The relentless pull and pressure of partisan antagonisms and tribalism have fractured friendships, families, communities — and churches. In a time of conflict over what is good and confusion over what is true, what can church leaders do to cultivate a more faithful form of civic engagement? How can we learn to discern the call to love and justice amidst the clamor of political wars?
We invited three incisive speakers to address this question. Curtis Chang, David French, and Russell Moore are each writers, scholars, and thinkers who have made courageous and insightful contributions towards a better Christian politics.
In partnership with Redeeming Babel, The Trinity Forum held an Evening Conversation at the National Press Club on Tuesday, March 21 with Curtis, David, and Russell to explore the challenges faced by church leaders and to discuss how communities of faith can cultivate, articulate, and embody a deeply faithful pursuit of justice for the common good.
Curtis Chang, David French, and Russell Moore | March 21, 2023
CHERIE HARDER: Good evening everyone. And welcome to all of you, to tonight’s evening conversation on the topic of “Towards a Better Christian Politics” with David French, Russell Moore, and Curtis Chang. We are so excited that each of you could join us for tonight’s conversation. As you can tell, it is a very full crowd. So thank you for making the trek out through traffic, through all the other obstacles. We’re just really tickled that you’re here.
As we get started, I wanted just to thank a few people who have made tonight possible. Big thanks to the New Pluralists, whose support and funding has helped make this evening possible. I wanted to acknowledge that both Michelle Barsa and Allison Grubbs from the New Pluralists have joined us this evening. And also wanted to thank the American Studies Program, who have also helped contribute to this evening, and to thank Doug Kupman[?] and Lauren Bass for their support, friendship, and involvement as well.
In addition, I wanted to point out just a few special guests who are with us this evening, including the Chairman of our Board, Richard Miles, and his wife Phoebe, Trustee Shirley Hoogstra, Senior Fellow Pete Wehner, our founder, Os Guiness, who is here, as well as some of our friends at Redeeming Babel, who are partnering with us this evening, Chris Carter and Dakota Pippens. But most of all, we’re just excited that each one of you are here for this conversation tonight.
And if you have friends who wanted to make it but couldn’t, fear not. We will be recording tonight’s evening conversation and posting it on our website at ttf.org within the next two days. In addition, Redeeming Babel will be hosting a podcast based on tonight’s conversation, which you can catch. And while we never really encourage anyone to spend more time on social media, we will be posting photos on Facebook. So check it out. Tag your friends. All of that good stuff.
If you are here for the very first time tonight, have not been to a Trinity Forum event before, part of our mission at the Forum is to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought, and to host programs like the one tonight, to provide a place for leaders to wrestle with the big questions of life, in the context of faith. And ultimately, to come to better know the author of the answers. And we hope that the experience tonight will be a small taste of that for each of you.
Certainly, one of those big questions of life, in general, is what constitutes a just and flourishing society, and how to pursue it? And one of the biggest questions in the Christian life is what it means to love God and love one’s neighbor, both in personal, and the public spheres. These questions are always challenging and contested. But they seem to have grown far more fractious and fragmenting. Disagreements about how we should order our common life together have hardened and curdled into a civic crisis of fear, loathing, and contempt.
And the second greatest commandment of the Christian faith, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, has, all too often, been ignored against the tumult of the culture wars, or even disregarded as an inadequate response to the threat at hand. We’ve reached the point where, according to some studies, more than 40 percent of Americans reportedly view their political opponents, not just as misguided, but as evil. Another study found that nearly 20 percent of partisans on either side of the aisle admit to thinking, on occasion, that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.
And an Axios poll, conducted just within the last 10 days, found that a fifth of Americans would support what’s been called a national divorce, where Republican-leaning states would form a separate country from Democratic-leaning ones. Moreover, as our political conflicts have grown, not only more apocalyptic, but also more totalizing, as the tactics of partisan combat have invaded nearly every sector of life, including our families, our neighborhoods, as anyone who’s been on nextdoor.com will attest to [laughter], schools, and churches. Our houses of worship now, rather than offering a respite from some political battles, increasingly serve as new fronts for them. And disagreement over policy or personalities have all too easily morphed into what is perceived, increasingly, as a clash between good and evil, where the future of the country or the culture lies in the balance, and compromise, or even kindness, is seen as capitulation.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that a recent Barna Survey found that over 40 percent of evangelical pastors reported seriously considering leaving the ministry within just the last year, up from 29 percent the year before. The three main drivers of their demoralization were reported to be stress, loneliness, and political division within their churches.
So how did we get here? How did we arrive at such a place, where we increasingly see our political opponents, not as neighbors to be loved, but as threats to be neutralized? And how do we re-weave love of neighbor into a civic fabric corroded by contempt, and envision, articulate, and move towards a better Christian politics? To help us wrestle with such questions together, I am delighted to get to introduce our guests today, three wise men [laughter] who have, themselves, grappled with such questions, with both courage and charity, in print and in public, amidst conflict and controversy.
David French is a New York Times columnist, author, and lawyer. And before joining the New York Times in January of this year, he served as the Senior Editor and Columnist of The Dispatch, which he helped start, as well as being a contributing writer at The Atlantic. While working as an attorney, he served as senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, the Alliance for Defending Freedom, as well as the Executive Director of Fire, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education. He also is a combat veteran, having volunteered for duty in his late 30s, and was then awarded the Bronze Star for his service there. And is the author of several books, including, most recently, Divided We Fall. He is also, I am very proud to say, a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. And I’ll also note that David is a grandfather whose second grandchild is expected any day now. So if he suddenly stands up and rushes out of the room, you’ll know why, that’s happened.
Joining him is Russell Moore, who is the Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today, as well as a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, where he was an outspoken and courageous advocate for the Reformation of the Minimization and Mishandling of the Sexual Abuse Crisis within the denomination. Also, having served as the Provost and Dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including The Courage to Stand, Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul, Onward, Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, The Storm-Tossed Family, How the Cross Reshapes the Home, and his forthcoming work, out in August, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America, which is due out very soon. I’ll also note that he and his wife Maria are the parents of five sons, clearly another very busy man.
And finally, rounding out our three wise men is Curtis Chang, who is a nonprofit leader, consultant, and professor, who serves at the Executive Director of the faith-based nonprofit Redeeming Babel, which produces content to help shape how Christians engage with the wider world He is also the founder and CEO of Consulting Within Reach, a firm that serves nonprofits and government agencies. And in his spare time, teaches strategic planning in American University School of International Service, is a consulting professor at Duke Divinity School, a Senior Fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary, and the former senior pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church in San Jose, California, as well as the author of the forthcoming work, The Anxiety Opportunity.
In just a moment, Curtis, David, and Russell will join me on stage. And after a discussion between the three of us, there will be an opportunity for questions from all of you in the audience. David, Russell, and Curtis, welcome.
CHERIE HARDER: Great to be with you all. And as we get started, David, I was really hoping you can kind of just sort of set the stage for, how did we get here? And part of what I’d love to sort of hear you talk about, is I quoted just a second ago, that Axios Study, that said that 20 percent of folks are interested in a national divorce. And on one hand, 20 percent, we think, oh, that’s not a huge amount. That’s not enough to win any kind of primary, or any kind of vote. And then you think, wait. That’s 65 million Americans That’s at least 12 states right there, are filled with people who actually think seriously about this kind of thing.
And then I also think about that quote by Ernest Hemingway, who was asked, “How do you go bankrupt?” And he said, “Slowly then quickly.” How did we get to the point that we are, which seems like it’s been so very rapid?
