tangibly to work, property, and profit. This is the most fundamental problem between the Bible and the political left, which abstracts a growing list of entitlements based on nothing but egalitarian rhetoric. This is great for the lawyers, and promises to get even better. But it has nothing to do with the biblical concept of justice.

Second, the tendency of libertarianism to see the profit motive as the cure for all social problems often produces exploitation, which the Bible calls sin. No state can overlook exploitation without destroying civil society.

What does all this have to do with last year's financial meltdown?

Just this: no legislature passed a law saying American households had to run up unsecured debts, deplete what little equity they had by refinancing their mortgages, and bet on ever-escalating home prices to make them rich in retirement. The American people themselves did this because their degraded ethics of work and property left them with an exploitative view of profit.

The Bible's view of national life is accurate: the ethics of the people rule.

A Biblical View of the State

by Matthew Raley The question we opened last week is whether evangelicals should continue to identify with conservatives.

This is first a theological question, not a political or social one. Evangelicals should not answer it from their cultural reflexes, but from what the Bible teaches. We need to integrate our loyalties as Americans and as followers of Christ by a renewed theology of citizenship.

I think an inquiry along this line starts with what the Bible teaches about the state.

The Bible does not prescribe a particular form for the state, treating the state in whatever earthly form as a God-ordained institution with stewardship over the civic affairs. God holds officers of state accountable for conduct in justice (including the punishment of violence, theft, and economic fraud and abuse) and warfare.

In the Mosaic law, human functions of state are divided amongst tribes and cities, going back to the system Moses implemented in Exodus 18.13-27. The tribes were assigned territories and governed themselves separately (Joshua 13-21). Thus the nation of Israel from its founding was a confederation, not a centralized human kingdom. Politically, it was a literal theocracy, formalized by a suzerain-vassal treaty (the Sinai covenant, says Deuteronomy 33.1-5).

The law is particularly strong in dividing the state from the priesthood. The Levites had charge of everything related to the worship of the Lord, as well as the enforcement of the ritual laws. The strongest indication of this division is Lord's choice to take the tribe of Levi as his priestly possession, rather than all first-born sons spread through the tribes (Numbers 3.40-51). Worship was assigned to an group independent of all other loyalties.

The law prepares for but does not mandate a human king, sharply limiting his powers (Deuteronomy 17.14-20). The law and the judge Samuel are explicit that tyranny in the taking of property and in state aggrandizement is a form of evil (1 Samuel 8.10-22).

When a king is appointed by God, he is first from Benjamin (Saul), then from Judah (David), prohibiting the king from the priestly functions that belonged to Levi. Saul crossed this boundary, offering a sacrifice on his own authority, and the Lord's verdict was that Saul would have no dynasty (1 Samuel 13.8-14).

David understood this separation thoroughly, and the reasoning of statecraft behind it. If worship is strengthened and preserved outside the state's power, it becomes a source of moral and spiritual nourishment for the people. As such, the institutions of worship bring health to the culture, and serve to reform the state when it becomes tyrannical. So David devoted his reign to the reform, organization, and institutional longevity of the Levitical priesthood (1 Chronicles 22-26). As a result, the priesthood was a source of strength for the reforming kings in Judah throughout the rest of its history.

I draw two principles from these texts. First, authority over civil affairs is best divided among many institutions. This serves to check the evil of tyranny. Second, the state has the duty to preserve the separation of worship institutions. The state must not take over the sphere of worship.

Such was the design of the theocracy for Israel, which had specific purposes in redemption history. The biblical flexibility on forms of state more generally can be seen in a couple of ways.

God's people showed that they could serve in pagan states. They did this by showing administrative prowess, just decisions, and refusal to yield points of worship to the pagan kings.  Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41) and Daniel in Babylon (Daniel 1-2) are preeminent examples.

In the New Testament, the most prized aspect of the Roman state was the freedom and peace it gave, so that Christians could bear witness and grow without persecution (1 Timothy 2.1-7). The church saw the restraint of the Roman state in matters of spirituality as an advantage.

So the role of the state in the Bible is primarily negative: to preserve order against crime (Romans 13.1-7). This is because the Bible sees the actual rule of a nation in the conduct of the people themselves. The ethics of the people set the destiny of the nation.

One thing seems clear to me. The vision of the American religious right that government can be a source of righteousness for the people is not in agreement with biblical teaching. I don't think anyone can plausibly deny that this is their vision. They have leaped too quickly and too often from the "If my people" verse to a call to elect this or that Republican. Further, the vision of the religious left that national righteousness is dependent on passage of the latest welfare scheme ("Budgets are moral documents," etc, etc) is the same exact error in the opposite political direction.

