Hope in the Pharisee's Spiral

by Matthew Raley In 2012, I got a lengthy email from a well-known pastor endorsing Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination. Gingrich was peaking at that moment and the pastor argued that evangelicals should consolidate behind him. This was the man to deliver victories in the culture wars.

The email was lengthy because the pastor had to navigate rocky moral straights. He said he had wrestled with Gingrich’s adultery and third marriage. How could he endorse a man who had done such things? Several paragraphs of reasoning boiled down to two points. Jesus forgives us all. And Gingrich held the right positions on abortion and gay marriage.

I tapped the little trashcan icon.

That email illustrates an evangelical sexual crisis. We have proclaimed Judeo-Christian morality as the standard for our society, but we are not holding to that standard ourselves. In this crisis, many believers have lost hope for cleansing from their sexual sins. We are caught in what I call the Pharisee’s spiral.

The Pharisees of Jesus’s time reduced spirituality to rules. Keeping the rules made them good. If they broke a rule, there were additional ones that would save them from guilt. For instance, a Pharisee might break an oath that he swore on the temple. But he was still good: since he didn’t swear on the gold of the temple, he was not bound by his oath (Matthew 23:16-17).

The Pharisee’s spiral is the swing between guilt and rationalization. I broke one rule, but I’m safe because I kept another rule. A Pharisee always reads the fine print. That’s where he finds the good news.

The pastor exhibited this spiral when he endorsed Gingrich. Why was Gingrich acceptable now when his moral twin, Bill Clinton, was anathema in the 1990s? They were both adulterers. When Clinton was running for president, evangelicals said that his adulteries were disqualifying. Gingrich lost the House speakership because his own sin was revealed.

Spend time in the Pharisee’s spiral and there’s a neat solution. Both men broke the rule. Both can be forgiven by Jesus. But one has the wrong stance in the culture war, and the other has the right stance. Gingrich is saved by the fine print.

If Gingrich were the only case in which Christian leaders public looped their way through this sort of explanation, the spiritual impact on the average evangelical might not be so devastating. But there have been many leaders like Gingrich. What I hear from believers struggling with their sexual sins is exactly the sort of hurt one expects from people repeatedly cycled through the spiral.

They tell how they got pregnant before they were married. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they got married and stayed married? (Fine print.) They tell of homosexual experiences. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they still feel guilty? (Fine print.) They have used pornography. (Broken rule.) Can they be intimate with their spouses without that sin hanging over them? Is there any fine print for that, or are they permanently broken?

Churches are packed with people who need sexual healing, many of whom think sexual purity is a matter of fine print. What they need is genuine good news. Jesus Christ paid not only for forgiveness, but also for a process of cleansing. He paid with his life. And the cleansing he purchased reaches our sexuality, restoring God’s design for human flourishing.

As our society turns the body into a commodity through human trafficking, objectifies women through pornography, eroticizes childhood, and imposes the cost of our sexual decisions on our offspring, we evangelicals cannot satisfy ourselves with declaring absolute standards. We have to declare an absolute Savior. And we can’t declare Him unless we’ve experienced his power.

At Chico Grace Brethren, we’re going to start breaking the Pharisee’s spiral in our own hearts. On March 9th we’ll begin a study of how to stop being “puffed up” in the midst of sexual sin. Our text will be 1 Corinthians 5-6. I will be talking to Christians about the process of cleansing Christ purchased for us. But I invite anyone to listen in on this conversation. More information at chicogracebrethren.com.

The President's View of Rights

by Matthew Raley The last couple of weeks have seen a change of tone among Democrats about President Obama's requirement that religious institutions be forced to provide "contraception" in their health plans, and about his "compromise" that the institutions themselves don't have to pay for it but that insurers still have to provide it.

Democrats think this is a brilliant move -- and they may be right.

There are outright lies in the president's formulation of this policy, in addition to the standard tactical truth-benders.

It is a lie that this policy only concerns contraception. The president's rule covers the abortion pill. Abortion is not contraception. His first policy was that religious institutions must provide abortion coverage. Now his "compromise" is that everyone must pay for it in their insurance premiums.

The president's tactical gambit is that, if people swallow the lie that the issue is contraception, then they will also believe that the only people in America who oppose his rule are Catholic bishops. The president is hoping that evangelicals like me will assume that the only problem here is Rome's opposition to preventing conception.

