USA Today recently published an important opinion piece from Tom Krattenmaker called “Evangelicals seek positive change.” (The title does make one wonder what kind of change we’ve been seeking up until now, but I digress.) The article is important, I believe, not for its times are a changin conclusions, but for its presuppositions about the intersection of evangelicalism and politics.

The crux of the article consists of excerpts from an exchange Krattenmaker had with blogger and author Jonathan Merritt, one of the key expositors of “a new kind of thinking” as Krattenmaker describes it. Quoting Merritt:

Americans are tired of the incivility and the partisan divisiveness on both sides. Regardless of how much longer the culture wars are going to continue, Christians need to transcend the polemical, partisan, power-hungry battles that stymie the common good. If my intuition is wrong and the culture wars continue to rage on, my hope and prayer is that Christians will take a higher road as they seek to be faithful in the public square.”

Christians cannot join the ranks of the politically apathetic. But we aren’t forced to choose a human-formed party with a systemized divide-and-conquer agenda, either. We can stand in the gap and claim loyalty only to Jesus.”

First of all, there’s much to like in Merritt’s thinking. Christians must not be uncivil in private or public life, nor should our politics be strictly partisan. We cannot be politically apathetic and our loyalty is first to Christ. Amen and amen.

On Merritts power hungry battles, Id simply add the distinction that conservatives are not seeking to wrest power from one party and transfer it to another. Rather, youll most often find us trying to wrest power from the federal government and return it to the proper subsidiaries: the family, the church, the people, etc.

Gods Work in Americas Public Life

The context of the piece is about how a new generation of evangelicals are unshackling themselves from partisanship generally and the GOP specifically. Krattenmakers sights are trained on the “religious right” when he describes Merritts thinking as indicative of a challenge mounted against the notion that electoral politics is the way to do God’s work in American public life.” [Empahsis mine]

This is key. Krattenmaker (and Merritt?) presupposes that evangelicals who are politically conservative see politics as the way to do Gods work in Americans public life. Having worked for an organization that deals with evangelicals in public policy for nearly six years, I cant name one of my 75 colleagues who believes this.

Most of us who labor at organizations like FRC do so because weve been called vocationally into the realm of public policy. And for better or worse, the values derived from our faith have political fallout. (Thanks Andrew Walker for that gem.)

I and most of my colleagues are family focused and see raising our children as our most important contribution to American public life. And in addition to our day jobs at FRC, many of us are involved in ministries in our local communities that serve the church and the common good. This would include everything from building orphanages in Latin America, to mentoring at-risk students, to distributing food to the needy.

New Thinking vs Old Thinking

In order for a “new kind of thinking” on evangelical political engagement to emerge, the writers must presuppose that a pervasive “old kind of thinking” on evangelical political engagement exists. Well, does it?

Krattenmaker seems to think so:

Seeing many of Christianity’s most ardent and visible followers caught up in the mean-spirited, truth-demolishing aspects of this is one of the more discomforting features of today’s politics.

And yet, as David French has pointed out, you needn’t look farther than the cumulative budgets of evangelical poverty and disaster relief organizations (well over $2 billion) as compared to the budgets of “culture war” organizations (less than $200 million) to dispel the myth that evangelicals are only, or even primarily, fixated on the political as the way to do God’s work in America’s public life.

Over at Mere Orthodoxy, Andrew Walker cuts to the chase:

I would like to know with some degree of specificity who it is that serves as Mr. Merritts foil in the culture war. What pastors are advocating Republican politics? What churches are adopting policies and positions that mirror the Republican Party or the Heritage Foundation?

The questions remain outstanding.

Excess is the Exception, Not the Rule

If the new kind of thinking Krattenmaker and Merritt are describing really means that evangelicals should not be beholden to any particular political party—then we say, hear, hear. FRC president Tony Perkins has reiterated his conviction time and again that Christians should vote their values and not the party line.

Certainly there have been excesses on the right where evangelicals have taken a stand in the public square. Theres the inopportune rhetoric, the occasional majoring on the minors, and our tendency to be outraged at instead of brokenhearted with our culture generally. There is no effort without failure. If my own life is representative of the whole, then there is near constant need to own up to mistakes and make them right wherever we can.

But as Walker contends, these excesses are the exception rather than the rule, and they are certainly no more endemic to conservatism than to liberalism. So on this score, let’s proceed with sober judgment and caution:

Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left. C.S. Lewis, from The Worlds Last Night.

A Consistent, Redeeming Presence

In the end, I think what Merritt and other emerging voices are rejecting is a stereotype that no longer existsif in fact it ever did. And I share every bit in Merritts discomfort with it.

Ill wholeheartedly affirm with Merritt and Krattenmaker the idea that Christians have one foot in God’s kingdom and one in the world. Ours is a dual citizenship. But it is an entire foot in each. Not simply a toenail in the latter. Yes, Christians must not trust in princes. But neither should we flee the field.

We are after something deeper than partisanship to be sure; it is a consistent, redeeming presence in American public life. We seek to be the little yeast working through the dough, causing the whole batch to rise.