My inner conservative has had its say concerning the election (See here). How should God’s church respond to the results? From a secular conservative viewpoint, one can take to heart that the margin of victory for President Obama was razor thin, that supporters of same-sex marriage barely outnumber those who are against it. Yet considering what this election means for the unborn, for the rights of Christians to participate in the culture, the Church can’t find much good to be gleaned from the results. The Church is getting advice from the evangelical left and the evangelical right on how to respond. The Church needs to ignore much of the advice from both sides.
The evangelical left tries to convince Christians that conservative Christian involvement in the political process has caused a mass exodus of young people from the Church as well as a rise in atheism. This has been the theme of many posts and comments on the Out of Ur blog and Scott McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. According to these blogs and those like them, the religious right’s goal is to take control of the political process to advance its agenda. The results of the election supposedly show that the American people have finally said no to this religious right power grab. The results are supposedly confirmation that the Church should no longer prioritize pro life causes and the defense of traditional marriage; younger evangelicals are more interested in social justice for the poor.
There is indeed an exodus of young people from the Church. There also exists a much higher public profile for atheists. Yet are these trends attributable to evangelical Christian political activity? Lifeway did a study on why adults who grew up in the Church left when they became adults. 59% of the respondents cited “changes in their life situation.” Two of the specific life situations mentioned was hectic schedules and family responsibilities. In other words, what is drawing most people out of the Church is not the Church’s stand on social issues, but the lure of contemporary culture. “If you were of the world,” Jesus told his disciples, “the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:19). The allegiance to the culture is what drives most people to withdraw from church. The young, who like to think of themselves as non-conformists, are the most conformist of all. Evangelical political activity in and of itself doesn’t offend the young in churches; the young are offended when evangelical stands on social issues threaten their standing with their peers. When Roe v. Wade was decided, the majority in this nation supported abortion,including evangelicals. But now opinion has changed. The debate over partial birth abortion helped change so many minds that there is now a pro life majority in the U.S. Even the former president of the National Abortion Rights Action League has admitted that abortion advocates have lost the battle for the hearts of the young. Polls show that the majority of young evangelical Christians are pro life. Being so doesn’t cost them in terms of acceptance with the culture at large. But a large percentage of young evangelical Christians are accepting of same sex lifestyles. The evangelical left states that this acceptance is the result of increasing contact with friends, relatives, and co-workers who are involved in such relationships. This assertion is correct. But what the evangelical left does not realize is that in making this assertion, it is admitting that the young are being influenced by the culture. Young evangelicals don’t want to be hated. As they are increasingly drawn into the culture, they will become less, not more, interested in the poor. A friend who is a youth pastor told me that the young don’t want to be bothered with pastoral visits. They prefer contact through social media. Social media is causing people to withdraw into themselves and become less social. They want to be left alone. The tweets, e-mails, and Facebook posts of young evangelicals are filled with God’s name, but their hearts are far from Him. They want to be identified with God’s brand name, but they don’t want to follow Him. As young evangelicals withdraw into their own private world, they will shun true accountability and friendship. As they close their hearts so to exclude fellowship, they will close their hearts so to exclude the poor as well. It will be conservative evangelicals who will bear the burden of seeking social justice for the most vulnerable, not the young influenced by the culture.
While the evangelical left misinterprets the results of the election, there are lessons from the results that conservative evangelicals had better heed. Too many evangelicals equate conservative social values with the gospel itself. For many, promotion of conservative social values is a safe substitute for witnessing for Christ. Our churches are full of people who bring their families to church to be exposed to these values, but who never have repented of their sins. Because churches are doing good things, such as standing for the unborn and traditional marriage, churches have become complacent, thinking all is well . I know a woman who has been involved with the pro life movement for years. One day she went to a revival service at another church. It was at that service that she realized she had not been born again. She had been brought into our church through the pro life movement, but being pro life and working to stop abortion did not save her. She had been involved with our church for years, and no one knew she had not been saved, including herself. Her testimony how she was saved at that service was a surprise to me. Much of the church’s social values are accepted by society at large. I used to participate in the annual Mother’s Day Walk for Life in my hometown. To my surprise, the response from most those who drove by was positive. And this is a university town. I was all for the Chick Fil A day to protest governmental coercion directed towards the evangelical beliefs of the company’s president. Many considered Chick Fil A’s record sales that day as a witness for the gospel. Yet I am sure that many, perhaps half, of those who showed up that day were not born again, but are just as opposed to government coercion as much as evangelicals are. I was heartened by the response, as well as by the failure of the counter demonstration. Yet this success made many evangelicals think that they had won the culture war and that this success would translate into political power. The election was a rude awakening. Evangelical social values are indeed held by a great many people in this country. But those values don’t translate into the passion necessary to transform this country. Nor do they create conditions necessary for a revival. As evangelicals, we must realize that the truly born again will always be in the minority. We will never be validated by a culture that is becoming increasingly secular.
