A Hangover Cure for Evangelicals

If the church is only an extension of our relentless tribalism, it has nothing to offer those searching for a deeper meaning and higher purpose.

For the past month, I’ve had the special delight of getting to watch other people enjoy something that I helped make. The Hangover, a limited-run podcast that my colleagues at The Dispatch generously granted me, is an attempt at an autopsy for a Republican Party that still can’t quite confront the fact that it even lost the 2020 election. I think what we made is worthwhile and that the subject matter is important, but didn’t imagine how many other people would be interested.

You can listen here if you’d like, but if you haven’t or don’t intend to, stick with me here for a moment. There’s something I learned along the way that may be of use to you.

I spoke to a leading historian, the former majority leader of the House of Representatives, and the most successful GOP strategist from 2020 as well as experts on conservative ideological trends, political demography, and the right-wing media. Richard Brookhiser put the mad-bomber partisanship of our era in its right historical context. Eric Cantor gave us a front-row seat for the 2010 triumph of the GOP and its self-destructive streak. Parker Poling, who ran the House Republicans’ campaign arm in 2020, laid out her winning strategy. Matthew Continetti walked us through the birth of Palinite populism and the centrality of immigration as an issue. Steve Kornacki gave texture and life to the red and blue political map. John Podhoretz was our guide for the story of the rise and fall of the right-of-center press.

Our guests stayed true to my goal of a clear-eyed assessment of the different factions of the Republican Party and how they contributed to the success and eventual failure of the modern GOP. Elections are more about voters than about any individual politician, even when that politician is part P.T. Barnum, part George Wallace, and absolutely determined to be at the center of the conversation. Donald Trump didn’t make the Republican Party the way it is nearly as much as the Republican Party made itself easy pickings for Trump. Each guest provided new insights on the phenomenon and helped me think about what may come next for the red team and for American politics.

I was surprised, though, that I learned the most from the guest I already knew the best before we began. My pastor, David Glade, whose episode will debut Thursday, is our final interview subject—and not one who I initially expected to be part of the series. I knew I needed to explore the role Evangelical Christians played in the making and unmaking of today’s Republican Party. I looked around for political figures who could explain the role of devoted Christians in politics. Then I looked for Christian leaders who could talk about the role believers play in the current Republican Party. None of the options I found were satisfactory.

What I realized along the way is that the church is not a matter of concern for the Republican Party, but rather that the Republican Party is very much a matter of concern for the American church. Tim Keller, the foremost Protestant theologian, wrote about this subject in 2017, asking whether the Evangelical movement of which he is a part could survive its intertwining with Republican politics. But Keller, who at age 70 is dealing gracefully and faithfully with his mortality as he endures pancreatic cancer, couldn’t join us. After another prominent church leader backed out because of his concerns of retribution for speaking on the subject, I despaired. If I wanted proof of how politics was corroding the church, there it was.

We put this series together against a backdrop of some pretty spectacular failures of American Christianity during the coronavirus pandemic. Some denominations shut their doors to worshipers even after rules allowed in-person worship to resume, cruelly denying needed fellowship and support that could have safely been provided by following basic precautions. Others seemed determined to act like the Underground Railroad for the virus, spreading infections by arrogantly ignoring mask and social distancing rules. Rather than exemplifying Christian love and humility, these churches fell into the same trap as so many of us and turned the crisis into just one more opportunity for political virtue signaling. If the church is only an extension of the rest of the relentless tribalism that dominates public life, then it has nothing to offer those millions of Americans desperately searching for a deeper meaning and higher purpose.

I realized that I had right in front of me an example of a church leader who had upheld the high standard to which Christians are called. My own pastor and the lay leaders at our church, Christ the King Anglican in Alexandria, Virginia, met these standards throughout not just the pandemic but as the members of our Washington-area congregation were themselves buffeted by the political maelstrom. As I was thinking of which “big name” religious figure I could interview or who might make news with a controversial statement, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to hear from someone who was doing the right thing where and when it counted.

I won’t spoil the episode for you, but my conversation with David proved enormously useful. If you’re a Christian, you will find encouragement for how to deal with our present challenges. David lives up to Augustine of Hippo’s line: “It must not be supposed that folly is as powerful as truth, just because it can, if it likes, shout louder and longer than truth.” David is no shouter and places his words like arrows aimed carefully at a target, but the truth comes through clearly. His words will have value for non-Christians and non-believers, too.

When confronted with a problem on the scale of America’s ongoing political meltdown, we understandably look for solutions that match the size of the malady. But it wasn’t big mistakes that created the problem. It was a succession of small ones. Climbing out will work the same way. When I finished talking to David, I was very much put in mind of the advice of the similarly taciturn and wise Calvin Coolidge: “When you don’t know what to do, do the work that’s in front of you.”