DAVID FRENCH: Yeah, that’s a great question. And the sad thing about that Axios poll is it’s an outlier poll on the low end. Because there are other polls that indicate that, in some, a plurality of Republicans would want to see a national—a national divorce. Up to 40 percent of Democrats in another poll would be willing to let red states go, if red states left. And then you add on top of that, the polling numbers regarding just sheer partisan animosity, in other words, what do Republicans think of Democrats? And what do Democrats think of Republicans? And the numbers are off the charts, in the high 80 percent range, that they’re bigoted, that they’re ignorant, that they’re hateful, you name it.
So there’s just an enormous amount of animosity. And it’s a long story, but let me try to make it as short as I can. And that is, I think two factors are really coming to play. And they build on each other. One is The Big Sort. This is a book by the name of—a book by an author by the name of Bill Bishop, that talked about how Americans, even going back to when he wrote the book many years ago, were already sorting into like-minded communities. So that, by the early 2000s, you were highly likely to live around people who agreed with you politically. And that’s only increased. Every four years, the number of Americans, or the percentage of Americans who live in what are called landslide counties, these are counties where one side or the other wins by 20 points or more, just continues to increase
And so it is highly likely that a lot of the folks who are here are living in a bubble community. The New York Times has this great neighborhood locator, where you can put in your address, and you can find out what’s the political composition of your neighborhood. And I did that for my neighborhood. And I live in a bubble community. My neighborhood is 85 percent Republican, about 10 percent other, and only about five percent Democrat. That’s a bubble. I live in a bubble. Many of us do.
And so what does that mean? That’s not just a benign phenomenon. The next thing after The Big Sort is this term, and it comes from Cass Sunstein. And it’s called “The Law of Group Polarization” So what is the Law of Group Polarization? If you remember nothing that I say tonight, just remember this, because this explains so much about our world. And what the Law of Group Polarization says, is that when people of like-mind gather, they become more extreme. So if you are interested in gun rights, if a group of six of you get together, and you converse about gun rights, you’re going to be more committed to gun rights after the conversation than before. Same if, say, you’re committed to taking action on climate change. If you get together, and you talk about it, you’re going to be more committed to taking action on climate change than you were before.
And so what we have is entire American communities essentially radicalizing. And this is not evenly distributed across America. It’s a highly concentrated amongst college-educated White Americans That’s the part, that’s the portion of America that is most polarizing right now. And they’re living in clustered communities. And so this is what’s happening, is we are separating physically. And, as we separate physically, we are separating intellectually and emotionally at the same time.
And so this is being compounded, of course, by social media. But you notice, I didn’t lead with social media, because social media is not the—was not the instigator, for example, of The Big Sort. And I think we often over-blame social media, thinking if we can just get Twitter to correct that darn algorithm, then everything will be okay. And that’s not the case at all. I’m not a historian of American technology. But my understanding is that Twitter was in its infancy in 1861. [laughter] And we were perfectly capable of killing each other well before Twitter reached its full bloom. And so we are separating, in almost every way you can imagine. And when that happens, we are building a case against each other, of radicalism, and of grievance.
And I’ll end with this. When I deployed to Iraq in ’07/’08, I was in a part of the country that was very divided Sunni-Shia. It was the heart of the Iraqi civil war. And one thing that I found, when I was talking to ordinary Iraqis, is not that they were fighting over things like oil revenues, they weren’t killing each other over things like, what is the religious composition of the Iraqi police. It was the list of grievances It’s what the Shia had done to my uncle, or what the Sunnis had done to my cousin.
And if you notice American culture war rhetoric, it is increasingly focused around lists of grievances. And even more so, sometimes, than policy, is what they did to us, or what we believe they want to do to us. And that is a dynamic that is, once unleashed, is very, very difficult to control.
CHERIE HARDER: You know, I think it resonates intuitively with most of us, knowing it’s bad out there. But one would hope that the church would be, if not immune from, at least somewhat fortified from the great sort and the separation. But it seems like that is not what has happened. That Barna Study, mentioning that 40 percent of pastors are seriously considering leaving. And they’re usually not the ones actually causing this. They’re the ones torn apart from within.
Russell, as an ordained minister, someone who’s been through a lot of this, what’s going on in the churches? And why have we, as believers, and churchgoers, failed to embody and live out a different way?
RUSSELL MOORE: Well, when you gave the statistic of 40 percent considering quitting, I think that’s awfully low, just based on the conversations that I find myself having every day, with pastors who are barely hanging on. And most of it is not because of a majority of their congregations, it’s usually a small minority of their congregations, but a minority who are engaged in—Jonathan Rauch is here tonight, and his book Constitution of Knowledge, talks about demoralization strategies, which is just to wear someone down to the point of exhaustion.
So I knew a pastor who had a couple of flat-earthers in his congregation, one time showed up with a flat-earth conspiracy. And were sweet people, but confused. [laughter] And he said –
DAVID FRENCH: Are you sure?
RUSSELL MOORE: Yeah, yeah. After a while, he said he just found himself self-censoring. And he would no longer say, “A Global Mission,” or “This is a Moon Shot for the Advance of the Gospel,” or something like that, just because he didn’t want the grief of getting the emails the next week. Not a lot of flat-earthers out there. But that strategy is out there quite a bit. And it’s increasing.
And so I can’t tell you how many pastors I have had tell me about the experience of just parenthetically saying, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek.” To have a congregant come up, afterward, and say, “Where did you get those liberal talking points?” [laughter]
What’s surprising to me is not the Biblical illiteracy, it’s the response, once the pastor says, “I am quoting Jesus Christ,” not, “I need to go back and have a quiet time,” but, “Yes, that was fine for then, but it doesn’t work now.” That sort of mentality works in a neutral culture. But it doesn’t work in a hostile culture. Which assumes, of course, that Jesus is delivering the Sermon on the Mount in Mayberry. [laughter] A Roman empire threatening to crucify its opponents is not a neutral culture.
But there’s a loss of confidence in the Gospel. And I think, even more than that, there is a lifelessness that a sense of political belonging and drama can replicate. Walker Percy talked about, in The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling, the lead character there, would go into the library back in the ’60s, to read the conservative magazines and the liberal magazines, even though he didn’t know if he was a conservative or a liberal. But he said, “The hatred they felt for each other gave me this feeling of life.” And there’s kind of a jolt that will come in.
And so the loss of a sense of transcendence, and a loss of an actual confidence in the Gospel, I think leads quite a bit to this. And one of the ways that we can see this, it really betrays something when people say to me, as they often do, “We’ve been on defense for so long, it’s time to go on offense.” And usually they’re talking about that in terms of religious freedom, pluralism in American society.
What that betrays, is that they think the playing field is the political realm, the state, rather than seeing the playing field as actually being the advance of the Gospel. And power is coercive state power or coercive cultural power, rather than the power of God unto salvation. And so there is a loss of that sense of transcendence and that sense of awe. And you think of Jonathan Haidt mentions in The Righteous Mind, about the hive mind, and that sense of collective anxiety that we can get. And what can break through that? Very few things can. Reason cannot. Any number of factors cannot.
One factor that they found can, is awe. If people have a sense of awe together, of feeling small before something great, it breaks the hive mind, and brings people into a sense of renewed unity and reconciliation. Well, that doesn’t surprise me as a Christian. But it’s something we’ve lost in American life. And we have the opportunity to reclaim.
CHERIE HARDER: Yeah, that’s fascinating. You mentioned sort of the misperceptions that are caused by the loss of awe in transcendence. And Curtis, one of the things I wanted to ask you about, is one of the things that feels somewhat different about our situation, which what Russell has mentioned, clearly feeds into, and what David has talked about, our separation also intensifies, is the challenges to pluralism we’ve had in the past have largely been about deep differences over what is good or bad, better or worse, tactics as well as strategies for what is just, or even what is justice.