This is not a Roman Catholic issue, as if "only a bishop" could possibly oppose this rule. When asked not about "contraception" but specifically about the abortion pill requirement, Americans oppose the rule, and it's not close.

Well, let's be blindly generous. Let's pretend that the word "contraception" is not a cover-up, that the president is not pandering to anti-Catholic bigotry, and that Americans do support free abortion by prescription. There's still this little issue of rights.

Here's Nicholas Kristof on religious liberty in a recent column: "The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can. But we ban polygamy, for example, even for the pious. Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to act."

Again, let's adopt the spirit of blind generosity.

We're going to accept the equating of belief in polygamy with opposition to abortion as if it were completely natural. We're going to ignore the fact that this controversy is not over a "freedom to act" but over a freedom not to act -- that is, my right not to pay for abortion pills. We're even going to ignore this interesting assertion: American life is founded on the principle that "we" will "try" to "respect" religious beliefs. This is a brief counter-factual exercise. We're just going to focus on the words, "Your freedom to believe [a religious teaching] does not always give you a freedom to act."

That formulation might be acceptable to those who do not value religious liberty. But let's see if it still works when applied to other freedoms.

"Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to speak."

"Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to vote."

"Your freedom to buy property does not always give you a freedom to keep it."

"Your freedom to invest does not always give you a freedom to keep the profits."

"Your mere existence in utero does not always give you a freedom to be born."

The president and Mr. Kristof are free to believe that rights owe their existence to governmental fiat. They have the right to reject the real "basic principle" of the United States, that liberties come from God. But in our country -- and it still actually belongs to us -- they do not have the right to subvert the Constitution by administrative law.

The president may get away with this. His tactic may be as brilliant as many Democrats claim. Life will go on and future battles over religious liberties will be fought on very different ground. But let's not pretend this is politics as usual.

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.

Religious Liberty and the Ruling on Prop 8

by Matthew Raley Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Prop 8's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. No surprise there. The real question is what will happen at the U.S. Supreme Court, and what the implications will be for religious liberty.

Some observations:

1. It is not clear how the Roberts Court will rule on Prop 8. The outcome will likely depend on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who remains the swing vote on many issues. I will be surprised if the court renders a sweeping decision on the gay marriage question. Look for a narrow one.

This is a weak position for traditional marriage supporters. A narrow ruling against Prop 8 has the effect of institutionalizing gay marriage in the U.S., where a narrow ruling in favor of Prop 8 merely keeps the issue in play.

2. Suppose the high court upholds the 9th Circuit's decision and gay marriage becomes the nation's new legal default. A church's liberty to sanction only marriages between a man and a woman comes into question, and the legal climate for this kind of liberty is very mixed.

In 2010, the high court ruled in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez that a public law school could refuse to recognize a religious group that did not abide by the school's anti-discrimination standards. The fall-out from that decision is being felt by Christians at Vanderbilt, a private university. The vice chancellor recently told Christian groups that they have to allow non-Christians to be members and even leaders of their organizations if they want official recognition. He said in a public meeting, "We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision making on this campus."

A rare moment of candor from a PC mandarin, and a glimpse of what life will be like if tweed totalitarianism gains even more power. There's religious decision making, and then there's good decision making. We just want you to make good decisions. That's all.

There are examples of this pushiness elsewhere. New York City recently expelled churches from using public schools on Sundays. (The Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge.) The Obama administration decided to force all organizations to provide health insurance that covers contraception, even Catholic institutions. Though the administration has wavered in recent days, it has shown what it really thinks about religious liberties. Catholic adoption agencies in Illinois are closing rather than comply with the state's new non-discrimination policy. A New York Times article about the controversy makes clear that religious liberty claims are insensitive and tiresome.

Some progressives clearly have an appetite to purge religion from civic, legal, and academic life. Not all progressives. There are those who agree that churches should not be forced to allow gay marriages, or to support any of a host of other choices sanctified by the vice chancellor of Vanderbilt. Such honest progressives recognize the importance of conscience.

So there is some ballast against those who want a purge.

In addition, recent infringements on religious liberty have to be balanced against the Supreme Court's unanimous decision last month that anti-discrimination employment laws must respect a ministerial exemption. The decision is sweeping, and may be a game-changer for churches.

3. The practical threat to religious liberty will not come from the suave bigotry of vice chancellors, or from gay marriage laws like the one Governor Christine Gregoire signed in Washington State this week. The threat will not come from homosexuals as a group, or from progressives.

