January 22, 2016


The Undead Religious Right: Why I Cannot Support Ted Cruz (Matthew Lee Anderson, 1/13/16, Mere Orthodoxy)

How did we get here? For the past thirty years, evangelicals have sowed an anti-political wind, and now in 2016 they are reaping the Trump whirlwind. Having stoked the affections of alienation and disenfranchisement, evangelical leaders have this cycle scrambled to prevent the laity from voting on them. But those political passions have deep roots, which is why popular evangelical support for Trump has not (yet) diminished. In 2010, James Davison Hunter's To Change the World argued that the Religious Right's political approach has been shaped by a Nietzschean will to power, which aims to  enforce its will through "legal and political means or to threaten to do so," rather than persuading others or negotiating compromises. This interdependence between the evangelical world and the government has a long history in American life: From Prohibition to the Comstock Laws, evangelicals have been particularly keen to pursue legal remedies for moral problems. Paradoxically, then, while evangelical Protestants have made much in recent years about maintaining a sphere of life beyond the reach of the state (the family, the church, and so on), they themselves have been an instrumental part of the politicization of everything.

On marriage, the recent source of so much consternation within the evangelical world, the problem of how the church and state interact is particularly acute. As University of Chicago legal theorist Mary Anne Case has observed, evangelical Protestants are uniquely dependent upon the State for their marital practices. As they do not have their own formal divorce or annulment proceedings and courts, evangelicals have outsourced such statuses to the states. Such intimate integration of the church and state, Case argues, has a historical lineage: The Puritans themselves viewed marriage as a political contract, rather than a sacrament, to the extent that in some cases preachers were not present so as to not confuse the church and the state.

This narrow identification between the religious community and the political order, however, has generated a strong sense of grievances at the shifts in political opinion, grievances that the Roman Catholic community and Black Protestant churches do not feel as acutely given their long history as outsiders. As Case writes, for evangelicals, marriage law "could be put in service of sectarian ends by groups that substituted capture of the state institution for development of their own clearly religious alternatives." When those institutions were lost (as the public schools were in the 1960s), an acute but understandable sense of oppression gripped the evangelical political life. Hunter's analysis concurs, identifying ressentiment as the corollary of the political will to power. For evangelicals,"injury--real or perceived--leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on whom they see as responsible."

Such an anti-politics of resentment, alienation, and disenfranchisement is at the heart of Trump's appeal, even if the issues that he has been most vocal on are not traditional social conservative concerns. But ressentiment is not rational to begin with; it is not rooted in a deliberative, robust account of the common good, even if it uses such rhetoric to justify itself. The energy that generates ressentiment is more primal, more visceral--and hence, like Falstaff, less bound by particular moral outlooks than it might seem. The strange willingness of social conservatives to sometimes overlook the wildly disparate moral characters from their own outlooks of those who seek their votes--as evangelicals almost did in 2012 in their flirtations with Newt Gingrich--represents a willingness to sacrifice their principles on the altars of political power. This is the political ethos the Religious Right has fostered within their constituency for thirty years--and now, at the hands of Trump, it has finally born its nihilistic fruit.

Donald Trump may not be palatable to the establishment Religious Right--but Ted Cruz is, and as a candidate whose sole accomplishment seems to be 'disruption', he promises evangelicals Trumpism with a veneer of respectability. The galvanizing support by the traditional evangelical leadership class for Cruz was as predictable as the Cruz-Trump love affair. Cruz has followed the Reagan-Huckabee playbook of wooing evangelicals impeccably, while holding the decisive advantages over Huckabee and Santorum of not being either of them. In Cruz, conservative evangelicals have the embodied promise of a younger, chaos-light candidate who is firmly and securely one of their own--that is, one who shamelessly subordinates the religious life to the pursuit of political power.

Compare Cruz's courtship of conservative evangelicals with Marco Rubio's. Rubio endorsed Mike Huckabee in 2008 (disclosure: as did I), so he has roots in the social conservative world. Rubio's stance on abortion is impeccable for social conservatives, and his personal life seems to exude the family-first conservatism that social conservatives have (ostensibly) made their distinctive witness. Rubio even packs more theological freight into a five-minute explanation of salvation than many evangelical preachers. As a religious conservative, Rubio seems almost too perfect. Consider the astonishing fact that on a November Sunday in Iowa, Rubio went to church--that is, he went to church to go to church, rather than to shill for votes. His decision to forgo campaigning that day "raised questions" among those who have apparently forgotten the 10 Commandments--which evangelicals infamously have sought to keep in public places, even if they have not taken them all to heart.   

Ted Cruz went to church in Iowa, too, one week after Rubio. And there he made it obvious (if anyone could doubt it) that he is willing to pander to evangelicals in ways that clearly make Rubio squeamish. Cruz reduced the evangelical megachurch he visited to a glorified campaign rally, complete with Cruz 2016 slides on the screens behind him. What began with Reagan's delicate "I endorse you" to an extra-ecclesial gathering has culminated in the shameless, overt subordination of the inner life of the church for political gain.

Indeed, no religious arena has been immune to Cruz's political ambitions. He announced his campaign at Liberty University, which bills itself as the world's largest Christian university, and indelicately placed his own political hopes in the hands of the conservative evangelical community. "Imagine," he bluntly put it, "millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values," before turning his family into a political prop to demonstrate his social conservative bona fides. On the day of an important Iowa social conservative event, the Presidential Family Forum, Cruz not-so-subtly announced the formation of a "Prayer Team." Direct contact with the Almighty about all matters Cruz comes with strings, though: Team Cruz will require your name and address, please. "The prayers of [middle-class, registered Republicans] availeth [many votes]." So the Bible says somewhere, I think. Most perniciously, Cruz managed to turn an event about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East into a news story about himself, proving in the most abhorrent of ways that absolutely nothing is sacred when everything is political.

Cruz's unsavory use of the religious life for his own advancement, however, is the playbook that the Religious Right has written for itself, creating a vicious cycle that identifies the evangelical world with such shameless politicking. Attempt to carve out a path respects the church's independence, avoid subordinating the Christian life to political ambitions, and many conservative evangelicals will simply tune out. Pandering is the litmus test for politically conservative religious 'authenticity.' Evangelical pastors and laypeople who are more careful in their theological politics are understandably invisible to the media in political seasons--which rewards the Religious Right with the attention they crave, and is instrumental to their ongoing power.

Ignore the fact that such an empty political cycle lacks the robust theological sensitivity that Scripture requires of the people of God. Overlook, if you will, the idea that Cruz's naked flattery toward evangelicals and Trump should make anyone who has read Proverbs cautious. Remember, instead, the jilted feeling evangelicals have had from political leaders who promised evangelicals the moon and did not deliver: that alone should require from evangelicals a healthy skepticism about Cruz's promises. And then consider that Cruz's overt religiosity--which itself should make evangelicals wary--appears to some people who knew Cruz in the past to be a learned art.

Posted by at January 22, 2016 8:20 PM