The Idea of a "Christian Coalition" is Still a Good One
Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
I returned home last weekend after teaching at a retreat in Richmond, Virginia. I was wide awake, way past the time I am normally asleep, so I grabbed the Saturday morning paper that had been left in the driveway in my absence to occupy my restless mind. The headline read "Once Powerful Group Teeters on Insolvency". It was an article on the decline of the Christian Coalition.
I live in Chesapeake, Virginia, the one time home of this organization. The local newspaper has never been much of a fan of most things involving Pat Robertson. It is unfortunate. Though I may disagree with him on many issues, no-one can deny the good works that he has done, especially anyone who drives down I-64 to see the beautiful campus of Regent University. Because of this "checkered" relationship between anything founded by Dr Robertson and the local paper, I read the article to see whether it was an accurate account. Much of what I read I was aware of already. This once very large, influential, evangelical, conservative political activist organization is now a shadow of its former self - and it has fallen on some very difficult times.
In its inception, "The Christian Coalition" purported to be about building a coalition of Christians who would engage the debate in the public square on behalf of Christians on those issues that mattered most, where there was a clear Christian position, and work to protect the rightful place of Christians in public debate, public service and national influence. Yet, it never really reached beyond a core constituency of politically conservative evangelical Protestant Christians. The Catholic and Orthodox involvement with this group that called itself "The Christian Coalition" was virtually non-existent.
Over time, it became clear that this effort was mostly about political conservatism and all of the issues identified with this political approach in its various forms as they have appeared in the current American political landscape. By saying this, I do not deny the important work that the group assisted in, like efforts to return legal protection to children in the womb, the elderly and the infirmed - and the defense of marriage and family. I have a lot of memories and experiences associated with this organization. Those memories reach back to its very beginning.
Many years ago, while I served at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, I was the first Catholic representative to the "American Congress of Concerned Christian Citizens", the precursor to the organization. Years later, I relocated to Virginia precisely to help build and lead the legal "sister" of sorts of the organization, the American Center for Law and Justice, which was also founded by Pat Robertson. I served in that capacity for seven years from its inception. The, in my pro-life and pro-family lobbying work and activism, I was well aware of the organizations activities and spoke on several occasions at their events as one of their Catholic friends.
I am not a conservative. I am not what is now called a "neo-conservative." I am not a liberal. I am simply a faithful Catholic Christian who is committed to Catholic Social teaching and trying to inform my participation in every area of life in accordance with its principles. That includes my political participation. I know that this Social teaching is not simply "religious"- in the sense of speaking only to "religious" people - but, rather, contains within it principles for governing that will build a truly just society for all men and women. I also know that these principles are true. I am dedicated to making them known and offering them as a framework for social action serving the common good.
I tried, on the fundamental issues that matter most, to collaborate with the Christian Coalition, as well as many other groups, any time that such collaboration could help to effect necessary change in this Nation that we all love. My goal was- and still is- is to build, in the words of my champion, Pope John Paul II, a new "culture of life" and "civilization of love" in America and throughout the world. Much of my efforts have revolved around the most pressing and fundamental human rights issue of our age, the right to life from conception to natural death. Over those years I saw myself engaged in what I called back then, "trench ecumenism". I worked as a faithful, orthodox Catholic Christian alongside of evangelical Christians, Orthodox Christians, mainline Protestant Christians, other people of faith and good will. I did this long before such efforts were considered "cool" by some of my fellow Catholic activists. I was even criticized for doing so by some who, years later, would come to champion this very kind of social and cultural collaboration.
Over those years my growing grasp of and commitment to the whole Social Teaching of the Catholic Church caused me to be disliked by some, including some within the so called "religious right" movement and the "conservative" and "neo-conservative" movement. The contemporary "liberal" movement, lost in the insanity of its current leadership which seems to have lost its soul and integrity over abortion and euthanasia, has seen me as an enemy for quite some time. I am whole life / pro-life, pro-marriage and family, pro-freedom (authentically understood), pro-poor and pro-peace. I do not fit any of the limiting political labels of the age and I reject them. I am not alone; there is a growing movement of Christians, other people of faith and good will who are rejecting those labels, and who have learned the dangers that, I believe, led to the decline of some groups who sought to engage this vital mission of social, political and cultural action.
We are men and women with no real political home within the accepted structures of much of American politics. Some of us knew we never really did have such a home. Others are only now beginning to wake up to the fact. Yet, we cannot pull back because our work is not for ourselves alone. Rather, the issues around which we came to this struggle - and the results we still seek to achieve in building a more just society - are for the common good. Rather than being discouraged or disillusioned, we must learn the lessons that the classroom of life teaches and redouble our efforts at cultural, social, policy and political influence. We must continue on in the efforts to build a new society, a culture of life, marriage, family, authentic freedom, compassion and solidarity.
