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. [Continue reading…]