The Failure of Evangelical Political Involvement

Dallas Willard

A contribution to the book God and Governing


Table of contents


The heart of the question before us is quite simple: Why after 25-30 years of evangelical political involvement, with a high level of visibility and influence, is there little or no improvement in the ethical quality of American political discourse and practice? I’m not going to question the assumption that there hasn’t been any improvement, as it seems to me that is obvious. The words “integrity” and “maturity” were used in my assignment and those are good words, but they don’t cut very deeply today without some explanation. Integrity becomes an issue in public life, of course, as does maturity, but you need to spell out what they mean. And in this context to have maturity means you have grown up ethically. It means that the ideals that are honored in discourse about the ethical or the moral life have increasingly come into your possession. Integrity would mean, among other things, that you don’t have to run different processes in your life—that you’re transparent and all parts of who you are consistently hang together, so you don’t have to keep parts of yourself hidden. You don’t live in the dark. But when you speak about growing up morally you are also actually talking about the ability to lead on important matters of life.

I so appreciated David Wells’s discussion of debt. Debt is a primary problem for life, as is repeatedly emphasized in all “wisdom literature.” “The borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (Prov. 22:7). Debt, if not handled with the utmost caution, undercuts the ability to live and to lead. It becomes a great destructive force. The greatest threat to the indispensable virtue of prudence in America is the credit card and easy credit: the ability to gain possession of things without paying for them. It is equally harmful at the level of government. John Maynard Keynes is mainly the one who brought deficit financing into respectable governmental practice. Some used to object to him that sooner or later you’d have to pay the debt, and his brilliant reply was, “In the long run we are all dead.”1 Of course, after that you don’t have to pay your debts; someone else does. Debt is a relentless burden, rarely well handled, though those who sell it to you present it as a wonderful opportunity. It is a constant threat to well-being and character, to maturity and integrity.

I want to address this question of the recent failure of Evangelical involvement in politics as directly as I can, by way of three related factors:

  • The lack of connection between the evangelical “gospel” at present and character development. The fundamental message that is heard now from evangelicals is not what we have always heard from evangelicals and other Christians. Evangelical Christians have a long history, and pre-WW II evangelicalism, especially in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, was, quite simply, a different kind of religion— with very different practices and theological assumptions. The disappearance of moral knowledge from the institutions of knowledge in our society. The institutions of knowledge are primarily the universities, including higher education generally, and the church. You may find it strange to hear the church listed as an institution of knowledge, but if you do, that is precisely a part of our problem, and we have to deal with it.
  • The general withering of professional ethos. Following upon the previous points, the professional’s life is no longer tied to an exalted vision of dignity and public good.

The Evangelical "Gospel" and the Lack of Character Development

The current Evangelical understanding of salvation has no essential connection with a life morally transformed beyond the ordinary. Evangelicals are good at what they call “conversion.” They’re not good at what comes later, because what is preached by them as the gospel has no necessary connection to character transformation. Post-WWII evangelicalism is, basically, fundamentalism in doctrine minus the pugnacious attitude. Unfortunately, fundamentalism defined itself in terms of correct belief, but not in terms of practice. Correct beliefs were a big and important issue, and still are. I do not question that. But now we must understand that we have developed a doctrine and an understanding of belief that does not entail action. It is psychologically false, and biblically false in terms of the language that is used, but that’s just the way evangelicalism has developed. “Saving faith” has no necessary implication for becoming Christlike. The idea of Jesus as Teacher, Master and so on, became code language among liberals in the pre-WWII era for “merely human.” So if you talked about Jesus as Teacher, that meant you were dismissing him as divine Lord, so “Teacher” disappeared from the fundamentalist (and then the evangelical) vernacular. And, of course, where you do not have teachers you cannot have students. So discipleship gradually disappeared during the twentieth century. Discipleship has historically been the process of association with Jesus and his people in which you become like Him. That disappeared from evangelical practice.

