Should we pull back from politics?

By Russell D. Moore
Oct 23, 2013

Don’t call it a pullback; we’ve been here for years.

The recent profile in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a generational change in terms of the way evangelicals approach cultural and political engagement: toward a gospel-centered approach that doesn’t back down on issues of importance, but sees our ultimate mission as one that applies the blood of Christ to the questions of the day.

The headline, as is often the case with headlines, is awfully misleading. I am not calling, at all, for a “pullback” from politics or engagement.

If anything, I’m calling for more engagement in the worlds of politics, culture, art, labor and so on. It’s just that this is a different sort of engagement. It’s not a matter of pullback, but of priority.

What I’m calling for in our approach to political engagement is what we’re already doing in one area: the pro-life movement. Evangelicals in the abortion debate have demonstrated convictional kindness in a holistic ethic of caring both for vulnerable unborn children and for the women who are damaged by abortion. The pro-life movement has engaged in a multi-pronged strategy that addresses, simultaneously, the need for laws to outlaw abortion, care for women in crisis pregnancies, adoption and foster care for children who need families, ministry to women (and men) who’ve been scarred by abortion, cultivating a culture that persuades others about why we ought to value human life, and the proclamation of the gospel to those whose consciences bear the guilt of abortion.

That’s the reason the pro-life movement continues to resonate, with growing numbers, among young Christians. It’s very clearly not a singularly “political” issue, but an issue that demands political, ecclesial, and cultural reform and persuasion. Most importantly, it resonates because younger Christians recognize the gospel as of first importance, and the pro-life movement has demonstrated why the life issue is a gospel issue.

A culture of death that denies personhood to the unborn is a culture that is assaulting the very image of Christ himself. The unborn children the culture categorizes as “fetuses” or “embryos” are those whose cries go up to the One who hears them. When we stand against legal abortion, we do so because we believe—because of the gospel—that life is better than death, and that a person’s value is more than his or her utility. We simultaneously speak of justice and of justification, prophetically standing up for the unborn in the public arena while extending the mercy of Christ, through the cross, to those who are guilty. We plead for life while we recognize that our ultimate enemy isn’t the person screaming at us from the sidewalk outside a crisis pregnancy center. The Enemy is the snake of Eden that wishes to destroy, both through empowering wickedness and through accusing those who have sinned.

I don’t think we need a pullback from politics. I think we need a reenergizing of politics. This means we must do more than simply live off the fumes of the last generation’s activism. Millennial and post-Millennial Christians are walking away from the political process, and this is what alarms and motivates me. They’ve grown cynical at movements that are willing to adopt allies that are gospel heretics as long as they are politically correct (see “Beck, Glenn” or “Trump, Donald”). They are disenchanted with movements that seem more content to vaporize opponents with talk-radio sound-bytes rather than to engage in a long-term strategy of providing a theology of gospel-focused action in the public square.

Those who wish to retreat are wrong. Ignoring so-called “political issues” doesn’t lead to a less politicized church but to a more political church. One cannot preach the gospel in 19th century America without addressing slavery without abandoning the gospel. One cannot preach the gospel in 21st century America apart from addressing the sexual revolution without abandoning the gospel.

The question is the “why” and the “how.”

We engage politically because we love our neighbors, we care about human flourishing. But we do so at multiple fronts. We engage on Capitol Hill (as I do), on issues ranging from stopping the abortion industry, to protecting religious liberty, to speaking out for human rights for the persecuted overseas. We cultivate churches that see the holistic nature of the kingdom of God and who shape consciences of people to live as citizens. But we always do that with a focus that we are not prosecuting attorneys but defense attorneys. We are seeking, ultimately, to point people to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The gospel means we must point to the sin—and call it that—but it means we don’t stop there. We speak with a northern Galilean accent that says, even to those who hate us, there’s good news for those who repent and believe.

