Adam Nicholas Phillips: Chris, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Christopher LaTondresse: As the son of American evangelical missionary parents, I spent several formative years living in the former Soviet Union — Novosibirsk, Russia to be exact — smack dab in the middle of Siberia. My family is originally from Minnesota, so I was convinced that they were trying to find the one place on the planet colder than our home state to do missions work.
Growing up as a missionary kid, my parents taught me to take my faith seriously, to take Jesus seriously, no matter what the cost. Their example — leaving the trappings of an American middle class lifestyle behind to pursue something they believed in — sticks with me to this day. The major lesson: There are things in this life worth making exceptional sacrifices for, especially things close to the heart of God.
I guess this is really what informs who I am, and animates my work today. True, I’m not a full-time missionary, but I’ve tried to devote my life to playing a role, however small, in what God is doing in the world. For my parents this was about planting churches and, to use the language of the Navigators (the missions organization that sent them) “making disciples”. For me it’s about taking Jesus seriously when he said, “What you do unto the least of least, you do for me.”
Adam Nicholas Phillips: A cosmopolitan MK Minnesotan! Where you at now?
Christopher LaTondresse: (Laughs) Yes. You can take the boy out of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but you can’t take the Land of 10,000 Lakes out of the boy. I currently live and work in Washington, DC, where I’ve been based for the past seven years. I serve on the President’s faith-based team at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as an adviser at the Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives. I realize that’s a mouthful; in DC there are acronyms for everything. But basically, our agency is responsible for nearly all of the U.S. government’s humanitarian work abroad.
Adam Nicholas Phillips: Last Tuesday (election night) we spent a little time together talking about the election and then a lot of texts back and forth later into the night, but we haven’t spoken much since then. What are your reflections, simply as a person of faith, on the returns?
Christopher LaTondresse: I remember several years ago, back when I was working for Jim Wallis at Sojourners, he wrote this book called, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. At the time he received a lot of pushback for this idea that our country had somehow moved beyond the influence of the Religious Right as a major force in your churches, our culture and our politics. But he has turned out to be right, even if his prediction was a little bit ahead of its time. It’s not that the Religious Right didn’t show up in the 2012 election. They did. But their irrelevance was proven time and time again, both in the primary and in the general election cycle. During the primary they tapped Rick Santorum as their guy, but that didn’t help him clinch the nomination. And during the general election, exit polls show that white evangelicals were an even greater percentage of the electorate than they were in 2004 — when “Values Voters” were credited with George W. Bush’s victory — but this didn’t matter. Romney still lost. As Southern Baptist President Al Mohler observed, the country has fundamentally shifted. Many Latinos and African American voters are people of faith too, and they showed up in record numbers for the President. The fastest growing religious group in America, the “Nones” as Pew calls them — people who are basically spiritual but not religious — voted for the President at a rate of more than 2:1. The bottom line here is that the political math regarding faithful Americans has fundamentally shifted away from the Religious Right. Ultimately, I think this is not only a good thing for the country, but a good thing for the church.
Adam Nicholas Phillips: Yeah. A number of evangelicals have been lamenting the loss of the culture war, but today I saw a blog post getting some traffic on Facebook that basically argued that post election 2012 was more of an “opportunity” for the church in the US.
Christopher LaTondresse: That’s exactly right. And this assessment is not just coming from the usual suspects on the left. It’s coming from conservatives as well. One example that really stood out to me was an open letter from an evangelical pastor, posted at the conservative Daily Caller, which said that the GOP has completely missed the boat when it comes to understanding what issues increasingly matter to evangelicals. How the church responds to issues like global poverty, hunger, pandemic disease, human trafficking and even climate change is increasingly seen as an extension of being fully and authentically pro-life.
Adam Nicholas Phillips: Well, along those lines, the last two Republican Iowa caucus winners (Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012) are certainly known for their views on traditional marriage and abortion. But these two guys are some of the strongest voices on the importance of foreign assistance in the fight against global AIDS. President George W. Bush, too, will be known for many policies, but one I hope he is remembered for at the top of the list is his work on President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – a historic program, that along with the Global Fund, has saved more than 8 million lives.