Now there are tons and tons of problems with this. This view is founded on a whole hermeneutic that set aside the Gospels and said that our gospel for today is Paul’s gospel, which was different from what Jesus preached. The upshot is that now we have this lovely little bumper sticker: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” The former is fine; the latter is not. Christians aren’t perfect. The focus on perfection distracts from the real issue—character transformation and obedience—and we’ve avoided obedience long enough to no longer know how to obey. We have adopted this position under a misreading of the gospel among evangelicals that says, “Just forgiven.” That’s it.

How do we grow in Christlikeness? What does it look like? I will give you a couple of verses here just as illustrations of where such growth comes out. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). Now just think of the effects of that, and of what it would be like to learn it to the point where doing it is easy—where it is not a strain but is an expression of who you really are—easy for you habitually to see others as better than yourself. Further on in that same chapter: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Phil 2:14,15). That is basic Christian life from Paul’s point of view. That is a life that wins the world and provides a model of life under God. That’s a life that has to explain its source to an inquiring public, because it stands out and is so different. That is the New Testament vision. We are talking about taking I Corinthians 13, and saying, “Yes that’s for me. I will do that. I will let love dwell in me to the extent that, because love dwells in me, I suffer long and am kind. Love also does not envy, does not puff itself up, does not exalt itself and so on.” That would become my natural character. But in the evangelical gospel preached today there is no natural connection between what is preached as the gospel and the Christlikeness described in these verses.

There are three “gospels” heard today. The first is that believing Jesus suffered for your sins brings forgiveness and heaven. That is the standard version of the gospel among evangelicals. Is it true? Yes, it is true, but that is not the gospel. It is actually one theory of the atonement, and it does not make up the whole of the gospel. Did Jesus die for our sins? Yes, he certainly did.

The second gospel is that Jesus was in favor of liberation and deliverance from oppression, and you can stand with him in that. This is roughly the gospel of the theological Left, and it pretty much turns out to be what the political Left also thinks. Is that true? Yes, that is true. A well known preacher of other days, Vance Havner, used to say that Jesus was not crucified for saying, “Behold the lilies; for they toil not, neither do they spin,” but for saying, “Behold the Pharisees, how they steal.” And from a human point of view, that is what happened. He got under the skin of the oppressors. He was in favor of liberation.

I call the third gospel preached today “churchmanship.” Basically, you take care of your church and your church will take care of you. Today that is widely practiced in Christianity. Much more widely than people think, and, unfortunately, that “gospel” isn’t even true. Now “churchmanship” is important and that’s why my wife and I continue to be deeply involved in our local congregation. A lot of people get disillusioned with the church and they don’t know quite what to make of it. People sometimes ask me why, since I’m such a “profound thinker,” I’m still involved in church. I sometimes reply, “Well, the Bible says you’re supposed to love your enemies and you’ll find a few there.” I mean to be humorous, of course, but I sense some recognition out there as I say that. Actually, however, that is what the church is. It is a place where you can get really mad at people and not run off and leave them. It is a place where anger and contempt can be unlearned. It’s a place to learn the deep things of a fellowship in Christ that lovingly endures disagreement, anger, and injury. “Churchmanship” in that sense is important. It is vital. It is in God’s plan and nothing is going to take the place of it. The church is intended to be a school of love.

But what we’ve arrived at in North America is wall-to-wall non-discipleship Christianity. The three gospels that I’ve mentioned do not produce disciples who naturally move into progressive character transformation. They don’t do that, and we all can know it through observation. The three gospels define discipleship in different ways—if they deal with it at all—but always in a way that will not include character transformation and routine obedience. These gospels produce only consumers of religious goods and services, not apprentices to Jesus in Kingdom living. We need to ask, if the gospels preached today were the ones originally preached, would there be such a thing as Christianity now? I don’t think so. It is now accepted that you can be a Christian forever and not become a disciple. A disciple is someone who is with Jesus learning to be like Him. That’s a disciple. Actually, that’s a disciple in any area. A child in third grade learning long division is a disciple of their teacher. They’re with them learning to be like them with respect to a certain discipline. That’s what discipleship is. If I’m a disciple of Jesus, I’m learning from him how to lead my life in the kingdom of God as He would lead my life in the kingdom of God if he would lead my life in the kingdom of God if he were in my place. How would he do that? I’m learning from him. I’m not learning to lead his life. He did very well with that and that’s done and over with, and we don’t need to do that again. What is at issue now is my life. How am I going to lead my life?