But one thing that seems somewhat new, is that increasingly, there are big divisions, not only about what is good or bad, but what is true or false, real or unreal. And on top of that, or you’re part of all that, is an increasing susceptibility to conspiracy, that we see among the electorate at large. And, while one would love to believe that, again, Christians have a different kind of formation that acts as protection against that, sadly it seems like that is not true.
The American Enterprise Institute recently, about a year ago, came out with a study that actually found that QAnon, believers in all or part of QAnon are over-represented among evangelicals. And so as someone who has worked in trying to combat conspiracies, particularly around vaccines, I’m interested in your thoughts about why so many Christians have been so susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy, and what you see as part of both political formation, but also spiritual formation, that’s needed to address that.
CURTIS CHANG: Can I first just say how anxious I’m feeling about how this evening is going? Because Cherie is laying on one problem after another. [laughter] Politics, pluralism, loss of all truth. And she set us up as “the wise men,” [laughter] to answer all these things. So I’m feeling the pressure rising here. Although I will say, I am the only wise man here, that is actually from the Orient. [laughter] So I feel I’m up to the task.
So let’s talk about truth and conspiracy. My most profound interaction with how deep conspiracy theories went, was around my leadership of the Christians of the Vaccine Campaign, which was the national effort in partnership with the National Association of Evangelicals, the COVID Collaborative, the Ad Council, to try to address vaccine suspicion and hesitancy among evangelicals. And, of course, we ran smack into a whole bunch of conspiracy theories.
And, you know, the way that I initially thought, well how we respond to this is, you take conspiracy theorists seriously. You try to show respect to them. And you try to address their world view from within their world view, and see if you can persuade them. So this is why, if you want to Google Curtis Chang and Vaccine Video, one of the top hits you’ll get is a 12 minute video of me expounding why the vaccine is not the mark of the beast. This is my claim to fame on the internet.
Because I was really trying to say, okay, you think the vaccine is the mark of the beast? Let’s actually unpack Revelations, and the inner logic of this prophecy, and why this doesn’t work. That was helpful for some. But you know, I quickly discovered there was a core constituency that were simply not persuaded in any way, even though I was trying to lay out in their own world view. And this gets to your point, Cherie, that they were not persuadable by appeals to truth, to reason, to rationality.
And so why is this? What’s going on? Well, one of the things that I think I started to realize, is that what was going on was not happening at the level of rational thought, or at the level of intellect, it was deeply emotional what was happening. That what they were feeling, these conspiracy holders, was actually feeling deep anxiety. They were feeling deep anxiety. And anxiety is at the level—it’s not at the level of intellect. It’s not a rational thought. It’s a level of emotion, of a visceral experience we have.
And this, I think—And we are having heightened anxiety for a lot of broad macro-social reasons, which I won’t go into now. There is just general uncertainty in the world, along with a lot of the research that Jonathan Haidt is doing, is about showing why the rise of smart phones is leading to anxiety. But nevertheless, we have rising anxiety.
What is a conspiracy theory? A conspiracy theory really is like a drug that gives you a quick shot of faux relief from anxiety. Because anxiety is where you are uncertain about the future. You’re uncertain about why something is happening. You’re especially uncertain about the future. That’s what anxiety is.
So what a conspiracy theory is a short drug that tries to address that. Because it explains, here is why things happened. Here is a crystal-clear reason for why, you know, Trump lost the election, is because of this deep, in QAnon, this deep conspiracy of all of you DC folks that are practicing pedophilia, and so forth, right. So it seems irrational. But it’s a reason. It’s a reason. It’s like, “Oh, this explains why this happened.” And it gives you a prediction about the future. Or actually not just a prediction, a promise about what the future will happen. You know, Trump will return to power on March 4th. Then it’s on, like, April 15th, and then some other day.
And so it gives you a small hit. It’s, “Oh, this is why this is happening,” so I don’t have to feel confused and uncertain. And I know what’s going to happen next, all right. So it gives you a short relief from the feeling of anxiety. It’s a faux drug, though, of course. And it’s quickly proven false by the fact that March 4th rolls around, and you know, Trump has not returned to power.
So why do people still keep signing up for it? Well, if you’ve been anxious like me, like I have been, I’ve suffered from anxiety, like when I am in the throes of anxiety, I will take any relief I can get. I will take that drug, even though I know it will wear off, you know, in four hours, all right. I’ll go back to it. I’ll keep it. Because if that’s the only thing I’ve got, an offer to deal with my anxiety, I’m going to keep going for that hit.
And this is how addiction happens, is it delivers just enough of a relief. But then, not permanent, because it’s false, it’s not actual relief to your underlying anxiety. But, so you have to keep going back for more and more hits of that drug. And this is the cycle of addiction that happens, why you see conspiracy theorists deeply addicted to QAnon or other conspiracy theories.
And so when you talk about the underlying spiritual formation that has not happened, that has caused why we’re here, I actually think one of it, just to add to the list of things we need to address, is actually our spiritual formation around anxiety. That because we have, as Christians especially, as a culture generally, but as Christians especially, we have not given Christians, I think, the deep Biblical answer to anxiety. But we’ve instead given them a faux answer to anxiety, which is, you shouldn’t feel this way. You shouldn’t feel—This is wrong. This is a lack of faith. It’s a character flaw, whatever.
And so, if you’re not supposed to feel that way, then it’s like, well then I need an answer for me to stop feeling this way. And so you’re going to grab for whatever is on offer, whether that’s a conspiracy theory or not. And so part of what I think the spiritual formation work that needs to happen, is not just that that will—that is necessary for dealing with politics, is, strangely enough, not just about politics—in fact, it may be more effective if it is not about politics, but is actually giving people a better, what I believe the more Christ-centered response to anxiety, such that they don’t turn to the political drug for that short-term medication.
And this is why I’m writing, you know, the book on anxiety that’s coming out in a few weeks—shameless plug— [laughter] on May 15th, by Zondervan. But I wrote that book because, out of the vaccine experience, I realized, oh you cannot reason or fact-check people out of their dysfunction, if you are—if, by doing that, you are taking away their drug, right. They’re not going to let go of that drug if you don’t give them something better. You’ve got to give them something better to address the underlying anxiety at play.
CHERIE HARDER: Yeah, several of you have mentioned Jonathan Haidt. One of the interesting things that he found, over the last several years, is the extent to which our identities are increasingly defined by, and sort of saturated with the political. And of course, as people of faith, one would think that the primary source of our identity is in Christ. But it seems, at least, by a lot of data, that politics is sort of edging that out, in terms of its real world effects. David, I’d love—really, I’d love to hear from both you and Russell on this, in that one of the things Jonathan found is that, in terms of what we like or dislike, how we tend to act, in many ways, our deepest commitments are to the political. And what has happened, where, even for people of faith, the political is crowding out the spiritual and theological, as the primary sources of self-identify, and even meaning-making?
DAVID FRENCH: Yeah. I mean some of the research about identity is just wild. You will have two individuals with identical theological beliefs. And if one is a Democrat, they won’t say they’re evangelical. If one’s a Republican, they will say they’re evangelical. You can have two people with the identical ethnicity. And if one believes that they’re—one identifies as a Republican, they’ll call themselves White. If one identifies as a Democrat, they’ll call themselves Hispanic, with identical ethnic background.
So what that kind of signaling says, is the Uber identity, the ultimate identity, is the political identity And everything else needs to follow that. So what you’re seeing is dramatically different religious self-definition. So if you are a White Christian who rarely goes to church, you’re an evangelical. For the first time ever, a majority of self-described evangelicals go to church once a month or less.