The most practical threat is from lawyered-up thugs. In their mania for a religion-free society, radical activists will use lawsuits as a shakedown tactic. They will not need friendly Supreme Court decisions. All they will need is money enough to sue -- and they have plenty. They will move  from suing cities over crosses and nativities and public prayers to suing churches for "discrimination."

I have spent years in ministry opposing the attempts of the religious right to turn churches into centers of political activism. Demagoguery and money do not impress me. And if I have not countenanced toxic activism from the right, even though I'm a political conservative, I certainly will not roll over for the cultural left, with which I have no sympathy whatsoever.

I fear we are headed for a new low in American discourse, in which public debate is abandoned in favor of lawsuits. If so, the civil society that has made America strong will splinter, and the conscience of every person will be at the mercy of the best financed pressure group.

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.

Oakland and the Claims of Justice

by Matthew Raley Two stories popped up Monday morning about Oakland, CA. One reported that there were anti-police protests in the city Saturday night. The other detailed the rise in homicides last year.

The homicide story was wrenching, not just because the total number of killings hit 110 but also because three small children were among the slain. A 5-year-old was shot beside his father's taco truck. A 3-year-old was shot while being pushed by his mother in his stroller. An 23-month-old in his father's arms was shot in the head. This last shooting made headlines nationally because it occurred at the taping of a rap video.

An activist named Todd Walker attended at least 50 of the funerals for these homicide victims. He said, "Safe streets should be the main priority of this city, period! There are no more excuses."

The Oakland police were busy on the streets Saturday night quelling the violent march by about 100 self-identified members of Occupy Oakland. The protesters threw bottles, broke shop windows, slashed tires, and vandalized a media van. One of the six arrested had a quarter-stick of dynamite. Police were busy with occupy protesters last Thursday as well, when a number tried to push their way into city hall. Last month, occupiers succeeded in shutting down the Port of Oakland -- and in provoking the hostility of unions whose workers lost wages because of the stunt. Last fall, Occupy Oakland was one of the camps most notorious in the nation for violence and drugs.

Saturday night, the occupiers decried police violence. They said they would organize a weekly "F-- the Police" protest.

Some occupiers claim that they cannot control everyone in their marches, attempting to shift responsibility for violence to "anarchists." This video offers some examples:

OAKLAND: Damage from violent weekend Occupy protest leads....

Those excuses won't cut it. A blogger makes the case for the occupiers' tolerant attitude toward violence here (profanity heads-up).

The mainstream ethic of occupiers seems to be:

1. Your grievances justify your criminality, if that's how you choose to handle stuff.

2. I am not implicated in what you do. I have no responsibility as a citizen to stop violence or vandalism when I see it.

3. The police have no right to use force against protesters.

First reality check: there are protest marches across the United States every week that do not degenerate into crime. The marches are often loud, confrontational, and provocative, but Americans know how to make strong statements without violence.

Second reality check: you cannot have a real community without accepting your responsibility to speak up when crime is being committed.

Third reality check: criminality escalates. A confident society empowers the police to use force against criminals. I am not endorsing police brutality, nor am I denying that police corruption is a serious problem. But a society that claims to be "above" the use of force against criminals, or that has a guilty conscience about using force, ends up with dead toddlers in its streets.

This is not merely about Oakland, or the occupiers. Citizens of London got that third reality check last year. Even little Chico is being affected by rising violence (cf. #3 in the editorial). Rising violence is everywhere. This is also not about "social" justice. Crime is about simple justice, the priority of order. We have a right to walk the streets without fearing for the safety of our kids. Hat-tip to police officers who do their best to secure that right every day.

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.

Are We About To See an "Awakening?" [Yawn]

by Matthew Raley The term awakening is important to American evangelicals -- and ought to become more important. It refers to periods of spiritual renewal, of which churches are in desperate need.

So I was not surprised to find the word associated with Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, and the formation of his Black Robe Regiment. One of the regiment's websites announces that it is "awakening the Christian community." Another is more specific: "The time has come that we must now arise and awaken to the danger of this hyper-progressive agenda that so permeates every aspect of our political, legal,  and educational systems."

The term moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform. "Awakening" gets picked up by various Beck enthusiasts as a focus of their hopes.

Here is one pastor about the "evening of prayer and spiritual renewal" Beck hosted at the Kennedy Center on August 27th, the eve of the big rally: "I’m telling you tonight was like the beginning of a Revival for our country with Asians, Latinos, African-Americans and people from all walks of life singing praise songs and calling upon God to restore our Nation . . . ." The pastor concludes, "Tomorrow, I pray will begin the next great awakening in America."

