Thomas Jefferson said the cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate. These days, an uneducated electorate is crumbling the underpinnings of the American experiment. Evangelicals are contributing to this.
Our experiment in self-government requires a literate electorate. “Whenever the people are well-informed,” Jefferson noted, “they can be trusted with their own government.” When they’re illiterate, the experiment disintegrates.
Political illiteracy is especially pernicious these days, especially among white evangelicals. They constitute Donald Trump’s base of support, although many are now shifting toward Dr. Ben Carson. Both candidates claim their greatest asset is not being a politician. This disdain for politics is unfortunate.
The church has long held that politics is inherently good. This comes from the “four-chapter” gospel seen in scripture: creation-fall-redemption-restoration. On the street, it’s ought-is-can-will. Everyone imagines how things ought to be, what is—i.e., what are things really like in the real world as a result of our shortcomings, what we can do to make things better, and what things will be like some day, when the world is fully restored.
In the four-chapter gospel, the foundational command is to govern the earth, to improve it (Gen.1:26-28; 2:15). The Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city. The Greek word for city is polis, where we get our word politics. My wife Kathy and I live in Annapolis, the city of Anne Arundel. Politics is the art of forging individuals into healthy communities, or cities. In this sense, we’re all supposed to be politicians.
It’s political illiteracy to support a candidate who revels in not being a politician. It’s predictable, however, that few evangelicals see this. Too many embrace a “two-chapter” gospel—the fall and redemption. God is good and politics is bad.
The outcome is white evangelicals opting for polarizing candidates or popular Christians. Trump and Carson fit the bill, appealing to naïve Christians. It’s a phenomenon plaguing the Republican Party. Candidates scare up voters about how civilization is on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, is the ruination of the republic.1 It’s evidence of a contempt for politics that infests the evangelical mind.
Black evangelicals on the other hand opt for politicization. This is when the faith community, as well as minorities, seek legitimacy through the rights conferred by the state.2 This is opposite of the framers’ vision where religion conferred the virtues necessary for self-governance. It yields an uneducated electorate.
In both cases, black and white, the assumption is that if we can get the right politicians in office and the right laws passed, all will be well. It’s astonishingly naïve. A wiser approach is remembering politics is inherently good (creation). Self-governance is difficult (fall). Best to build the institutions that encourage virtue while punishing evil (redemption). There will be politicians in heaven, when mayors govern cities (final restoration).
It’s the institution part that evangelicals will find challenging. The four-chapter gospel encourages the building of mediating institutions (including government). They arbitrate between the state and individuals and set boundaries. Christopher DeMuth, a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, notes how American Christians have contributed to the erosion of these institutions.3 Evangelicalism in particular is pockmarked with cultural individualism, or what the sociologist Robert Nisbet and the political scientists Anthony King and James Q. Wilson call the “atomization” of American culture and politics. It yields an uneducated electorate.
A year from now, Americans will have elected a next President and Congress. No matter which candidate wins, Americans will get the leader they deserve. But democracy will be the loser if an uneducated electorate determines the winner.
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1 David Brooks, “The Republicans’ Incompetence Caucus,” The New York Times, October 13, 2015
2 Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion (New York: Random House, 1967).
3 Christopher DeMuth, “The Decline and Fall of Congress,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2015.