This brings us back to the issue of the evangelicals in political life. If you’re involved in politics, how do you do what you do there—as a judge, a state representative, or chairman of a committee in a political campaign? How would Jesus do that? You must exalt him in your mind to the point where you believe he would actually know how to do the job and do it out the top. So in so many ways the great old text, “What think ye of Christ?” is always the question before us, and if you think of Him rightly you will naturally (supernaturally) become his student. You’ll become his apprentice and you’ll believe that he’s the best man in your field, whatever your field is. So this takes him out of the category of merely a sacrificial lamb and puts him in the category of master of the universe. People who are running for the presidency are trying to get a job from Jesus. Did you know that? Jesus is actually now the King of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5). He’s not waiting for the Millennium, though that will change the scene radically. This is now, so the question is how would you be President of the United States and do it like Jesus would do it under present conditions?

We have managed, curiously enough, to get to a place where evangelicals can become “nominal” Christians. This is a real historical curiosity, because one of the things that have been distinctive of the evangelicals through the ages—from Luther on—is their resistance to nominal Christianity. But now it is possible for evangelical Christians to differ from non-Christians only or very largely in terms of what they’re called. So, when we ask the question we started with—“Why after 25-30 years of evangelical…”etc.—we have this nominal Christianity as our answer. The lack of a noteworthy difference in the moral character of public and political life is to be expected from the very nature of contemporary evangelicalism.

An outstanding church just recently discovered that involvement in church activities is no measure of spiritual growth! I love these people dearly; they’re wonderful followers of Christ. But my heart bleeds for them and for us, and I wonder how they could have missed this for so long. Thank God they knew something was not working right, and they went out of their way to make a very elaborate study. But it is the gospel that is preached which establishes the background for evangelical practice, and you cannot “plow around it.” You simply can’t. That language comes out of frontier days when you deadened trees to plant crops and just “plowed around them” until they fell over. But you can’t plow around the central message we are preaching. It determines the result we get. We have to come to grips with that. What are we preaching? What is the message?

The result we get is the natural outcome of the basic message we are preaching, and that outcome is shocking to some people. What is the alternative? Well, we can try preaching the gospel Jesus preached in the way He preached it. We could try that. In my own life as a young, very green Southern Baptist pastor it came as a shock to me when I realized that Jesus was not preaching what I was preaching, and then I realized that I had been taught that I was not supposed to preach what he was preaching. In fact, in one way or another, that teaching has become standard. We today do not know how to preach what he preached. The idea grows up that Paul had one gospel and Jesus had another, which is patently false once you look at the texts. You’d never get that idea from the New Testament unless you were told it must be there.

The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge

Around the middle of the last century (after WWII), knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, ceased to be available from our schools (especially higher education), and then from our churches. We often get the order of events wrong when we start to talk about what has happened in education with the elimination of Bible reading and prayer from public schools. That elimination comes along way down the line. It only happened because of what had happened in higher education decades before. After the WWII, the change in climate of thought began to hit street level and the court system. But the real issue here was the disappearance of knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, from society. And I emphasize “knowledge” because we’re talking about moral knowledge: about knowing what is good, what is right, what is wrong and so on. This knowledge ceased to be available as knowledge from our schools, but it had much earlier already dropped out of the position of knowledge in elite intellectual circles and in higher education.

