Imagine a World Where Faith Was More than Political Eye Candy

March 27, 2015

Senator Ted Cruz became the first Republican to formally toss his hat into the 2016 presidential race on Monday. He will definitely not be the last. Cruz framed his presidential announcement with a speech and a setting that called to mind the Reagan era of the 1980s and the early days of the new religious right under the leadership of Jerry Falwell. The allusions to the past were intentional. Cruz very much sees himself as a possible heir to both the Reagan legacy of reducing governmental reach, or overreach, and the Falwell legacy of recruiting evangelicals to support Republican candidates.

That is why Cruz made his announcement at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Liberty was founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971 and, with a residential enrollment of 13,000 and an online enrollment of 95,000, lays claim to the status of “largest Christian university in the world.”1 The school has grown significantly in numbers since its inception, and one could argue that it, like much of the rest of evangelical America, has grown slightly beyond the narrow emphases of its founder as well. In the interest of full disclosure, I have taught online courses for Liberty and have often been pleasantly surprised in my interaction with some of the administrators, faculty, and students there. They defy stereotypes of the school in many ways.

Yet, sadly, it was the stereotype that Senator Ted Cruz was wanting to reinforce on Monday when he rose to address the crowd of Liberty constituents under the electronic gaze of a watching world. His address was vintage 1980s culture war rhetoric. Evoking John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” and Ronald Reagan’s use of Winthrop’s language, Cruz mentioned twice America’s role as a “city on a hill.” He made the claim that “roughly half of born again Christians are not voting.” Continuing his repeated prompt that his listeners use their imagination, Cruz said, “Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.” 2 There was no provision in Cruz’s rhetoric for the possibility that those born again Christians might vote a different set of “values” from the ones that Cruz went on to lay out in some detail in his speech or that they might apply the same values to civil society in different ways.

The troubling thing about Senator Cruz’s religio/political theater is not the idea that Christians should be more engaged in public life. That faith should be an integral part of public discourse is something on which most, if not all, Christians can agree. How faith can be a healthy and productive component of public discourse in a pluralistic society is a much more complicated question and one about which sincere Christians will probably continue to disagree for the foreseeable future. What is troubling about Cruz’s appeal and the legacy of conservative evangelical political engagement he seeks to revive is the assumption that a particular set of political values are “Christian” values, that a particular political agenda rather than fidelity to Christian doctrine and ethical principles becomes the test of orthodoxy. For instance, how does a Christian who disagrees with the Senator about immigration issues fit into his definition of how born again Christians vote? Is there room under Cruz’s revival tent for a Christian who sees adoption ministry or sex education as a more effective means of aiding the unborn than passing legislative measures? One could argue that one of the few lasting positive cultural changes conservative culture warriors have influenced in recent decades has been a noticeable reduction in the total number of abortions and teen pregnancies in America.3 Ironically, politicians like Cruz actually downplay this positive development, a development which did not result primarily from passing legislative measures, but rather through educating the public about the tragic consequences of abortion and the better alternative options available to them. The culture war mentality of the past all too often seemed to prefer demolishing cultural strongholds by brute political force to the much harder task of winning heart and minds. The end result was that they neither demolished cultural strongholds nor won hearts and minds. As the great English poet John Milton once observed through the mouth of his fictional Satan, “Who overcomes by force hath overcome but half his foe.”4

Those who balk at the brazen politicization of faith by politicians are all too often accused of not valuing faith enough when really just the opposite is true. We value faith too much to see it reduced to a trivial tool for political advancement. Faith is vitally important, too important to become captive to something as base and temporal as a political agenda. Our faith comforts us in sorrow, inspires us in adversity, and brings us from condemnation to bask in the comforting warmth of acceptance by grace. It is a powerful force, which is exactly why the powerful desire to harness that force for their own means. Something that affects us so deeply and stirs us so ultimately has the potential to steer us easily and possibly to steer us wrongly when the symbols of faith are wielded carelessly. By the very definition of the word, something that is “harnessed” by someone is rendered subservient to or tamed by that person to serve their ends, to fulfill their agenda. In the political context, harnessing faith can mean that the faith once for all delivered to the saints as good tidings of great joy for all the people becomes the property of a single narrow fallible political faction.

Such a faith is like a beautiful woman brought to a Hollywood premiere by a dashing actor. Her job is to dazzle, look beautiful, and above all to make her companion look good. She may speak, but her words must be carefully chosen to support her companion and his image. The term “eye candy” is often used in urban slang to describe anyone, male or female, who occupies this role. Their purpose is to look good and make their companion look better. Politicized faith from any tradition demotes the sacred to the level of eye candy. It is Christianity that scrapes and bows to secular power rather than confronts the powers that be with prophetic intensity. Properly harnessed, Christian leaders in thrall to the intoxicating aphrodisiac of political power all too often confront the faults of political opponents with apocalyptic rhetoric while ignoring or excusing the worst atrocities committed by their political allies.