It is not time to "pile on" during this sad moment for this once robust organization; the media is already engaged in just such an effort. Rather, it is time to consider some of the issues that this decline brings to the forefront. After all, at least this group that called itself a "Christian Coalition" tried to do something. Let's face it; at the inception of their efforts, many, many Christians had failed to comprehend the implications of their faith on their political participation. Many still have that problem. For me, this article once again pointed to the need for some Christians to reconsider their embrace of the current "conservative" movement. I have written for years concerning the dangers inherent within the acceptance of the "conservative" agenda by some activist Christians over the last twenty years.
I wrote a piece several years ago entitled "Requiem for the Religious Right" which raised quite a stir. At this important moment in American politics is time for sincere Christians, of every commitment, communion, confession, denomination and ilk, to reassess their own approach to political participation. Not in order to back away from political participation, but to re-position it within the broader context of our primary call to the full and true conversion of all of human culture. It is time to learn the lessons that can be derived from following any pied piper of political partisanship. It is time to draw back, reaffirm our prophetic role in our culture, pray, take a deep breath and build a new movement, one that is at the service of the truth and the common good, rooted in the principles derived from classical Christian thought. The Idea of a "Christian Coalition" is Still a Good One.
Discerning the Lessons
Though the lessons that can be learned from the story of the "Christian Coalition" are multiple; I want to focus on just a few. First, the name was ill chosen. There simply are many Christians, from many different Christian communities, who did not share all of the groups' political or policy agenda. From the beginning they therefore ran the risk of identifying themselves, in all of their efforts, as THE Christian approach. This not only fed the hungry criticism of their adversaries, it also alienated many other good, wonderful and faithful Christians. As I indicated above, for example, Catholics and Orthodox had little to do with their efforts formally, no matter what their spokespersons, literature or web site would continually claim. In fact, as their palate of political positions grew to reflect conservatism, and even more its "neo-conservatism" stepson, Many Catholics, Orthodox and other Christians, found ourselves disturbed by the claim contained within the name.
Some of the earlier voices identified with the group seem to have been first politically "conservative" and then to have wrapped Christian language around their polemics and their politics. Some leaders of the group appeared to try to put biblical proof texts on their own pet political ideas. They failed to develop a hierarchy of values within which to posit which of their political positions were actually "Christian" (a position compelled by the Christian faith -like the right to life) and which ones were discretionary or fell within the large area of political concerns that are properly left to the exercise of human prudential judgment.
Whether any of this was intentional, I cannot say. It was probably due to a lack of a cohesive social teaching in the particular Christian tradition of training of the individuals involved. However, the sad effect was that much of the rhetoric used made it sound as though all "conservative" ideas were somehow "Christian". In so doing, the rhetoric undermined the truth concerning the proper exercise of prudential judgment that lies at the heart of authentic human freedom and sometimes caricatured Christianity. This failure to develop a hierarchy of values and respect freedom and prudential judgment weakened the groups influence. It also failed to develop "principles of engagement" for Christians who become politically involved.
Next, like other efforts that properly challenged Christians to political participation, this effort succumbed to partisanship. Let's face it, much of what came to be called the "religious right" movement ended up becoming a politically "conservative", Republican, and mostly evangelical Protestant movement. As mentioned above, though it claimed to include Catholic and Orthodox Christians along with its core evangelical Protestant Christians, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians never joined the group.Even those who worked with the movement on pro-life and pro-family issues did not fit in within the culture or the model of the movement. However, even more importantly, one needs only to look at the "issues" around which the group eventually organized. They were "conservative" political positions, often inseparable from the Republican Party. That is not to say they were wrong concerning all of those issues. However, when a group uses the name Christian to describe its mission, it raises the bar quite a bit in how that group chooses its issues.
Next, at least to me, sometimes its leaders seemed to espouse a model of engagement with the "world" that was hostile and at odds with a classical Christian worldview, operating within a model of cultural participation that was antithetical to a classically Christian vision of the human person and worldview. It seemed to operate instead from a notion of freedom that was infected with the autonomous individualism of the age. Some Christians now actually embrace the political lines of the libertarian movement as their own. This is absolutely incomprehensible. The isolated individual is not the measure of freedom. Some of the issues arising out of the "worldview" of some leaders and members of the group colored their approach to activism and therefore the approach they encouraged others to take. They often presented Christians as some kind of "interest group", rather than as the leaven, light, and the soul of the world, called to sacrifial service and redemptive love and living.
