The Restless Evangelicals
Caleb Stegall on Finding the Common Good in an Augustinian Republic
Newsweek proclaimed 1976 the “year of the evangelical.” The following thirty-odd years saw Evangelical Christians become a political force, playing a key role in the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, the 1994 GOP Congressional take-over, the impeachment battles of the late 1990s, and the two-term presidency of George W. Bush.
The year 2008, however, will likely be remembered as the year the Evangelical political consensus—which had cohered so strongly around family values, industrial capitalism, and American exceptionalism—fell apart.
Recently, their frustration with Republican scandal and corruption, perceived disrespect from party leadership, and failures to restrict abortion and homosexual “marriage” have combined with a renewed interest in social justice to lead many Evangelicals to re-evaluate their commitment to the Republican party. This does not mean, however, that they are undergoing any substantial change of heart. Whether “liberal” or “conservative,” Evangelical political thinking has been remarkably consistent during the American centuries.
Evangelicals have been robust believers in what historian Herbert Butterfield has called the Whig view of history, the tendency to interpret human events as a progressive march through time, to produce a story that ratifies the present and promises an even more glorious future. Because their faith is so dependent on stories of transformation and conversion, it “exists in tension,” as Wilfred McClay put it, “with settled ways, established social hierarchies, customary usages, and entrenched institutional forms.”
This whiggish spirit is the deepest Evangelical commitment, one that crosses political and ecclesial lines. This Evangelical praise song is sounded in the key of world immanent salvation with equal enthusiasm by right and left, by George Bush and Hillary Clinton, by Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. The claims of liberal theologians like Jim Wallis about the welfare state’s ability to alleviate poverty are topped only by the claims of conservative theologians like Michael Novak that capitalism can end global poverty.
The difficulty is clear. Each faction points the divine arrow of history in the direction it approves. At the same time, Evangelicals’ unmediated individual access to God and the Scriptures leaves them with little more than “What would Jesus do?” as a political argument.
Hence the thicket of Evangelical literature and its tangled appeals to what Jesus actually meant. Hence the increasing hostility between factions, each of which has convinced itself that its demands are the demands of history. Hence their acting as if their political failure equals the defeat of God’s purposes in the world.
An older Christian political tradition, however, expressed most deeply and originally by St. Augustine, may provide relief to today’s warring Evangelicals. On the first page of his Confessions he writes: “Because thou hast made us toward thyself our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” With that “toward thyself” Augustine expresses the early Christian understanding that man participates in his creation, both individually and collectively, as he either obeys and moves towards God and rest or he rebels and moves away from God into restlessness.
Elsewhere, in City of God, Augustine argues that the Roman concept of a “people” or polis as a group “united by agreement on the right” is inadequate to the task of forming and sustaining a common good. That is because agreement on what is right does not solve or even address the problem of human desire and “drawn-ness.” He thus redefines a people as a group “united by loved things held in common.”
For Augustine, membership in a political community is, then, an event of participation that orders a people by attuning their desire and drawing them toward those loved things held in common. Put simply, politics is the collective act of ordering human desire. It is at root a question of love (that which orders our desires) rather than one of justice (that which orders our actions). History becomes both an account of that ordering and the source of that ordering.
What does a man or a society love? That is the key political question as far as Augustine is concerned.
Evangelicals have tended to define themselves in very Roman terms. America is an idea. An idea, however, can neither symbolize nor nurture a people’s response to the event of being drawn to the loved things they hold in common—in political terms, the creation or founding of the nation. An idea is far too abstract to account for or support a “founding.”
Believing in American history as the progressive march of ideas about “the right,” Evangelicals are captured by ideology. When they endlessly debate abstract principles and discard more concrete questions of desire centering on land, heritage, ritual, worship, forms, and kin as nativist, parochial, or dangerous, they force us to ask: Is there anything concrete left around which Americans (or at least regions of America) can cohere and which they can protect as loved things held in common?
Evangelicals dream, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “of a system so perfect that no one will need to be good.” Or to put an Augustinian cast on it, in a procedural system of bureaucratic, technocratic, and meritocratic rules and regulations wherein the attunement of desire is no longer a political concern. This error has led directly to America’s chief political problem: Americans (speaking generally) do not much like their lives.
Having achieved the freedom to choose anything their hearts desire, they have forgotten what it is they wanted in the first place. Any political question tending to lead them back to the Augustinian question of what they love is recast in the procedural and mechanistic language of law (justice) and markets (choice). Thus, most people have a sense that our public life today is “over-lawyered” and “over-commercialized,” but few can explain why.
But we do need to be good. And goodness, as a political virtue, requires more than an abstract ideal like freedom or equality or justice or a growing economy. It requires concrete objects of our mutual love, affection, loyalty, and effort—it requires, literally, a common good.
An Augustinian conception of the common good understands this world, in George Santayana’s terms, as a suggested, yet missed, perfection. It views life as eucatastrophic—a joyful catastrophe. It is deeply skeptical of historical claims of progress and more often than not sees human limitations as burdens to be borne and sometimes celebrated, rather than problems to be solved.
The implication for Evangelical politics of an Augustinian renewal is simply a turn towards home, a turn towards discovering what Evangelicals hold affectionately and in common with their neighbors. There is still a place for vigorous debate over questions of rights and justice and all the rest. Unmoored from the question of desire, however, Evangelicals will remain as restless as everyone else.
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“The Restless Evangelicals” first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
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