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Engaging Culture on All Fronts

A prominent Christian leader recently said to me that for Evangelicals and traditional Catholics and Orthodox, the metaphor of putting our fingers in the dike as holes of evil burst through it is anachronistic.

We are not having a few fissures in the dam, he said. We are experiencing a mudslide.

Our cultural erosion is comprehensive and accelerating. From family structure to religious liberty, the moral implications of our social collapse are stunning.  But this piece is not about that.

Rather, there is a movement within Evangelicalism that says our decades-long effort to restrain cultural disintegration has been futile. Instead of continuing it, some believers argue that we should abandon our public activism and de facto accept the triumph of the cultural and political Left. They argue that Christians should perform private acts of  love and pursue faith-based but socially unobtrusive charitable ministries.

Here’s how one prominent Christian writer, a brother I respect and appreciate greatly, put it in a recent column:

Early Christians had far fewer religious freedoms than we enjoy today. Subjects of Rome were made to worship the emperor; Christians were often targeted for wholesale persecution and slaughter; believers had no legal protection for their faith. Yet they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, KJV) and launched the largest spiritual movement in human history. How did they do it? They demonstrated their faith by their love (John 13:35). They met felt needs in order to meet spiritual needs. They viewed the secular authorities not as enemies to be defeated but as people for whom to pray (1 Timothy 2:2).  They did not mount a “culture war,” but gave their lives to a movement of subversive service and grace. 

All true, in that (a) Christians should never depend on government’s permission to obey their Lord faithfully and (b) quiet, persistent obedience and sacrificial love in the Name of Jesus are profound testimonies to His reality and transforming power.

Yet this proposition poses a false alternative. The United States is not ancient, oppressive, persecutorial Rome. At least it hasn’t been, and to allow it to descend into such a state with no resistance would be what Carl F.H. Henry called “an act of Christian lovelessness.”

In other words, in addition to showing Christ’s love in practical, hands-on ways through our churches, para-church and other ministries, and through individual acts of mercy for our Lord’s sake, not to seek legal protection for the unborn and sound medical care for their mothers … not to use the law to fight the commodification of women through sex trafficking and pornography … not to use legal means to protect marriage as God designed it and to strengthen the family unit, which is the fundamental means by which we become healthy, functional, productive persons … and not to work through legislation and the courts to sustain and defend the practice of religious conviction as well as the right of private conscience, recognizing that “freedom of religion” is the foundation of all of our other freedoms … is to abandon a massive sphere of human experience to evil.

Such abandonment is un-Christian, even anti-Christian.

I am not suggesting that comprehensive triumph inevitably will be our lot. We do not know God’s plan for our country, although we do know that as nations propel themselves into spiritual rebellion to Him that He both lifts His hand of protection and renders them subject to His judgment.

What we do know is that in the United States today Christians retain legal, political, and judicial tools to fight the triumph of evil. To lay those tools down in resigned anticipation of persecution is more masochistic than spiritually mature. Even more, not to use these tools is to say to those most at risk, “We love you, and we’ll try to help you, but when it comes to the actions of the state – you’re on your own.”

This kind of attitude hardly reflects the heart of the Savior we profess.

We might well come to a point where the game truly is up and repression becomes our lot. The rights and liberties we have long enjoyed might be dramatically curtailed and Christians could become a socially odious and unacceptable class of people.  Then, our acts of grace will truly become not just subversive but, often, secret – and costly.

We are not there yet.  We have within our grasp the legal and political facilities for advancing and defending things close to the heart of God and essential to the future of this nation. To drop them now would be to invite suffering, something from which we should never shrink but also something we should never seek and for which we should never long.  Such seeking and longing are not evidences of Godliness but of emotional trauma.

As we use the tools our citizenship in the American republic provides us, we must do so with humility, wisdom, and grace, and also truth, commitment, and courage. Christians should want to “crush” no one, but nor should they become passive acceptors of wrongdoing. We want to stop evil and advance good, persuade our adversaries even as we oppose them, demonize no one and yet prevent those who would do (even if unknowingly) the devil’s work from succeeding.

Of course we should do the thousand works of Christian compassion we can do outside the public eye. There will never be a time when private and church-based service to others for the sake of the cross is insignificant. But this kind of service must not exclude our participation in the public square. For the sake of our fellow believers, for the good of all men, and for the sake of God.

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