Why Has Active Christian Political Engagement Produced So Little Good?

Oct 27, 2022 by David Fowler

Why Has Active Christian Political Engagement Produced So Little Good?
On July 3, 1995, as a first-term state Senator, I gave a speech to the Downtown Chattanooga Rotary Club, one for which I would now be excoriated. The speech became a front-page, above-the-fold headline story. But there is one major thing I did not then understand and, consequently, one thing I got terribly wrong. I must address it now, because I believe political conservatives and Christians are making the same mistake I made. 

The following is an excerpt from the news story about my remarks:
During the Independence Day address the senator said the principles that led to the American Revolution and the founding of self-government on this continent have been lost to a large extent. Material wealth has caused many Americans to decline to take a stand against the things that are eroding the nation's founding principles, the first-term Republican lawmaker from Signal Mountain said. He attributed the nation's decline to a loss of courage necessary to take a stand for what is right. He said another factor is the failure to acknowledge God and his transcending truth. Without personal courage and faith in God, an individual is willing to defend very little and there is even less he is ready to die for, he said. (emphasis added)
What prompted my emphasis on courage was this observation made by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his 1998 commencement address at Harvard University:
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. 

My Flawed Solution

The solution I proffered in 1995 was the need for convictions—the proverbial courage of one’s convictions. And I noted, correctly, I think, that convictions would give way in hard times unless we were convinced of their truth. I even added that “there is no basis for absolute truth if God does not exist.” 
I believe those things are still true, but they are not true enough. There is an element to courage about which I knew nothing, and to which I must now speak boldly.

Are Convictions Based on Truth Enough When Things are Hard?

I think the answer is a qualified no. What is missing that I did not then understand is the power of beauty.

Consider the comments of Scottish pastor and social reformer Thomas Chalmers. In a sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” he notes that one of the ways that “a practical moralist may attempt to displace from the human heart its love of the world” is by “cutting away from him the spring or the principle of one employment, without providing him with another. The whole heart and habit will rise in resistance against such an undertaking.” (emphasis added)

In other words, people will strongly resist efforts to take away what they think is beautiful if something else is not offered in its place. Yet, that has been the political focus of many conservatives and many Christians, including me.

For example, we rise up against things like transgender surgeries being performed on minors at Vanderbilt University Hospital. We revolt against vulgar portrayals of human sexuality in public school libraries.  We want to “cut away” reproaches to our moral sensibilities by enacting statutes that prohibit them, but do we really provide an understanding of something that is better, more beautiful and meaningful in its place?

An Example of When Truth Was Not Enough

Here is what I mean. Many Christians were mad when the United States Supreme Court repudiated the glory of God evident in His making us man and woman and joining the two together in matrimony. Christians saw the truth about marriage, but too few saw enough beauty in what He created and ordained to move beyond a momentary burst of anger that, like a spark from a fire, quickly dissipated into nothingness. 

“Thank God,” some have said to me, “that a man and woman can still get a marriage license,” even if the law says it was unnecessary that a "licensed marital" couple be a man and woman. 

Did they see no God-honoring beauty in matrimony worth fighting for even if the odds were against them and even if certain organizations might boycott our economy if they did? Apparently not or not enough based on what I’ve seen since then. And now we are reaping the mutilation of healthy reproductive organs in our youth and public displays of vulgarity to our children. 

They are the consequences naturally flowing from of our lack of courage in facing down the Supreme Court’s distortion of what it means to be man and woman in the context of marriage. That distortion was bound to surface in other contexts.

What Beauty Does

Courage arises when we see something that is beautiful to us being threatened or undermined, or even repudiated. We defend that which we consider beautiful. What I overlooked in 1995 is that seeing beauty is far more inducive to courage than mere abstract truth. 

In other words, the truth about which I then spoke must also be beautiful. Only seeing and desiring this true and greater beauty can dislodge our love of other things enough to foster a courage to pursue or defend the beautiful.

Moreover, seeing beauty inspires something beyond just a negative reaction to that which is bad—passing a law to stop that which is not beautiful; it inspires us to re-build that which supports and demonstrates the beauty of the good, the loss of which brought about the bad we want to stop. The “bad” is God’s gift to help His people see what they have lost or surrendered! Restoring the good is what bring positive change that can endure.

First Application to Me (and to you?)

I grew up as the mere moralist Chalmers described. As a legislator, my primary goal was to stop the bad. Stopping the bad was the only good my imagination could see and pursue. 

The reason? My understanding of the gospel was too thin and too narrow for anything more. My view of the beauty and the goodness of God, His creation, and His purposes was malnourished. 

I did not fully appreciate that God the Father was, in Jesus Christ, and by the on-going work of the Holy Spirit, truly in the process of making all things new, and the gospel was God’s personal invitation to join Him in a glorious project of reclamation and eventual glorification of the creation that will be my final abode. 

Young people today have their imagination captured by the prospect of saving the planet from climate change. And indeed, such an imagination is captivating.  But what has really taken them captive is the vain and futile imagination that their finite wisdom, knowledge, and strength are sufficient to the task.

However, that does not mean they should despair of pursuing the beautiful. Rather, they should be joined to God in a work that only He who is infinite and eternal, and the source of all wisdom, knowledge, and power can do—re-order our affections so that all things can begin to be restored to their original good order and harmony in anticipation of that which will be even more glorious in the end.

Second Application to Me (and to you?)

That preceding vision of the beautiful is why I sent out an email this Wednesday saying that some of the leaders in the legislature had done me a service. Their service has been to say that my passion for the beauty in human sexuality and matrimony (which fascist thinking subverts for the sake of the economy) was marginalizing me. (I admit my passion is often too zealous, but legislators also know it is for the sake of what God calls good and beautiful—the true nature of human sexuality as man and woman, and marriage.)

Through them God finally squeezed out of me a vision for something bigger and more beautiful than what I have been pursuing most of my 28 years in politics. 

By them, and by the passion of the three young men I also mentioned in that email, God provided the expulsive power for a new and greater affection: Calling out to those with ears to hear to join me in pursuing something more beautiful than merely telling people to say “No” to the world and what it chooses to love in place of God.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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