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OPINION | PAUL PRATHER: Bad religion, bad politics, bad results

Winning at all costs by Paul Prather | September 10, 2022 at 3:20 a.m.


In a recent essay, the conservative Christian writer David French lays out three premises about the political predicament of American Christians. See: tinyurl.com/2x9zppsc

French, a former staff writer for the National Review, is now an editor at The Dispatch and a contributor to The Atlantic.

First, he says, despite declining rates of religious belief and church attendance, the United States remains statistically the most Christian of all advanced democracies. Our country not only ranks near the top in religious adherence but also in religious intensity.

"There is not one other true peer nation that is both mostly Christian and where most people say their faith is 'very important,'" he writes.

Second, the Republican and Democratic parties alike depend on devout members for their success.

Nonwhite Democrats, especially Black Democrats, "are among the most God-fearing, churchgoing members of American society," French says. And the Republican Party would be "irrelevant" without its white evangelical base.

Third, despite items one and two, our political culture remains toxic, polarized and increasingly violent.

"Given the first two factors mentioned above, this should not be," French says. "After all, Jesus could not have been more clear. In John 13, he declared, 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.'"

But Christian voters are as strident as others.

"The mutual loathing you see comes from people who could recite every syllable of the Apostles' Creed side-by-side and believe wholeheartedly in the divine inspiration of Scripture," French observes.

All of which leads him to a noteworthy conclusion: "I am [convinced] that our Christian political ethic is upside down. On a bipartisan basis, the church has formed its members to be adamant about policies that are difficult and contingent and flexible about virtues that are clear and mandatory."

I would disagree with French on many political issues, but I absolutely agree with him on this. He says what I've been trying to say for years.

He offers for discussion one of his favorite Scriptural passages, Micah 6:8: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

The passage is deceptively simple. Each of the three virtues named in the passage from Micah lies in tension with the others.

Humility forces us to recognize our personal limitations and the limitations of the political arena. How do you close the racial achievement gap in education? How do you decrease crime? Who can say for sure?

"When I encounter the most partisan preachers and public Christian personalities, I'm often gobsmacked at the inverse relationship between their political certainty and their political knowledge," French says. "The less they know about an issue, the more confident they're obviously right."

The challenge is that, while we must always recognize we could be wrong about any political matter, we can't be paralyzed.

"We might be wrong, but we have to try to do what's right, as best as we can discern it," French says.

But as soon as we decide to grit our teeth and "do justice," we run into the third virtue: "love kindness."

"How many times have we heard the claim that the 'old rules' of civility and decency are simply inadequate for the times?" French asks. "That's a core argument of the new right, for example. We tried decency, they say, and it didn't work. Now is the time to punch back."

That mindset is absolutely opposed to biblical ethics. You don't just act kindly until kindness doesn't work.

"You're to be kind even through the most brutal acts of repression and in the face of complete political defeat," he says.

Balance is necessary. But instead of balancing these virtues, what U.S. Christians have done is create a hierarchy of them. Christians don't outright reject loving kindness or humility. They just assign them secondary status.

"When push comes to shove, it's our vision of justice that matters," he says.

This imbalance has produced much of the self-righteousness, anger and moral relativism evident in contemporary Christian politics.

"Here's the paradox -- forsake one virtue for another, and you increase the chances that [you] gain nothing at all," French writes. "To put it another way, when we transgress moral laws, we're fools if we think we can control the consequences."

Decide winning is all that counts, no matter the means, and you end up with bad religion, bad politics and bad outcomes.

Notably, the Scriptures are far more specific about biblical virtues than about biblical justice.

The doing of justice -- French calls it the "what" of politics or the specific policies Christians support -- can evolve differently in different countries at different times.

But the "how" of politics doesn't evolve at all. The how requires genuine kindness and humility in all places at all times.

"And so, in our arrogance, we think we know better than God," French concludes. "We can't let kindness or humility stand in the way of justice. Yet we're sowing the wind, and now we reap the whirlwind. The world's most-Christian advanced nation is tearing itself apart, and its millions of believers bear much of the blame."

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at

pratpd@yahoo.com


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