This is the last in a series on the rise of the neo–Religious Right, in which I’ve sought to explain and describe some of the historical and contemporary features of this movement, as well as some cautions and concerns I have for younger evangelicals going forward. (A full list of the previous columns is provided below.) In this final installment, I’d like to offer a potpourri of additional thoughts that may aid us in a time when we need truthful witness in the public square.
1. Don’t overestimate the power of politics.
First, let’s make sure that in all the talk about culture warring and culture engaging we do not prioritize the political sphere of life to the exclusion of other important parts of the good life. Government is important, but it is not god. As gospel-centered evangelicals, we must “dethrone” politics. We must value the political sphere but put it in its proper place. Indeed, politics is not ultimate. This recognition is essential for truthful witness in the public square.
In this way, let’s make sure we don’t so focus on Washington, DC, and the drama glowing on our social media apps that we forget our callings. We are called to be members of communities, and we must serve those communities and be exemplary citizens. We are called to marriages and families, and we must cultivate healthy relationships within them. We are called to local churches, and we must exercise faithful and meaningful membership. We are called to workplaces (located in various spheres of culture like business, education, science, technology, art, law, politics, or hospitality), and we must fulfill our vocations in ways that honor Christ.
In other words, we must not shy away from truthful witness in the political sphere, but our political witness must not outmatch or be overshadowed by our witness in all these other spheres, and the impact of these other areas should not be underestimated.
2. Play the political “long game.”
It can take years for political change to happen. I’m reading the new book from Matthew Continetti, The Right, which traces the modern conservative movement from its origins a century ago to the present. One of the takeaways is just how much time it takes for ideas to move forward in society, and how networks and think tanks and finding the right messenger are all vital in seeing political change take place.
Amid today’s culture wars, we must beware the temptation to compromise our convictions in order to attain a short-term win for our chosen political party. We can so convince ourselves that now is the crucial moment, and this is the most important election in our lifetime (something I’ve heard every four years my entire life) that we hand over our birthright for a mess of pottage. Political parties and leaders must earn their keep, and be willing to accept our constructive criticisms, if they wish for our full support. Political parties should be made aware that they cannot expect our full-throated approval or our vote simply because of their party affiliation.
3. Stand out by being unflinchingly fair-minded.
Truthful witness requires truthfulness, so we must avoid the temptation to cast our political opponents in the worst possible light. When we criticize the ideas of someone on the other side of a political issue, it’s important to find the common ground or basis for that criticism, to show that we may agree on the same concerns but differ when it comes to solutions. Often, this makes it possible to affirm our opponents’ aims, even while forcefully opposing their proposals. (This doesn’t always work, as in some cases, there’s even difference on what aims we should pursue. But most of the time, simply differentiating between aims and solutions and recognizing the good intentions of an opponent would bring a healthy new atmosphere to our politics.)
Unfortunately, instead of being fair, it’s all too common for culture warriors to find the moronic or terrible things the worst actors on the other side of the aisle have said—to go “nut-picking” and then react to that craziness. Over time, you give the impression that whatever badness you see in the nutcases is just part and parcel of anyone on that side, and then you fail the second commandment because, while you want to be distinguished from the crazies on your side, you purposefully tar people on the other side with all their party’s worst examples.
4. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
As Christians, we can easily be duped into thinking that those who give us time and attention really care about the same things we care about. Most of the time, this is not the case. You’re fooling yourself if, for example, you think the Republican Party today is going to be some kind of bulwark against the excesses of the sexual revolution, or that the Democrats seek to implement policies that will end up “reducing abortion.”
Whether or not we decide to adopt a “winsome” approach, we should above all seek to be wise, and part of wisdom is in recognizing the incentives for political parties to colonize the church for their own gain. Partisanship has its place for people called to serve in the public square, but we are first and foremost members of a kingdom that spans the globe, rather than card carriers for the agendas of donkeys or elephants.
5. Keep the open hand and closed fist.
Finally, consider Os Guinness’s description of the early church’s two approaches to making a defense for the Christian faith: persuasoria (the way of the “open hand,” which involves creativity, finding common ground, winsomeness, etc.) and dissuasoria (the way of the “closed fist,” which involves tough-minded defenses of Christianity, tearing down ideological strongholds, etc.). God’s people must use both approaches simultaneously.
In recent conversations online, it seems that Christians have been reacting in ways that emphasize either one or the other, rather than holding them both together. Some believe the previous generation has been too open-handed and too reticent to slam the fist, and perhaps that critique is appropriate, at least on some issues. But the response must ever and always seek to find that proper way of standing against the world for the good of the world, holding together both elements of truthful witness, in dialogue and debate with brothers and sisters across the country and around the world.
So, in everything, let’s give space and grace to believers who may approach some of these matters in different ways. We’re in uncharted territory as we head into an increasingly post-Christian environment. Assume the best of your brothers and sisters trying to figure out what faithfulness looks like. And trust that God is going to make the most of all our bungling attempts at truthful witness, that he will fulfill his plan and build his church. Negative world or not, no weapon formed against his people will stand.
This is the ninth column in an ongoing series. If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.
1. The Return of the Culture War
2. The Tearing Apart of Convictional Civility
3. Navigating the (New?) Negative World
4. Didn’t I Grow Up in the Negative World?
5. We Need to Complicate the Negative World
6. Let’s Contextualize Tim Keller
7. Encouragement and Caution for Culture Warriors
8. Truthful Witness in the Public Square
9. Five Quick Takes for New Culture Wars