On Russell Moore, Evangelicals, and Political Engagement

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on January 27, 2014.]

The sharp-sighted cultural commentator Russell Moore strikes again. In “Evangelical Retreat?”, published in the December edition of First Things, he responds to the concern that younger Evangelicals’ drift away from conservative political activism is underlain by closet liberalism, political disinterest, or perhaps some other infelicity.[1] His answer, which I think is correct, is that most young Evangelicals are not withdrawing; instead, they are engaging in ways which are more deeply theological and ecclesial.

Moore begins by noting certain concerns expressed by Christians outside of the Evangelical orbit: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square” (p. 46). The concern stems from several factors, and central among them is the breakdown of the religious right as a centering force for Evangelical cultural impact. In the wake of this breakdown, where and how will Evangelicals engage the culture? Will they try? This is a concern held not only by Catholic friends, but also by old veterans of the Moral Majority.

Moore notes that “engaging the culture” has changed in Evangelicalism because the present generation defines these terms differently from previous generations. No longer does “engage the culture” mean “get out the vote.” Rather, young Evangelicals regularly engage the culture at the congregational level primarily and the political level secondarily. As Moore points out, “They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability [the healthy union of one man and one woman], family accountability [including the sanctity of life], and personal responsibility [the practice of purity and community]” (p. 46). These actions are underlain by deep and profound theological and ecclesial concerns.

For this generation of Evangelicals, faithful and appropriate public action sprouts from the rich soil of orthodox theology. Moore observes:

As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture––especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt––it grows increasingly committed to the ‘strangest’ aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed ‘political’ isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. (p. 46)

In this case, “engaging the culture” will not look like Evangelical public action of the past. “As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right.” Evangelicals have begun to realize slowly “that they are no ‘moral majority’” in America (p. 47). So a more expansive theology, rooted especially in the Reformed Tradition, has replaced extensive campaigning.

Such theology also undergirds a more rigorous church polity and accountability. “Unlike the Bible-Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements . . . The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition . . . He is pro-life and pro-marriage” (p. 47). The challenge for many “young Evangelical” pastors and elders (a growing trend, too) is not whether to teach all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20), but whether public engagement fits within the mission of the local church. This is because he has most likely seen attempts at packaging “a transcendent message for decidedly worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levels of power” (p. 47).

With every theology and polity comes a worldview, or vice versa. As such, Moore observes, “To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people.” This refers to the biblical narrative but also to personal narratives. Personal testimonies demonstrate the reasons young Evangelicals worship, for example, in Reformed and liturgically oriented churches. These churches are decidedly different from, for example, the theologically vacuous and/or super casual churches in which they grew up. And as Moore notes, “What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement” (p. 48).

Moore also clarifies that the term “young Evangelical” is also confusing for many. The theological conservatives of whom he speaks are quite different from the “young Evangelicals” often sought out by the national media. “It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic” (p. 46). So “liberal” does not describe the “young Evangelicals” of whom Moore writes.

The current status and ethos of Evangelicalism, then, reflects a return to the evangel. “Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel.” But this does not mean that such “Gospel-centered Evangelicals” should retreat from public engagement (p. 48). The past mistakes caused by divorcing the Gospel from the kingdom cannot and must not be repeated. How then do we engage?

Moore argues for prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. He contends that the increasing secularization of America “ . . . will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts––and thank God. The engagement will be first congregational . . . ” (p. 49). Moore also encourages Evangelicals to look to Rome for help: “Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive . . . .” Likewise, though, Evangelicals can remind Catholics that natural law is as good as far as it goes, but that the universe “is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). So Evangelicals are still here, still engaging, albeit in new, more theological ways. “You can call that a ‘Rapture’ if you want, but don’t call it a ‘retreat’” (p. 50).

I agree with Moore’s assessment, and add only a few thoughts.

First, I hope that Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptist Evangelicals in particular, will take Moore’s lead, learning from him how to engage in public political conversation in ways that are not only theologically robust but also gracious and kind. If we fail to do so, the resulting combination of theological vacuity and dispositional snark will kill our gospel witness. If we succeed in doing so, the potent combination of truth and kindness in civil discourse portrays the gospel faithfully and strengthens our ability to be persuasive.

Second, I hope that Evangelicals will not neglect the fact that politics is a function (and a part) of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Religion’s influence expands outward across the entirety of culture (through the arts, the sciences, business, schools and universities, sports, home life, the public square, etc.), and it is this entire culture-religion complex which influences and underpins the political sector. For this reason, Christian “political” involvement must be “political” in the very broad sense (concern for the public well-being, including the spheres of culture listed above) as well as the narrow sense (concern with public policy, public administration, etc).

Third, such broad-based political engagement does not, of course, preclude activism, but such action must always come from something deeper and broader. We have a hope that paves the way for us to simultaneously move forward with boldness and lay down our swords to pursue interactions in a civil manner. We aren’t fighting to protect a Kingdom that is dependent on us for its very survival. We are on mission as part of a Kingdom that is already here.


[1] Russell Moore, “Evangelical Retreat?” First Things (Dec 2013: 45–50).

 

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On Christianity and Politics

Now this is a fetching discussion. In his recent “Public Square” column, R. R. Reno reflects upon the reasons for Christian political involvement.[1] He begins by posing the question: “If we believe in the sure triumph of Christ, why do we allow ourselves to be drawn in to the very unsure world of political conflict?” (p. 3) In response to the question, he notes, “The Lord’s Prayer gives a straightforward answer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (p. 3) Thus, he encourages Christians to have a “double-mindedness” about our citizenship and thus involvement in the civitas: we are citizens of heaven called to serve the King who owns final victory, yet we serve him here in this world–a world that is still groaning and thus largely (sinfully) opposed to the King’s rule. In the article, he goes on to argue that we should be politically active but only with Christ as the center of our hope; otherwise, our political involvement devolves into a sort of political pornography.

