Here’s something you often hear people say as they get older: “I remember the last time that was popular.” Fashions once considered outdated come back in style. Movements arise and subside, and then surge again. A benefit of age is the wisdom and perspective you bring to the current moment. History doesn’t always repeat itself or move in predictable cyclical patterns, but the more you study it and the longer you live, the more you see how the present and the past rhyme.
I must be getting older, because ever since I turned 40 last year, I’ve said several times, “I remember the last time that was popular.” Most recently, I’ve been saying that about online debates over the proper posture for Christians seeking to engage the culture in this era. I see the resurgence of a neo–Religious Right—a return of the culture war mentality among many younger evangelicals who believe the need of the hour is for the church to jump into the fray of hardball politics and be bolder and louder in opposing leftward trends that are harmful for society.
I say “neo–Religious Right” because it’s not exactly the return of the Jerry Falwell era, and there are some crucial differences that set today’s thirst for culture warring apart from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. We’ll get to some of those distinctions soon.
My History with the Religious Right
But this resurgence has piqued my interest because I came of age in the 1990s. My parents were part of the religious right. They followed state and national politics closely and got involved in local elections, with my father serving two terms on the city council. I remember the night of the 1994 midterms and the Gingrich-led “Contract with America.” In those crucial years of adolescence, Rush was on the radio, Jerry Falwell was sending out videos replete with right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories, Southern Baptists were boycotting Disney because of the company’s leftist agenda, men were gathering in Washington, DC, for Promise Keepers, and the character flaws of Bill Clinton were on full display (and worthy of our disgust).
Fighting for the soul of the country—the culture war mentality—was the demonstration of faithfulness. Churches were asleep, and Christians apathetic. It was time to wake up. The moment was urgent. As Carman sang in 1992, “The only way this nation can even hope to last this decade is to put God in America again!”
Historians debate the zenith of the religious right. Was it in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment? The 1990s when Bill Clinton was impeached? Or the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, when voters made clear their disapproval of same-sex marriage? Whatever the case, the “moral majority” exerted considerable influence on politics and culture during these decades.
An Apolitical Counterpoint
At the same time as many pastors and church leaders sought to bring their convictions into the public square, a countermovement was taking place, most notably in the rise of megachurches and the “church growth movement.” Evangelism was front and center for these congregations. Emphasizing politics made it harder to reach people with varying philosophical and political commitments. Political posturing was divisive and counterproductive; even worse, it distracted from the church’s main mission of winning people to Jesus.
Another countermovement also existed—the religious left, though it was never as large or influential as the religious right. Leaders in this group often chastised white evangelicals for their political idolatry, but too often the religious left was just a mirror image of the kind of engagement they so despised—the only difference being the political priorities and positions aligned with the left rather than the right. As the Emerging Church movement got going in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of the leaders who distanced themselves from the political postures of the right wound up walking in lockstep with partisans on the left.
By the time the Emerging Church conversation was at its height and evangelicals were cheering the Iraq War, I was a student at an evangelical university in Eastern Europe. My perspective on American politics had shifted considerably—not away from an underlying conservative political philosophy (which I continue to espouse), but due to my encounters with global Christianity, a wider range of reading, familiarity with different churches seeking to be faithful in various contexts, and seeing the American culture wars from the outside. Much of the attention the American church devoted to politics seemed wildly misplaced and misguided, out of step with churches in many other parts of the world.
So, I gravitated toward stronger distinctions that would help the church maintain its priority on discipleship and evangelism: (1) distinguishing between the church as an institution and Christians as individual believers and (2) prioritizing the mission of the church over the implications of Christians living out their faith. I tried to understand the cultural and historical reasons why many black Christians and white Christians who share confessional unity could be so divided on political priorities. I lamented the intrusion of political debates into every sphere of life.
Gospel Centrality and Mission
The gospel-centered movement that arose in the late 2000s and into the 2010s was, in part, an answer to the Emerging Church movement, whose aversion to institutions and authority prevented it from building structures that could sustain its growth. Look at the foundational documents for The Gospel Coalition (written in 2006) and you get a glimpse of the challenges facing the church during that era, including postmodernism’s effects on how we interpret Scripture.
The gospel-centered movement was also an answer to the prevalence of church growth philosophy. Leaders decried overly pragmatic approaches in the church, shared concerns about the decline of serious doctrinal instruction, and sought to reestablish the priority of the gospel itself as the unifying force for evangelicalism and the renewal of the church.
Gospel centrality, by nature of its spotlight on the fundamental message of Christianity, cut against the focus of many religious right–influenced churches. Political disagreements remained, but they were demoted. The excesses of the moral majority’s approach to politics were on display, and younger pastors turned away from that combative posture (although sometimes replacing cultural combat with intramural theological combativeness—commonly regarded as “cage-stage Calvinism”).
Synergy showed up in the gospel-centered movement and the missional conversations at the time because both rejected the politicizing of the church so often seen in the religious right as well as the leftward theological drift of the Emerging Church and religious left. This alliance made sense because the gospel and mission naturally go together, as the good news we spread is about the missionary heart of a God who seeks and saves the lost.
From Israel to Babylon
During this time, the old guard of the religious right appeared as more of a caricature of its former glory, with increasingly bizarre viewpoints put forth by gray heads with unmerited cultural confidence. For many younger pastors, the whole idea of “taking back” the country from godless forces felt like a lost cause. If older evangelicals thought of America as a type of Israel—a country chosen by God for special purposes in the world, younger evangelicals saw the country as a type of Babylon—a place where the true church will, for the foreseeable future, be a “moral minority,” prophetic from the margins.
The Israel/Babylon motif has shaped recent generational approaches to political involvement. The old religious right, in thinking of America as a type of Israel, reacted to current events as a betrayal of Christian heritage and prioritized politics as the mechanism for effecting change in society. Younger evangelicals, in thinking of America as Babylon, reacted to current events with a sense of resignation and prioritized pastoral help and counsel in a rapidly secularizing society.
But then, in the span of less than a decade, a series of convulsions reshaped the landscape. The Supreme Court decision redefining marriage for all 50 states in 2015, the rapid loss of political will to enact conscience protections and ensure religious liberty, and then the surprising victory of Donald Trump in 2016 (brought about by a resurgent religious right and widespread white evangelical support) changed the environment. The push for acceptance of gender theories that require a certain suspension of disbelief (not to mention the suppression of speech defining reality) only exacerbated the tensions.
Faithful in Babylon
The Israel/Babylon motif doesn’t capture the concerns of this current moment. The neo–Religious Right agrees with younger evangelicals that we’re in Babylon. The debate is about how the church should respond to this environment. What does faithfulness in Babylon look like?
The earlier sense of resignation, of being passive in the face of rapid political change, has come under fire from many younger pastors and leaders who believe this cultural moment calls for a rejection of the excesses of old religious right and the apolitical “above the fray” response so often on display among the leaders of the church growth and gospel-centered movements. You cannot focus on discipleship, they say, without dealing with politics because faithfulness in the public square is a part of discipleship. Overreacting to the religious right’s problems has led to a widespread failure in addressing political questions in discipleship, creating a void that leaves the church vulnerable to all kinds of false ideologies.
History is rhyming again, and so we’re witnessing the rise of a neo–Religious Right that seeks to recapture something of that movement’s focus on political priorities while connecting political thought to Christian discipleship. In forthcoming columns, I want to give some attention to this new development and then offer suggestions for how these resurgent culture-warring sensibilities can be properly channeled so as to result in a stronger church, without the collateral damage often associated with these kinds of battles. More to come.
This is the first column in a 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