If you only knew Christians from television, why would you want to become one? You have only a few kinds of media role models, none of them appealing. You could be a goody-two-shoes rube, most likely from the Midwest or South, like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons or Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock. You could be a judgmental hypocrite like Angela Martin from The Office and take only the Bible and The Purpose-Driven Life with you on a desert island but sleep around with your coworkers. Or you could be a deranged serial killer. As Gene Veith observes, you can usually identify the culprit in a suspenseful TV drama when you find the most religious character.

Our journalistic sensibilities don’t exactly help matters. It’s not news when Christians serve soup to the homeless. But it’s always news when a church leader misappropriates benevolent funds for selfish gain. The world resents our moral standards and gloats over our failings. Somehow we’ve perpetuated the myth that what sets evangelicals apart is our moral superiority rather than an acute sense of our moral inability.

“Evangelicals’ distinctive moral outlook, inherited from their fundamentalist forebearers, is dark and somewhat puritanical (or Victorian),” write public policy experts Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of the influential study American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. “[Evangelicals] share a view of the world as sinful and of God as a harsh judge. For them, heaven, hell, and judgment day are realities, not metaphors, and moral issues are framed in absolute, black-and-white terms.”

The only problem with this summary is that I doubt Putnam and Campbell could find any evangelicals who would describe their faith this way. Whose testimony says, “I was looking for an unflinching moral standard, and I found it in the harsh Christian God”? Even so, evidence suggests that Putnam and Campbell accurately describe how outsiders at least have viewed evangelicals at least since the tumultuous social revolutions of the 1960s and probably before. Statistics analyzed by Putnam and Campbell lead us to believe that the 1960s unleashed a counter-revolution of concern about declining moral standards. And many of these concerned citizens found their way to evangelical churches in the 1970s and 1980s. Somehow we failed to convince the watching world, maybe even ourselves at times, that the church only accepts immoral sinners who confess their need for a Savior.

No Going Back

In the days ahead, however, you won’t need to convince anyone of your immorality. You will be judged and found woefully wanting. No longer suspected of faux moral superiority, you will be accused of real moral inferiority. The revolution recounted by Putnam and Campbell has come full circle. Rather than Victorian prudes, evangelicals will be likened to Jim Crow segregationists. The presenting issue might be homosexuality, given rapidly changing public opinion. Already you can see how the mechanics of power and influence have turned the allegedly judgmental into the actually judged. Never discount the human ability to justify ourselves. We judge one another as immoral for not recycling. For not buying organic. For voting against the anointed candidate. For sending our children to the wrong schools. For eating the wrong fast food. For buying the wrong shoes.

The backlash against immoral evangelicals will sting all the more because we bear much blame for the pattern of retribution. We wielded “majority rules” politics to try and roll back the excesses of the 1960s when the “Silent Majority” backed Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. And when that effort failed, the “Moral Majority” resurrected to bolster Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Even while winning our share of political battles, we lost the culture, so now we can’t even win the political battles. There is no going back. There is nothing left to recover. There is no majority to recover it anyway. There must be a better way.

Indeed, there is. Our situation does not differ altogether from the challenge endured by early Christians in the Roman Empire. By the standards of state religion, deemed essential to secure divine favor and battlefield victories, Christians were regarded as sacrilegious. ”[T]o many Romans, including some of society’s most influential citizens, Christians practiced an impious religion whose way of life was seditious and subversive of the commonweal,” Robert Louis Wilken writes in The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. So emperors, including the infamous Decius in AD 250, imposed mandatory pagan sacrifices designed to divide and conquer the small but growing Christian community. Though many Christians succumbed to the persecution—whether by death or by capitulation—the church grew in stature and number. 

Put to Shame

We face nothing approaching these threats. Yet we marvel at these resilient believers, memorialized in the remarkable testimony of martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage. Do we not worship the same God? Do we not read the same Scriptures? Do we not follow the same Jesus? Remember, Jesus was not faulted for his holiness. The Pharisees, accusing him of immorality, asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered his would-be judges, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:11-13).

We are not the moral majority. We are sick sinners. But neither can we remain silent. We shout good news about a Savior who wants more than morality from us. We do not shy away from the political process when we can enact and enforce laws that will serve the common good. Indeed, we seek common ground even with political opponents. But we do not argue on the basis of our numerical or moral superiority. We tread carefully knowing how sin inclines all of us to judgment and self-righteousness, whatever our politics. We all have blind spots. So neither lament nor activism ever outpaces our gratefulness for grace. Along with the apostle Paul, we say,

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:12-16)

These are your marching orders: lean on the “perfect patience” of Jesus so that through your example many might “believe in him for eternal life.” Dare to be immoral in society’s eyes for the sake of the kingdom. And return kindness for insults, “so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16).