That means we speak and we vote and we mobilize. Onward Christian soldiers. But we don’t do so as gloomy pessimists, continually wringing our hands or crying conspiracy. And we don’t do it as naïve utopians, believing we can organize our way back to Mayberry. We do it as those who weep for those around us who are being sifted by the darkness. We do it as those who are cheerily marching to Zion, knowing that whatever the short-term setbacks, we are on the winning side of history.

We teach our people that their vote for President of the United States is crucially important. They’ll be held accountable at Judgment for whomever they hand the Romans 13 sword to. But we teach them that their vote on the membership of their churches is even more important. A church that loses the gospel is a losing church, no matter how many political victories it wins. A church that is right on public convictions but wrong on the gospel is a powerless church, no matter how powerful it seems.

That means modeling a Christian political engagement that doesn’t start or end with politics alone. It starts and ends with the gospel and the kingdom of God. Those who oppose our convictions will hate us. Those who want to use our church voting lists as their political organizing tools won’t understand us. So be it. Kingdom first.

Pullback? No. Unless, that is, we mean pulling back to the ministry of Jesus—who addressed everything, body and soul, public and private, political and personal, but who did so with the cross in his vision at every point. That’s what the church has done in every era.

We want to see our so-called enemies out-voted when they’re doing harmful things, unelected from office when they’re hurting the common good. But we don’t stop there. We want to see them transformed by the blood of Christ. We don’t only want to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching As to War.” We also want to sing “Just As I Am, Without One Plea, But That Thy Blood Was Shed for Me.”

UPDATE: Dr. Moore will share his extended thoughts in the December issue of First Things.

Further Learning

Learn more about: Culture, Life, Abortion, Citizenship,


1 On Oct 23, 2013, at 3:03pm, The Rev. Todd Gunter wrote:

Well said, Dr. Moore. Let us raise the cross of Christ. It is the place where the God’s righteousness meets our sinfulness.

2 On Oct 23, 2013, at 7:24pm, pastor jeffrey daly wrote:

Excellent !  Pray that devout Christians will surface in our halls of government AND use Biblical “weapons” of prayer, fasting, and repentance to impact the nation.  John Adams in 1777, asked how we would defeat the far larger British troops, said: ” We will defeat the British if we fear God and repent of our sins.”  They did so during days of prayer, fasting and “humiliation” [repentance]—- and God went to work!  Pray for such a bold leader today !

3 On Oct 24, 2013, at 1:01am, Bruce Burman wrote:

The excellent article is likely “preaching to the choir”, but I agree we need to take a stand for Jesus Christ. Remember in the OT that, when Moses went to receive the 10 Commandment from God, Aaron “caved” in letting the golden calf idol be built. As a result, 1000s ended up dying for this sin. America was definitely founded on Godly principles with most Constitution signers were “born again” Christians. Through indifference, Evangelicals have let the godliness dictate. Pollster Barna says only 60% of Evangelicals vote. (Shame!). The O.T. clearly shows how godless kings pulled down the Israelites. Today in CA, our schools teach from kindergarten up that gay marriage and abortion is normal. History books are being re-written. You bet this will have a negative influence on my grandkids, just as communism focused on the youth! Pray for Revival!

4 On Oct 24, 2013, at 2:31pm, Eugene wrote:

Dr. Moore, you are ceding ground and pulling back whether you wish to acknowledge it or not. You should not “tone down the rhetoric” because of younger evangelicals “visceral recoil” to conservative positions.  Stop worrying about whether they will give money to the SBC in the future when people in my generation can cease funding it now if it continues down a more liberal theological path.  Christ wasn’t a “can’t we all just get along” kind of guy (see Matthew 10:35-37).  Younger evangelicals need to learn that being a Christian requires taking moral stands on issues.  Christ warned us that the work hated him and it will hate us.  Accept it and stand on his principals.  If we wanted a morally relativistic theology (Pergamum) we could become members of apostate denominations such as the Episcopals or Presbyterians.  The Gospel was intended to be offensive and thank God it is.  The younger evangelicals need to learn that lesson as well and apparently Dr. Moore, so do you.