In the context of biblical teaching, the actions of local churches are far more important in promoting ethics and justice in America than the actions of the state.

The Alliance of Evangelicals and Conservatives

by Matthew Raley Evangelicals and political conservatives  have been allies for decades, an alliance many evangelicals now question.

Evangelicals certainly constitute a large part of the Republican base. But the alliance I'm talking about is more specific. The conservative movement is distinct from the GOP, and the two have long had a strained relationship. Conservatives embraced most of the GOP's presidential nominees since Ronald Reagan only reluctantly. Neither of the George Bushes were "movement" conservatives, and Bob Dole and John McCain were frequent antagonists.

So my focus is on the evangelical relationship with the conservative movement ideologically and organizationally. Does this alliance serve the cause of Christ? Has the increasing orientation of church life toward political issues harmed churches? Has the politicization of churches harmed conservatism itself?

Let's start with definition and analysis.

Most people professing to be conservatives today do not know what conservatism is. It is not Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin. Indeed, conservatism is not historically or essentially a political philosophy, but a philosophy of culture that expresses itself politically. The logic of its policies cannot be understood without a grasp of the ideas about culture on which the policies are grounded.

There are three basic strains that came together mid-20th century to form what we know as conservatism today.

First, there were libertarians. Thinkers such as Albert Jay Nock and Friedrich Hayek constructed seminal arguments for the free market against state control, arguments that were further developed by economists such as Milton Friedman and political philosophers such as Willmoore Kendall. The supply-side tax policies of Arthur Laffer also came from this strain. For a libertarian, a value that must be preserved is economic liberty vested in private property.

Evangelicals have not felt much kinship with this faction. Socially, evangelicals were small business and agrarian people, not financiers. They were (and remain) based in the southeast and the west, not in the northeast. Furthermore, evangelicals have a long history of economic populism (back to William Jennings Bryan) that continues to this day pitting Wall Street against Main Street.

One question I want to ponder, then, is the significance of private property biblically.

A second strain of conservatism is traditionalism. The thinker here is Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, which surveyed cultural and political thinkers from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot. Conservatives of this faction drew their inspiration from Britain, and from such continental figures as Alexis de Tocqueville. They emphasized the respect for folkways and local hierarchies that informed the American founders as they wrote our Constitution. For a traditionalist, the value that must be preserved is the inherited way of life.

This is the faction in which evangelicals feel most at home. But there is still tension. Most traditionalists are Roman Catholic, leading many on the religious right (e.g. Chuck Colson) to seek theological rapprochement for the sake of cultural alliance.

So I also want to consider the significance of inherited ways of life biblically.

A third strain that went into today's conservatism consisted of anti-communists -- the most socially complex faction.

Most of these conservatives started out on the left and joined one of several migrations to the right. An intellectually powerful migration occurred in the 1930s and 40s in reaction against Stalinism. This group of ex-communists and fellow travelers was represented most prominently by Whittaker Chambers, John dos Passos, and James Burnham. Another migration came when New Deal liberals and internationalists like Ronald Reagan perceived that Democrats were not committed to defeating the Soviet Union. A still later group, consisting of Irving Kristol, John Podhoretz, and Midge Decter, et al., reacted against the counterculture in the 1960s.

For anti-communist conservatives,  free society was the primary thing to preserve against communist dictatorship. These conservatives had experienced radical leftism from the inside, or in direct contact, and regarded it not as mistaken but evil. They were intellectuals -- journalists, novelists, social scientists, policy analysts.

Evangelicals were certainly anti-communist, but had little affinity for the academic orientation of many conservatives from this faction.

I want to ponder whether loyalty to one's culture and patriotism for one's country have significance in the biblical scheme of things.

The man who, more than anyone else, fused the three strains into one movement was William F. Buckley, Jr. He was able to fuse them partly because he personally embodied all of them. He was reared on Nockian anti-statism and on Catholic traditionalism, and was driven politically by the mandate to defeat the Soviet Union. The instrument he founded for articulating the fusion and gathering the factions under one roof was National Review. (The term fusionism and its intellectual formulations were the construct of fellow editor Frank Meyer.)

The fusion worked because all of the factions shared the principle that localities are strongest when free to govern themselves. The localities need to be strong in order to keep people strong. Communism was the ultimate offense against this philosophy because it violently leveled all local authority.

To consider whether evangelicals should keep thinking of themselves as conservatives, the first question is not whether Palin is a hot political commodity, or whether Rush is a liability, but whether the Bible agrees with what conservatism is.