Editor’s Note: Bruce Ashford is the co-author of One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (B&H, 2015) and the author of Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (Lexham, 2015). He is Provost / Professor of Theology & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Andrew Walker: First, what inspired you to write this series of blog posts discussing the various ways that Christianity critiques political ideologies?
Bruce Ashford: During the past few months, I’ve been unfavorably impressed by the dysfunctional, vitriolic, and noxious nature of 21st century American politics. This is not to say, of course, that dysfunction and discontent are new to the scene or specific to the United States.
Indeed, dysfunction and discontent can be found in any era. Several decades ago, Ronald Reagan remarked that politics is said to be the second-oldest profession, and that it bears a very close resemblance to the first. Millennia ago, Plato joked that “those [persons who] are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”
Westerners have often been dissatisfied with their own democratic systems of government. Winston Churchill exemplified this dissatisfaction when he once quipped that, “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Americans have always amused themselves by making fun of their Presidents, of Congress, and of the political parties. Jimmy Carter, having often found himself the butt of such jokes, recently quipped that, since retiring from the presidency, “My esteem in this country has gone up substantially. It is much nicer now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.” In relation to Congress, Mark Twain once said “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Dennis Miller, in his inimitable way, once remarked that Congress makes Mayberry look like a think tank.
Criticisms of one party by another have always been on offer. Dave Barry recently encapsulated some of these frustrations when he quipped: “The Democrats seem to be basically nicer people, but they have demonstrated time and again that they have the management skills of celery. They’re the kind of people who’d stop to help you change a flat, but would somehow manage to set your car on fire. I would be reluctant to entrust them with a Cuisinart, let alone the economy. The Republicans, on the other hand, would know how to fix your tire, but they wouldn’t bother to stop because they’d want to be on time for Ugly Pants Night at the country club.”
However, jokes aside, the United States now finds itself in an especially unfortunate political situation. As I will note in the first post of the series, we Americans in recent decades have experienced the increasing disintegration of both major political parties; the superficiality and inanity often displayed by the candidates and interviewers in the presidential debates; the inability of Congress to carry on a sustained or constructive discussion on matters of grave national import; the escalation of race-related crimes and unrest; the blatant disregard for the Constitution shown by SCOTUS in its legalization of abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage; and the calloused and flippant attitudes of Planned Parenthood executive staffers when talking about taking the lives of unborn children and selling their dismembered body parts.
These are serious problems and, in the blog series, I will argue that all of us are to blame for them in one way or another. Our political dysfunction is fueled by our overheated and idolatrous allegiance to modern political ideologies. Sin and idolatry are progressively corrupting phenomena, chronic intruders that do some of their most serious party-crashing in the arena of politics and public life.
Despite the conviction that Christianity will always critique political ideologies, is it your belief that Christianity shares more natural alliances with some political ideologies over others?
That is difficult to answer, as the reader will see when the series unfolds. Our modern political ideologies tend to be idolatrous, unless they are “paired with” Christianity so that they can be reformed. Christianity is never compatible with idolatry, and so Christians will not find themselves in an easy or long-term strategic alliance with any ideology, unless that ideology allows itself to be reformed in light of Christian revelation.
With that said, Christians can find themselves in tactical alliance with ideologies, especially when the current manifestations of those ideologies do not restrict religious liberty or overturn creation order by rejecting fundamental moral precepts.
What, in your view, is the political ideology that has the least in common with Christianity?
I’m going to be coy again with this answer, so as not to “give away the game” before it is played. I’ll start by saying that each of the ideologies can be either more or less beholden to their pet “idol.” The more beholden they are, the more incompatible they are with Christianity. The less beholden they are, the more compatible with Christianity.
Second, I’ll say that Christianity is especially allergic to totalitarian regimes that overturn the moral order, restrict religious liberty, and so forth. But two caveats are necessary. One is that every modern political ideology can become authoritarian or totalitarian, even if some of them have built-in checks and balances while others don’t. Another is that Christians can live out their faith in any political context, including those that are the most totalitarian.
Is it good or bad that Christians in a particular nation-state find themselves gravitating toward one political ideology over another? What advice would you give to Christians who find themselves allied with political ideologies? What dangers are there?
I don’t think it is bad for Christians to be drawn toward one or another ideology, as long as they understand that God’s revelation in Christ will always call into question various idolatrous corruptions within any ideology, party, or system. A Christian “conservative” will have to call into question several aspects of conservative ideology; the same goes for Christians who are drawn to the other ideologies. Christianity never leaves any human ideology, party, or system untouched. It always calls into question, reforms, and redirects.
For fun: Who do you think the 2016 GOP and Democratic candidates will be? Ultimately, who do you think is the next president of the United States?
Predicting the future is a notoriously tricky enterprise, and perhaps in no situation more so than the 2016 Presidential election! I have no idea who is going to win this thing. But, just for fun, I’ll make a few observations.
First, a vote for Trump in the primaries is a vote for Hillary in the general elections. In other words, if Trump wins the GOP primary, Hillary will probably win the general election. However, if Trump does not win the primary, Hillary is not a shoo-in for the Presidency.
Second, If Trump can be dethroned, I think Rubio and Cruz stand the best chances of winning the GOP nomination. Cruz will probably have the easiest path to the GOP nomination, but Rubio probably has the easiest path to defeating Hillary in a general election.
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.