When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Obergefell case, establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, public Christianity in America suffered what might be its greatest defeat in the nation’s history. Others might point to earlier decisions that struck down practices such as prayer and Bible readings in public schools, but that would not be quite right. Faithful Christians could reconcile those cases as a matter of simple prudence and religious liberty. Obergefell and the cases that led up to it dealt squarely with the Christian view of marriage, which was normative in America for most of the republic’s history. The court’s decision largely completed the job of severing the connection between the Christian sexual ethic and American law. While nearly the whole of American and world culture for about the past 5,000 years has clearly rejected gay marriage (if not always gay sexual relations, as in the Greco-Roman classical period), the majority opinion has changed rapidly and radically during the past decade. 

Five years ago, James Davison Hunter rendered his verdict on Christian efforts to change the world (from his well-known book’s title). While he noted the amazing and disproportionate success of tiny minority groups such as Jews and gays in affecting culture, he simultaneously observed that conservative Christians have failed to achieve similar success despite their far-superior numbers. Hunter explains that part of the problem is that Christians have misjudged the mechanics of culture change. Thus, they have set up outposts in perimeter places, such as Colorado Springs, when they should have been concerned with engaging elites in cultural centers, such as New York and Los Angeles. By correctly understanding that kind of influence dynamic, enlightenment thinkers were able to take over what had been a mostly Christian sphere of higher education, for example. Culture change is not about the numbers so much as it is about the use of elites to win over other elites in the major cities.

Gentle Rebuke

One of the interesting things about Hunter’s analysis is that while he describes how culture changes, he does not recommend that Christians attempt to follow his blueprint. Rather, he encourages Christians to be content with being faithfully present in culture and to emphasize shalom (peace and the common good). Inherent in this modest advice is a gentle rebuke. The sociologist seems to see conservative Christians as a group who overreached in the culture wars. They relied too much on political solutions to establish cultural norms. 

In America, it has been the lot of conservative evangelicals and Catholics to insist on male-female marital and sexual complementarity in terms of morality and law. And it has not been a happy task. We have seen our young people frequently disagree with us on this issue (even many of those enrolled in Christian colleges). They have often agreed with the charge that Christians have acted in a bullying fashion toward gays. And if there is one thing of which millennials are sure they disapprove, it is bullies. Worse still, we have had to strongly resist comparisons between the struggle over civil rights for African Americans and the gay marriage controversy. It is entirely possible that the dominant interpretation will ultimately be that those who fought gay marriage will come to be viewed in the same light as Southern segregationists. 

Young evangelicals are in the toughest position. Their peers probably have less respect and tolerance for orthodox Christianity than has been the norm (and it wasn’t much to begin with). They have grown up in a period when gay marriage has been the single biggest moral controversy. While the pro-life movement conferred some elements of a civil-rights movement type of legitimacy on the political activity of my generation (Generation X) of Christians, they have experienced the opposite sense with regard to gay marriage. Something that once seemed self-evident (male-female complementarity) now manifests as some repressive “Christianist” construct oddly imposed on innocent human beings who need greater room for self-discovery and self-expression. 

Three Approaches

As we evaluate our situation, Christian writers and other leaders are looking at new approaches. Rod Dreher, who has become an important voice for Christians during this period, has written about what he calls “the Benedict option.” While there is room for interpretation, Dreher seems to mean that Christians need to place more focus on orthodoxy and orthopraxy as a community. By strengthening their cultural and spiritual core from the inside, the devout may be able to engage the culture in a more meaningful way. Some see Dreher’s approach as a call for withdrawal, but I think he intends merely to change our priorities as the church in such a way as to improve the authenticity of our witness.

Others refer to a Robert George option. The Princeton philosopher emphasizes continuous, rational engagement at the highest level of discourse. We see his strategy at work in the activities of his student Ryan T. Anderson during these past few years. 

In a third camp, I see something like an option I would associate with people such as former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, Q Ideas founder Gabe Lyons, and James Davison Hunter. This group notes the toxic reputation Christians have developed in the broader culture (with Lyons focusing attention especially on how young people feel about us) and recommends a focus on “shalom,” as Hunter says, or “the common good,” as Lyons emphasizes in his conferences. 

There are some problems with this approach. First, people in the third group seem to think that bad public relations for Christians are due to their activities in the culture war. The problem with that analysis is that we have not been the aggressors, though we are often seen that way. We have tried to preserve important values against a social revolution championed by the cultural vanguard and aided by technology (such as the birth control pill). Could we have been shrewder, more compassionate, and better communicators? Sure. But I think we owe it to those who entered the fray to honor their part in the struggle.

