Editors’ note: This year’s election season clearly revealed what many have long suspected: America is a deeply divided nation. What has caused this division? What is the way forward? How can evangelicals respond in a way that leads to healing and increased unity? The Gospel Coalition invited several writers and observers to explore those and related questions for an online symposium on the State of Evangelicalism.
Other articles in this series:
- #NeverTrumpers in the Age of Trump (Hunter Baker)
- What Persecuted Syrians Can Teach Us About American Politics (Mindy Belz)
- 4 Unique Perspectives on Politics (Mika Edmondson)
- Hope for America Despite Signs of Death (Greg Forster)
- 4 Suggestions for Post-Election Listening (Eric Redmond)
- Caught Between Doomsday Rhetoric and Changing Demographics (Mark Tooley)
- Raise Up a Transcendent Voice in a Partisan World (K. A. Ellis)
The past decade in American politics has caused evangelical Christians to realize the extent to which we have been decentered socially, culturally, and politically. While we have seen some incremental progress in our advocacy for the pro-life position, we are experiencing consistent regression on other significant issues, such as religious liberty, human dignity, race relations, gender, and sexuality. Perhaps most painfully, evangelicals ourselves are divided about the way forward, as this recent president election revealed.
Whether or not evangelicals are responsible for President-elect Trump’s surprising victory, we must now unify and minister in weakness as we follow our crucified Savior.
Christianity and the American Social Order
As the great American sociologist Philip Rieff (1922–2006) argued in My Life Among the Deathworks, the West in general and the United States in particular is in the midst of an unprecedented project to desacralize the social order. Civilizations have always understood social order to be shaped by sacred order. The latter always and necessarily funds the former by providing a world of meaning and a code of permissions and prohibitions. Sacred order leverages cultural institutions and products to translate its truths into the tangible realities of the social order. Thus culture makers and cultural products have served as middlemen between sacred order and social order, between God and society.
In the West, Christian monotheism provided the sacred foundation on which society was built, and gave individuals a place to stand. Virtue wasn’t just taught didactically but was embodied and imbued through cultural institutions—in such a way that it shaped the instinctual desires of each successive generation. Sacred order provided a powerful means of opposing social decadence.
But many of the most powerful culture-shapers in our present era aim to undo all of this history. No single election changes or reverses this long-term trend, which defies partisan divides. Leaders on the Left and Right alike seek to sever this sacred/social connection. Whereas Americans in the past sought to construct identity, character, and community from above, this era’s cultural elite (Rieff calls them “the officer class”) repudiate the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below.
Final Assault on Sacred Order
But this attempt to sever sacred from social is not possible. And it’s harmful.
It’s impossible because, as Rieff notes, “Culture and sacred order are inseparable. . . . No culture has ever preserved itself where there is not a registration of sacred order” (Deathworks, 13). And it’s deeply harmful because it induces in society a nihilism that rips up hope by its roots. As Rieff puts it, “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing” (12). For this reason, Rieff refers to many of this era’s cultural products as “deathworks”; instead of bringing life and vitality to society, they bring death and decay.
Our culture continues producing deathworks as a “final assault [on] the sacred orders” (7). The casualties have been heavy, Rieff avers: included among them are the notion of truth, the institution of marriage, and the definition of male and female.
In response to the realities Rieff describes, Christians may be tempted to retrieve the lost Christendom of a previous age, to regain their position of cultural power by “rewinding” our recent history. Many may hope President-elect Trump will deliver just this result. But we cannot turn back the clock. Instead of going back to the age of Christendom, we must move beyond the current moment in American history to enact a new moment in which sacred order once again underlies and funds social order. This new moment will not enact itself; it awaits a people who will speak and act responsibly.
Public Witness from Position of Weakness
But what does it look like for God’s people to speak and act responsibly when we’ve been decentered? When many Americans consider our doctrines and ethical framework not only wrong but morally reprehensible? Can we really minister to our culture from a position of weakness, even when many pollsters credit us with electing the new president?
We can, and we must. Instead of resenting our cultural moment, slouching into withdrawal, or charging into angry activism, evangelicals should accept the challenge of our era and serve our nation from a position of weakness, even if we seem to have power. After all, this is how the kingdom comes.
Our Lord reigns from a tree. As Lesslie Newbigin noted in Signs amid the Rubble, the Son of God’s first coming did not take the form of an ascendant political movement to replace political rulers with better ones. Instead, it took the form of a humiliating and painful crucifixion. When the risen Jesus said to the apostles, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he held out his hands to them, affirming that their public witness would also follow the way of the cross. If our Lord reigns from a tree, then we can minister from a tree.
If our Lord reigns from a tree, then we can minister from a tree.
Church Gathered as Political Assembly
When the crucified-but-risen Lord ascended, he left behind a new community, the church. The kingdom of God creates the community, and this community bears witness to the kingdom. The church is our God-given formation center for public witness to Christ’s kingdom. It is a political assembly. If we wish to serve our nation publicly we must eschew our often-casual relationship with the church.
The church is our God-given formation center for public witness to Christ’s kingdom. It is a political assembly. If we wish to serve our nation publicly we must eschew our often-casual relationship with the church.
