The Religious Right was not wrong to tell people of faith that the Bible is political. Its critical mistake and enduring sin is not that it challenged Christians to engage in public life, but that it invited us to join a reactionary coalition driven by racial fear, male chauvinism, and corporate greed. Decent people with sincere motives joined the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition to put their faith into practice. But these organizations made fallible people worse than we would have been otherwise. They led us astray.
I know from personal experience how much any attempt to live out my faith in public life must begin with repentance. The sackcloth and ashes of scripture are appropriate, especially for white evangelicals in our present moment. We have sinned, and our sin has not only stained our souls; it has made life more difficult for millions and threatens to destroy life itself on this planet. The fire this time could just as soon be a nuclear holocaust as a wildfires like the ones that are consuming large swaths of California as I write.
But repentance, I have also learned, is more than feeling guilt and saying we were wrong. Repentance is turning around and going in the other direction. It means listening to the people who have suffered most from the false moral narrative I was caught up in and joining with them to offer our neighbors a better story about who we might become. The gift of moral fusion politics is that it offers us both a history we can learn from and a future we can join — a coalition not led or convened by majority-white faith leaders, but one where we can all nevertheless find our place in a moral movement.
Donald Trump’s presidency has created a moral crisis, both within in the Republican Party and in American public life. It would be irresponsible to ignore this fact, but it would also be naïve to pretend that Trumpism somehow emerged apart from the moral narrative that the Religious Right preached for four decades. The policy violence that presses down on poor people, undocumented people, people of color, and the earth is being executed in God’s name. We cannot, as a people, retreat to an apolitical faith that tries not engage public life any more than an individual can pursue spiritual health without addressing her body’s physical needs. While spiritual formation and pastoral care within congregations are both essential to Christian discipleship, public witness to our faith is equally important. Now, as ever, we must be prepared, as St. Peter said, “to give an answer for the hope that is within us” (I Pet 3:15).
When we point out that faith in American public life has been exploited by the Republican Party, we are neither endorsing the Democratic Party by default nor counting out the possibility of Republicans changing course. A moral movement must push both parties to address issues that impact women, children, the poor, the undocumented, and the environment—the vulnerable in our communities whom the prophets will not let us forget. There is nothing partisan about insisting that everybody has a right to live, to learn, to enjoy the fruit of their labor, to have access to healthcare, and to receive equal protection under the law. To call policies that deny our neighbors these basic rights “conservative” is not only an act of violence against them; it is a misrepresentation of conservatism. When we resist extremism within the Republican Party, we do not deny that there are things we should all work to conserve in the American republic. Instead, we insist that those basic values are more important than any party’s political power.
Many who, like me, were caught up in the deception of the Religious Right worry that a “Religious Left” could easily mirror the mistakes of the past forty years. It is true that political power will corrupt without regard for party or affiliation. But a moral movement can practice political realism while warning against the dangers of partisanism. When we lift up the voices of people who are hurting and endorse policies that would impact the material circumstances of our lives, we can then use the power of our voices and our votes to support politicians who promise to make those policies law. If they are Democrats in one election that is no guarantee that they will be a generation from now. I learned from Strom Thurmond that politicians can switch parties without giving up their biases or their grip on power.
Even still, we who follow Jesus in the United States of America practice our faith within a two-party system that negotiates a balance of power between Republicans and Democrats. People who are disillusioned by the corruption in either party have at different times in our history tried to imagine a third party. But our electoral systems at both the state and federal levels are not set up to recognize coalition governments like those that a parliamentary system allows for in Canada or Germany. There are good arguments for why such a system would better serve our neighbors, but within the US political system only the party in power could pass legislation to make those changes (or put them the voters as ballot measures). A moral movement in America must present the issues that impact us to Republicans and Democrats and then decide, at each election, which party is more willing to address those issues with policies that promote justice.
If we have read the Bible well, we know that a moral movement will never persuade the powerful to establish God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. History illustrates how those princes and potentates who have been convinced that they were the executors of God’s agenda have been some of the most dangerous political leaders. Nevertheless, the prophets exhort us to, “Cry aloud and spare not!” When there is injustice in public life, those who follow Jesus have no choice but to stand with the downtrodden, take up the Bible’s prophetic texts, and say aloud for all to hear, “The Spirit of the LORD is on me and has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
When we take up this prophetic task today, we must, like Jesus in his own hometown, confront people who read the same Bible and claim to worship the same God we do. Christian nationalism thrives in America today because the political interests that drive extremism within the Republican Party under Donald Trump’s leadership are a minority position without the support of white evangelicals. Without Christian nationalism, there would be no President Trump. However extreme religious nationalists may seem to our neighbors and the watching world, the Republican Party as it is currently constituted cannot exist without them. They are the base that the Religious Right built.
Within the experiment in multi-ethnic democracy that we call America, Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to the “more perfect union” that our Constitution calls us to strive toward. In a nation that is increasingly less white and less Christian, the coalition the Religious Right helped to build clings to power by undermining the democratic principles that sustain America’s social contract. In other places and at other times, Christian faith in public life might call us to love our neighbors and build up justice in other ways. But here and now, we must be clear: the task of a moral movement is nothing less than reviving the heart of American democracy.
We must do this for the sake of our near neighbors, and we must do it for the sake of our human family on the other side of the world. But we who claim to follow Jesus must do it alongside people of every race, creed, religion and culture because the moral crisis of our time continues under the leadership of men and women who claim the blessing of our God.
This article is adapted from Revolution Of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good (IVP), available wherever books are sold Dec. 3.