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Thursday, June 21, 2012

David French and the Christian Partisan

David French recently wrote a refreshingly candid piece explaining his journey to being an unapologetic Christian culture warrior. It is a thoughtful first person narrative and together with a recent set of reflections by his fellow Patheos blogger, Timothy Dalrymple, is representative of the kind of discourse left-leaning Christians like myself need to consider and engage with. French’s argument in his “Open Letter to Young, ‘Post-Partisan’ Evangelicals” is not addressed to me—I am neither young, easily defined as Evangelical (although I consider myself evangelical) or post-partisan in the sense French seems to have in mind--but I am actively engaged in the debates French writes about and I am a more than casual participant in the cultural moment that French unfortunately insists on viewing as a culture war. In this work I have the occasion to read French and other self-described Christian conservatives and I think I could perhaps offer him a richer explanation, based on a different example of French’s own work, for why many young evangelicals, and many other folk of different ages and beliefs, are tempted to describe themselves as post-partisan.

When I am tempted to use the term post-partisan, and often when I encounter people using the term, it is in reference to a frustration with a style of partisan argument that so completely distorts its opposition’s views and so cartoonishly portrays the moral and political choices people must make that I want to wad up the paper or punch the computer screen. The frustration turns to spiritual sadness when these types of partisan arguments are made by people of Christian faith who are therefore bearing witness to a watching world. Partisans of both the left and the right are capable of these distortions, as my open letter to Jim Wallis demonstrates. It is at moments like that when I am tempted to throw up my hands, yield the debate to the warriors and attempt to fashion myself a neutral, “Jesus only” observer and commenter. French is correct that such a stance is not wise or even really possible, but he is sadly the source of such frustration in ways that I hope he will consider and rethink. Allow me to explain.

In a June 13 column for Lifenews French unwittingly displays precisely the kind of Christian partisanship that leads people to wonder if the culture warrior mentality is  beneficial to the Church’s witness to the public truth of the gospel. In his article “Why do ‘Social Justice’ Christians Ignore Pro-Life Issues?” French engages in three culture warrior practices that give partisanship a bad name:

Culture Warrior Practice #1: Fail to engage real people and their real arguments and instead rely on your own worst-case descriptions to describe the entirety of the perspective you want to defeat. Here is the clearest example of this in French’s article:

Again and again I see young social justice-focused evangelicals abandoning any effective voice for the unborn for the sake of an ephemeral, culturally-fashionable concept that as a practical matter means little more than advocating a utopian ideal through a grab-bag of banal, functionally socialist policies. Moreover, the embrace of social justice often drives them functionally into the arms of a political party and political movements that are dedicated to protecting and even subsidizing the “right” to kill children on a vast, industrial scale.

If he sees examples of this way of thinking among young evangelicals “again and again” then it should have been easy to link to even one example of these views.

Culture Warrior Practice #2: Present current debates in a way that is beneficial to “your side” but distorted to such a degree as to raise questions about your commitment to truthful discourse. As even casual observers know, the issue of the environment is one that drives many Christians, particularly young evangelicals, away from conservative political values. It makes sense, then, that French would address the issue. But look at how he does it:

Let’s take the environment. Social justice Christians just adore the environment. (Don’t we all?) They want us to be good stewards of creation (who can disagree with that?) and as a result decry dependence on fossil fuels and tend to embrace the full agenda of the environmentalist Left — carbon taxes, cap and trade, emissions caps, etc. etc. etc… in exchange for adopting fashionable leftist policies that at worst actually harm the people they’re trying to help and at best represent debatably-effective solutions to complex and intractable problems, the social justice Christian Left has thrown under the bus the most vulnerable citizens of this (or any) culture — unborn children.

What is interesting about this is that the leading evangelical environmental group espousing the kinds of policies French finds wanting—the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN)—consistently uses pro-life arguments to buttress their policy descriptions. Far from “throwing under the bus” unborn children (what a terrible image to place on another’s perspective), the EEN has made a point of marshalling its energies around environmental issues that damage the unborn. This is not a convenient fact for French, but it is a major one and it has been the subject of intense debate within the evangelical community (Christianity Today even devoted a special feature to the EEN’s actions so it is not an obscure debate). Perhaps French is completely unaware of this debate, but I find that hard to believe. It seems more likely that instead of addressing the pro-life merits of the EEN and their explicit claim to being completely pro-life, he has chosen to distort evangelical environmentalists as those who silence the pro-life cause. This fits neatly with his vision of himself as a culture warrior for the unborn, but at the cost of any recognition of the complex context of the debate between leading evangelical environmentalists and the broader pro-life community

Culture Warrior Practice #3: Finish your article by reducing your opponents to a label they reject and then claim to have discerned the true intentions and motivations of anyone who fits your simplistic description. Here is French’s concluding paragraph:

So, please, let’s drop the false moral pretense of “social justice.” You’re not fooling anyone. You’re a leftist seeking leftist solutions to known cultural problems, and in so doing you’ve elected to side with those who seek the legal right to intentionally kill children. Oh, you may claim to be pro life even as you work diligently to maintain and increase the power of those individuals and institutions that advance and protect our abortion regime, but you’ve made your choice in the real world.

That probably speaks for itself, but I would be remiss if I did not point out that the greatest voice for the unborn in French’s and my generation, John Paul II of blessed memory, regularly and consistently gave voice to the specific policy prescriptions on the environment and the war in Iraq that French equates with the social justice/leftist position. Did John Paul, of all people, really “maintain and increase the power of those individuals and institutions that advance and protect our abortion regime”? Is it any wonder that young evangelicals wonder about the merits of Christian partisanship when they see it practiced in a way that reduces moral and spiritual giants like John Paul II to the moral equivalent of abortion apologists?

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