The church’s “power” is not found primarily in its political activism, but in its proclamation of the gospel—a proclamation that challenges the cultus publicus of any nation, including our American Empire. By proclaiming that Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not), the church nourishes our political identity and foreshadows the day when the Lord will return to install a one-party system and reconstitute the world under a reign of justice and peace. Sunday morning public worship prepares us for Monday morning public life.
Church Scattered as Public Witnesses
So the roots of public righteousness are firmly planted in the soil of the church’s corporate worship and missional sending. But what are the public fruits of righteousness, especially in an era when culture’s powerbrokers on both sides of the political aisle reject the Christian vision for the common good? No matter how weak or strong our political position, we can provide a powerful public witness by (1) recentering God, (2) decentering ourselves, (3) reframing issues, and (4) revitalizing our cultural institutions.
1. Recentering God
In an era when many with cultural power wish to desacralize the public square, we must cultivate the type of public witness that calls attention back to the cosmic King. We must strengthen and enhance our confession that Jesus is Lord. We must find compelling ways to show that the biblical narrative—rather than the Fox News or MSNBC news narratives—is the true story of the whole world. We must be keen to identify the idols that haunt every modern political ideology, including liberalism, conservatism and progressivism, nationalism, and socialism.
We must find ways to make clear that our ultimate allegiance is to King Jesus, not to any particular political ideology, party, or platform. This is not to say that we cannot be active in political parties or supportive of political candidates. We can and often we should. But as we engage in politics, we must remember that all political commitments and affiliations are tentative in light of our loyalty to Jesus Christ. Occupants to Caesar’s throne come and go; Jesus remains forever.
Occupants to Caesar’s throne come and go; Jesus remains forever.
2. Decentering Self
Any attempt to recenter God must be accompanied by decentering the self. We must “seek the good of the city” (Jer. 29:5–7), not just the good of our own tribe. Evangelicals should be the heart and strength of every good movement of social, cultural, and political effort. We should be the first to work on behalf of persons and groups who are financially disadvantaged, ethnically downtrodden, or social marginalized. Our love for Christ and our neighbors demand it.
We must be concerned not only with the truth content of our moral and political stances, but also with the way in which we communicate them. As an antidote to the toxic nature of American public discourse, we must refuse to mock and demean our opponents, to purposely misrepresent them, to demonize them, or to question their motives unfairly. It is a deep and ugly irony when we purport to represent a gospel of grace but articulate our views in ways that are profoundly un-gracious.
3. Reframing Issues
When we give our ultimate allegiance to Christ alone, we are liberated to reframe divisive public issues in light of the gospel. For example, the gospel reframes our approach to money by revealing that it’s neither our savior nor our security, and by propelling us to be radically generous to the economically disadvantaged. Likewise, it reframes our approach to power by causing us—counterintuitively—to lovingly serve and empower others by decentering ourselves.
As Tim Keller often reminds us, this gospel-centered reframing will break the ability of our fellow Americans to dismiss the church as a special interest group beholden to a political party. The church will be able to regain the distinctiveness and clarity and strength of her voice by viewing public issues in light of Jesus and his gospel.
4. Revitalizing Culture
Amid a society of cultural “deathworks,” evangelicals must work to revitalize public institutions and renew cultural realities in such a way that we help shape the instincts and imaginations of future generations. Christ-centered cultural labors are a powerful means of opposing social and political decadence. And we need not hold all the levers of power to create life-giving culture.
In our efforts to revitalize culture, we should play the long game and take the broad view. We should play the long game by not putting all our hopes in short-term political activism, even when successful. Short-term activism has its place, but its power to influence is limited and often tempts us to sacrifice long-term witness on the altar of short-term political gain. And we should take the broad view by working faithfully to renew every dimension and institution of culture—not merely politics, but also marriage and family, the arts and sciences, scholarship and education, and business and entrepreneurship. Our political witness will only gain more plausibility from such a unified witness.
Short-term activism has its place, but its power to influence is limited and it often tempts us to sacrifice long-term witness on the altar of short-term political gain.
We do this work, not to win, but to follow our Lord in obedient witness. We cannot transform culture in any comprehensive or enduring manner; only Jesus can do that, and our efforts are emboldened by the assurance that one day he will. If our efforts are successful, they serve as previews of his coming kingdom. But even if we see no tangible success in our attempts, while we may be disappointed, we will not be dismayed. No labor for Christ is finally fruitless.
The way of the cross is prophetic; just as Jesus declared that he is Lord and Caesar is not, so we must challenge the cultus publicus of the American Empire. The way of the cross is sacrificial; just as Jesus ministered as a homeless itinerant teacher, we must be willing to serve our nation from a position of weakness rather than power, and in the face of disapproval instead of applause. The way of the cross is humbly confident; the realm of politics will one day be raised to life, made to bow to the King. Since Jesus will gain victory and restore the earth, we remain confident. And since it will be his victory, we remain humble.
When our Lord returns victorious, we will we meet him first and foremost as Christians. But we will also meet him as 21st-century Americans. Being American is not the most important aspect of our identity, but it is an inescapable aspect and one for which we will give account. For that reason, we owe it to our nation to embrace the call as public witnesses, whether in temporary power or weakness. In the example of our crucified Savior, we must minister from a tree until the day when our Lord reigns visibly from a throne.