Thursday, October 1, 2009

open letter to Alberta evangelicals

Perhaps you frequent one of Beulah Alliance's 3 weekend services in Edmonton's west end. Perhaps you travel even further west on Sunday mornings and are a member of West Meadows Baptist on 199 st. Maybe you head to 167 ave to worship with your Pentecostal brethren at North Pointe, Edmonton's newest suburban megachurch. Do you attend First Alliance in Calgary's southeast? Perhaps you are a Briercrest graduate like I am, or an alumnus of Ambrose in Calgary or one of its predecessors (Canadian Nazarene College or the C&MA affiliated Canadian Bible College). You might alternatively have a connection to Prairie in Three Hills, Canada's oldest bible institute, or Taylor in Edmonton.

You might be an evangelical! Some will say you might be a redneck as well, but if these critics attended a service at Beulah they would see the bright, welcoming faces of contemporary suburban Albertans.

Whatever your denomination background, evangelicals share something in common, and that's a belief in the power and necessity of personal regeneration. Why is regeneration necessary? Because we are born in the flesh, and the flesh isn't interested in what is noble, inspiring, and righteous. The flesh is interested in selfish indulgence. A lot of secular people reject this contention, maintaining that we are born tabula rasa. Society, according these secularists, need only educate the young in how to reason and they will flower into caring, responsible, industrious citizens. The experience of innumerable generations suggests otherwise. Remove the influence of the church, parents, and tradition from the raising of the next generation and one does not create some enduring vacuum which liberates the young to self-determine. The vacuum is instead filled with other influences, namely, peer pressure and pop culture. Social liberals like to think that every time they have undermined or destabilized a norm, some emancipatory effect follows, when in reality we become enslaved to our own baser instincts. This is why the "culture wars" matter. "Live and let live" isn't a call for a truce but a call to surrender to "entitlementia" and, ultimately, the social breakdown concomitant with anomie.

In fact, I've oversimplified with "live and let live": one not only can but should "live and let live" when it comes to matters of economy and administration. This, the legal world, is the arena in which the final authority of human reason is recognized by all parties. Where one cannot "live and let live" is in the "life world" - here, no one "lives and let lives" since every life has to be lived on the basis of some fundamental metaphysical assumptions. In this arena rational argument is of limited utility: Alvin Plantinga's notion of "foundational knowledge" is an argument of sorts, but in many respects it is an argument against argument. I could develop this approach further by borrowing from the postmodern critique of modernism but to express the point simply would be to note that in practice, most people come to a weltanschauung which appreciates concepts like sanctity through a transformation that is deeper than the mind: it goes to the soul (personal regeneration!). Trying to argue someone into faith on the micro level is unlikely to be productive, as is trying to use the political process to lobby people into adopting a Christian perspective. It is more effective to use the political process to create the public space that allows one to transform lives on the particular, private level. This is where living one's faith becomes the most effective tool for evangelism. Get political in order to be able to get unpolitical.

This idea of two worlds, one instrumental and governed by commonly recognized principles of rational efficiency, the other personal and subjective, is not original. Lest I misconstrue the sociologist Daniel Bell, I will defer to J├╝rgen Habermas' summary of Bell's views:
In his book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell argues that the crises of the developed societies of the West are to be traced back to a split between culture and society. Modernist culture has come to penetrate the values of everyday life; the life-world is infected by modernism. Because of the forces of modernism, the principle of unlimited self-realization, the demand for authentic self-experience and the subjectivism of a hyperstimulated sensity have come to be dominant. This temperament unleashes hedonistic motives irreconcilable with the discipline of professional life in society, Bell says. Moreover, modernist culture is altogether incompatible with the moral basis of a purposive rational conduct of life. In this manner, Bell places the burden of responsibility for the dissolution of the Protestant ethic (a phenomenon which has already disturbed Max Weber), on the "adversary culture." Culture, in its modern form, stirs up hatred against the conventions and virtues of an everyday life, which has become rationalized under the pressures of economic and administrative imperatives.

Lifestyle evangelism works. Political evangelism, however, often doesn't and when it does make a difference it can be for the worse.

James Dobson's Focus on the Family group has been a great service for both Canadian and American evangelicals. But Dr Dobson's Family Research Council, which is more explicitly designed to be a vehicle for political activism, has been a lightning rod for controversy. When President Bush nominated Harriet Miers for the United States Supreme Court, Dobson gave his stamp of approval (according to some reports, after Karl Rove gave him private assurances about Miers). What Dobson was missing, however, was allies. One could argue that he applied a litmus test without appreciating the fact that a candidate for high office requires much more. The libertarian intelligentsia within the conservative movement rebelled because of Miers' limited abilities in the realm of reasoned argument, and her nomination was withdrawn. To go back to the Habermas quote, what one might call "economic and administrative imperatives", or perhaps just the sound administration of justice and good government, demanded that Miers not stand for nomination. The fact that there was no necessary conflict between social conservatives and libertarians was demonstrated when the subsequent nomination of John Roberts got the process right.

