The respected Pew Research organization recently published studies of how Americans feel about religion in our country. It’s clear from the Pew surveys that millions of our fellow citizens are both ambivalent and deeply concerned about the status and role of faith in their personal lives and in the public life of the nation.
Michael Lipka, editor at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, notes that there are five key “takeaways” from the information Pew has gleaned:
- “A growing percentage of U.S. adults (now 72%) think that religion is losing influence in American life. Moreover, most people who feel this way think this is a bad thing. Overall, a majority (56%) of the total U.S. population perceives religion as losing influence in American life and says that’s a bad thing."
- “About half of U.S. adults (49%) say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions – up from 43% four years ago.”
- “Only about half of Americans (47%) see the Republican Party as friendly toward religion, but even fewer (29%) feel that way about the Democratic Party. With regard to the White House in particular, our surveys have found a steady rise in the percentage of people who view the Obama administration as unfriendly toward religion – rising to 29% today compared with 23% in 2012 and 17% in 2009."
- “Forty-seven percent (say) that businesses should be allowed to refuse services related to same-sex weddings and 49% saying they should be required to provide services as they would to all other customers.”
- “Many white evangelical Republicans say the GOP is too liberal on a host of issues. For example, 34% of white evangelical Republicans say that the GOP has not done a good job representing their views on abortion because the party is too liberal (i.e., not willing enough to put restrictions on abortion).”
These data are so rich that to mine them adequately would demand extensive analysis. It’s sufficient, for purposes of this piece, to summarize them as follows: Americans are troubled by the loss of religion’s influence in their lives and its effects on the public life of our country. They realize that both they and their nation are standing on increasingly unsteady moral ground, and are not happy about what this portends for their personal lives or the future of the United States as a republic.
What does this mean for Christians who witness the deterioration of our culture with dismay and also know they have been tasked by their Lord with sharing the Gospel and winning men and women to Him? To Christians who also understand that the times demand gracious, truthful, brave, and wise championship of life, liberty, and faith in public life? The following is not a comprehensive list, but rather three observations with direct bearing on how Christians can minister to what the late theologian Carl F.H. Henry called “a famished and fainting race:”
First, the Pew data confirm that people in our time are spiritually hungry. Like the “distressed and dispirited” sheep without a shepherd described by Jesus (Matthew 9:36), millions of Americans grasp, intuitively, that there is something missing from their own lives and something gravely wrong with the direction of the country they love. They are not sure how to fill the empty place in their own souls or repair the obvious erosion happening all around us.
They see lives consumed by activities and things, but no true peace or hope. They see families in disarray, marriages ruptured, children at risk from drugs, violence, fatherlessness, and sexualization, enduring and serious economic uncertainty and a host of other things they know arise not just by fiat but because of the growing loss of a firm moral foundation, one built upon God’s eternal truth. Men have become lovers of themselves and bold practitioners of Godless autonomy. The walls that constrain evil crumble more and more by the day.
That’s where the cross of Jesus Christ comes in, and those of us transformed by it have news that Billy Graham rightly calls “always good” to share with our friends and family, neighbors and community, leaders and society at large.
If the national field was ever ripe for harvesting, it is now. God’s people in America have never had before them a greater number of lost and needy people, people who need to hear about how Christ can give hope, meaning, and eternal life.
Second, the Pew data refute the notion that the American people oppose any relationship between faith and public life. They don’t want the institutional church to run the government, but they also don’t want the state to operate in a values vacuum. They believe people of faith have every right and reason to influence public policy, and are skeptical of those who believe that fixed moral truth is impossible to know or practice. Deeply held religious convictions, and those who hold them, should be a vital part of the public debate over key issues. The American people get that. Do policymakers? Do the editorial writers of the nation’s leading liberal newspapers? Do educators and the media?
Third, Americans are evenly split about requiring businesses to violate their moral beliefs. This indicates the ambivalence and division over a number of the central issues before us – abortion, homosexuality, the role of government, etc.
Christians need to keep advancing the vision of our Founders and the teachings of Scripture in regard to these things, yet with the mindfulness that some of the things we take for granted – e.g., the authority of Scripture or the persuasiveness of fact and reason – are not what sway many of our fellow citizens as once they did.
We need to persuade not just with logical argument or irrefutable fact but with empathy and stories. We need not only to demonstrate the fallacies of being “pro-choice” or for “marriage equality” but that our vision of life is one that affirms and renews and is based on God’s love and wisdom. Our tone must be compassionate even as our message must remain unchanged and expressed with humble and persistent confidence.
As Paul asked the Corinthians, who is adequate for all of these things? As he answered, our adequacy is from God. The challenges represented in the Pew surveys might seem insurmountable, but the One Who has overcome the world is our guide and strength. What are we waiting for?
Rob Schwarzwalder is the Senior Vice-President of the Family Research Council.
Publication date: September 24, 2014