Toward the end of the 1800s the university system began to distance itself from the church, as is well known; and one essential way it had of doing that was to interpret theology and morality in such a way that they were no longer counted as knowledge. This process started with some “theology” and with other “ecclesiastical” matters which were taught at the various colleges but were, in fact, just traditions. Usually the particular schools or universities had some denominational identification, and they were each trying to teach their “faith and practice” as a whole as if it all amounted to knowledge—though it was largely just tradition. When the emphasis on research came along in higher education, the traditional material often did not stand up to critical examination, and so, rather than sorting it out progressively, to distinguish the sound from the unsound, there simply arose a redefinition of what knowledge was. Institutions of “knowledge” ceased to make the traditional moral knowledge—of what kind of persons we ought to be and of what we ought to do—available.2 The universities no longer explicitly undertook to teach people how to live (although they certainly continued to do so implicitly). Gradually there disappeared any responsibility on the part of universities to teach what is right, wrong, good, evil and so on. The background assumption or excuse was that there is no knowledge of such things, so why not do what seems best to you?” Some may wonder, for example, how we’ve arrived (as recently reported in the news) at the point of teaching tantric sex on a certain campus, when something like that couldn’t have happened before. Some may think, “Well it’s just because we used to be governed by prejudice and now we’re open minded.” But the things that occur on campus now actually come into a vacuum left by the disappearance of moral knowledge. We have moved from the age of “Why?” seeking a good reason for what we do, to the age of “Why not?” No one in an official position is prepared to go to the people who are doing morally questionable things and even ask “Why?” I will not begin to tell you stories about what happens in the classroom itself, because in the classroom it’s perfectly all right to be radical and to relentlessly teach a “radical” morality or religion. You can’t be traditional, but you can be radical—that is even a plus to most minds—and then in a pinch you can pass that off as political, not as moral. The political, as we know, does not require knowledge. It only requires advocacy, and that opens the door for things like tantric sex and almost anything else admitting of “consent.”

So, in fact, higher education and the elite professional groups continue to pressure and teach on moral matters—good, bad, right, wrong—and if you don’t believe it just get crossways of what is advocated in morality by them and you will be subjected to full blown moral opprobrium. That’s because in fact no one can separate life from morality. Moral sentiment and moral opinions are always in full force, and perhaps more so now than ever, because they are not subject to rational criticism in open discussion. One of the things that used to happen in higher education and elite circles, though certainly not in a perfect way, was that moral teachings were surfaced, talked about, and subjected to rational criticism. Now they’re not. What is taught is taught by example, tone of voice, selection of subject matters and so on—oftentimes by unguarded explicit statements—but there’s no rational criticism directed at them because it’s not taken to be an area of rationality or knowledge. Pressure, however, abounds.

Why does it matter whether or not there is moral knowledge? This is really the heart of the matter: Knowledge alone confers the right and responsibility to act, to direct action, to set policy, to supervise policy and to teach. Sentiment does not do that. Opinion does not do that. Tradition does not do that. Power does not do that. You expect people who act to know what they are doing, don’t you? You probably would not take your car to a shop that said on a sign in front of it, “We are lucky at making repairs,” or “We’re inspired,” or “We feel real good about it.” This is not a matter of convention. It is how knowledge actually works in human life, and it’s very important to understand that. Without moral knowledge there is no moral authority. Hence there is only “political correctness,” even though it looks and feels ever bit like morality and often assumes a distinctly moral tone and force.

The upshot is that we fall into calling evil good and good evil. One way of doing that is to say it’s all the same—as “diversity” has a way of dictating. In the absence of public knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, and virtue and vice, human leaders have no moral basis upon which to lead in terms of what is good, and so any attempt at leadership in the political, legislative or other realm immediately becomes a matter of a political or legal contest. There’s no acknowledged basis, no public knowledge, of right and wrong, good and evil, in terms of which leadership could be exercised. There’s no basis upon which to guide the leader’s personal life and public choices, and as a result leaders tend to abdicate to public or internal pressures with no basis to support them in goodness. Desire, pleasure, and success guide them. Personal integrity rarely survives, still less does effectiveness in leading for what is good and right.