Reno’s article caught my attention for several reasons, but foremost because the winter of 2012 is a particularly good time for Christians to reassess their motivation and strategy for political involvement. As I see it, beginning in the early 20th century, evangelicals pretty much abdicated their responsibilities in many sectors of public life. They withdrew from the public realm and lost most of their ability to be faithfully present in the arts, the sciences, the academy, and to some extent the political realm. In fact, I think one of the major reasons we lost our voice in the political realm is because we did not value other related realms such as the arts, the sciences, and the academy. When we devalue or desert Hollywood (the arts), Harvard (the academy), and MIT (the sciences), we lose any sort of plausibility structure we might have had in the political realm. As a result of the fact that we no longer have any real voice in our culture at large, we have found our political “toolbox” reduced to only one tool: political coercion. And, once we have reduced ourselves to coercive activism, we have almost lost.

In light of this situation in which we find ourselves, what can we affirm about political involvement? For the purposes of this blog, I want to argue that we should focus on a broader topic: Christian cultural involvement (politics is shaped by the broader culture and, in turn, shapes culture itself). At least five principles should guide our cultural involvement. [The text below is pasted from the manuscript of a forthcoming book, Gospel & Mission, which will be released by Baker Academic in 2014.]

The first principle is that culture activity is ordained by God. God created a good world, and followed up his creative activity by giving humanity a good command to bring out the hidden potentials of his creation (Gen 1:26-28; Gen 2:15). This command teaches us that cultural activity is a fundamental aspect of human life and a way in which we image God to the world. In a fallen world, this means that cultural activity is a way that we can promote God and the gospel.

The second principle is that cultural activity is marked by a great antithesis. After the fall, humans have always lived in the midst of a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. The invisible realities, represented by certain principalities and powers, are always manifested in visible, tangible cultural realities. The New Atheism, for example, is certainly underlain by invisible realities, but also makes itself known in tangible human culture. The atheist denial of Christ’s lordship manifests itself sometimes in a false story of science, in which we are told that Christianity historically proven an impediment to scientific knowledge, and other times in an errant epistemology, in which we are told that empirical science is the only reliable avenue for gaining true knowledge about the world. Likewise, destructive postmodernism is underlain by invisible realities, but makes itself public in philosophical treatises that deny the possibility of objective knowledge and promote moral relativism. This great struggle between light and darkness cuts across the entire creation and every human culture. Christians should resist this comprehensive assault on our shared cultural life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the arts, the sciences, politics, business, education, scholarship, and sports. We should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner.

The third principle is that cultural activity takes place within ordered realms which have their own creational design. Human cultures can be divided into a variety of realms—such as art, science, business, politics, and education—which each have their own creational design and God-given integrity. However, because we live in a fallen world comprised of sinners, these realms will be to some extent corrupted and directed toward wrong ends. The prince of darkness seeks to hijack these realms to use entirely towards his own ends. We as Christians, therefore, seek to redirect these realms towards their proper end and creational design. To the extent that we are able to do so, we glorify God and provide our neighbors a preview of what it might be like when God rules on a renewed and restored creation.

The fourth principle is that cultural activity takes place under the absolute Lordship of Christ. This principle builds upon the others, and emphasizes Christ’s lordship over all aspects of creation and human life. Christ is the creator and King over all things, and one day will restore all things. He is not merely the Lord over my “heart” or my quiet times; he is Lord over my work, my leisure, and my civil life. He is not merely sovereign over local church gatherings; he is the Lord over artistic, scientific, political, entrepreneurial, and scholarly endeavors. No piece of our (“secular”) life is to be sealed off from Christ’s lordship. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ and ought to be made to honor him. Missional Christians not only proclaim the gospel with words, they promote it in their cultural activities.

The fifth principle is that the architecture of a truly Christian cultural mission will involve answers to at least three questions. In any given cultural realm (e.g. art, science, politics, business, sports, homemaking, academics), three questions must be asked. The first question is, “What is God’s creational design for this particular realm of culture? The second question is, “In what ways have God’s designs for this realm been misdirected and corrupted by cultural idolatry?” The third question is, “In what ways can we redirect this realm and work for its healing?” As missional Christians, we should always be seeking to answer these questions, no matter which culture, or realm of culture, we find ourselves in. In so doing, we will be able to live redemptively on this earth, pointing upwards to God the King, backwards to his loving creational design, and forward to his inbreaking kingdom.

In conclusion, missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to transform it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”[2] Missional Christians recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, and the Christian life is always lived, within a cultural context. Instead of chafing against this reality, we may participate in the joyful work of making working out the gospel’s implications in those cultures, allowing the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation, and seeking to redirect them toward God’s design. “We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”[3] God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to promote the gospel within our cultural context rather than attempting to withdraw ourselves from it.


[1] R. R. Reno, “The Public Square,” in First Things (Nov 2012), 3-7.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), 176.

[3] Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.

 

5 Ways Presidents Affect the Pro-Life Cause

The always insightful Joe Carter has written a helpful piece for The Gospel Coalition titled “5 Ways Presidents Affect the Pro-Life Cause.” It’s a worthwhile read on this Election Day. You need to read the whole article, but here is Joe’s concluding paragraph:

Christians have an obligation to the most vulnerable members of our society to elect politicians who have both a robust view of human dignity and the temerity to govern accordingly. We betray this duty when we downplay the role the executive branch in advancing the pro-life cause. While judges and legislators are important for the protection of human dignity, presidents matter too.