And so then the question is, wait. What is an evangelical? The statistician, Ryan Byrnes[?] says a White evangelical is a Republican. Or a Republican is a White evangelical. And because that’s where the main identity marker lies, is in that political identity. And I think the reason for that is really connected to—It so much is connected to all the, what we’ve all been saying here. But where do you ultimately derive your sense of purpose and meaning? And a lot of times, we actually don’t know, until that’s tested. We don’t know until that’s put to the test. And then, when it’s put to the test, here is an A option. Here’s door number one, and here’s door number two. And you have to choose between these doors. Which one you choose tells a lot about your priorities.
And so, what we’ve found is that, in these ideological mono cultures, like going back to what I said earlier, that the identity that’s necessary for functioning socially, necessary for functioning sometimes economically, in a business fashion, becomes that political identity. And then the other thing that the political identity does, is it gives you purpose. Because we all seek purpose. We all want purpose. And that political identity can give you purpose, but it also can give you purpose on the cheap, okay.
So the ultimate marker of the Christian identity, you know, Jesus says, “Take up your cross.” Yikes. I mean, yikes. A lot of modern evangelicalism is, “Come to Christ, and your life will be better.” It’s sort of, “Come to Christ. What can I do to put you in this car today?” Is sort of the kind of way in which we evangelize. And it’s all about a better life.
And in many ways, when you do become a Christian, there is a—If you shed a drug addiction, for example, or if you’re able to repair a marriage, there is a better life there that’s very tangible. But, on the other end of that better life is the cross. It’s the cross. And what’s interesting about a lot of Christian political engagement, it seems like it is designed, from the ground up, to avoid the cross. Because if you think about what a lot of Christian political engagement is, unless we exercise power, we will face sacrifice.
Well, think about the temptation that was offered to Jesus. “I give you all of the kingdoms. I give you all of the kingdoms.” And he said no to all of the kingdoms. And he said yes to the cross. And he didn’t say yes to the cross so that we don’t say yes to the cross. And so, when you put it like that, and you start to think about, what does it mean to follow Christ, well that’s an incredible purpose, but it is not an easy purpose at all. But, when you think about a lot of our political engagement, not only is it a lot easier to tweet, for example, you also get to play a team sport. You know, you get to be a part of—and especially if you’re a part of your broader local community, and you get to be a part of the community. You’re playing a team sport. And you’re playing a team sport for a purpose.
And then you also have this kind of phenomenon of the church-like ecstasy of the crowd. You get to participate with the crowd and a common purpose. A political rally can be an exhilarating experience. So what you have is a kind of a cheap counterfeit of ultimate purpose. And it’s easy to see why that’s appealing.
You know, to go back to what Curtis was talking about, conspiracies, there is an actual deep spiritual truth and a mundane legal definition. And the very mundane legal definition of a conspiracy is a combination of two or more persons. It’s a relationship. It’s a relationship. So what are conspiracies? They’re relationships. They’re a sense of purpose. And so that’s one reason why you can’t fact-check people out of a conspiracy. It’s like, what fact-check will fact-check me out of my friendships? None. What fact-check will fact-check me out of my core sense of purpose? None. And so one of our challenges is to replace the counterfeit purpose with the ultimate purpose, even if the ultimate purpose is very hard.
RUSSELL MOORE: Yeah. And David mentioned the third temptation of Christ. I think one that may be even more heightened in our moment is the second temptation of Christ. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, and the angels will bear you up.” The questioning of, who are you, and test it in order to be vindicated in front of people.
So Amanda Ripley, in her book High Conflict, talks about humiliation, and mentions, at some point, about humiliation is really based upon what you expect for yourself. And so if you’re somebody who is going out to the golf course for the first time, and you don’t do very well, okay. If you’re Tiger Woods, and you don’t do very well, then there’s this feeling of humiliation. If you have this expectation of esteem and power and belonging in the here and now, and that isn’t met, then there is going to be this anxiety, as Curtis talked about, this feeling of humiliation, that leads to a replacing of actually the Gospel itself.
I mean one of the key things that we have to remember, is that Jesus told us, “You must be born again.” What worries me about Christian Nationalism is not just what it does to democracy, it’s what it does to the Gospel itself. Which is to say, that you can approach the kingdom of God through some other means than personal faith. And I think that’s not only very destructive of people, but it has led to this gnawing need to have something that feels immediate. And here we are.
CHERIE HARDER: We’re going to get to solutions in a second. But first, we just want to keep going through the valley of the shadow. [laughter] And Curtis, I wanted to ask you, you’ve talked about conspiracy. And just sort of building on what Russell has said, it seems to me that one of the challenges with conspiracy, is that there is a lot of fear and anger embedded there too. You know, there might be the positive appeal that David was talking about, of community, of purpose. But you know, with the QAnon conspiracy, one does not go from, “I disagree with the policies of my opponent, which I find not only misguided, but destructive,” to, “They are pedophiles,” you know, without there being fear and anger involved as well.
And so, you know, transitioning from anxiety to fear and anger, what role is fear and anger playing within the church, in terms of the way we see ourselves and our mission within the world, as well as our political involvement?=
CURTIS CHANG: Well, I think the fear and anger comes because you feel under threat. You’re afraid of someone or some party that is threatening you. And the thought of them taking away something from you makes you very angry. And so it’s the fear of loss, of that this other party, this other force, is going to create loss for you. And that that makes us afraid and angry.
And so I think we have sort of two responses we can have as Christian sort of leaders and shapers of thoughts. We can try to say to them, “No, really, it’s not that bad.” That’s one option, is you’re actually not going to experience that much loss. Things aren’t that dire for Christians in this country. I think there’s some validity to that, because I absolutely think that we have, you know, allowed sort of certain forces to blow up threat for their own aims, for them to gain market share, basically, that they’ve preyed on the fears and anxieties to gain an audience.
So there is some level which we need to help people right-size reality, and the level of actual fear and loss. And this is where David’s work on the state of religious freedom is, I think, so important, Russell’s as well, in trying to just convey reality, reframe reality for Christians. Like, look. We have never experienced greater levels of religious freedom and security for our rights than ever before, and in frankly, any other society in history, right. So the notion that we are on the precipice of some great loss is simply not true. However, we’ve also noticed, we’ve already noted that you can’t always fact-check people out of their deep-seated emotions, right. That’s option one is, things are there.
The other option is, I think, the harder path, which is, okay, you do have—Let’s say you do have enemies out there. Let’s say you do have loss facing you. What then is the call of Jesus in that? What are we supposed to do with our enemies, right? And we have to recapture the fundamental call of the Gospel, which is, we love our enemies. We have to love our enemies, because our Lord and Savior embodied that very practice in his death. That was an act of love of enemies, not of, let’s rally the troops. He expressively forbade that commandment as a response to enmity, and as a response to loss. But rather, the answer was, you forgive your enemies. And you go through loss.
And you can do both, because that is an expression that my kingdom is greater and not defined by this world, by the rules of this world That in my kingdom, actually, you win by forgiving your enemies, because you have actually recast the whole war under totally different terms. So it’s that you win by forgiveness. And you can endure loss. You can endure loss, why? Because of the resurrection. Because the cross is not the final—the cross is a critical part of the story, but it’s not the final chapter of the story. There is restoration. But that restoration doesn’t happen through your own, you know, force of arms, seizure of political power. But it comes through faith, through waiting, through a trust in God.
And that’s really the Gospel. And so I do think that, you know, as dire as this all seems, in terms of what we’ve been laying out, it actually is a tremendous opportunity to present—to preach the Gospel in its sharpest clarity. Because the only real answer to what is happening for us, is to call people back to faith in the cross and the resurrection. And that’s our task. That is what Christians are called to do. And this moment puts in sharp clarity that, pretty much no other response is going to perhaps work, but at least is not what is our mandate, other than preaching the Gospel in those terms.