Today, equality is not actually regarded as a matter of human dignity and value. That is very hard to defend. Rather it is regarded as a doorway to freedom. Freedom itself is not regarded in terms of the inherent dignity and value of human beings, but rather as opportunity. Opportunity is not regarded as opportunity to do what is good and right, but to get what you want. We talk a lot about them, but the basic values in our society are not equality and freedom—they are pleasure and happiness. And these are interpreted in sensualistic terms. Our society is a society of feeling. That is why debt conquers common sense. Feeling is our master. That’s why we have so many issues about abuse of one kind or another—abuse comes out of frustration over feeling. That is why we are such an addictive society. Also, watch your commercials for automobiles, etc., and see how much of it is predicated upon feeling. Feeling runs our society. It also runs our massively failing educational system. It is the only acknowledged ultimate value. That explains why we do so badly in areas of learning that require sustained discipline—it doesn’t feel good. Our society basically has two values, which come together. One is doing what you want to do—mistaken for freedom—and the other is pleasure. Sometimes people say happiness is one of our values, but happiness now means nothing that would have been recognized as such by the great thinkers from Aristotle to John Locke, for it translates simply into pleasure—having a good time. (That is how tantric sex becomes interesting to Lutherans and Baptists, etc. Much of what Bill Clinton learned about sex—what is and is not “sex with that woman”—he learned in legalistic religion.) The disappearance of knowledge of moral values leaves us open to all sorts of delusions.

On the subject of freedom, I want to recommend a work by a man named Thomas Hill Green, called Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation 3 What you find in Green is the efforts of a man who was raised an evangelical and grew more liberal as he went on in his life, but he retained a sense of what freedom should mean. He argued that freedom is not just freedom from; freedom is the exercise of abilities to attain the good in community. This bears repeating: Freedom is the exercise of abilities to attain the good in community. If you want to see real freedom made visible, watch Pavarotti in performance. That’s freedom. Watch a highly disciplined athlete, sans drugs. You’ll see freedom. If you follow the idea of freedom in Thomas Hill Green’s writings, you will understand that this connection between freedom and good is an area of knowledge. We must learn to represent it as such.

Professional Calling Fails

In the past, human beings had access to the support of a religious outlook like the one that characterized classical evangelicalism, in people like Richard Baxter and John Wesley or William Wilberforce. When we think of Wilberforce, it’s important to remember that there were two objectives on his part. One was the abolition of the slave trade. For this he is admired today and got a movie made about him. But there was also the “reformation of manners,” as he called it. It is important to look at his book4that was written to address the issue of “manners” and ask yourself how many evangelicals of today would be comfortable with what it says. It’s written out of a specific theological context. John Wesley and John Newton shared and promoted its outlook, and it presents a very different perspective on real Christianity from anything we would recognize as evangelical today—no matter how heartily we sing “Amazing Grace.”

With the absence of publically available knowledge of the good and the right, and of any essential relationship with the Christian Gospel, the traditional understanding of professional devotion to the good in one’s profession serves is lost. When knowledge of good and devotion to God ceases to be the governing principle of professional life, then professional integrity collapses or shrinks down to mere technical competence. Now, in the theory of the professions as it’s being done today, you see the gradual but inevitable disappearance of any idea of devotion to the public good. It’s very interesting to see how market theory enters the picture. The only obligation of the professional, it is increasingly said, is technical expertise, and in the context in which individuals use and exercise that expertise—we vainly imagine—sort out who’s good and who’s bad, and competition will make things all work for the best for the public. Yes, and about then another cow flew by.

The Rotary slogan, by contrast, is “Service above self”—which is still displayed at the meetings. You don’t have to wonder where that came from, right? That’s Jesus, and people knew that and honored that when they started the Rotary Club. They knew that and thus they had a moral vision of professional life, which remained very strong in this country up until quite recently—again, finally caving in to the influence of the academy. But what could the slogan mean today? With the demise of Christian moral understanding as a bulwark of public life, it certainly does not have the power to oblige. Really, it means hardly anything at all. Still, “Service above self” is the idea back of traditional professionalism, and if you have a Christian vision of life in the kingdom of God as a disciple of Jesus—and on the basis of that you have moral knowledge and a corresponding moral life—then you’re prepared to become a very different kind of person in public service. You will not live for your self-advancement above all, but seek to advance the causes of what is good and right in your special field of activity—the political above all.

Is There a Way Back?

