July 9, 2004
For Christians in America who believe their faith can and should have an impact on their culture, it has not been a good year.
In less than a 12-month span: The Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws, in effect invalidating both natural law and the Judeo-Christian foundations of our nation as a sound basis for our society; The Episcopal Church consecrated an openly homosexual man as one of its bishops; The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage; and a halftime show on the Super Bowl -- in which a pop singer's breast was exposed -- shoved in nearly everyone's face just how debauched our pop culture has become.
Nothing that Christians or pro-family groups have done has seemed to stop American society from rushing headlong down the tracks to moral oblivion. It appears that secularism and postmodern relativism have successfully teamed up to overthrow Judeo-Christianity as the dominant philosophical force in our culture.
Evangelical Christians have long operated under the belief that sharing the Gospel is an important part of their faith, and that their faith was meant to serve as "salt and light" in the culture in which they lived.
However, evangelicals in America are a numerical minority, with the best studies putting them anywhere between 7 percent and 25 percent of the population. More importantly, they are a distinct cultural minority as well, as American society continues to reposition itself on a post-Christian foundation.
Engaged Yet Uncorrupted
Such facts are true, but may not necessarily be that significant, because since the first century, Christians have often lived their faith in circumstances that defied the odds. What may be a more important question, however, is whether or not the church can avoid becoming irrelevant as the culture comes to grips with monumental social issues.
Certainly what worked for evangelicals and other Christians over the last 30 years doesn't appear to be working now. Changes in the moral and religious beliefs of the American people have occurred with breaktaking speed -- all within virtually a single generation.
American culture is now dominated by a rather mushy morality that eschews principles of black-and-white truth and lives in an always-gray world where truth is individually determined and relativistic.
In The Public Interest, University of Toronto professor of political science Clifford Orwin said that, in America, "moral laxity is a way of life, having mysteriously emerged as the fundamental principle of morality itself. Not only do they treat the sinner with charity, but they've become curiously indifferent to the sin."
Over the last generation, this moral laxity has, understandably, led to a growing cultural decadence that alarms many Christians. Everywhere they look, the triumph of hedonism and, simultaneously, both secularism and paganism, seems at hand.
"For the first time in the nation's history," said Orwin, "religious opinion does not inhibit society as a whole .... Christianity, which once pervaded the one culture practiced by the one nation, has slipped to the status of a subculture -- we might even say a counterculture. And the other subcultures, having shaken off Christianity's hegemony, go their own riotous ways."
Such epochs have, in the past, led evangelicals to distance themselves from society's corruption. As religion writer Jefferey Sheler noted in a U.S. News & World Report article, in such circumstances "evangelicals created their own parallel institutions -- schools and colleges, music, books, movies, and magazines -- to preserve their biblical values."
In Sheler's opinion, evangelicals do not seem to be abandoning the culture as in times past. Nevertheless, this may bring with it the opposite danger: entanglement.
Sheler said that "the question remains: What will be changed more by their continuing engagement in politics and pop culture -- evangelicalism or the culture?"
In order to be salt and light, the church must stay engaged in American culture without being corrupted by it. That's not easy to do, as evidenced by the mainline Protestant retreat from a more orthodox perspective.
"Since the late nineteenth century and the emergence of the Social Gospel, the typical response of the mainline churches to the challenge of secularism has been to capitulate to it," said Orwin.
Thus, instead of being salt and light in the culture, some mainline churches have completely adapted themselves to the spiritual darkness which surrounds them.
Moreover, many of these churches seem only too happy to have yielded, said Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, in her book One Nation, Two Cultures. She said that many mainline churches fit quite comfortably in the prevailing culture, "priding themselves on being cosmopolitan and sophisticated, undogmatic and uncensorious."
But evangelicals have not escaped this tendency, either, she said. "Even evangelicals are divided between those practicing a 'classical' spirituality derived from earlier Protestant and Puritan traditions, and those partial to a 'postmodern' or 'existential' spirituality, which is more therapeutic and individualistic."
If the church is going to avoid irrelevance in American culture, it must, as Orwin put it, have something "distinctively Christian to bring to the table."
Finding Common Ground
How does the church address a culture that has, in Orwin's words, "shaken off Christianity's hegemony"? How does it speak to the moral debates under way when American society, by and large, no longer speaks the same language as Christians?
Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney and senior policy advisor for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, said, "It is an unhappy circumstance that Christians are left to persuade others on moral questions in a culture that lacks common philosophical assumptions, let alone common theological beliefs."
Christians, therefore, need to develop the intellectual capacity to argue for moral solutions that are not explicitly rooted in theology. Fahling said that "if religious conservatives continue to talk in the language of their 'true feelings,' that is, the language of the Bible, they will never find ground for agreement with non-Christians on society's great issues."
In order to find such common ground, believers must be able to present practical and rational reasons why a traditional moral solution to a problem is best. On the subject of homosexuality, for example, Christians can oppose the "gay" agenda by appealing to the fact that the homosexual lifestyle exacts both a physical and emotional toll on those who practice it.
"Trying to find that common ground between non-Christians and Christians is not easy, and whatever agreements could be reached would be fragile," Fahling said. "No doubt it would be better if Christians could cooperate with other groups on such issues if they could base that cooperation on biblical theology. But that is not an option available to us today. Christians tilt at windmills when they require that non-Christians accept [biblical] justifications for action as a condition to agreement."
If Christians cannot develop -- or refuse to develop -- this "common ground" approach, there may be little hope of anything else beyond a political and cultural stalemate. "The possibilities of cooperation in our divided culture are few," Fahling said. "We reject them at our own peril."
Fire on the Earth
This is not to suggest that the church is to cease its prophetic witness within American culture in order to facilitate a dialogue with non-Christians. Fahling insists that "the Christian's ultimate [biblical] reasons and justification for participating in the political life of the culture must remain intact and vibrant."
In fact, the spiritual awakening for which many Christians are praying will require what Himmelfarb called a "dissident culture," which she defined as "a culture distinct from the dominant one in important respects," while still part of American society as a whole.
In other words, something must exist outside the prevailing culture to challenge its suppositions and its actions. This has always been the place of the Christian church in America -- at least when it has heard its prophetic calling and answered.
Joseph Bottum, an editor for The Weekly Standard and First Things, said that there is something in the Scriptures "that has no patience for political compromise, or moral casuistry, or conventional prudence, or philosophical judiciousness."
Bottum said in an article for The Public Interest, "Throughout our history, biblical America has stood outside political America: the wayfaring stranger far away from the public man, however much the political world echoes with the words of a public God."
Orwin said this is a perfect role for evangelicals, because evangelicalism "offers a timely and focused response to the current situation. It adeptly fills the void left by its secularists and mainline rivals .... [They] stand as an impressive reproach to the gross defects of rampant secularism. That evangelicals are increasing in number does not make them any less a counterculture; it attests to their success as one .... The further American society lists toward the secularist subjectivist side, the larger the minority that will peel off to shift to the opposite rail."
That there is compromise in American politics and common ground among groups from different philosophical perspectives, Bottum said, is good. In part, that is what defines our culture.
"But America is also not America unless, underneath it all, a small voice whispers that the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as the small dust on the balance. America is a triumph of political philosophy because it is not entirely political -- because it also hears, even in these days, the murmur, 'I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?' [Luke 12:49]"
It may be time to find out if the church can still speak in that small yet potent voice. Perhaps it is time to discover whether the church is worth its salt.
Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is news editor for AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article appeared in the July 2004 issue.
© 2004 Agape Press.