CHERIE HARDER: That’s great. And so we’re going to talk a little bit about solutions. But related to that, and just building on what you just said, Curtis, Russell, you have talked before about the need for a public theology, which seems to be exactly what Curtis is talking about. What does it mean to have a robust public theology for the Christian who is in the political sphere, and wants to engage politically?
RUSSELL MOORE: Well, I don’t think it is having a list of abstractions and arguments. I think it’s the way that theology is meant to work in scripture, which is by joining us to the story of Christ, and shaping and transforming us at the intuitional gut level. So that you have a people who are able to recognize who they are, that they’ve seen these things before. And one of the things that I’m—my wife will often grab my hand, because she knows I get my most curmudgeonly if we are at a church where we’re singing “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings,” and someone takes the word “Ebenezer” out, [laughter] and puts something else in it, that I’m going to just roll my eyes. Because they will always say, “People don’t know what ‘Ebenezer’ is. They think it’s Ebenezer Scrooge or Ebenezer McDuck or what have you.” And the answer to that is, yes, that’s how they joined into the world of Ebenezer, is by singing that together. I mean, that’s exactly what shapes and forms us.
And it’s also what frees us from that, that we mentioned quite a few times here, that sense of catastrophism, that says, “Desperate times call for desperate measures. You’ve never been in a moment like this before.” We are the people whose fathers were brought out of Egypt. We are the people whose fathers and mothers were exiled in Babylon. We are the people who, in Christ, were crucified, the worst thing that can possibly happen to us has already happened. And the best thing that can possibly happen to us, we’ve been raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of the Father, in the heavenly places, has happened. Why in the world do we not see that as good news? And why in the world do we not have the confidence to know that, even if there is hostility to us, that even the most hostile person, through the power of the Gospel, may well be our future brother or sister in Christ. And, even if not, is our neighbor created in the image of God.
So much of it is not about supplying answers, although there’s some of that. It’s mostly about creating a sense of knowing what kinds of questions to ask. When I would teach future pastors in ethics class, one of the things I would always try to do is, for the final exam, come up with a question that would get around what’s the right answer to it, so that I could see how they were thinking through things they’ve never thought about before. And the trick to it was I would always make it so complicated, that I didn’t know how to answer it. [laughter] So when someone would say, “Well, what’s the right answer?” “I don’t know.”
Because what I was trying to shape in them is not, “Here is the list of answers that you have.” We have that with some things. But to have the people who are able to recognize, “Wait a minute. This is not what it means to be human. This is what it means to give up oneself and to follow Christ.” That’s what I think is desperately needed. Because I think one of the things that we have seen over the past several years, is that it is just as possible to be theologically literate hacks, as it is to be theologically illiterate hacks. And nobody is a better theologian than the devil. And we have to get—we have to get at a place where the theology is Christ Himself, to the point that we’re able to recognize who we are and where we are.
CHERIE HARDER: So I’d love to explore a little bit more about what that means, not only for an individual, but also for a church. And Curtis, maybe I’ll throw this to you. What would it look like for a church to kind of cultivate that kind of discipleship, where one is focused not primarily on outcomes, but on the broader approach, the how?
CURTIS CHANG: Well, this gets to the project that we’re—the three of us, the three, quote/unquote “wise men” are doing. So David, Russell, and I are launching a project called “The After-Party.” It’s called “The After-Party Towards a Better Christian Politics.” And it’s going to produce a curriculum, a succession curriculum, for small groups within the church to go through.
So why are we doing this? So first is, we’ve got to start with where I think the problem most urgently needs to be addressed, which is in the church, which this is, you know, there’s lots of problems out there in society, that we can try to solve. But we are most responsible for the church to be faithful to Jesus. And as the statistics that Cherie mentioned, that’s under severe siege right now.
Why is it under severe siege? And this gets to why 40 percent of pastors are thinking of quitting. It’s because, it is very difficult for an individual pastor to address these issues of politics from their normal means before them. So two of us here have been pastors before. I can tell you, as a senior pastor, I’m just human. So when I preach and think about what to preach, there is a part of me that is calculating, what is this going to do to me on Monday morning? Right. What emails are awaiting me on Monday morning?
And in this polarized environment, for all the reasons that have been outlined, if a preacher of a church that has, in some way, has some of these factions in there, has some of this polarization present, they know that, on Monday morning, they are dealing with a world of pain, a world of hurt, just of angry emails, people complaining, people misrepresenting. And for most pastors, it’s just not worth it. Or they make the short-term calculation, it’s just not worth it.
And who can blame them? One, most pastors are not trained in political theology. That’s not why they got into ministry, is to deal with complex issues of politics. They’re unsure themselves. They kind of maybe have good moral instincts, and sort of good theological instincts. But can they come and preach a 30-40 minutes for why Christians ought to support liberal democracy? You know, that’s a pretty small percentage of pastors who will be able to be up for that task, right.
So as a result, what has happened in the last two election cycles, is that, as the passions have risen in the churches, spurred on by the broader forces and secular media, churches have actually gotten quieter. They’ve gotten quieter. Pastors have gotten quieter. And basically, they’re trying to white-knuckle through each election season. And by just like trying not to say anything to upset people, and not to bring up anything contentious, and just try to—Can we make it through November? Is sort of a dominant sort of feeling among many, many church pastors.
Well, what does that do, then? Well, what it does, is it seeds the spiritual formation of the church, then, to other forces, to secular forces especially, who then, you know—and we’ve heard this so often from pastors saying, “Look. I get my people one hour on Sunday. Fox News gets them for 12 hours a week.” And that’s true. That’s really what’s happening. And this is why the misformation of the Christian church is happening, is because pastors are paralyzed in knowing how to respond.
And so the sad thing has been, we should see this coming. So 2016, if you look around, there was very little sort of resources provided your typical evangelical pastor on politics. I guess those of us who are supposedly wise men can be forgiven for not having produced anything to help them. Who saw 2016 happen? 2020, there was no excuse. We all saw what was happening. And yet, if you look at the national landscape, could you point to any resource—anything equivalent, for those of you who are Christians and evangelicals here, you’ll know what I mean, like the equivalent of alpha. When I say, “What is the curriculum that advances evangelism in the church?” most of you who know the evangelical world know, well, you run alpha. That’s the play you run, right.
There has been no equivalent to alpha for politics. And there should have been for 2020, because we all saw that coming. But we didn’t. We didn’t have that. And so pastors had to white-knuckle through another election season. If we allow that to happen in 2024, that’s on us. There’s no excuse for that. And we cannot let each individual pastor have to try to figure out whether—or white-knuckle their way through another. That 40 percent will go to 60-70 percent if we allow that to happen.
So what we want to do, is produce—It’s our first effort at it. It’s not going to solve everything. But it is at least trying to plant a flag of a Christian political identity that is not defined by the options currently on offer of the right and the left, but rather by the cross. And I’ll let the others speak more about the content of that. But that’s the reason for our strategy, is because we’ve got to provide some relief.
The pastor of your typical evangelical church needs to have a play to run. And currently, they don’t have that. And so we at least want to give them one play to run, that especially offloads the conversation from the Sunday morning pulpit, which is a recipe for disaster. It’s a one-way form of communication which you’re invariably going to be misunderstood as a pastor, right. It offloads us into small groups, face-to-face, communities, and relationships, where they can do this kind of question-asking, and mutual exploration, with at least a better chance of success, but done in a way that’s been teed up and structured for them, hopefully wisely, by us.
