Depending on the person you ask, American evangelicals are either a beleaguered minority or the new mainline. We either protect our counterculture from endless assaults, or we pursue the broader culture’s common good. Tim Keller has merged these identities while exhorting Christians to be a “counterculture for the common good.” This phrase rallies Christians to live in the already/not yet tension of our present age, where we face serious dangers but find security in Jesus Christ’s triumphant resurrection and impending return.
Each day’s headlines test Christians’ ability to faithfully balance these overlapping realities. Carl Trueman responded to a federal judge’s decision last week to strike down Proposition 8 by warning evangelicals about their marginal status in the culture. With Americans’ growing acceptance of homosexuality, Bible-based opposition threatens our ability to influence cultural trends across the board. Toe the biblical line of homosexuality, and you will be treated as an outsider unworthy of consideration.
Those evangelical leaders, academics, and evangelical institutions that prize their place at the table and their invitations to appear on “serious” television programs, and who enjoy being asked to offer their opinion to the wider culture had better be prepared to make a choice. As I have said before in this column, we are not far from the place where to oppose homosexuality will be regarded as in the same moral bracket as white supremacy. Those types only appear on Jerry Springer; and Jerry generally doesn’t typically ask them their opinion on the ethics of medical research, the solution to the national debt, or the importance of poetry to a rounded education.
Sociologist Michael Lindsay doesn’t buy the outsider rhetoric. The author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, Lindsay has identified a number of evangelicals who exert tremendous influence on American business, politics, and education. Echoing James Davison Hunter in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, Lindsay contends that evangelicals can only influence the culture if they embed themselves on the inside of culture-shaping institutions.
Evangelicals cannot be part of the center of the institution if they are outside it. Outsiders never change institutions in significant ways; they only secure nominal assent from the power players within the organization. So if evangelicals want to fundamentally influence American higher education, they have to be players on the inside. They have to be scholars, administrators, presidents, and board members at the major institutions in the country. It is only when they are in those roles that they will actually be able to wield significant influence.
Indeed, Christians need to heed this advice if they want to serve the common good out of their God-given love for the world. But apparently this strategy has its limits. Lindsay sees no hope for evangelicals to win the public debate over homosexuality. He’s far from alone if you talk with evangelical leaders. In fact, I don’t think I’ve yet met any such leader who sees public opinion and legal decisions trending toward traditional Christian sexual morality. Or just ask faithful Christian employees what it’s like to express your concern with homosexuality when your business is committed to diversity in all its politically correct splendor. Lindsay predicts all 50 states will eventually recognize some form of civil unions for homosexuals. So Christians can only defend their own churches, hospitals, and schools from coercive efforts to force them to hire practicing homosexuals.
Hunter’s “faithful presence” conclusion from his ironically titled To Change the World strikes me as a wise, balanced, and biblically consistent strategy. It accounts for the ups and downs we experience when reading the headlines. God’s Word doesn’t promise that Christians will find success in their endeavors to reform culture in the image of God for the common good. Yet the Bible also doesn’t absolve Christians from their responsibility to love their neighbors, including warning them of sin and judgment, contrary to cultural norms.
James 1:27 expresses what our faith looks like in practice: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” The two go hand in hand. We’re faithful when we’re countercultural in our pursuit of the common good. When faithful presence fails to deliver the desired result of serving the common good, we must find resolve in God, who sustains our countercultural remnant for his glory.