No Time to Withdraw: Evangelicals and Politics

Mark Earley | President, Prison Fellowship Ministries | Wednesday, February 25, 2009

No Time to Withdraw: Evangelicals and Politics

February 25, 2009

Cal Thomas, a conservative evangelical columnist, is someone I really admire. But shortly after Barack Obama’s historic election victory, he wrote a column called “Religious Right, R.I.P.,” which I strongly disagree with. In it, Thomas asserts that evangelicals should abandon their efforts to impact culture through political involvement.

He says, “Evangelicals are at a junction. They can take the path that will lead them to more futility and ineffective attempts to reform culture through government, or they can embrace the far more powerful methods outlined by the One they claim to follow.”

By following the example of Christ, Thomas continues, “they will get much of what they hope for, but can never achieve, in and through politics.”

Well, Thomas, in my opinion, is both dead right and dead wrong. He is right in the sense that all of the followers of Jesus should indeed emulate Christ’s life. Thomas is also right that some of those who have led the evangelical movement in the political culture have been strident in tone and hungry for power.

But Thomas is wrong in setting up an either-or proposition. Either you are involved in politics seeking change—or you live like Jesus and effect change merely by your exemplary life. Unfortunately, neither Jesus nor the whole of Scripture gives us that choice. Instead, we are called to work and live in all areas of life, living like Jesus in the process. We cannot withdraw from any area—especially not politics.

Thomas’s conclusion seems to be based on a sense of failure. Looking back on the last 30 years of evangelical political involvement, he observes that evangelicals have little to show for their efforts. Abortion remains the law of the land, society grows coarser, and the homosexual culture is widely entrenched.

I wonder, however, what our country would look like today if believers had been absent from the public square for the last 30 years. I understand his frustration, but to despair after 30 years is shortsighted.

Os Guinness gives us a reminder of how dangerous withdrawing can be. Such an imbalanced emphasis on the “sphere of inwardness, personal bliss, and private salvation” characterized the church in Germany in the first half of the last century. In such a fog, Guinness says, they “could raise no altar strong enough to resist the challenge of Adolf Hitler.” 

Likewise, Carl Henry, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, writes, “The Christian populace fails its contemporaries if it postpones all protest until a state becomes so corrupt that revolution seems the only course of action.”

We Christians simply cannot afford to fail our contemporaries by withdrawing. Especially now, when so many have an agenda that devalues life and weakens families.

The tension to retreat into religious isolation is not new. After Jesus’ ascension, some in the early church were ready to withdraw from the affairs of men and simply wait for Jesus to return. Paul repeatedly and sternly had to remind them to go back to work, to do good to their fellow man, and to regularly meet together. They could not check out early, and neither can we.

This BreakPoint commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.

Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.