You will not be surprised to hear me say that there is. There is a way back, but it is the way of Jesus Christ, understood now in the generous but rigorous way that it has been understood for much of the past in this country, and in other countries in other parts of the world. There is a way back, but evangelical leaders (pastors, teachers, writers) must lead. They are the ones who have to lead the way back. They will find many others to join them if they will but lead. One of the things that will happen for those who follow Christ fully and grow in their relationship to Him is that they will stand out in such a way that people will look to them for leadership. There’s a very interesting incident in the history of the Huguenots. For many centuries there’s been an ongoing battle between Islam and the rest of the world. It is not a new thing. There was a period in which those under Islam ran sea galleys around the Mediterranean—ships run by oars, and those oars pulled by slaves. It’s interesting that on those galleys the Huguenots were the ones that everyone trusted. If they had anything of value to be kept, they put it in the care of the Huguenot. If there was any issue of truth or righteousness, the Huguenots on board were the ones who were looked to for right judgment. That is an example of what we were looking at in Philippians 2 above, of shining out as lights in a darkened world.

Our point of attack and of service today must be the presentation of the basic biblical truths as knowledge of reality. What the world has done is to negotiate the church into a position of saying that it does not have knowledge. Christians just have faith, and faith is an irrational leap. The world assumes Archie Bunker’s definition of faith: “It’s what you wouldn’t believe for your life if it wasn’t in the Bible.” This is a total misunderstanding of faith. Although faith often goes beyond knowledge, it never works—on the biblical model—outside of a context of knowledge. Many of the things we as Christians have faith in are things we actually also know—or can know. That will seem almost cognitively incoherent for most people today, because they’ve had it ground into them that when it comes to faith, knowledge is simply ruled out. That’s why it is hard to make any sense of “separation of church and state” as it is discussed today, in comparison to how it was understood in the writing of the Constitution, which makes perfect sense. People today think of something other than knowledge when you say “church.” If the church brought vital knowledge to human existence, there would be no more talk of separation of church and state, in its current meaning, than there would be separation of chemistry and state. In the past it was assumed that the church did bring vital knowledge to human existence.

It was basically the decision of the church itself to let knowledge go, in the 1800’s and 1900’s, and to undertake to present something other than vital knowledge. That decision set the scene for where we stand now. I’m talking about knowledge as you require it in your dentist, your auto mechanic, your brain surgeon, your politician (I hope), and so on. You have knowledge of a subject matter when you are representing it (speaking of it, treating it) as it is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience—including a proper use of “authority.” Most of the things we know, scientific or otherwise, we know on the basis of authority. Somebody told us. There is nothing wrong with that. What is presented in the Bible on fair interpretation, and verifiable in life, is knowledge of reality—especially of the spiritual and moral life in Christ. So if you’re going to turn things back to genuine character transformation, you have to resist the temptation to shy away from presenting the basic things—let’s call it “mere Christianity,” it’s a good phrase—as knowledge. You have to shy away from treating these things as something else, such as feelings, opinions, traditions, power plays. You have to know and accept and present mere Christianity as a body of knowledge.

What do I mean? To repeat: You have knowledge of a subject matter where you are representing it as it is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. So, let’s try the Apostles Creed: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,” and so forth. Is that knowledge? What do you say? The challenge is to stand up for Christian knowledge. Not with dogmatism or close-mindedness, but with all humility of mind, with all openness, ready to hear anything from anyone. But you must represent it as knowledge if you are going to find the way back to an evangelicalism that is routinely transformational. The disastrous mistake was that the church backed away from knowledge in the last two centuries, and piously proclaimed “faith” as something superior to and indifferent to knowledge. But the Bible is all about knowledge. Just read the texts with that in mind. Do inductive bible study on knowledge.” Even eternal life is knowledge, as Jesus said (John 17:3), and as we see in 2 Peter 1:2-5, where we are told that we’ve been provided with “everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” It’s all founded upon knowledge, though there is more to discipleship to Christ than just knowledge.

