Conservative Americans and Christians are engaged in a battle over how to influence America’s increasingly secular, hostile and rhetorically heated politics. At root are competing views of political theology and presumptions about the way to win the Culture War. Some argue for winsome engagement. Some argue for vigorous, wise and even rough politics. There are merits to all forms of engagement, but Christians must not eschew the rough and tumble when times call for it.
Sohrab Ahmari offers one vision of conservative engagement, “To fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
While Ahmari engages National Review’s David French, Erick Erickson tweeted out something that represents a typical impulse within conservative, Evangelical thought—an emphasis on public witness over political victories. It illustrates a personal, soul winning focus over political victories.
Erickson tweeted, “Confession: A lot of my friends think we’re in a war with the left. I don’t. I think we are in a spiritual battle and we cannot fight as the world does or we become like the world. I think the ‘own the left’ stuff is a short game that negatively impacts the real fight for souls.”
He continued, “Consequently, I think a conservatism built on faith is less and less compatible with American political conservatism even if the two can frequently be reconciled. But I think we need to move towards faith, not towards politics.”
These typify the competing impulses within conservatives in general and Evangelicals in particular. What is the proper way to be a Christian and conduct politics?
What Nehemiah can teach us about political theology, Owning the Libs and Engaging the Culture
Nehemiah 13:25a “I rebuked them, cursed them, beat some of their men, and pulled out their hair.”
Nehemiah found himself facing a theological and political crisis. The civic and religious health of his people was under attack. Jews were failing to bring up their children properly. This presented itself in children speaking foreign languages instead of Hebrew. It was caused by Jews marrying non-Jews from the surrounding peoples including the Ammonites, Moabites and Ashdodites.
Nehemiah’s response was twofold. He reasoned with the people citing Scripture and resorted to political action. This is a good model. We should be able to produce good arguments for our theological position—and then additional good arguments for why these doctrines influence our policy preference.
One thing to notice about Nehemiah: he didn’t dither. Nehemiah took action. Commentators call it “drastic action” including “psychological pressure” and “physical beatings.” Another commentator eschews the particular example of beating people, but points out that action is necessary. He writes, “Although Nehemiah’s particular action should not be considered a pattern for us, we should see that in such cases action is necessary.”
Another remarkable thing about the passage is the language suggests a personal rather than legal basis for the action. Nehemiah “rebuked them,” pronounced a curse on them, “beat some” and disgraced them by “pulling out their hair.” One commentator explains, “It is not clear how far we should press the language: that he harangued the culprits in no uncertain terms is not in doubt, but the fact that he beat but ‘some of the men’ is not suggestive of any kind of judicial procedure.” The point here is that Nehemiah acted as loudly and powerfully as he possibly could to stop behavior that threatened the civic health of the restoration.
Nehemiah’s action was vigorous and brings to mind how Jesus acted to cleanse the Temple:
“Nehemiah’s explosion was as characteristic as Ezra’s implosion had been. Both were powerfully effective, and both were to find some parallel in our Lord’s encounters with evil. The shock treatment by Nehemiah was devastating in the same manner as the assault on the moneychangers, and the display of grief by Ezra (Ezra 9:3ff.; 10:1ff.) was as moving, in its way, as the lament over Jerusalem.”
Notice how Ezra behaved one way and Nehemiah another. We should always remember that God gifts us differently and calls us to different vocations. Some of us are called to be evangelists. Some of us are called to be doctors. Others are called to be involved in politics. In each of the callings, one should use the best of the art (after all we are to be workmen honoring God with our labor.) Some should react as Ezra, with a prophetic sorrow and gentleness, and some should react as Nehemiah, with vigorous personal action to influence the politics of our day.
We can’t be so winsome that we fail to battle like men. We can fight Spiritual Warfare and still own the Libs through reason and political skill. Being meek does not always preclude beating the moneychangers. The key is balance. The right action for the right time.
So, what is the right action for such a time as this?
Ahmari’s prescription is better than French’s. French is deceived if he believes the Spirit of this Age will ever leave Christians in peace. As we’ve noted before, this type of Never Trumpism amounts to a Christian version of virtue signaling and exhibits a moral naïveté. (Also, see this.) It is strongly influenced by Neo-Anabaptist political theology, and is dangerous both for the church and the nation.
The great New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield pointed out the state is part of God’s salvific plan because it creates order—something useful for the spread of the Gospel.
“It is implied that God wills the state as a means to promoting peace and quiet among human beings, and that God desires such peace and quiet because they are in some way conducive to human beings’ salvation. It is God’s purpose that the state should, by restraining chaotic tendencies of human beings’ self-assertion, maintain those outward conditions under which the gospel may be preached to all and sundry without hindrance.”
The best way to win souls, is that for those of us called to politics (and in American society, every citizen has some calling to political involvement) to influence the state to restrain the chaos of extreme secularism. The methods will vary, sometimes like Ezra and sometimes like Nehemiah. Our concerns cannot be public witness, when the very order of society is at risk. With our enemies multiplied, now is the time for action like Nehemiah—restore the state to its God-ordained purpose.
 Lester L. Grabbe, Ezra-Nehemiah, (New York: Routledge, 1998), 64.
 C. E. B. Cranfield, The Christian’s Political Responsibility According to the New Testament, SJT 15 (1962), pp. 176-192. (Also in Cranfield’s The Bible & Christian Life).