Though theologically faithful Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant Christians share what has sometimes been called the "socially conservative" agenda, they have many differences, including deeply rooted theological convictions concerning the role of Christians in- and the relationship with - the contemporary world. This group sometimes seemed to speak from a kind of "persecuted minority" model of activism, and some of its efforts belied an "anti-" approach to effecting social, political and judicial change. They commonly emphasized their opposition to current problems, rather than propose alternatives and offer alternative solutions. They spoke of what was wrong with the culture, rather than articulate a better way to build a more just society. This kind of an approach is rarely able to offer a compelling vision for organizing a movement or for building a truly just social order.
I reaffirm the assertion I made several years ago that the entire movement once called "the religious right" is over. Its impact on politics and policy is negligible. The primary mobilizing issue of the movement, securing in law a recognition of the inalienable right to life for every human person including persons in the first home of the whole human race, the womb, has made little discernible political progress in America. Abortion, which is always and in every instance intrinsically evil because it is the immoral taking of innocent helpless human life, is still legal in all fifty States. At least as of the writing of this article, even the most obviously barbarous practice, so called "partial birth" abortion, is still legal, because rogue courts continue to enforce a war on the womb.
During the unfolding of the tragedy that was and is Hurricane Katrina we found some Christians opposing federal efforts to reach out to the poor left in the wake of the horrors of Katrina. They apparently failed to understand the implications of our Christian obligations in solidarity. I know that some rightly question the proper role of the federal government, but others seem to have adopted a kind of notion that government is "intrinsically evil." Perhaps, after years of rightly questioning the overly federalized approach to governance of the past, they have failed to think the issue through and accepted some of the errant notions operating within some "conservative" circles. Caring both about and for the poor lies at the heart of the Christian mission; though there can be genuine discussion and disagreement about how to best accomplish this duty, no Christian can deny it.
The question we should ask ourselves in approaching government is what constitutes "good governance'. For a classical Christian thinker, government simply is. God governs and invites us to participate in governance. Government occurs in marriage and family. It should involve the mediating institutions and begins from below. It operates best when it is closest to those who are its participants and its benefactors. The application of such a model of governance should apply the principle of subsidiarity, a social ordering principle which affirms that "good" government should be properly "limited" in the sense of being closest to the people, effective and efficient. A society should not give away the responsibility to govern, in the first instance, to a higher community. Rather, good governance must start with the smallest and the closest governing option and all other governance is there to assist, equip and empower.
Such principles, derived from Christian Social teaching, help us understand how we can build "good" government, if we work at it. They also help protect us against governmental abuse, usurping of rights, and corruption. Government must also be "good" in another sense of the word. It is "good" when it reflects "The good", we find this in the moral truths written in the natural law. These truths can be known by all men and women. For the believer, those truths are confirmed in - and deepened by - revelation. However, they are available to- and can be known by - all men and women. They include such Truths as the inviolable dignity of every human life, which served as the foundation for the once universal recognition that it is always wrong to take innocent human life.
Unfortunately, rather than develop both the language necessary to explain these principles and the actions necessary to apply them, instead we find some otherwise genuine Christians "parroting" libertarian notions of the evil of governance. Or, we hear some "conservatives" - who are also Christians- almost "baptizing" quotations from Thomas Jefferson (such as he governs best who governs least"), as though these maxims were rooted in Revelation. Christians have lived under just kings, democracies and under a myriad of other governmental structures. While we welcome the contemporary model of western democratic governance, we do so because we cherish authentic human freedom. We must first think with a Christian mind.
Christians need to face a difficult fact. To borrow the words of the old "Who" song "we tipped our hat to a new revolution" and we were, as those old rockers warned us "fooled again". We need to rise up and assert that we are not first Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals - we are first, last and always Christians. Christian is the Noun. Because we are Christians we carry on the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ as His Body on earth. That mission has a social dimension. We need a new -- actually quite old -- model for a new Christian action, one that will not lead us to compromise, despair or open us to being co-opted by any political party or agenda. The Idea of a "Christian Coalition" is Still a Good One.
Well, one may ask, are there issues that belong to Christians as Christians and not just issues that fit a "conservative" political trajectory? Of course there are. There is also a hierarchy of values concerning the importance of those issues. The first in that hierarchy is life. The right to life from conception to natural death is a fundamental human right derived not from any government or civil authority but from the Creator. The American founders spoke of it as "unalienable". It is the foundation upon which the entire structure of rights is grounded. Without the right to life and the freedom to be born, there are no other rights or freedoms. Without the right to live ones life without the threat of having it taken when someone else chooses, there is no true freedom. This position is not simply a "Christian" or even a "religious" position. It is a human position, a fundamental right that is written in the Natural Law and one which governments exist to not only recognize but protect. Defending this right to life serves the common good.
