As we try to figure out just what is going on with the political right and the GOP implodes after what should have been a layup to nominate a true political conservative for President of the United States, Francis Schaeffer’s political analysis from the early 1980s offers some explanations of our present situation.
Even four decades ago, Schaeffer saw the fractures in the political right. The stress of the ongoing election process is revealing the fault lines just about where Schaeffer predicted them to be. In light of this, his advice for the faithful Christian to hold political relationships loosely is sound.
A Profile of the Silent Majority
Schaeffer’s argument was basically that the political right, which included the so-called “silent majority” was really a complex confederation of loosely affiliated segments. Although there was some cohesion, there was little commonality between the various segments of the “silent majority.”
[One] factor to take into consideration as we look at shifts in the culture is what in the 1970s was called “the silent majority.” That silent majority, we must understand, can still in the 1980s elect to office anyone it wants to elect. But it is imperative to realize that the silent majority is divided into two parts—a minority and a majority. Unhappily, today’s politician who wants to get elected has pressure on him to appeal to both.
The minority of the silent majority are, first, Christians (and therefore have absolutes and real principles on which to base their actions and judgments) and, second, those who have at least a Christian memory and still believe in absolutes, even if their basis for those absolutes is inadequate. However, the majority of the silent majority are those who really live in a post-Christian world. They may or may not go to church, but they have no real absolutes in mind and they have only two values—personal peace and affluence. Personal peace is not to be equated with pacifism. Rather, it is the attitude: “Let me alone; don’t let trouble at home or abroad come near my door. Just give me peace, personal peace.” And then there is the affluence: the more of everything the better. So with the majority of the silent majority, what we have is not a theoretical materialism but a practical materialism.
The calculation has shifted in the thirty years since Schaeffer wrote, but his analysis is still helpful. Now, in the minority of the silent majority are the Christians, who we see voting for legitimately conservative candidates in the 2016 Presidential primaries. Most of these folks recognize bluster when they see it and understand the cancerous danger of a lack of integrity, so they look for a candidate who has firm values, demonstrates character, and represents himself reasonably.
The other sliver of the former minority, are the sort-of Christians, many of whom identify as evangelical—a term that seems to have lost meaning—but rarely attend church. This second group has some Christian memory and usually a belief in absolutes of some sort, but has little basis for it. Therefore, when a candidate promises, however disingenuously, to serve their interests, they claim Christianity and deny the principles of their supposed religion in pursuit of their own interests. This group has become a part of the majority of the silent majority. In many cases there is a conflation of nationalism and pseudo-Christianity among this group, which leads to a civil religion that inspires allegiance but often falls short of orthodoxy.
The largest portion of the so-called silent majority lack an absolute standard grounded in an infinite God. However, they feel economic pressure, perhaps due to foreign trade, and are concerned about safety due to immigrants and radical terrorists. For these individuals, the key is to gain power in order to stem the tide of compromise and the maintain a rough status quo that will allow for a continued prosperity or recapturing the sense of prosperity from a few years ago. The slow creep out of the economic slump of 2008 has fueled a continued dis-ease and desperation in this group who really just want personal peace and affluence. This group is more concerned with gaining power than being faithful to principles.
As I see it, this coalition has been shredded by this recent presidential election. One group has sought a compassionate, conservative vision for the future of the nation. Another group has sought rigid adherence to principles, not always recognizing that the expression of those principles may change somewhat when the surrounding culture changes. A third group has sought a strongman to bring them power so that they can return to a former sense of well-being; the principles of conservatism are of little consequence. And thus the political Right is fractured by potentially irreconcilable factions.
The Mushy Middle
Somewhere in the middle, between the political Left and the so-called silent majority there is another pool of unpredictable voters. These are the former rebels who, having found continued unrest and revolution unsuitable for long term prospects have settled down to seek affluence and personal peace, much like the people in the majority of the “silent majority.”
