Monday, January 23, 2017

Polarization in American Politics: Whither Adventists?

As Americans move deeper into an era of relativistic political tribalism, where picking a team and embracing its biases increasingly counts for more than arriving at a truthful consensus, political disagreements threaten to divide American Adventists against their coreligionists. This will require the church to either retreat even further from religiously informed political engagement or renew a distinctly Adventist political theology that can withstand the forces of polarization. I will argue that we cannot afford to abandon the political formation of the Adventist soul to American political factions because the fundamental political commitments of those factions are not religiously neutral and have religious implications.

To get that religious perspective, it is important to understand that much of the spiritual energy
driving the left and right of American politics apart is derived from the Calvinist impulse to transform society through an integrated relationship of church and state. It first came to these shores with the Puritan settlers of New England and later with the largely Presbyterian Scotch-Irish settlers of Appalachia.

On the left, the Puritan "city on a hill" vision of "perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders" was secularized in mainline American Protestantism and directed toward accomplishing social equality. By the 1950s, WASPs were being told by their liberal clergy that they didn't need a particularly Christian God, or even any God at all, to accomplish that pluralistic vision. But that implies their churches weren't really needed either. So they emptied them and turned to left-wing party politics as a secular church, in which they could better organize to actualize their religiously derived vision for the ultimate good of society (the ultimate good being the highest source of meaning one has when one no longer has a sense of the transcendent). "In short, ecumenical [American] Protestants embraced modernity, advancing the cause of Enlightenment while simultaneously becoming one of its casualties.

On the right, a neo-theocratic vision exists, which revolves around rolling back the sexual revolution by re-establishing, to some degree, the state sponsorship of Christianity that existed in the thirteen colonies and early US states. For them, a degree of inequality is the price of orienting society toward sexual morality as a transcendent good; just as for the left, a degree of sexual immorality is the price of equality. The forerunners of this "religious right" faction took the fundamentalist side of the same Protestant fundamentalist/modernist controversy that secularized the mainline. And by the 1950s, many Fundamentalists were sloughing off their social quietism and joining an Evangelical movement that secularized in its own way: being politically activated, partly in response to the sexual revolution, through involvement with conservative political apparatus in search of a popular constituency.

Other Christian traditions share the goals of reforming American sexual mores and/or bringing about equality, but, crucially, differ on the question of how tightly church and state must be integrated to accomplish social reform. The recently published, Five Views on the Church and Politics, gives a good sense of the spectrum, from separationist, on one side, to integrationist, on the other: "Anabaptist (or Separationist), Lutheran (or Paradoxical), Black Church (or Prophetic), Reformed (or Transformationist), and Catholic (or Synthetic)." Calvinism—through the neo-Reformed movement—is the major intellectual force in White Evangelicalism today. However some neo-Reformed voices are resisting the spiritual energy of theocratic politics, including Russell Moore, who is trying to bring the Southern Baptists closer to their Anabaptist/separationist roots in the English Dissenters.

It is those persecuted minority, dissenting Protestant groups, as my professor, Nick Miller argues, who birthed the tradition of religiously informed politics to which Adventists properly belong. Adventists have no illusions of perfecting, much less transforming, society on this side of the Second Coming. We don't desire a privileged political position for ourselves (or any other group) to implement our conception of the transcendent good, because that will not be realized in the here and now. But we recognize that God has given us a democratic government to foster temporal goods based on consensus, including temporal goods derived from both sexual morality and social equality. While willing to work with groups motivated by very different political theologies toward reforms in these and other areas, we ought to be deeply skeptical of political agendas that sacrifice one for the sake of imposing the other.

Adventists cannot take sides in the political fight within the house of Calvinism—a secularized Yankee camp pushing equality and a religious Appalachian camp pushing sexual morality—without compromising both our commitment to the Second Coming as the only source of societal transformation and our imperative of religious liberty with respect to transcendent/ultimate goods in the meantime. And with this Washingtonian captivity of the Protestant church comes the threat of persecution for those who don't pick the winning side. Both kinds of Puritan might equally expel a later-day Roger Williams into a cold Massachusetts winter, whether for being on the wrong side of the march of progress toward sexual equality or for being the wrong side of God as they believe He ought to be worshiped.

Thankfully, the political theology of the dissenters, not the Puritans, made it's way into the First Amendment. The question is how long the promise of separationist religious liberty guaranteed on paper can last in a political environment spiritually dominated by religious and secular Calvinists.


  1. Why say, "our commitment to the Second Coming as the only source of societal transformation" and not "the personal transforming power of Jesus"?

    1. Because many if not most do not accept Jesus's transforming power, human imperfection means we can only approximate the social transformation that only the sifting of those who ultimately accept Jesus from those who ultimately do not can accomplish.

  2. Appreciate the tension outlined here.

  3. Thanks David, your perspective and thoughtfulness is helping to bring balance to my own position. I appreciate your work.

    Kevin McGill