Second, when I listen to Gerson, I hear him talking about how we should be doing things like the Bush administration’s campaign to reduce AIDS in Africa. He is rightly proud of that success. But I can’t help but note that these kind of common good initiatives tend to already claim overwhelming support. Let’s wipe out malaria. Absolutely. Let’s prevent sex trafficking. Who would disagree? Let’s prevent child abuse. Right on. These are not the matters, though, which separate us. The things that actually separate us already have been and remain the big controversies in our culture: What is the proper place for sex in a relationship? What is marriage? When does life begin? These fundamental debates are not easily resolved by a focus on the common good. The real reason these things become a fight is because they hit close to home for everyone. 

Emphasizing the common good will not make those battles go away. And changing our focus away from these divisive matters will only make matters worse as we lose momentum in those conflicts and leave the remaining fighters isolated, dispirited, marginalized, and weakened. 

I am suggesting that the battle is where the battle is. Do we get a bad reputation (especially today) by making a case for sex and childbearing exclusively within the bounds of marriage? Yes. Some think of our position as repressive and freakish. When we argue that the collapse of marriage among the poor has made the problem of poverty worse, that position, too, invites scorn. In our opposition to abortion, we continue to incite the contempt of important cultural elites. Our resistance to gay marriage is the worst of the bunch. I can’t easily explain how something that was an overwhelmingly dominant view for thousands of years has now become the greatest black mark against the church, but it has. Focusing on the common good is only likely to prove a tonic if we give up contesting these other matters. But I don’t think we can faithfully do that. Even if we could, the fact remains that the core of our message is that human beings are fallen creatures who live in sin and are hopeless without Jesus Christ. That message automatically creates friction in a society that has reduced sin to the categories of violence and intolerance.

This perspective reveals my pessimism about a strategy oriented around emphasizing the common good (shalom). Otherwise, I would be more inclined to accept Hunter’s description of how cultural change occurs (via the interaction of elites at the centers of culture) and to pursue that strategy as smartly as possible. 

Dreher’s recommendation seems to be the most promising. Christians have two great needs in terms of their cultural engagement. First, they have to defend orthodoxy. There will be a powerful attempt to argue that marriage is a secondary issue and that the case against gay marriage is little more than one interpretation among many. But, second, Christians will have to become a more distinctive community. That is difficult because the church is by definition full of redeemed but not yet glorified sinners. Yet as cultural Christianity collapses, we can more closely resemble what Elton Trueblood called “the company of the committed.” What we lose in numbers, perhaps we will gain in authenticity and in the strength of our testimonies. 

There is one thing of which I am almost certain. The arguments aimed at reclaiming America by pointing to some purportedly fully Christian nature of the American founding are not going to restore what has been lost. That is a dead end. Even if we were to concede the entire case (which I do not), Americans today feel no obligation to act as if Christians were granted a permanent lease on the republic. We aren’t going to convince them that they are now obligated to respect the sensibilities of those who preceded us.

Transforming Minds and Hearts

I confess that I am and have been a culture warrior. When I became a Christian, I vowed to press the Christian case (as I saw it) in the public square. But I believed I could be smarter, more careful, more articulate, and more convincing than many others I had seen. I am beginning to realize that changing the culture may not ultimately be a matter of the intellect so much as it is of the spirit. As I look back on the American attitude toward sex, for example, I realize that we the people have mostly acted like utilitarians. We embraced the Christian sexual ethic until the birth control pill made it unnecessary to do so. Obedience to Scripture was less devotion to God than a form of behavioral calculation. Martin Luther tended to believe the number of true Christians was quite small. We seem to have assumed the opposite to be true.

Today, I look more intently toward spiritual experience and the transformation of minds and hearts through an encounter with the living God. Reading the work of writers such as C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer moved me and shaped me, but that process only started after I began to seek a relationship with Jesus Christ. 

We can strategize and advance important ideas. I believe in doing those things and have dedicated my career to that end. Ultimately, however, the most important works will be those of evangelism and discipleship. 

The challenge before us is great. But I remember how unlikely it was that I, a scoffer, came to have my heart struck by the Holy Spirit. As a result, there is no social revolution, no worldly court, and no legislation that will reorient me. We need not run with the herd nor participate in some osmosis of values. We know what it means to live as Christians. And we must do so.


Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from The Gospel Coalition eBook Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’: To Change the World Five Years Later, edited by Collin Hansen. Download the book for free in ePub, MOBI, or PDF files.