The next great awakening. There seems to be some confusion.

"Great awakening" is a phrase applied to two periods in American history. The First Great Awakening occurred in the 1740s, the Second from 1800 to roughly 1830.

Here's the problem: Beck's regiment is modeling its awakening not on those periods, but on the Revolutionary War period (1775-83). That is a generation after the First and about a generation before the Second Great Awakenings. No one classifies the Revolution as a period of spiritual revival. Quite the reverse.

Iain H. Murray, in his study Revival and Revivalism (Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), summarizes (p 74), "With the possible exception of Western Pennsylvania, there seem to have been no areas where there was general revival during the years of the War of Independence . . . . In most of the country there was evident spiritual decline as political and military events dominated public attention."

Murray quotes an observation from Robert Semple, who was fourteen when the war was won in 1783. Semple said that with liberty came "leanness of soul" (p 76).

This chill to their religious affections might have subsided with the war, or perhaps sooner, if there had not been subsequent occurrences which tended to keep them down. The opening a free trade by peace served as a powerful bait to entrap professors who were in any great degree inclined to the pursuit of wealth. Nothing is more common than for the increase of riches to produce a decrease of piety. Speculators seldom make warm Christians. With some exceptions the declension was general throughout the State [of Virginia]. The love of many waxed cold. Some of the watchmen fell, others stumbled, and many slumbered at their posts.

Note that last sentence describing Virginian pastors. That would be the original Black Robe Regiment -- falling, stumbling, slumbering.

The spiritual drought lasted so long, according to Semple (Murray, p 78), that it "induced many to fear that the times of refreshing would never come."

At this moment in our nation's life, pastors need to know their jobs. The surest way to freeze congregations in self-righteousness is to go soldiering in the populist militias. Churches are populated with sinners who have trampled the holiness of God, and whose only hope is that the Jesus Christ whose name they have claimed will recognize them on the last day.

I fear we are not on the edge of an awakening, but inhaling the fumes of stupefication.

An Open Letter To the Black Robe Regiment

Dear Evangelical Black Robe Members, You captured my attention through Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally, and you've attracted a devoted following. In an effort to understand what you're doing and why, I've been looking at your website, and I have a number of questions.

Here is the first sentence on your home page:

The Black Robe Regiment is a resource and networking entity where church leaders and laypeople can network and educate themselves as to our biblical responsibility to stand up for our Lord and Savior and to protect the freedoms and liberties granted to a moral people in the divinely inspired US Constitution [my italics].

The last clause raised many issues for me.

1. Upon what do you base your claim that America was ever "a moral people?" By moral, I assume you mean ethically good. How do you propose to demonstrate that morals in 1776 were good by God's standards for behavior, equity, and love? Quotations from the founders about the importance of morality will not suffice, since goodness is not in the professing but in the doing.

2. Do you believe that God gave us liberty because we were moral?

I ask because, since you are evangelicals and believe that no form of God's grace is merited by us, then you must know how suspect that teaching would be.

3. Do you actually believe that the U. S. Constitution is "divinely inspired?" You must be aware that this is Mormon doctrine, and has never been part of the Protestant tradition, founded as it is upon sola scriptura. Why are you, as evangelicals, promoting Mormon mythology?

As a corollary, if you don't believe the Constitution is divinely inspired, why did you permit the claim in the first sentence of your home page? Who wrote that sentence, and what is his/her theological tradition?

4. Elsewhere, you assert, "The Constitution (Part 1--the Declaration of Independence, and part 2), was and is a covenant between the people of America and their Heavenly Father."

Let's leave aside the enormity of asserting that the Declaration is part of the U. S. Constitution. Just answer this: on what possible basis in the Bible do you make the claim that God made a national covenant with Americans?

And again, why are you evangelicals signing on to Mormon myths?

5. In the same paragraph, you also claim,

A people who were honed by thousands of years before Christ walked the Earth by way of the Israelites who had been scattered and dispersed many times in their history.  These folks who now inhabited this New Jerusalem (this New Eden that Christopher Columbus saw), were living out what they saw as a life and a country that was fashioned entirely by their Creator.

Are you agreeing with the Mormon tale that native Americans are Israelites?

