Monday, January 23, 2017

Polarization in American Politics: Whither Adventists?

As Americans move deeper into an era of relativistic political tribalism, where picking a team and embracing its biases increasingly counts for more than arriving at a truthful consensus, political disagreements threaten to divide American Adventists against their coreligionists.

This will require the church to either retreat even further from religiously informed political engagement or renew a distinctly Adventist political theology that can withstand the forces of polarization. I will argue that we cannot afford to abandon the political formation of Adventists to American political factions, because their fundamental political commitments are not religiously neutral and have religious implications.

To get that religious perspective, it is important to understand that much of the emotional energy
driving the left and right of American politics apart is derived from the Calvinist (or Reformed) impulse to transform society through an integrated relationship of church and state that came to these shores with the Puritan settlers of New England.

On the left, the Puritan "city on a hill" vision of "perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders" was secularized in liberal American churches and directed toward accomplishing social equality. Beginning in the 1950s, these WASPs, having been told by their preachers that they didn't need a particularly Christian God, or even any God at all, to accomplish that pluralistic vision gradually emptied out of their mainline Protestant churches and turned to left-wing politics as their ultimate good—the ultimate good being the highest source of meaning one can find in that which is greater than oneself. "In short, ecumenical Protestants embraced modernity, advancing the cause of Enlightenment while simultaneously becoming one of its casualties."

On the right, the neo-Puritan vision revolves around rolling back the sexual revolution by re-establishing, to some degree, the state sponsorship of Christianity as the ultimate good that existed in the Puritan colonies. Of course, other Christian traditions share the goal of reforming American sexual mores, but, crucially, differ on the question of how tightly church and state should be integrated to accomplish social reform. The recently published, Five Views on the Church and Politics, gives a good sense of the spectrum, all the way from separationist to integrationist: "Anabaptist (or Separationist), Lutheran (or Paradoxical), Black Church (or Prophetic), Reformed (or Transformationist), and Catholic (or Synthetic)." Calvinism—through the neo-Reformed movement—is the major intellectual force in White Evangelicalism today, but Russell Moore is trying to bring the Southern Baptists closer to their separationist Anabaptist/separationist roots via the English Dissenters.

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

Adventists cannot take sides in the political fight within the house of Puritanism—one camp secularized and focused on equality, the other religious and focused on sexual morality—without compromising both our commitment to the Second Coming as the only source of societal transformation and to the imperative of religious liberty with respect to ultimate goods in the meantime. Both kinds of Puritan could equally cast us into a cold Massachusetts winter, whether for being on the wrong side of the sexual revolution or for being the wrong kind of Christian.

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


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

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

  2. Appreciate the tension outlined here.

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

    Kevin McGill