CHERIE HARDER: Well, both David and Russell, I’d love to hear more about what the content is, and also just want to kind of acknowledge some rebuttals, reputations I can just sort of feel coming, which is, largely the realm of politics is different than the realm of the church. And I think one sort of natural thought would be, look. The way that one interacts, or acts within the political, is necessarily more sharp-elbowed. And to basically transfer the ways of Christ into the political arena, is to ask for defeat, as well as personal destruction.
So I’d love to hear from you what you believe the content that pastors should be teaching about our political involvement is. And is there—Does it necessarily lead to political defeat? Or can this be wise, as well as good?
DAVID FRENCH: Well, you know, one of the things, I think, it’s really interesting to me how Christians have, in many ways, taken politics and put it in a separate realm from everything else. So I’ll be kind, unless kindness doesn’t work. I’ll be humble, until humility doesn’t work. Well then, I’m the sucker if I’m continuing to be kind, right, or if I’m continuing to be humble.
But we don’t apply that in other areas. I mean, how many of you guys have known somebody whose business is struggling? And business, the business world is a sharp-elbowed world. It’s not like politics has a monopoly on sharp elbows. It’s a sharp-elbowed world. And your business is struggling. You may have to sell your house. Your kids’ education might suffer. It’s a stressor. Your marriage is under strain. And somebody comes to you and says, “You know what, Bob, you know what’ll fix this for you, is a little light consumer fraud.” [laughter] Well, you know, the Christian businessman will say, “No, no, no, no. I’m not going to lie to my customers. Because I trust God. I trust God’s got my family. I can trust that God’s got my business.” And they go, “Okay, okay. I know you’re not going to lie. But let me just—I’ve got this guy you can hire this guy. And this guy is a really good liar. And he’ll lie for you. You don’t have to lie, but he is a good liar. He’ll lie for you, and he’ll save your business.” And you go, “No, I can’t delegate lying to someone else and wash my hands. It’s absurd.” I think you get my analogy here. [laughter] I think you get it.
RUSSELL MOORE: Let those who have ears hear.
DAVID FRENCH: Yeah. And so you know, I think of, there are a number of verses that I think are really quite—that are really quite relevant. Micah 6:8 is one of them. “What does the Lord require of you, oh man, what is good? It is to act justly. It is to love kindness. And it is to walk humbly before the Lord your God.” And notice that these are three interlocking obligations. Neither—Not one of them is optional. So I know that there are some Christians who would say, “Well, we need to withdraw entirely from politics, because I can’t get involved in politics without becoming unkind or arrogant.” But there’s still the matter of justice. You have to seek justice, right.
And then there are people who are all about justice. They can hash tag the heck out of their lives. They can absolutely lacerate people on Twitter for righteous causes. But the humility is nowhere to be found. They’re absolutely certain about everything. And certainly, the kindness is very far away.
And so if you think about just those three interlocking obligations, if you’re a people approaching the public square , with seeking justice, while also loving kindness and walking humbly, you’re going to blaze forth in a counter-cultural way. I’m sorry, you’re just completely counter-cultural at that point.
Or how about another one. God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power. It’s not political power. It’s not political power. This is written to the first century church. They had no political power. But faith in power of God, God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of—this is interesting—sound mind.
So again, if you’re confronting the world, and you’re not fearful, but you have confidence in the power of God, you’re loving your neighbor, and you’re approaching the world with a sober sound mind, again, you’re blazing forth in a counter-cultural way. And what’s really critical about these obligations, they’re not contingent upon working, okay. It’s not, you’re humble until humility doesn’t work. None of that is contingent. And there’s all of these arguments we have in Christian spaces about, “Well, it’s stupid to be winsome. Because winsomeness doesn’t work. The other side comes at you. Well, I don’t love the word winsome, because I’m not even sure what it means. [laughter] But I think it’s a rough approximation for exhibiting the fruit of the spirit.
And so the fruit of the spirit are not just tactics to be deployed, to win people over. They’re the markers of who we are, okay. And then the last thing I’ll say is, you cannot go into the political world and say, “You know, I know I’m a bit of an asshole on Twitter. But you should see me in the soup kitchen.” [laughter] And that’s just not the way it works. You can’t cabin off parts of your life, and sort of say, “Well that I’m conceding to being a total jerk. But if you saw me with my kids, and you saw me at church, you’d know I’m really a nice guy.” Guess what. There’s a lot of people who will only, or at least initially, for the first time, interact with Christians in the political sphere.
And if we wall that off, and we say that that is a fruit of the spirit, it’s a fruit-free zone [laughter] we are not—we are not exhibiting the virtues that Christ asks us to exhibit. And we are not exhibiting the markers of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
RUSSELL MOORE: And behind that is the bigger question of the credibility of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I had a woman come to me not long ago, to say that her daughter, who is in college, who is going through a theological crisis—and I was expecting that she was encountering ideas that she had never encountered before. And she said, “No, it’s that the atheists and agnostics that she knows are demonstrating more peace, joy, gentleness, righteousness, self-control, than she sees in the church. And so what she’s starting to question is not whether or not there was a virgin birth, but whether there’s such a thing as the new birth, when there is no distinction between those who are new creations in Christ, and those who are not. And in many cases, those who are naming the name of Christ seem more fearful, more anxious, more frantic, than other people.”
I mean, if you step back and say, “What exactly is it that we are winning?” There was a farmer in my tradition, graduated same school that I graduated from, back long before I was born, who, in Georgia, decided that racial segregation and Jim Crow was wrong, and was the only one in the community who believed that. Had a community where Black and White Christians would be at the same table together, and had his house shot at by the Ku Klux Klan, had his business boycotted and threatened, and died lonely in South Georgia. I met a man here tonight, who came to Christ because of the witness of that man. And the credibility and distinctiveness of what it means to follow Christ in every area of our life, we cannot discount that.
And so, if we ask, does this work? We have to then ask, work for what? Work with what? And that’s why, when sometimes people will say, “Well, what’s the solution? What do we do?” it’s really similar to—I had a young man who came up to me a few Sundays ago, and said, “I just really don’t—I’m really apprehensive,” because he’s a new dad. And he said, “I had a really dysfunctional family. My parents, it was a really awful mess. My grandpa[?], every model that I’ve ever had is really awful. And I’m just terrified that I’m going to repeat that.” And I said, “You’re not.” And I said, “I know that because you know that the situation you were in is abnormal. And you want it to change. The people who are in the most danger are the people who don’t recognize that this is abnormal.”
And the first step for us is not to say, “How do we get through the disillusionment?” it is to say, “Maybe some of our disillusionment is from God, breaking illusions and pointing us back to what we should have been seeing all along, which is the glory of God and the face of Jesus Christ that can transform human beings for the sake of the Gospel.”
CHERIE HARDER: That’s great. We are at the point where we’re going to take questions from all of you in the audience. And those of you who have been to a Trinity Forum event before, know that we ask for three guidelines during the question time. We ask that all questions be brief, all questions be civil, and all questions be in the form of a question. [laughter] We have two roving mics. Please wait until the microphone is in front of you, before speaking. Questions from the audience. Right here, front row. Maybe you can stand up, so you’re more easily seen.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for speaking to us tonight. It was so nice to hear your perspective on how, as Christians, we can better function in the public sphere. I actually had a question more about church hurt. So that’s a term that I’ve been hearing a lot more lately, especially as a young Christian, who is just coming more up into the faith. How do we, as Christians, remedy the problems that have been caused by church hurt? For example, in the political sphere is one of the first places that a lot of people encounter Christians. And a lot of people have been hurt by that, especially minority groups and LGBTQ+ folks. How do we, as the present Christians, remedy those problems that have been caused by that interaction?
