Evangelicals have sold the birthright of the gospel for the porridge of political power!

You’ve probably heard statements like this from from people concerned about political polarization—leaders frustrated by the inability of evangelical Christians to bust out of the boxes of political tribalism and transcend the rancor of the moment.

Sometimes, this criticism has been justified. Over the years I lived in Eastern Europe, the more serious compromises of American evangelicals who adopted an overly politicized faith became increasingly visible to me—compromises I’d never noticed before, having never been outside the American context.

Today, the partisanship has grown worse and, contrary to the popular narrative that it’s primarily conservative Christians who remain bound to their political agendas, research shows that Christians with progressive politics can be even more partisan. It’s ironic to see Christian leaders who (often rightly) chastise evangelicals for being in bed with Republicans launch that accusation from the bed they share with Democrats.

Faithful Presence in the Red States

The polarization of American Christianity makes me wonder if the frequent concerns voiced about Christianity’s public witness are motivated not so much by the grace of God and the glory of the gospel but by embarrassment at evangelicals who are insufficiently docile toward elite secular opinion.

Could it be that some of the leaders who express concern about Christianity’s public witness and reject political proposals they believe stand in the way of people receiving the gospel are just as tribal as the Christians they criticize?

Much of the talk about “missional reach” and “cultural engagement” and “faithful presence” assumes people are seeking to be faithful in post-Christian secular blue parts of the country. And that makes sense, considering the secularizing trends and leftward drift of younger generations.

But what does “cultural engagement” look like in the redder than red areas of the United States, where missional presence is more likely to take place at McDonald’s than the high-end coffee shop? Places where the culture’s post-Christian tableau is painted in the shades of the post-Christian-right? Red states where a preacher’s loud and vociferous opposition to the Republican platform or the policies of the previous president would also cost something in terms of “public witness”?

The Double Standard

The assumption of some of today’s leaders most concerned about Christianity’s reputation is that taking a public stand against immorality and godlessness on the right is necessary, no matter the cost. But would the same critics who advocate a prophetic posture in the red states tell the preacher in the bluest areas of the country to be a consistent and vocal opponent of politicians and policies that result in the destruction of unborn life, or the redefinition of marriage, or the distortion of the body in service to new definitions of “sexual freedom”? I fear not.

Why is this the case? Why the double standard? Why do some leaders recommend a pastoral tone and a deferential spirit regarding politics in blue states but demand a prophetic edge and political distancing in red states? Perhaps because the waves of partisan polarization have swept up even legitimate concerns about our witness to the wider world. Even conversations about our public witness in politics too often imply a political preference.

Seeing Through the Claims

Rightly understood, concern over Christianity’s public witness should be rooted in the conviction that aligning our faith too closely to any political party, especially in a way that makes it instrumental to some cause or another (no matter how righteous), will ultimately damage our testimony. Unfortunately, too often the concern over Christianity’s public witness seems rooted in something more like embarrassment: those kinds of evangelicals are making us all look bad. We’re not rubes, believe me! In the latter case, the deeper concern is not really about Christianity at all, but about distancing oneself from the evangelical “rabble” in order to better fit in, or at least not be too out of step with a society marching in whatever progressive direction many elite power brokers prefer.

Legitimate concerns about the future of Christianity and the state of our Christian witness must arise from a kingdom-oriented faith that breaks free from the political categorizations of the moment. Our public witness does matter. We are to care about what outsiders say of us and our faith. Peter made it clear in his first letter that we should seek to maintain a good name, through how we live and interact in the world as exiles.

Should we care about how we are perceived? Absolutely. But should our actions and words be driven solely by how we are perceived? Never. In the latter case, we will succumb to the temptation of diminishing our distinctiveness, or distancing ourselves from brothers and sisters whose political calculations differ, or excusing compromise or complicity with injustice in order to achieve short-term political gains.

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