Vital knowledge is of course never what we now call “head knowledge,” and that’s the way the Bible treats it. It is interactive relationship. When Jesus says, “This is eternal life that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3), he’s talking about interactive relationship. That’s knowledge—biblical knowledge. Now of course “head knowledge” can come out of that, but life knowledge is always interactive relationship.

There is also the idea of “secular knowledge” that must be confronted. Allowing the secular world to define knowledge means there would be no knowledge of God, and the Christian would be left with mere scraps of “tradition” and “diversity.” But what business does a university have being secular? Think about it a moment: secular university? Is reality secular? George Bernard Shaw used to say that “Catholic University” is an oxymoron.” What he had in mind, that clever but shallow man, was that if you were Catholic you had to be close-minded. Well, maybe he needed to broaden his acquaintance with Catholics. There certainly are close-minded ones, as with people of every group including the secular. But if “Catholic University” is an oxymoron, then why isn’t “secular university”? I submit to you that it is just that, and if you ever want to see close-mindedness and thoughtlessness, step into the atmosphere of a secular university. Is reality secular? Has someone shown that it’s secular? No. There isn’t even a division of the university that’s called the “Reality Department.” They don’t even have one. It’s a little presumptuous for a university to pronounce itself secular, isn’t it?

Having lost knowledge then, people today are no longer in a position to deal seriously with moral issues. The basic content of moral knowledge is actually love. Love is so central that you cannot ignore it, and everyone knows that it is somehow the mark of a good person. We want to be tough intellectually so we don’t want to use that word very much in “serious” academic contexts. Thus, twentieth century ethical theory can be accurately characterized as an effort to have morality without a heart. We’ve surely seen how that works. Remember that John Dewey argued we should want to be good, but not “goody-goody.” So everyone is busy not being “goody,” and good disappears as a factor governing rational life.

The good person is one permeated with agape love. Right action is the action of love. To love is to be devoted to the good of what is loved. I love those around me as I am working for their good, and of course mine too, under God; and Jesus and his followers deal with the details of this at great lengths. No one has ever come close to spelling out what love means as he did. We have a terrible time understanding love because we confuse it with desire. We say things like, “I love chocolate cake.” Now for sure you do not love chocolate cake. You want to eat it. That’s different. I suppose you could imagine someone who actually loved chocolate cake. They’d just go around taking care of chocolate cakes, watching out for their interests. We have an awfully hard time today making sense of love because we’re so confused on these matters. But once we pay attention, we realize that desire is not love, and often is opposed to love. In this country, every fifteen seconds (I think it is) some woman is badly beaten—maybe killed—by someone, usually one who says he “loves” her.

The path to moral goodness comes through Jesus Christ. The path toward becoming a thoroughly good person, dominated by love, is apprenticeship to Jesus Christ in the kingdom of God. A disciple of Jesus is one learning from him to live his/her life in the way Jesus would live it. And now we’re back to the issue of who has the responsibility for bringing this out: it is the pastors and the teachers—primarily of the evangelical churches. Most of the other churches have fallen completely under the sway of the university system with its moral blindness. The good news in the gospel of the New Testament is that we can now enter the rule and reign of God by relying upon Jesus for everything. We do that by becoming like little children, as Jesus said, by going “beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (beyond performance into the depths of the heart), and by being born “from above.” Those are words chosen from Jesus’ teachings about entering the Kingdom of the Heavens or the Kingdom of God.

Salvation then becomes not something about the afterlife, but about the life that comes into us now—enters us by the Spirit of God from above. Above is right here. It is resurrection life. That is salvation. Paul says in I Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless and you are still in your sins.” Redemption does not stop at the cross, it moves on from there. In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 we read, “One has died for all, therefore all have died, and He died for all that…”—and how would you finish that sentence? I’m disappointed in you! You got it right: “… so that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” You were supposed to say, as good evangelicals, ” . . . so that people can be forgiven and go to heaven.” Do you see the difference? If you have a theory of the atonement that does not take in life now, you don’t have it right about the atonement Christ provides. Moral maturity and integrity come through growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18) Grace itself is God interacting in our lives. It’s interactive relationship, the very place of knowledge of God. You grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as your life is increasingly dominated by interactive relationship to Christ in everything. That’s what it means to grow in spiritual and moral maturity. The things that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount simply illustrate the life of the person living and growing in the kingdom of God. They show that the life that comes out as we study under him is routine, easy obedience. We shift out of where people are now, standing in ordinary fallen relationships, where they might, for example, wonder why you would want to tell the truth if it might cost you something. Instead you honestly come to think and say, “Why would I want to tell a lie? Why? Why would I want to mislead someone since I’m standing in the kingdom of God, since God is with me and I’m growing in his kind of life?” “Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices” (Col. 3:9, emphasis added).