5 On Oct 24, 2013, at 2:48pm, david richardson wrote:

I agree it is not time for a “pull back” as you are quoted as saying.
we are called to be light and salt in a darken sin cursed world and too not engage is to deny the Jesus who engaged His culture.  we must simply not “back down” or “pull back” from political pressure because of the liberal press and accept what the Bible condemns as sin.  I strongly urge you to clarify your statements and base them on Biblical fact not public pressure.

6 On Oct 24, 2013, at 4:18pm, Jenny Clark wrote:

Glad to hear it! I was a bit confused about some of the article, but some of the coverage was very well done. I was curious about some of the framing of the article, so I appreciate this follow up. On a side note, I emailed the author and thanked him for his article, but I asked why he never used the title “Dr.” in the piece. Apparently unless you are an MD they don’t put it, unless you specifically ask them to. That was his reply. Interesting. I have never, ever heard that before.

7 On Oct 24, 2013, at 4:29pm, Laura wrote:

Thank you for standing for the Gospel and redemption instead of slogans and Mormon loudmouths. My generation would rather change hearts than win votes at all cost.

8 On Oct 24, 2013, at 8:10pm, Brian Matthews wrote:

Mr. Moore, we need to lead the young, not follow them.

9 On Oct 25, 2013, at 10:31am, Rusty wrote:

Glenn Beck and Donald Trump are politically correct?  You must never have listened to either one.

10 On Oct 25, 2013, at 2:19pm, George Canady wrote:

Thank you Dr. Moore for trying to modify the Christian approach toward addressing our sinfulness. I am afraid some church political retoric has become so hatefull, it doesn’t sound much different than the world.

11 On Oct 25, 2013, at 5:21pm, Rev. Woodrow Turner wrote:

Great word, as usual, Dr. Moore. Keep your finger on the pulse of the culture and church. Stay on that wall for us!

12 On Oct 25, 2013, at 8:44pm, Scott Lachut wrote:

“Pulling back” is not an option when the politicians come down the aisle of the church and demand to dictate what is preached from the pulpit.  There is no “pull back” when they come to us.  when they demand that we not only tolerate sexual perversion but actively celebrate it at the altar, there is no “pull back”.  It’s a nice sentiment but that has passed.

13 On Oct 25, 2013, at 10:43pm, Robert Graham wrote:

We need to be for something not against everything. Example of this is Obamacare. We need to be against it as it is now, but we need to have an alternative. As a Salvationist I have seen people die because they did not have insurance and was shut out of care. I remember a Christian Doctor told me at the grave side of brother in Christ who was poor, the doctor said if he had health insurance he would of been alive. Is not that a life issue as much as abortion? I have not seen a Christian response to Obamacare except to be against it.  AC Dixon the second President of Moody Bible Institute that told Billy Sunday when people think of Christians they think about all things were against, not the things were for, like love, joy, peace, etc. He went on to say maybe we need a name change from Fundamentalist so that we can highlight what we are for, not what we are against. Dixon then said if we are aginst something we should have an idea that is positive, and Biblical to replace it. .

14 On Oct 26, 2013, at 9:01am, Thomas Stark wrote:

Dr. Moore, our country is fighting literally for its soul.  A soul that has been attacked in earnest by the secular humanists for the past century.  While I agree that the focus should ultimately be on the Gospel message, direct and pointed confrontation is the only approach that will work to energize others to realize the evil that is at work through progressives and collectivism.  The youth need to realize that their ability to worship God, express their faith openly, and evangelize others is literally threatened with every little move made by the progressives currently in power.  There can be nothing about our confrontation that is timid or delicate.  That is seen as weakness.  We should defend God’s law and our First Amendments rights without fear.  If God is with us, who can be against us?  Draw people to Christ, remain civil, but never back down or appear unsure that we are on the right side of history.

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