Christopher LaTondresse: Exactly. I think it’s also pretty incredible that, thanks to the legacy of President Bush and the involvement of the faith community with PEPFAR, we actually have the opportunity to witness the beginning of the end of HIV/AIDS in our lifetime. This just goes to show that foreign aid doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, but rather something that helps us come together as a nation around the common cause of addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.
Adam Nicholas Phillips: You work at USAID and you’ve been engaged in working around policies that fight hunger here in the US and around the world. What can we expect to see in a second Obama term on this front? I was a little disappointed not to hear anything on this front in his victory speech.
Christopher LaTondresse: I believe that the United States’ global humanitarian work is one of the most important ways we show the world the true heart and the character of the American people. We do this work because it is effective, but we also do it because at the end of the day it’s just the right thing to do — especially at less than 1% of the total U.S. budget. That’s a small price to pay to ensure moms and dads around the world get to see their children live to celebrate their fifth birthday. It’s a small price to pay if it means seeing an end to modern day slavery in our lifetime. It’s a small price to pay to play a role lifting whole nations out of poverty and providing for their own food security through modernized agriculture.
Faith-based organizations are at the center of this effort. One of the greatest privileges of working in the faith-based office at USAID is getting to bear witness to some of the incredible work advanced by people of faith and faith based organizations every single day on all of these issues. Just over a month ago Secretary Clinton announced a groundbreaking new partnership with several faith based and civil society organizations — including World Vision, Catholic Relief Services and Heifer International — who have together pledged one billion dollars towards food security and nutrition programs. This past month, in response to the President’s recent commitments on human trafficking, our office helped USAID launch a challenge in partnership with Free the Slaves, Slavery Footprint and Not For Sale aimed at tapping college students around the world for their best ideas on how to end modern day slavery. This is just a small taste of the kind of important partnerships between faith-based groups and government that will continue into President Obama’s second term.
Adam Nicholas Phillips: So what you are inferring is, is that the church can’t end hunger, poverty, and disease like AIDS alone.
Christopher LaTondresse: There’s no doubt the church has a vital role to play. Increasingly, evangelicals of all political and theological stripes are coming to understand that you can’t take Jesus seriously and also ignore the cries for help from our brothers and sisters living in poverty. It’s like the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. God’s heart is with Lazarus, and God wants to train our hearts to be too. But even with this increased focus on poverty and the social dimensions of the gospels, which I think is a positive trend, I often encounter those who believe that it’s exclusively the church’s job to care for poor people — that the government has no role to play. I don’t understand how anyone can read through the scriptures and come away with this attitude. Just look at Isaiah 58. God is not merely calling out individuals, or even singling out the religious community, for their callousness towards the poor. God is holding the entire nation accountable. This is a common refrain throughout scripture, but we especially see it throughout the prophets: Nations and rulers will be judged by how they treat the poor. Governments have a biblically mandated role to play. It’s that simple.
Adam Nicholas Phillips: Bringing this conversation full circle, what were some touchstone experiences that have formed you? People, books, places?
Christopher LaTondresse: The two most important books I’ve read in the past several years are Carl F.H. Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism and Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Carl Henry’s critique of the fundamentalist movement offered in Uneasy Conscience — that it’s too anti-intellectual, too culturally irrelevant, too indifferent to the poor — helped give birth to the modern evangelical movement following World War II, and remains a prophetically timely work for the choices the church faces in America today. Donald Dayton’s work reminds us that once upon a time, evangelicals were not only aware of, but at the vanguard of important social causes like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and child labor law reform. Put both of these books on your short list.
Adam Nicholas Phillips: One last question: What do you hunger for?
Christopher LaTondresse: I’m a big fan of the chicken and waffles at Founding Farmers here in DC. (laughs) Seriously though, I hunger to see the church really become an embodiment of God’s best hopes and dreams for the world — that when the world looks at us, they don’t see harsh moralists, or empty displays of piety, but rather, a community of conscience, a family, that loves others well and is at the vanguard of addressing the biggest issues facing the world in the 21st Century.
Christopher LaTondresse serves as Advisor at USAID’s Center for Faith Based and Community Initiatives. LaTondresse is also the founder and CEO of Recovering Evangelical, a nationwide movement of Millennial-generation evangelical Christians.