Although these individuals may vote for the political right at times, Schaeffer argues that they do not have values consistent with traditional forms of conservatism. Instead, they are simply seeking comfort, ease, and rest after the turbulence of their youths.
They are not really “conservatives”; they only want their piece of personal peace and affluence. If they do not get what they want in regard to these, there will be a swing of the pendulum. Neither the majority of the old silent majority (the old bourgeois), nor this New Bourgeois (nor the two together) is a base for a stable society.
They may for a time be cobelligerents with the Christians (the minority of the silent majority), who base their votes and their discussions on absolutes, on biblical principles and values. But we must not confuse either the old majority of the silent majority (the old bourgeois) nor the New Bourgeouis as true allies, or as those who can, or will, provide a base for a stable society.
Essentially, as far as the sociological realities of the time in which we not live are concerned, the New Bourgeois substantiates and reinforces the old bourgeois. Of course, often they do not like each other, and there are and will continue to be tensions between the two; but as far as their sociological results are concerned, there is no essential difference between them.
The New Bourgeois usually couldn’t care less where the affluence comes from. Many would just as soon get a job from 9:00 to 5:00 to pay their bills. So long as they can do whatever pleases them, that’s enough. The utopian visions of Henry David Thoreau and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have disappeared.
Here in the mushy middle, this group is again pursuing comfort, though typically in a different manner than the majority of the silent majority. However, principle is not the clear driver for this group either, unless it is the principle of self-interest.
When the consensus of culture points in a vaguely biblical direction, this group can be expected to support it as long as they are basically left alone. However, when social pressure is exerted, they will quickly abandon contested positions for another position and join in criticizing those who adhere to some sort of absolutes.
Cobelligerents, Not Allies
The willingness of the mushy middle to bolt when the winds of consensus appear to be shifting explains why, in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, Schaeffer writes:
Christians must realize that there is a difference between being a cobelligerent and an ally. At times we will seem to be saying exactly the same thing as those without a Christian base are saying. If there is social injustice, say there is social injustice. If we need order, say we need order. In these cases, and at these specific points, we would be cobelligerents. But we must not align ourselves as though we are in nay camp built on a non-Christian base. We are an ally of no such camp. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is different—totally different; it rests on the absolutes given to us in Scripture.
My observation of many young pastors and others is this: suddenly they are confronted by some two camps and they are told, “Choose, choose, choose.” By God’s grace they must say, “I will not choose between these two. I stand alone with God, the God who has spoken in the Scripture, the God who is the infinite-personal God, and neither of your two sides is standing there. So if I seem to be saying the same thing at some point, understand that I am a cobelligerent at this particular place, but I am not an ally.”
The failure to understand that allegiance to a party should be held lightly in comparison to allegiance to the persons of the Triune God explains much of the handwringing among conservative evangelicals over which president campaign to support, if it comes down to a choice between two nearly equal evils, or whether a third party candidate is an option.
The so-called silent majority has fractured as the culture has shifted. The biblical memory of the culture is fading or entirely lost. The faithful Christian must now choose, and the choice in this election may well be to cast a protest vote. Such a vote in some cases may be naïve idealism, but faced with a choice of two significant evils, Schaeffer is right to argue that it may be necessary to pick a third alternative.
It is eerie at times how Schaeffer’s diagnosis from three or four decades ago seem to be playing out in real life. His predictions of the so-called culture of death are a reality. No less prescient are his premonitions about politics, particularly in the U.S. In many ways, we are where he thought we would be. In the face of that, Schaeffer’s continual hope in the goodness of God should encourage us to live life faithfully.
The hard choices of this time are nothing new under the sun. However, this is largely uncharted water for the cultural memory of orthodox Christians in the U.S. If the choice in November is between two nearly equally corrupt individuals, then a third party may need to be an option. We can be cobelligerents with the world, but never allies.
Note: Since I wrote this, Trevin Wax has posted along the same lines. His is, no doubt, better. It is certainly worth reading: http://ow.ly/ZNTfv