6. On the same page, you say that "Liberty and Freedom has [sic] been graciously bestowed by our Heavenly Father to each of us.  It [sic] has been freely offered, freely sacrificed for by Christ Jesus, and it is the duty of each of us to acknowledge that precious gift and to not give it away lightly."

Do you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to give us political liberty? As evangelicals, surely you must believe that it is liberty from sin and death that Christ purchased. If you want to say that the liberty was also political, you will have to point to some biblical text that not only uses the words liberty and freedom but teaches that these words signify political rights.

7. Why is there no doctrinal statement on your website? How do you propose to advance spiritual revival without stating clearly what the spiritual principles of that revival are, and upon what scriptures those principles are founded?

8. Why is your "networking entity" by invitation only? You say that your site "is an invitation only closed social network for church leaders to freely communicate in a safe environment.  We will vet all prospective members to ensure that they are in fact an active church leader."

It may be that this site does not represent your views of the Gospel or of the Black Robe Regiment. If so, then I invite any evangelical member of the Regiment to disavow the site. State clearly that you do not believe that our Constitution is inspired by God, that it is a covenant with God, or that Americans are a "moral" people descended from the Israelites, but that all Americans are sinners, unable to govern themselves, deserving no favor from God, and who are only freed from their sins by the blood of Christ.

Without straight talk of this kind, I have to conclude that members of the Regiment are fighting to establish a civic deity for Americans -- which is to say, an idol.

Sincerely,

Matthew Raley

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.

Glenn Beck's Rally For Religion

by Matthew Raley Last Saturday's headline at the New York Times pretty much said it all: "At Lincoln Memorial, a Call for Religious Rebirth."

Glenn Beck aims to unite evangelicals and Mormons spiritually using generalized pietistic language to make America more religious. According to the Times: “'Something that is beyond man is happening,” Mr. Beck told the crowd, in what was part religious revival and part history lecture. 'America today begins to turn back to God.'”

Several features of that statement strike me.

For starters, Beck does not say what is happening that is "beyond man." Indeed, his second statement undermines that portentous claim: The nation's repentance begins "today," with Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, powered by high celebrity wattage and stimulated by plenty of free media. The event, whatever it was, came entirely "from man," and was not in any sense "beyond man."

Further, Beck's use of the idea of repentance is safely generalized. "America," Beck says, the nation corporately, turns back to God. The populist implications are clear: we who already follow "God" have gathered, and those other people who do not follow "God" would do well to pay attention.

Even further, the repentance is vague because the "God" to whom "America" is turning is a squishy sort of being. Beck appeals to us to pray to this God on our knees in front of our children. This God drops giant sandbags on Beck's head, apparently. But does this God forgive sinners? Did he give his Son in an atoning death to save them? Is it this God's sole purpose to build an eternal kingdom for His Son that is categorically greater than America? Is this, in other words, the God who revealed himself to all in the Bible?

Or is this the God who invites us to be initiated into one secret teaching after another under the strict guidance of a prophet in Utah, whose revelations continue to add to the good but insufficient work of Jesus Christ? Is he the God of the gnostics?

Those devoted to mere religiosity won't care. But those devoted to the Gospel should.

Ross Douthat in the Times nailed what went on at the rally with his usual perceptiveness.

Now more than ever, Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life. This spirit of self-affirmation was at work in evangelicals’ enduring support for Bush, in the enthusiasm for the Dean campaign among the young, secular and tech-savvy, and now in the devotion that Palin inspires among socially conservative women. The Obama campaign raised it to an art form, convincing voters that by merely supporting his candidacy, they were proving themselves cosmopolitan and young-at-heart, multicultural and hip.

Beck's Mormonism blends in well with the lifestyle of religiosity that the rally sought to affirm, and the evangelicals he woos always seem to be desperate for someone to affirm them. The courtship has been ongoing and shrewd.

David Gibson at Politics Daily reported earlier in the summer on Beck's commencement speech at Liberty University.

"I want you to know that the invitation to speak today is not meant as an endorsement of my faith," he said, absolving Falwell -- son of the late Jerry Falwell Sr., icon of the religious right and founder of Liberty, which he envisioned as a Baptist Notre Dame. "But I also want you to understand that my agreeing to speak here today is an endorsement of your faith."

Big applause, understandably, and then a good follow-up, as Beck told his listeners that this was no time for division on the right over things like doctrine and dogma. "We may have differences, but we need to find those things that unite us."

It's possible, even likely, that the courtship is a two-way street. I can readily understand some evangelical leaders making the most of an opportunity to influence Beck toward a true understanding of the Gospel.

