Joe Carter is one of the most articulate evangelical voices on the intersection of church, culture, and politics. Joe founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tr
ibune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and
The first thing that should be said about the conservative movement is that there is no conservative “movement.” The term movement implies that a there is cohesive group that is in agreement about moving toward specific political goals. While individuals aligned with conservatism tend to agree on a general set of principles, they often have radically differing views on where those lead. For example, social conservatives and libertarians are generally lumped together under the rubric of the “conservative movement, yet both groups differ on issues such as same-sex marriage.
The reality is that conservatism is comprised of numerous small movements, some that are flourishing and others that are stagnating. This inevitably leads to internal tensions since established conservative groups, politicians, and media are all fighting for the same attention and donor funding. When specific grassroots sub-movements begins to gain popularity, activists of all stripes try to co-opt it for their own purposes.
A prime example is the Tea Party movement in 2008-2010. Despite the fact that polls and surveys showed that it was largely a subset of the “religious right” movement, libertarians tried to claim it as their own. The media latched onto that spurious impression and tried to create a narrative that conservatives were ready to abandon social issues. Of course that was never true. Most grassroots conservatives are full-spectrum conservatives who don’t make sharp distinction between economic, social, and national security conservatism. This is why I’m optimistic about the long-term prospects about conservatism, despite the problems within the “movement.”
2) You had the opportunity to work on Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign for President. What did you learn from that experience?
Everyone involved in politics—from the politicians to the pundits to the voters—has a depressingly short attention span. My dual role as director of research and rapid response required that I provide answers for almost any question related to the campaign. Whether it was preparing briefing materials for a televised debate or providing an explanation to a reporter about an incident during Huckabee’s time as governor, I had to be ready. I had 24 three-ring binders of material on every issue that might come up for discussion.
Most of the prep work turned out to be a waste of time. Everyone wanted an explanation, but no one wanted an answer that couldn’t be fit in a soundbite of 30 seconds (or less). This is why negative campaigning is so effective. If it takes five seconds to make a misleading claim and five minutes to explain the truth, people will go with the lie.
3) Every election politicians try to win the approval of evangelicals but it seems (to me) that they are reading off an old and simplified playbook. Why is there such a disconnect?
The primary reason is because there are a handful of self-appointed evangelical leaders who are able to distort their influence. During the primary season you’ll read news stories about “influential evangelicals” that few of us evangelicals have ever heard of before. There are roughly 44 million evangelicals in America, yet any “evangelical leader” with an email list of 30-40,000 can get candidates to pay attention to them.
Most presidential candidates simply don’t know any better. They aren’t attuned to the nuances of evangelicalism and don’t know what the consequences are for offending certain organizations. Huckabee was one of the few that has come from within and understood that there is literally no one that speaks for our movement. Candidates who don’t realize that, though, are easily mau-maued by evangelical “leaders” who threaten to cause a rift with a key voting demographic.
4) Your latest book is How to Argue Like Jesus. Most Christians might feel uncomfortable “arguing”, that perhaps we shouldn’t be contentious, but you make the case that well-reasoned arguments are an important part of Christian engagement in the world.
Unfortunately, the term “argue” has taken on an almost exclusively negative connotation. People tend to associate arguing with confrontation and disagreement. But the meaning of the term is “to persuade, to give reasons for or against a thing.” Every day we give reasons for our actions and try to persuade people to our point of view. Whether you’re a preacher trying to persuade people to give their lives to Christ or an employee attempting to give your boss reasons to give you a raise, you use arguments all the time. I believe both that is absolutely essential for Christians to become adept at persuasion and that there is no better model than Jesus. Since we all use argument and persuasion anyway, why wouldn’t we want to learn to “argue like Jesus?”
5) Lastly, what is one piece of advice would you give an aspiring young Christian author/blogger/communicator?
This is the best piece of advice I could give an aspiring young communicator: Locate a multi-year calendar and find a date exactly ten years from now. Hone your communication skills for at least ten hours a week for that entire period. At the tend of the ten years make a mark on the calendar noting that you’ve reached the halfway point to becoming an effective communicator. Then buy another calendar and start the process all over again.
While I don’t know if the 10,000 hour theory—the idea that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice can make you an expert in a field—is applicable in all areas of life, I think it is necessary for developing communication skills. I only started honing my writing skills in 2002, so I’m just now nearing my ten-year mark. I think I’m nearing the point where I can honestly assess my skills as being somewhere between passable and competent. With ten more years of serious effort, though, I think I can become a skilled writer
I suspect that the goal of most young writers, though, is not to become a skilled communicator but rather to get published. That’s a more achievable goal. If that’s what you’re aiming for then do whatever it takes to scratch that itch (e.g., write a book, send an essay to a magazine) so you’ll get it out of your system. Once you realize that it’s not that satisfying, you’ll be able to move on to more fulfilling ventures.
But if what they want is to use their skills for the glory of God, then they need to work hard and pray for patience. To become an accomplished writer, you need both.