But does this indicate that conservative evangelicals should abandon the political arena. The evangelical left hopes that this would be the case. But so do some on the evangelical right. Both liberal and conservative Christians contend that because the early Church didn’t participate in the political arena, neither should the Church today. However, the early Christians did not have the option to participate in the political arena. They were subjects of the Roman Empire, not citizens in a democracy. But the early Church did engage the culture. In the Roman world, the weak did not survive. If someone became sick, families most often abandoned them. If soldiers became too old to perform their duties, they were executed. It was the Church’s ministry to the sick and the infirm which birthed hospitals into existence. It was the Church’s ministry to the most vulnerable which converted the Empire more than anything else. Tertullian reported that when Romans witnessed how Christians treated each other as well as those outside the Church, the Romans would exclaim “See how they love one another!" Some conservative evangelicals think the Church’s witness consists solely of declaring the need of being born again. They say our fight is not against abortion or same sex marriage, but for the gospel. How would these evangelicals have responded to Christian missionary efforts to stop the practice of burning widows in India? Would they have cautioned Mary Slessor, a missionary to the African nation of Nigeria, to just spread the gospel and not be concerned about the practice of exposing twin infants, a practice she was instrumental in stopping? I hear the Christians left and right say evangelicals have no business operating in the political arena. Do they condemn the actions of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran? Nadarkhani is the pastor who until recently released from prison faced execution. He was arrested for questioning the Muslim monopoly on childrens' religious education. Was the pastor right to petition the government on these matters? The Shouwang Church in China holds an outdoor demonstration every Sunday to protest the government’s refusal to allow the Church to have a building of it's own. Is this a sin? In East Africa, widows are often forced off their land by their deceased husband’s family. Should the Church stay out of this conflict and not petition the government on their behalf? Should the Church quit its campaign against human trafficking? The first Christians didn't have the option to democratically influence the government. However, they used what options they had to influence government and the culture. Tertullian sought to influence the culture through the written word. Here is what he wrote concerning attempts to coerce Christians in religious matters : "You think that others, too, are gods, whom we know to be devils. However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us—the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling, unless they are animated by a spirit of contention, which is a thing altogether undivine." (From Dan Chapa's Traditional Baptist Chronicles blog.) Was it permissible for Christians to influence society through the written word, but not permissible for modern American Christians to engage in the legal and political process to prevent the government from coercing them in matters of conscience? Is it permissible for Christians in other lands to seek to influence their government's policy towards the Church, but not permissible for American evangelicals to do the same? Christians feed the poor in response to scriptures command. Should not Christians use every legitimate weapon at their disposal to challenge New York City's ban on feeding the homeless? Should Christians stay out of such matters and just share the gospel? Someone recently wrote (I forget who) that non involvement in the political and cultural arena indicates a lack of care concerning God’s world. Christian social values are not the gospel. But Church history shows that wherever the gospel has been preached, the Church has actively influenced the surrounding culture on behalf the most vulnerable. And this in turn increased the impact of the gospel in the culture at large. Who were those most resistant to Jesus' ministry in the gospels? It was the religious leaders. But when the Church solved the problem of feeding the Grecian widows in Acts, "Then the word of God spread, and the number of disciple multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." (Acts 6:7) It was the evangelical revival in England that spawned the anti-slavery movement as well as a host of other reforms that made society more humane. Secular historians credit John Wesley with preventing England from having its own French Revolution. Wesley said that there is no holiness without social holiness. What he meant was that as one grows in holiness, one begins to share God’s love for the poor and oppressed and becomes actively involved in lifting their burdens. Wesley’s last letter was written to William Wilberforce, encouraging him in his battle to end slavery in the British Empire. Wesley wrote, "Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a "law" in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?" (From The United Methodist Women website.) There was no counsel from Wesley to Wilberforce to leave the political arena.
Even if a great revival sweeps this land, there will be a day when the forces of secularization will triumph. In the meantime, the Church is called to engage in social holiness, which entails involvement in political and cultural engagement. Social values are not the gospel. That is true. It is a temptation for the Church to forget this, as well as to rely on the political process alone to win the war of values with the secular forces arrayed against the church. When the Church falls into this temptation, the proper response is repentance, not withdrawal, even in the face of certain defeat.