Then there is the truth concerning marriage and its ontological nature as being between one man and one woman, as well as the family founded upon it, the first society, first school, first religious institution, first hospital, first economy and first mediating institution. Again, this understanding of marriage and the family founded upon it. The Christian faith asserts that we are not be fully human, not fully the "Imago Dei", in isolation. We were made for family and we were made for community. We will only find our human fulfillment and flourishing by giving ourselves away to the other. Authentic human freedom is not found in a notion of the isolated autonomous individual as being able to do whatever he/she pleases, but rather flourishes in relationship- with God and with one another. It also recognizes the obligations that we have in solidarity to one another, to the entire human community and, in a special way, to the poor
I have proposed in the past that Christians need to come together around four "pillars" of political and social participation; the dignity of life, the primacy of family, authentic human freedom and solidarity with the poor. These pillars of participation can form a firm foundation for our social and political action in genuine coalitions and alliances with one another, with other people of faith and with all people of good will. They will also keep us issue and people focused, protecting against being co-opted by other agendas. They will help us to recover our primary prophetic role in culture. Some of the past approaches to political participation, both on the "right" and on the "left", were "outside in" rather than "inside out" in their approach. For example, even some Catholic Christians who got involved with the "religious right" ended up trying to dress up conservative political positions with the social teachings of the Catholic Church, using them as a sort of "proof text" for conservative ideology. It was a mistaken effort. Christian faith and identity is not a coat that you put on. Our Christian faith informs the very core of our identity and it should inform our participation in the social arena, including our politics.
The effects of this entire discussion have been recently demonstrated in the debate over the Presidents judicial nominees. It presents those who are Christians with an opportunity to reassess what happened to our efforts to effect social and political change. If the best that the "conservative movement" has to offer on the fundamental human rights issue of our age, the right to life, is "strict constructionism", it offers little. Perhaps as a judicial philosophy, it is better that the alternative, a misguided judicial activism that led to countless millions of children being killed under the profane cover of a so called "right to choose" created by unelected Judges, but it will not end the slaughter. There are rights that trump and precede all civil rights. They are fundamental human rights that have been endowed upon us by a Creator. They can be known by all through the natural law that binds us all. They must be reaffirmed and become the foundation for a truly just social order. To take that position across the Board is not "pushing ones religious beliefs upon others", rather, it is being human and calling for the re-civilization of the current barbarous age. It is reasserting truth as the basis of justice.
Our nation is still in need of an authentically Christian social, cultural and political movement. The Idea of a "Christian Coalition" is Still a Good One. Past efforts at organizing and engaging Christian citizens have accomplished some good. However, they failed to accomplish all that was hoped. I believe that this is partially because they had a faulty foundation. We need a new movement that understands and embodies the classical Christian worldview and calls Christians to social, political, cultural and economic participation for the common good. Those who bear the name "Christian" carry forward in time the redemptive mission of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is our "apologetic" for authentic social and political action and public service. We are to be "in the world" in order to transform it from within. We are called to serve the common good.
Rediscovering - and Serving - the Common Good
The values we who are Christians proclaim- and seek to both live and work into genuinely "good" public policy and discourse- are good for all men and women. They are not simply "religious" in the sense that they are to be held only by those who hold to a distinct religious tradition. They are a part of our common human vocation. They are the glue of any truly just society. These values are actually not really to be held at all-in the sense of clinging. Rather, they are to be given away and worked into the leaven of the whole society so that we may share this bread with every man, woman and child. In that way we promote the "common good" of all.
These values begin with a respect for the dignity of all human life, from conception to natural death. They acknowledge the primacy of the first cell of society, marriage and the family built upon it; the first vital cell of society, the first government, the first economy, the first hospital, the first classroom and the first church. Authentic human freedom recognizes the first freedom, religious freedom, as a fundamental human right. There are two sides to spending freedoms coin; a freedom from oppressive restraints but also a freedom for responsible living. Freedom has a constitutive connection to the truth and it must be exercised accordingly. We simply have no "right" to choose what is wrong; rather we must choose to do what is right if we want to be truly free. We are obligated to one another in bonds of solidarity because we are our brothers' keeper!
While pundits reflect upon the current turn of events concerning the "Christian Coalition", and the state of the "conservative" movement, Christians should reflect upon our call to be disciples and servants, taking a prophetic role in this age. It is time to throw off the confining labels of the political discourse of our age, build a new movement and follow Jesus Christ first, last and always.
The Idea of a "Christian Coalition" is Still a Good One. It is time to really build one.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. A graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he is currently a P.H.D. student in theology at the Catholic University of America. He is a contributing editor of Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports and writes regularly for Catholic Online. His newest book, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" is available in bookstores.
Third Millenium, LLC
https://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
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