CHERIE HARDER: Russell, you want to take a stab at that?
RUSSELL MOORE: I would have a different word of counsel for people who are leading those churches that hurt than I would for the people who have been hurt. And what I would say to the people who have been hurt, is to say, spend time with Jesus. And be able to tell the difference between Jesus and some of those who have come in his name. Especially when you look at the fact that we do not have an idealized picture of the church at all in the New Testament. Church is a dysfunctional mess in the New Testament. The first words that we have from Jesus, other than a couple of appearances after the ascension, are to speak to the churches of Revelation, with words of a really sharp rebuke.
And so Jesus has told us that this would be the case. So differentiate those things. And then, find a place where you can have genuine authentic community that doesn’t repeat the trauma that you’ve experienced. And guard yourself from cynicism. And I think that there are a couple ways that cynicism can show up here. One of those is the cynicism that says, “Well, this is always the way it’s going to be. So let’s just keep doing it.” That’s a cynical, jaded approach. But there’s also the sense of saying, “I’m going to numb myself from ever being hurt again.” And I know that’s my temptation sometimes, after going through something like that, is to say, “I don’t ever want to experience that vulnerability again.” But love and community comes with vulnerability. Just needs to come with the right kind of Jesus-focused vulnerability.
DAVID FRENCH: Can I take the church side of that? My wife and I, especially my wife much more than me, spent the last two years investigating the largest Christian camp in America, Kanakuk Camp. I bet there are probably some campers in here. One of the worst sex abuse scandals in modern church history. One predator alone, the lead prosecutor told us, he said, “I believe he was responsible for hundreds of rapes of boys at this church.” And eventually arrested, sent away to prison.
The entire thing was covered over in nondisclosure agreements. Victims were bullied, bullied into settling for pittance, pennies on the dollar, bullied into signing nondisclosure agreements. Turns out that the camp had received its first word of potential abuse more than a decade before the guy was actually arrested. The documentation is just off the charts.
And one of the responses that we got is, “Why are you running down the church? And why are you exposing the sins of the church?” Because the undertone was, “Don’t you know we’re in a culture war? You know, don’t you know we need to rally?” The goal of a church that has hurt should be justice and repentance, justice and repentance. That means hold people accountable. And that means do not put on the people that you have hurt, and put them in a position where you’re making them feel responsible for making the perpetrators feel better.
RUSSELL MOORE: Yeah.
DAVID FRENCH: This is something that has happened in Christian conciliation programs, and things like that. So justice and repentance. Hold people accountable. Show to people who have been hurt by church, abuse at church, that you value them. And you value them enough to hold people accountable for what’s been done. And do it fearlessly. Do it absolutely fearlessly. Do not think, for a second, that the church is going to be worse off if we tell the truth. I mean, think about that for five seconds, you know.
And then, the other thing is, don’t be a raging hypocrite. You know, when the #MeToo movement started, and we had all of the information about like Harvey Weinstein, and other folks in Hollywood, you know what I did not hear from evangelicals? “You know, you guys are talking too much about sin in Hollywood. What about all of the people and the producers in Hollywood who aren’t raping people? You need to talk about them more.”
No, what I heard from the evangelical community was, “See, this is evidence that Hollywood has a sickness.” But then you have horrible things happen at the biggest Christian college in America. You have horrible things happen at the most powerful apologetics ministry in America. You have horrible things happen at the largest Christian youth camp in America. And the message that, you know, in particular, that we received was, “Why aren’t you talking about the churches that are doing good things?” That’s not justice and repentance.
And it’s also hypocritical, because that’s not how we treat the rest of the world. So we’re expecting to receive kid glove treatment for our own sins, and then twist the nose of the opposition in theirs. And I can’t think of a more anti-Biblical stance than that. And what does that send—what message does that send to people who have been hurt? What it sends to people who have been hurt, it sends the message to them, that if you speak up, you are costing the church. If you speak up, you become part of the problem, not part of the solution.
And I can’t think of—It’s hard to think of a more negative message to send to people who have been hurt and harmed than that. We should be sending the message that, if you speak up, you’ll receive justice. That’s what you should—the message we should be sending.
CHERIE HARDER: So many hands. Okay. Right there.
Q: I have a question for you all, on the role of the church in the post-Roe world we’re now living in. It seemed evident to many of us that most churches and ministries were simply not ready to handle a post-Roe environment and what that entails, restrictions on access to abortion, like anything we’ve seen in almost 50 years, and the intended consequences, where more and more women will be carrying their babies to term, and needing not just spiritual material support, but medical, social, occupational support as well.
I know Susan B. Anthony has their Pregnancy, Life, and Assistance Network site, that looks to provide a comprehensive directory of services for women. On the other hand, almost all of the major Christian healthcare ministries still do not cover the pregnancy costs of unwed members for more reasons.
In the divisive climate that we live in, what can the church do? What should the church do, to build a culture of life that supports women, from pregnancy, to a financially stable, and spiritually healthy environment, for women and their children?
CHERIE HARDER: David, do you want to take that one?
DAVID FRENCH: Okay, I’ll start. [laughter] Boy, that’s a great question. And then, let me just put some statistics behind this, why this is so urgent. Because you know, I’m pro-life. I’ve been, gosh, my entire adult life, I’ve been involved in pro-life activism, going back to my Christian college days, going back to my days at law school, where I formed the first, I think, student formed pro-life club at Harvard Law School. So I’ve been thinking about this a ton.
And I recognize, from a pro-life perspective, the great victory of the reversal of Roe. But occurring at the backdrop, for the first four year span since the Carter administration, we saw an increase in abortions, from 2017 to 2020. That’s the first time, since 1980, at the end of the Carter administration, we had every President, every President, we had a decline in the number of abortions, until the last President, where we had an increase in the number of abortions.
What’s going on? It’s a really hard thing to say, whenever you’re dealing with a complex social phenomenon. But the fact of the matter is, we are making progress on creating a culture of life, and then we’ve regressed. One of the things that was—One of the most salient characteristics of the last 40 years, or 35 or so years, was that more unplanned pregnancies were being carried to term than ever before. And so it wasn’t just increased access to birth control and things like that.
So I think of a dear friend of mine who runs a pro-life group in California, has this sentence that he says, that I think is just wonderful. He says, “Every pregnancy is a blessing.” That’s his sentence that he uses. So regardless of the circumstances, as hard as the circumstances might be, that new life is a blessing. And everything that we do as a church should be oriented towards reaffirming that. As much as possible, people—As much as humanly possible, people who are struggling should not pay a dime to bring their baby into this world. As much as humanly possible, we should make it to where, after they bring a baby into this world, they are not going to face economic privation.
One of the most important studies about abortion you’ll read was done by a Notre Dame professor about two or three years ago. And what she did is she sat several hundred demographically representative people down, and talked to them about abortion. This was not a normal abortion poll, where you ask a series of questions Abortion polling is notoriously bad. Sat down hundreds of people, and talked to them about abortion.
And here is the thing that was fascinating to me. Of the hundreds of people that she talked to, not one, not even the most pro-choice person, because they spanned the gamut from pro-life legally to pro-choice. Not one talked about abortion, the act of abortion, as a desirable good. Many of them talked about as a—sometimes as a tragic necessity, but not a desirable good.
And so from that standpoint, you’ve got a community of people, whether they’re pro-life or pro-choice, who are the disposition is to bring children into this world. And now why do they not? Why do they not? The answer was economic privation and family stability were the biggest two. Do I have a partner who’s going help me raise this kid? Do I have the means to raise this kid? Is my partner, if I have a partner, is my partner violent or not violent?
