A friend recently asked me to share my thoughts on this little screed published by a regrettably-famous evangelical in 2008. It was a letter predicting what would happen after four years of an Obama presidency. Here’s a few excerpts:
(1) The Boy Scouts no longer exist as an organization. They chose to disband rather than be forced to obey the Supreme Court decision that they would have to hire homosexual scoutmasters and allow them to sleep in tents with young boys.
(2) Elementary schools now include compulsory training in varieties of gender identity in Grade 1, including the goodness of homosexuality as one possible personal choice. Many parents tried to “opt out” their children from such sessions, but the courts have ruled they cannot do this, noting that education experts in the government have decided that such training is essential to children’s psychological health.
Congress lost no time in solidifying abortion rights under President Obama. In fact, Obama had promised, “The first thing I’ll do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act” (July 17, 2007, speech to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund). This federal law immediately nullified hundreds of state laws that had created even the slightest barrier to abortion. States can no longer require parental involvement for minors who wish to have an abortion, waiting period, informed consent rules, restrictions on tax-payer funding or restrictions on late-term abortions. The act reversed the Hyde Amendment, so the government now funds Medicaid abortions for any reason. As a result, the number of abortions has increased dramatically. The Freedom of Choice Act also reversed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, so infants can be killed outright just seconds before they would be born. States whose laws were overturned challenged the law in court but it was upheld by the Obama Supreme Court.
There’s plenty more where that came from. Atheist blogger Libby Anne discusses it here and Christ and Pop Culture covers it here. In reading the letter, my mind initially goes to the paranoia that evangelicals are always tempted to trade in. We’re never far from the hair-on-fire wretched urgency that Spencer wrote about years ago. And there are few places more apt to produce that sort of urgency than politics.
However, this excellent address by Dr. Deneen from the FPR conference – and now online at FPR – makes an important point: Americans on the whole struggle greatly to see beyond Washington. When it comes to Washington and its inner workings, most Americans can work themselves into a mood of hair-on-fire urgency, religious or not. The health of the nation – perhaps even the health of the world – seems to hinge on what happens in DC, at least if you read many pundits of most any political stripe.
There is another element to this longstanding effort, to lower our sights and concerns from the divine to the earthly – to foster, in the recent words of biblical scholar Peter Enns, a “rival eschatology.” While we are drawn into the weighty battles between liberals and conservatives, sides pitted against each other, we cease to notice that they are part of a common effort to secure our allegiance to the belief that the fate of our world and our lives hangs in the balance with the outcome of the next election, or the election after that, or the election after that. As our attention focuses with greater exclusivity upon the concerns of Washington DC, the scale of our vista actually shrinks. Indeed, with our gaze fixed on the bright lights of Washington D.C., we invite its light pollution to dim out the light from the City that ought to matter more – the Eternal City to which we ought rather to aspire. We are more apt to see the lights of that better city from locations less bright, less distracting, less self-important.
We forget that Augustine went to Rome – his biographer Peter Brown tells us, because in Rome he could find the stage where he might pursue his ambitions as a political actor, a teacher of rhetoric. Unlike our current leaders, however, Augustine was quickly disillusioned by what he found there – an assortment of people drawn by common vices in the pursuit of earthly power. He left Rome, and eventually settled in the provinces of his homeland in Africa, in Thagaste, where he was drawn by life in a monastery where, Brown relates, “monks seemed to him to have succeeded in living in permanent communities, where all the relationships were moulded by the dictates of Christian Charity.” It would be from this setting that he would write his great work, The City of God, in which he sought to remind Christians – after the sack of Rome – that even the most important and majestic human societies must die, are destined to die, and will die all the more quickly when they think themselves to be the sole end and purpose of human life.
I have left Washington, but I am still learning to leave Washington. I am trying to learn that what takes place in my city, in my neighborhood, my region, deserves more attention and concern, deserves my energy and devotion and passion, far more than whatever the debate I’m told to care about by my betters who seek to focus my attention on the national and international stage, to distract me from the “slender allurements” of mere “domestic” life. Rather than “win” Washington, I am trying to learn to ignore Washington, to live in and care about where I am. And to remind myself to have a proper vista, not to share in the self-delusion in the eternity of our earthly city – that self-delusion that led our best-and-brightest into the belief that our economy would always grow as long as there was more to borrow, or today that our power will always increase. I am learning to leave Washington in part in preparation for the day when it will no longer be, or be what it is – a day that I think is not as distant as those now living there, a time when we will live in local culture because it will be the only place to live, the only place we should live.
To be sure, the nature of Washington’s perverse overreach – which is just as much a Republican “accomplishment” as a Democratic – demands responsible action from the citizenry. We cannot just plug our ears and pretend that the Leviathan doesn’t exist. That said, I don’t think I can improve on one of Matt Anderson’s common themes, which is that the best thing we can do is happily walk away from it, whistling a tune and committing ourselves to the health of our small places. The problem with Dobson’s letter, in other words, isn’t that it’s peddling something distinctly evangelical, but rather that it’s peddling a Christianized version of the same disease that plagues most Americans.