A recent New York Times op-ed examines differing visions of cultural engagement among American Christians.
What are these competing visions? As the op-ed describes, there are those “calling for culture war as usual.” These evangelical leaders are sticking with previous models of engagement, like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
On the other side is a growing number of evangelical leaders pushing back against this strategy. These leaders are among those “who say Christians must adjust to life as a minority in American Babylon.”
Leaders in the latter category are disowning both the legacy of the Moral Majority and what the op-ed calls the “populist demagoguery” of more outspoken presidential candidates in favor of a “softer, more sophisticated approach to activism.”
The leaders of this new approach to activism understand that Bible-believing evangelicals are no longer a majority in this country. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the op-ed writer,
We don’t see ourselves as a cultural majority. Change doesn’t come from a position of power, but a position of witness.
Gabe Lyons, founder of the conference and media organization Q, points to historical figures who inspired this new strategy. He says,
Wilberforce abolished slavery over many years by working with Christians in different industries. We want to be a counterculture for the common good. A counterculture can be antagonistic, lobbing grenades, but that’s not how Christians should be engaging.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is another role model for those representing this new face of Christian activism. Eric Metaxas, a popular Christian author and thought-leader, says,
A lot of good Germans looked the other way. [German Christians] didn’t see that sirens need to go off when the state — any state — starts crossing a line, interfering with the freedom of churches…. [Evangelicals] have God-given freedoms to do so much, but the window is closing. Right now we have tremendous freedoms, and we need to use them, to be a loud, humble, bold, gracious, winsome voice.
What are we to think of this new face of Christian activism?
Christians should be transforming culture according to the standards of God’s Word. If you are a Christian artist, car repairman, government official, or whatever, you should be seeking to do this work as a Christian, applying God’s standards to your work.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31,
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
Theologian John Frame writes that,
[Christians down through the centuries], for distinctively Christian motives, have vastly influenced western culture in such areas as help for the poor, teaching of literacy, education for all, political freedom, economic freedom, science, medicine, the family, the arts, the sanctity of life. Without Jesus, without his Gospel, without the influence of his people, all these areas of culture would be vastly different and very much worse.
Christians in the United States have abandoned this strategy over the last 100 years.
Fundamentalist Christians in America largely retreated from the public square and any kind of social action during the first part of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, as Christian attempts like the Moral Majority failed to positively re-engage culture, many Christian leaders disparaged Christian social activism, saying it detracted from the fundamental responsibility of proclaiming the gospel.
What was missing then, and still is among many leaders today, was that humble, bold, gracious, winsome voice to which Metaxas speaks. If we are going to be a positive influence, we have to be positive.
We must destroy every instance of the sacred/secular divide in our lives. Everything Christians do is spiritual.
As Christians, should we vote and care about the political process in our country? Of course. But this is not a silver bullet. Unless we are willing to engage culture at every level, in everything we do, we will not make a difference.
As God’s Spirit penetrates the hearts of people through the gospel, those people become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). They should take their faith graciously and boldly into every sphere of life, including the workplace, politics, economics, education, and the arts, seeking to glorify God in all these realms.
They obey, imperfectly to be sure, but their obedience can lead to significant, positive change in society.