Fortunately, the future promises better things. There are strong indicators that the culture war emphasis that Cruz is seeking to revive has little appeal for younger Christians. They understand the complexity of their world and the importance of thoughtful Christian engagement with our pluralistic culture far better than many of their elders. These young believers tend to roll their eyes at the worn old shibboleths of the culture war. They point us forward to a new day when Christians from across the political and social spectrum will invest their talents and their energies in seeking creative solutions to our problems rather than obsessing over our loss of cultural dominance.

About the Author

  1. Liberty University, Liberty University Quick Facts Accessed March 25, 2015. 

  2. Senator Ted Cruz, “Transcript: Ted Cruz’s Speech at Liberty University,” The Washington Post, March 23, 2015. (Accessed March 25, 2015.)  

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Data and Statistics: Abortion.” (Accessed March 25, 2015.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Data and Statistics: Teen Pregnancy.” (Accessed March 25, 2015.)  

  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Ed. David Scott Kastan (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005) 33. 

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree until the end when you refer to a former, “lost” state of Christian “cultural dominance.” There never was any such time! When Francis Schaeffer started beating this drum in the 1980s, George Marsden and Mark Noll took him to task in a series of letters that unfortunately are not published but have been available and used by historians of the Evangelical movement.

    There was never a “Christian founding” of the nation; it has always been pluralistic and conflicted. Jefferson wrote his famous “wall of separation” letter about church and state to Jews in New England to reassure them about religious tolerance for non-Christian religions. Not all Christians cared for this tolerance of course. The fractious New England Puritans divided over how to relate to Native Americans, uppity women, and “witches.” Most colonies and then the states were anti-Catholic in their policies, as was Great Britain. Some Christians supported slavery; others did not. Quakers and other Anabaptists were pacifists; others were not and abused them for this. Christians of various kinds were loyal to the revolutionary cause while others remained loyal to Britain. Christian and generally Protestant nativism in the dominant culture was not very favorable to Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, and various “dark” and/or non-Protestant immigrant groups, especially if they tried to establish their own schools. A thriving bilingual German-American culture in many midwestern cities was squashed by the world wars and the “patriotic” anger that was taken out on German and also Dutch Americans. The American flag came into many churches as a result of that unhappy period which is now ironically celebrated as part of the “good old days” of a bygone “Christian America.”

    American pluralism works best when we are honest about our ugly, conflicted past and present, when we treat religious “others” honestly: as distinct, different, and often in disagreement with us. What matters is whether we are curious, open, and engaged with each other’s true views, values, and passions — despite our disagreement, distaste, or non-comprehension. We do not accomplish this if every four years Christians who are generally opposed to or uninterested in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue suddenly become advocates for a theopolitical “Christian unity” based on platforms developed more by pundits than theologians.

    1. David,

      I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. In fact, I teach the very ideas you are arguing to students every semester. You can also do a simple Google search to see that I have often argued vigorously against the “Christian America” thesis in print. In fact, it is kind of amusing to be accused of the opposite tendency because they are usually tying the ropes to hang me for not supporting the notion of America as the “New Jerusalem.” 🙂 I think you misread what I was saying. I do think you can argue that white Protestant Christianity enjoyed a sort of de facto cultural dominance in the nineteenth century due to sheer numerical strength and public influence. The very sources you cite, Marsden and Noll as well as Nathan Hatch, have made that case. But as you say, even as they were enjoying that broad cultural influence America was a dynamically diverse religious melting pot from the beginning. I like Marsden’s view in his “Religion in American Culture” where he portrays the negotiation between “insider” and “outsider” voices and the repositioning of sacred and ssecular as framing the story of religion in America. Actually, all I meant in the final sentence is that people of the culture war mentality are fretting about what they perceive as a loss of cultural dominance. And I think you can make the case that Christianity is less culturally influential that it was a few decades ago. I would make the argument that the culture mentality is partly to blame for that.

      1. Also, a great discussion of the Marsden, Noll, and Shaeffer debate you mentioned with extensive quotes from the letters can be found in Barry Hankins’ “Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America.”

    2. Good! In that case I just wish you had closed with …rather than obsessing over “our loss” of [a mythical] cultural dominance “we” never had.

      If there is a way to speak and think “Christianly” or even to do “culture warring” on that basis, the gospel model seems to emphasize ‘I’ and ‘all’ over ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It is a naked ‘I’ without a trace of identity politics. Christ, of course, did not “engage” his culture as “a Christian.” He is represented to us with a funny kind of ‘I’ that asserts itself confidently to offer itself humbly. Luther’s famous definition of Christian freedom comes to mind: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”