And so, when you think about it in those terms, it really does help provide us with a mission statement. And what is the mission statement? As much as humanly possible, with the resource—the abundant resources that we have, just even within the church, the wealthiest religious movement in the history of the world is the American church, we should be able to help provide for people to prevent economic privation.
Well, what about family stability? That’s a harder thing. That’s a harder thing. It’s much harder. But it’s hard for me to think of a better kind of community to bring people into, to model healthy relationships, and to foster and nurture healthy relationships, than a well-functioning church. One of the most tragic things about our current reality is that, especially America’s poorer citizens, there is a new tool that came out from my friends at Over Zero called The Belonging Index. And basically, what it did, is it looked at various indicators of belonging, whether it’s what kind of social services—or what kind of social activities do you engage in? What kind of civic associations do you belong to? Towards more subjective things like, do I feel appreciated and loved in my family? Do I feel appreciated and loved by friends? Do I have friends?
And what it found out, is that the most—America’s struggling economic cohorts were ranking very low on those belonging indicators. And if I could think of a mission for the church that could help restore our culture in a way that would be better than almost any number of policies that I could imagine, is intentionally reaching out to America’s struggling communities and providing them with a sense of place, and belonging. And if you provide people with a sense of place and belonging and security, they’re going to be a lot more apt to bring children into this world.
RUSSELL MOORE: And I would add that it really ties into what we were talking about earlier. You cannot have a pro-life ethic among a people who despise vulnerability. You cannot have a pro-life ethic and misogyny You cannot have a pro-life ethic with an understanding that morality can be dispensed with in an emergency. And so culturally, that has to change within the church, in order to model to the rest of the world what it means to love both mother and child, and to care for those who are counted not because of how useful they are, but how they’re created in the image of God.
And that means that we’re going to have to have conversations, not only about what we do within the church, but also in terms of government. I mean often, Christians will say, “Well, if the church would just do our job, we wouldn’t have to worry about any of these issues with the government,” as though that means, let’s just not worry about mothers who can’t financially give birth, or about dealing with a foster care system that’s falling apart, and so forth. No. We have to do both of those things.
And so I’m really encouraged to see some pro-life people who are saying, at this point, “Let’s reconsider some of the ideas that we have about how, as a complete society, we can help struggling women in crisis, to actually be able to welcome their children into the world.”
CHERIE HARDER: We’ll take one more really quick question, and really quick answer. So right there, the front row. Yes.
Q: Thank you. And panelists, thank you for just exhorting us to be prophetic over powerful. That’s just really encouraging. Question for you about the After-Party Project. How is it going to get into the water stream? How long do you think it’ll take? And how will know if it’s succeeding?
CHERIE HARDER: Curtis.
DAVID FRENCH: We’ll call you, Curtis.
CURTIS CHANG: It’s a great question. So the current plan is, right now, we’re in the process of developing the script. We’ve got a director. We’re going to be going into production in the next few months. Thanks to the great support of the New Pluralists, which is a bipartisan collaborative of funders working to restore faith and democracy and pluralism in our country, we have funding to run a pilot project in Ohio. So we’re going to be testing this material in Ohio churches. We’ve already built partnerships with Ohio churches, networks of Ohio churches, and pastors, CCCU Schools in Ohio. So the end of 2023 is the testing point. Hopefully we get some rapid learnings and good results. And that will position us, in 2024, to ready for the election season, hopefully with some learnings and some more funding to be able to scale this up for the rest of the country. So that’s the plan.
CHERIE HARDER: Thank you Curtis. In just a moment, I’m actually going to give each of our panelists the last word as we close out the evening. But before that, I wanted to extend a couple of invitations to all of you who are here. First, on each of your seats, there should be an invitation to join the Trinity Forum Society. Trinity Forum Society is the community of people that help advance and promote the mission of the Trinity Forum, to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought.
But there’s also, in addition to being part of the community, many benefits associated with membership, including a subscription to our quarterly readings. This one in particular I will point out, since the introduction was written by David and Curtis, and may be of interest. Our quarterly readings are daily what we’re reading list of curated reading recommendations, as well as several other benefits as well.
As a special incentive, tonight, with your membership, or gift of $100 dollars or more, we will give you a curated reading or curated collection of several readings that enable one to go kind of further into some of the topics that we have discussed today. So, in addition to the Federalist Papers, you’ll also receive selections from Augustine’s City of God, Reinhold Niebuhr’s essay, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Vaclav Havel’s essay on Politics, Morality, and Civility. So encourage you to avail yourself of that invitation. We’d love to have you as part of the Society.
I’d also just like to point out my colleagues, who will be manning the table out front, and can answer any questions you might have about that. If you are a Trinity Forum Society staff person, if you could just stand up and wave your hand, so people can see who you are, that would be great.
Secondly, also want to invite you to check out not only the Trinity Forum table, but also the Redeeming Babel table, which will be right outside, for more information about the After-Party and the new curriculum that is being developed to help pastors and the church deal with our political divisions. Arianna Petrosky[?], if you are here, maybe you can stand, just so people can see you. There she is. So thank you. [applause]
And yeah, I think applause is merited. I mean it’s appropriate to end with thanks right. And there’s lots of people to thank, who made tonight possible. So I’ll also just add my thanks to our sponsors, The New Pluralists, the American Cities Program, the folks that made it all happen, our fantastic photographer, Clay Blackmore, my colleagues, Tom Walsh, Molly Wicker, Brian Daskum[?], our new Executive Assistant and Office Manager, Kristen Forney[?]. This is her first day in the office. So welcome Kristen. [applause] Our excellent interns, Josh [01:24:21] and Sarah Malek, our volunteers who helped us out tonight, Jacob Dunlap, Hannah Metcalf, Jenson Metcalf, Jackie Sawyer, as well as Arianna Petrosky, thank you so much.
And, as promised, David, Russell, and Curtis, the last word is yours. David, maybe we can start with you.
DAVID FRENCH: Okay, real fast. If the guidance—our theme verse is Micah 6:8. “Act justly. Love kindness. And walk humbly.” Got to put that in practice. This is really hard. And so I’m going to ask you for your counsel. So if you have thoughts and ideas about how we can approach these issues, I’m all ears. Because we have not figured it all out. So what I would ask you to do, is to reach out to me, if you have some thoughts. And I’ll just tell you my email. David.email@example.com. And if you’re mean, I won’t answer it. [laughter] But if it’s thoughtful, I’m definitely going to read it. And I’ll do my best to answer. And I would really appreciate your counsel.
CHERIE HARDER: Russell.
RUSSELL MOORE: I would say a lot of people are feeling really unstable right now. And it seems as though everything is shifting and changing. And what I would call your attention to is the pillar of fire and cloud, that went before the people of Israel, and did not give a comprehensive map of the way to the promised land, but gave just enough light for the next few steps ahead. That pillar of fire has, of course, in the glory of God, been made flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ. And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Do not be afraid.
CURTIS CHANG: I’ll echo Russell by saying, be of great hope. That’s my word to all of you. Be of great hope, because the after-party is coming. [laughter] Not the After-Party of a curriculum that we’re creating, I mean the real after-party. Because the story ends with an after-party. It’s the wedding feast of the lamb, when Jesus returns to cleanse his church, made spotless. And in that moment, the restoration, not of the church, but of the world at war, where the swords are beaten into plowshares, the spears into pruning hooks, that’s the after-party that’s coming. That’s the after-party we know will solve all of this. All of what we do here, the lower case after-party, these are just mere pointers and mere signs to that true after-party. We know how the story ends. So if you know how the story ends, how can we not have great hope?
CHERIE HARDER: Curtis, Russell, and David, thank you.
CHERIE HARDER: And thank you to you all for joining us. Have a good evening.