Contrast this episode with Rick Warren's sure footedness on the national stage. Pastor Warren needs no introduction to evangelicals; The Purpose Driven Life is one of the best selling non-fiction books of all time, even if (too) much of unchurched community has never even heard of it. During last year's Presidential campaign Warren hosted John McCain and Barack Obama in a forum at the Saddleback Church he pastors. Warren didn't tell these men what he thought they should do, he rather asked them questions. After the event, a secular liberal pundit said
The one sure winner was Rick Warren, who overnight changed the face of evangelicals in this country from the cartoon caricature of rigid, right-wing fundamentalists to one of open-minded, intelligent, concerned citizens.

In Alberta, recent political events have created the opportunity to either reinforce that "cartoon caricature" or dispel it. The government of Ed Stelmach has made a show out of addressing the concerns of social conservatives, but has in fact aggravated the "adversary culture." Section 9 of Bill 44 does not push the state out of the church's sphere. It rather expands the state, and then makes a show out of leasing the state's new territory to the church. The powers of the human rights tribunals are broadened by this bill. If it is families 1, teachers 0 this game, it could easily be families 0 next game in a series the teachers didn't ask for. Most of the more prominent members of the Wildrose Alliance Party have not been caught up in the red herring of section 9 because they have focused on section 3 which authorizes the state to adjudicate the dialogue of the church (amongst others). If some speech should offend secular humanist sensibilities by, say, defending social norms and thereby implying that some identifiable group is deviant, the Stelmach government reserves the right to see the speaker investigated and censured.

As a party that understands the importance of separation between the church and the state, the Wildrose Alliance will create opportunities for evangelicals to get a fair hearing and accordingly be recognized as the "open-minded, intelligent, concerned citizens" evangelicals are. The party, which sent a shock wave through the provincial political establishment when it won a byelection on September 14, already has more members than any other opposition party. A leadership race is underway and there is a candidate in the race who can speak authoritatively to "economic and administrative" issues. She not only does not clash with "Modernist culture", she is fully in tune with it; but has firm convictions about the limits of its ambit. She would be no help to social conservatives encroaching on a minimal state, but would be an invaluable ally in defending against an encroaching state. If two roads, one involving the retreat of the state and the other involving the advance of the church, would both keep us moving in the direction of our destination, shouldn't we take the way that is passable? However much the metaphysics of secular humanism may inform Danielle Smith's personal "life world", she is not on a mission to bring Voltaire's godless Enlightenment to the "life world" of others, she's rather on a mission to bring enlightened government to government.

If you haven't yet become a member of the Wildrose Alliance, I would urge you to do so by visiting either today (October 1) or tomorrow, signing up, and then casting your vote for the same candidate that astute social conservatives like Link Byfield support:


Craig B. Chandler said...

Mark Dyrholm is the only one I trust to keep a real separation of the church and state.

He firmly believes in the separation and is concerned with the states growing appetitite to get involved in the church. EG. Same sex marriage. If a church wants to marry gay couples, let them and if a church does not want to that should be entirely up to them.

Mark believes that the government needs to stop legislating morality.

That is all Mark has ever said, but, the Smith campaign keeps the attack.

Even your article says that being an evangelical in life is great, but, we can't enter politics? Can you imagine if you wrote this story about any other group?

Very unacceptable.

Brian said...

The more evangelicals involved in politics the better. But it's like Ukrainians getting involved in politics on an issue by issue basis as opposed to working to elect Ukrainian Party candidates. For evangelicals, it's working for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada versus taking your current approach to politics. This isn't a personal attack, it's a criticism of strategy. Identity politics would take the party a long ways, but never far enough.

In the case of James Dobson and Harriet Miers, Dobson didn't approve of a policy but of a person. This is the mistake: approving for public office someone who isn't acceptable to political allies. Danielle Smith should be acceptable to social conservatives because she is an ally on issues of common interest and not an enemy on issues of differing interest. The people who are naturally allied with evangelicals on 100% of issues are: evangelicals! And that's it. As my Dad recently told me, "one has to be able to talk to the neighbours."

Brian said...

To clarify the above comment, with respect to issue by issue advocacy, I stand by my contention that it is better to lobby evangelical issues on a negative rights basis (freedom from) than a positive "rights" basis (obligating the state to do something, like hearing human rights grievances from evangelicals that would force the behavior of others).

Using the political process to create the public space that allows one to transform lives on the particular, private level means "depoliticizing" our communication so lifestyle evangelism can be accepted for what it is without prejudice.

Craig B. Chandler said...


I agree with much of what you post.

It seems we are not that different after all.

Maybe there is some common ground we can all focus on.

Anonymous said...

Is that why you are buying memberships for all the people on church lists Craig?

Craig B. Chandler said...

Sad accusation.

One that if you revealed your name would get you in big trouble with the party.