Look in their eyes
Be sure to vote this Tuesday. But wait until Sunday morning at church to catch the election results. Whichever candidate wins, look for the look on your friends’ faces. In too many cases, it will tell you the New Deal beat the New Covenant.
The New Covenant should be old news for Americans. New England Puritans embraced it in their covenant theology, a fertile seedbed for American constitutional ideas of ordered liberty and orderly pluralism, including liberty of conscience and free exercise of religion.1 The result was a fabric of freedom and free market capitalism, where religious liberty and civil liberty were closely tied. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed fifty years later, “In France I had always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found that they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.”2
Like the flag that flew over Fort McHenry, this fabric of morality and markets was fragile. The Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, for example, disagreed over which forms of governmental regulation were best for free market capitalism. Some wanted more, others less. But the threads of their argument were taken from a fabric of cultural consensus stitched together, in part, by the New Covenant. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, this fabric was wearing around the edges. It was unraveling from the forces of industrialization, the emergence of the modern university (that relegated religion to the sidelines), immigration, urbanization, and the church’s retreat from public life.
The threads were further ripped in the Roaring Twenties. A lot of things soared, including the stock market, drug abuse, divorce rates, and crime syndicates in major cities (did you think I was describing 2008 or the 1920s?). When the market crashed in 1929, the problem was how to create or reinforce social consensus where little or none could be generated by institutions that formerly performed this role – i.e., the church. Nature abhors a vacuum, so the New Deal rushed into the space vacated by the New Covenant. This is why the New Deal is considered the most important development of the last century in American political culture. It wasn’t so much FDR and the Democrats – the New Deal made politics the end-all of nearly everything – for every party.<sup3
The New Deal shifted the solutions to problems over to politics. It said if we could get the right politicians in office and the right laws passed, all would be well. This was a new fabric of politicization where business interests, higher education, philanthropy, art, science, and minorities all sought legitimacy through the rights conferred by the state.
It’s sad to say, but Christians on the Right and Left have been sucked into the New Deal vortex. They’re seeking to legitimatize Christianity in the public square through political action. They claim Jesus isn’t a Democrat or a Republican, but you couldn’t tell by visiting their church. In fact, most churches lean heavily toward one party or the other. Politicized parishioners measure success by the number of politicians visiting their church or pastors offering prayers to open congressional sessions. The hope these Christians place in politics is quite astonishing. They fail to notice, however, that when elected officials get down to “real work,” the pastor is politely asked to leave.
But there’s an easier way to tell if parishioners are politicized – catch the election results on their faces this Sunday. Malcolm Gladwell points to research indicating that our face is an enormously rich source of information about emotion. In fact, the information on our face is not just a signal of what is going on inside our mind – it is what is going on inside our mind.4 Depending on which church you attend, you’ll see one of three faces – conquest, contempt, or confidence. In one church, they’ll crow about their conquest because their candidate won. In another church, they’ll grimace, grind their teeth, and begin plotting revenge because their candidate lost. But in both churches, the bigger winner is the New Deal because these are the faces of politicized people.
If you see confident expressions, regardless of which candidate wins, you’re looking at a New Covenant Christian. They opt for the founder’s vision – a civil public square. “The vision of a civil public square is one in which everyone – peoples of all faiths, whether religious or naturalistic – are equally free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faiths,” writes Os Guinness. It’s a double framework of the Constitution worked out through a freely and mutually agreed covenant, or common vision for the common good.5 Advancing the common good means respecting and praying for the new President. New Covenant people see politics as important – agree that differences matter – yet are confident that Providence ultimately guides the outcome of elections.
It’s been said before, but bears repeating. Many faith communities assume if we get the right politicians in office, the culture will change. But politics lacks the power to expand the moral middle. It’s downstream. Its power is coercive. And all too often, it’s corrosive to character. The New Covenant that animated the Puritans wasn’t measured by how many Christians fill political offices, but the extent to which the Judeo-Christian definition of reality is realized in the social world – taken seriously and acted upon by politicians, for example. Most modern politicians don’t consider Christianity a serious player. Getting past politicization means embracing the tensions of what politics ought to be, is, can and cannot realistically achieve, and what will or might result – tensions found in the “four chapter” gospel. You can tell who’s read this story by reading their face.
1 Frederick S. Carney, Heinz Schilling, and Dieter Wyduckel, Eds., Duncker & Humblot, “Jurisprudence, Political Theory and Political Theology,” Emory University School of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series, Atlanta, GA, 2004.
2 Mark A. Noll, The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 71.
3 Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion (New York, NY: Random House, 1967).
4 Malcolm Gladwell, blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 2005), p. 206.
5 Os Guinness, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It, New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008), p. 135.