But why are they promoting his bid for national spiritual leadership? Having a man who has not professed faith in Christ alone be a commencement speaker to Christian graduates, to say the least, is a novel form of outreach. And forming a "black-robe regiment" of evangelical pastors to amplify populist pieties under Mormon generalship is not going to advance the Bible's Gospel. Such efforts will blur it.

That does indeed sound like something "beyond man," but not from the direction of heaven.

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.

Reverse the Decline of the Local Church

by Matthew Raley As we've seen over several weeks (starting here), three trends contribute to churches' loss of mission:

1. Politicization: the alliance between evangelicals and the religious right has confused the purpose of church life. Many now view churches as centers of political activism to "redeem the culture."

2. Media dependence: Many churches are vendors for conferences, videos, and books from parachurch organizations. Such churches do not have a mission developed locally, but purchase a mission from Focus on the Family or Rick Warren. This trend has degraded relationships, as media-focused living always does.

3. Weakened gospel: Many evangelicals are hocking the messages of political change and personal fulfillment, which, while salable, are not the message of the New Testament. The Gospel of the apostles is about the resurrection of human beings from the dead in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This message can only be communicated effectively by a church with profound and stubborn focus. No focus, no Gospel.

A business plan for local churches has emerged from these trends. Attract a lot of new people. Give them activities that are fun and broadly Christian. Try to motivate them toward believing in Jesus.

Like any business plan, this one says that investment will yield a return. The investments required for attracting masses of people -- in snap-crackle-and-pop media, high-energy staff, well-designed activities that people want to join -- will yield maturity in Christ over time. That return on investment will then power the church into more growth.

Three problems.

This business plan is expensive in both time and money. Furthermore, this expensive plan has been designed to serve a confused mission. Finally, it does not deliver the promised Christian maturity. The failure to deliver a return is now a documented fact, published by, among other sources, the eminence grise of church growth, Willow Creek.

In business terms, investment plus unprofitability equals closure. Churches are closing because they operate on poor business plans designed to support a confused mission.

The issues are both spiritual and practical. The goal of the New Testament has to be restored in its brilliant clarity: move people toward completeness in Christ (e.g. Colossians 1.24-29). The spiritual requirement for this restoration is depth of experience in relationship with Jesus Christ and his teaching. Leaders must have this depth, and they must bring congregations along.

But the practical requirement is just as important. If there is no business plan to advance the New Testament mandate, then church life deteriorates to mere words. How is your church going to move people toward completeness in Christ? What resources of money, personnel, and time are you going to devote to the task corporately? And how are you going to measure the return on that investment?

I believe that no business plan to direct the investment of church resources will yield a return today unless it produces the following outcomes:

1. Submission of heart-and-mind to the Bible.

Churches need to devote money and time to the exposition of Scripture from original languages at weekly worship. This teaching must be effective enough to spur one-on-one discussion of the Scriptures among the congregation. The scholarship must be fresh, the applications specific, and the presentation excellent. The financial cost is the salary of a preaching pastor. The time involved is also costly: few educators have to produce brand-new material every single week.

Return on investment: the deepening and stimulation of the congregation's intellectual and spiritual life. (Don't underestimate how important this is: a community needs a clear agenda.)

2. An individual, daily practice of worship.

Individuals need to be apprenticed in the spiritual disciplines. This requires a financial investment in staff and in lay leadership training so that the intensive mentoring is being done by lots of people. Here, too, the time invested is costly: apprenticeship is about face-time with individuals and small groups.

Return on investment: intensifying the vitality of people's relationship with God and experience of the Gospel. This refreshes a person's motivation to serve God, which in church life is the first thing to dry up.

3. Obedience to the fifth commandment.

This requires the programmatic decision to mix generations intentionally rather than segregate them. If there is no reverence cultivated in younger people for elders, church life is mere words. This should not cost a lot of money that a church wouldn't otherwise spend. It need not cost any. But it does cost time in focused planning.

Return on investment: Reverence for your elders refreshes motivations again with love and regard for prized relationships, and it establishes a natural form of ethical accountability.

There are several more crucial outcomes I'll outline next week, along with specific methods we have found useful in Orland toward these ends.

But I'll sign off with this: criticizing the religious right, media-driven culture, or the church growth movement is not enough to reverse the local church's decline. Dippy stewardship is not overcome by preaching or prayer alone, but by stark realism. And that means taking a hard look at business plans.

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.