There’s a popular story in Christian circles that’s literally too good to be true. According to legend, in the early 1900s, The Times of London sent an inquiry to a number of writers asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” The Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton responded succinctly and profoundly: “Dear Sirs, I am.”
The real story is just as profound, but less succinct. In 1905 Chesterton wrote a much longer letter to London’s Daily News, and that letter included these sentences: “In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question ‘What is Wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong.’ Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.”
I’ve thought about that Chesterton quote often during the age of Trump, especially as I’ve seen the “new” Christian right re-embrace the authoritarianism of previous American political eras. At the exact time when religious liberty is enjoying a historic winning streak at the Supreme Court, a cohort of Christians has increasingly decided that liberty isn’t enough. To restore the culture and protect our children, it’s necessary to exercise power to shape our national environment.
And so the conservative movement is changing. When I was a younger lawyer, conservatives fought speech codes that often inhibited religious and conservative discourse on campus. Now, red state legislatures are writing their own speech codes, hoping to limit discussion of the ideas they disfavor. When I was starting my career, my conservative colleagues and I rolled our eyes at the right-wing book purges of old, when angry parents tried to yank “dangerous” books off school library shelves. Well, now the purges are back, as parents are squaring off in school districts across the nation, arguing over the words children should be allowed to read.
Years ago, I laughed at claims that Christian conservatives were dominionists in disguise, that we didn’t just want religious freedom, we wanted religious authority. Yet now, such claims are hardly laughable. Arguments for a “Christian nationalism” are increasingly prominent, with factions ranging from Catholic integralists to reformed Protestants to prophetic Pentecostals all seeking a new American social compact, one that explicitly puts Christians in charge.
The motivating force behind this transformation is a powerful sense of threat — the idea that the left is “coming after” you and your family. This mind-set sees the Christian use of power as inherently protective, and the desire to censor as an attempt to save children from dangerous ideas. The threat to the goodness of the church and the virtue of its members, in other words, comes primarily from outside its walls, from a culture and a world that is seen as worse in virtually every way.
But there’s a contrary view, one that emanates from the idea of original sin, which Chesterton argued was “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” The doctrine of original sin rejects the idea that we are intrinsically good and are corrupted only by the outside world. Instead, we enter life with our own profound and inherent flaws. We are all, in a word, fallen. To quote Jesus in the book of Mark, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” All manner of sin and evil comes “from within, out of the heart of man.”
Under this understanding of Scripture, we are all our own greatest enemy — Christians as fully as those who do not share our beliefs. We do not, either as individuals or as a religious movement, possess an inherent virtue that should entitle any of us to rule. We shun the will to power because we rightly fear our own sin, and we protect the liberty of others because we do not possess all wisdom and we need to hear their ideas.
Of course that is not to say that external voices and ideas can have no negative effect in our lives. We might be our own greatest enemy, but we’re not our only enemy. But if we are deeply flawed, then that realization has to profoundly impact how we approach politics. It has to temper our confidence that we either can control or should control the public square.
One of the best recent books about the American founding is “We the Fallen People: The Founders and American Democracy” by the Wheaton College professor Robert Tracy McKenzie. In it, he details at length the founders’ own reservations about human nature. As James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
This proper skepticism about human virtue pervades the Constitution. At every turn, the power of government is hemmed in. Each branch checks the other. The people check the government, and the government checks the people. The Bill of Rights attempts to safeguard our most fundamental human rights from government overreach or the tyranny of the mob. No faction can be trusted with unchecked authority.
But, as Professor McKenzie argues, this understanding faced an early and serious challenge in a political movement that we’d recognize today — Jacksonian populism, the idea that “the people” were, in fact, righteous enough to rule. You see echoes today in the constant refrain from the Trumpist right that “we the people” represent the “real America,” the virtuous core that can save the nation from what they see as a decadent left.
The very concept was, and is, destructive to its core. The sense of virtue creates a sense of righteous entitlement. In Christian America, the belief that “we” are good leads to the conviction that the churches will suffer, our nation will suffer and our families will suffer unless “we” run things. It closes our hearts and minds to contrary voices and opposing ideas.
Putting aside for the moment the long history of religious misrule, recent events demonstrate the reach of Christian sin. In 2021 our nation suffered when many Christian activists, Christian members of Congress and Christian Trump aides participated in an attempt to overturn an American election and helped instigate a violent assault on the Capitol.
But one doesn’t have to look to national politics to see that threats can emanate from within the church as well as without. One of the most terrifying and poignant parts of the hit Amazon Prime documentary series “Shiny Happy People” was the story of Josh Duggar, a young man who was raised in a deeply religious family. He was protected from the corruption of the “outside world” in almost every way that could be devised. He was home-schooled and grew up in a house without a cable television and with limited access to media. And yet he was depraved enough to molest his own sisters.
My wife and I both grew up in a fundamentalist community that tried hard to protect the church from the world. Yet it turned out that my wife needed protection from the church. She’s a victim of child sex abuse. The perpetrator taught vacation Bible school.
This recent legacy of scandal and abuse should be more than enough evidence of the need for existential humility in any Christian political theology. This is not moral relativism. We still possess core convictions. But existential humility acknowledges the limits of our own wisdom and virtue. Existential humility renders liberty a necessity, not merely to safeguard our own beliefs but also to safeguard our access to other ideas and arguments that might help expose our own mistakes and shortcomings.
Who is wrong? I am wrong. We are wrong. Until the church can give that answer, its political idealism will meet a tragic and destructive end. The attempt to control others will not preserve our virtue, and it risks inflicting our own failures on the nation we seek to save.
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