Spiritual disciplines—necessary components of life with Christ—are simply activities that we undertake, activities in our power. They are something we do that enables us to disrupt evil habits and patterns in our lives and receive grace to enable us to grow increasingly toward easy, routine obedience to Christ. They are not laws. They are not righteousness. They are simply wisdom. They are age-old and life-tested, and we need to use them in our relationship with Christ. The grace of God will then flow more richly into our lives. Solitude, silence, fasting, worship, fellowship—all those are disciplines that help us receive more of divine life in our human circumstances.

Now, my final hammer blow here is that evangelical pastors and teachers are in a position to bring to their people and to the public a knowledge that will guide life into the goodness and blessedness of the Kingdom of the Heavens. That was Christ’s intention in giving us his “Great Commission.” He said in kingdom proclamation, “I have been given say over all things in heaven and earth. As you go make disciples, surround them in Trinitarian reality….” That’s what you do with disciples. You don’t just get them wet while you say, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” over them. Jesus said, “Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matt. 18:20) We use that passage when only two or three show up. But actually it’s true in the case where two or three thousand are gathered in his name—if they truly gather in his name and he’s the one running the show.

They’re then in a position to teach disciples to do everything that Jesus said. That’s the natural progression. Then—as in past times—you will see emerging a people stunningly different from those who are children of darkness and who walk in the kingdom of darkness. The pastors are to be the teachers of the nations. The Christian writers and teachers are to teach the nations. That’s their call. They teach their knowledge—their knowledge of God, their knowledge of the human soul. They have to stand in the dignity of that calling and insist upon it, not out of arrogance but out of humility, and out of the firm realization that they must bring to human beings something that is both absolutely essential and something that no one else can bring.

The Christian schools (Christian “Higher Education”) have to stand with pastors in that posture. Perhaps the greatest issue facing the church today is whether or not Christian schools will say loudly and clearly that they have essential knowledge which non-Christian schools do not have. There is a great resistance to this among Christian educators. The old line—sometimes called “mainline”—churches were betrayed by their schools. A great issue facing us today is whether or not the evangelical church will be betrayed by its schools. The great issue is whether or not the evangelical schools will say, “We have knowledge—knowledge that the world and the so-called secular universities do not have. We have knowledge. We’re not just ‘nicer,’ and rather odd.”

The ancient writers such as Plato and Aristotle believed that the administration of law and political life was the highest of merely human callings. The highest, because in it the greatest of human good and evil was at issue. But humanity should know by now, given its track record, that it is a calling which can only be carried out in a wisdom and power that is beyond the human. The evangelical message and life in its classical forms—not that of post-WWII evangelicalism—shows how that can be done. There is no real alternative in human existence. It isn’t because evangelicals are superior in any other respect. And it isn’t that people we call “evangelicals” are the only brand of Christians who must and can do such public service. It is simply the call of Christ to his followers, who say now as long ago, “‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:68).

  1. John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2000), 80.
  2. This process has been carefully studied by Julie Rueben in her The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
  3. Thomas Hill Green, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (New York: Longmans, Green, 1895)
  4. Wilberforce, William, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity (London: Cadell and Davies, 1797) There are many editions—but try to find an unabridged version. Read it with William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Adapted to the State and Condition of all Orders of Christians (London: J. Richardson, [172-]).
Dallas Willard. “The Failure of Evangelical Political Involvement.” In God and Governing: Reflections on Ethics, Virtue, and Statesmanship, edited by Roger N. Overton, 74-91. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009.