Something has changed in the air of evangelicalism in recent years. Once-aspirational words like “winsome” and “thoughtful” or descriptors like “nuanced” and “kind” now trigger an attitude of dismissiveness and sneering from many on the right.
For some, these words describe a mindset too focused on currying favor with the world. It’s too accommodating to engage in this way with the “cultural elites” whose leftward politics wreak havoc in society. The “winsome” may have good intentions, according to this view, but their attitude and actions demonstrate an extraordinary naïveté in relation to politics and cultural change.
How did we get to the point where some Christians spurn civility? In my previous column, I offered a brief look at the rise of a “neo–Religious Right” and explained why some younger evangelicals thirst for a more confrontational approach to engaging the culture. Today, I want to dig a little deeper into the reasons why some have repudiated a more evangelistically front-facing, pastoral posture to culture change and now call for a more combative, political approach.
Winsomeness Doesn’t Win
Why do words like “nuance” and “winsome” receive sneers from some on the right today? Because the strategies these descriptors represent are seen by many as having failed. Society is changing quickly, and not favorably toward Christianity.
Christians have experienced a rapid shift in which traditional Christianity has been downgraded from respectable to reprehensible. For example, in 2008, Rick Warren prayed at President Obama’s inauguration. Just four years later, Louie Giglio—who shares roughly the same theological framework and approach—was deemed too controversial to do the same. When prominent, well-regarded pastors, such as Max Lucado and Tim Keller, are seen as hateful and bigoted (with Keller even having an award rescinded), how can anyone be so naive to think that “thoughtfulness” or “winsomeness” can earn the right to a hearing?
Younger evangelicals recognize instinctively that no amount of goodwill or winsomeness will create warm feelings among those who claim Christian moral teaching is repressive and harmful. Christians don’t win a hearing by “playing nice.” And so, we’re told, the need of the hour is to be forthright, bold, and confrontational. The culture war is upon us, and we need to stand up and fight.
2 Approaches to Life in Babylon
Although we can spot similarities, we shouldn’t assume younger evangelicals are picking up the same playbook as the old religious right. Unlike our parents and grandparents, most of us agree that we’re in Babylon, not Israel. The difference is in how best to live as exiles in Babylon.
For a generation now, many evangelicals have assumed we’re a moral minority living in a world that is, if not hostile, at least barely tolerant of our views. Over the years, the prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the Babylonian exiles (Jer. 29) has been the go-to text for helping us live faithfully in these times.
“Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. . . . Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.” (vv. 5–7, CSB)
In other words, remember, Christian, that you are not “at home.” Your task is to live faithfully, to increase in number, and to pursue the well-being of Babylon, praying to the Lord on behalf of the city while you seek its flourishing. That’s the way many evangelical pastors and leaders engaged this cultural moment.
But there’s another way of looking at how to be faithful in Babylon—and it requires us not merely to pursue the well-being of the city, but to expose its idolatrous, tyrannical facade. After all, that’s what Augustine did in The City of God. That’s why you find an increasing number of younger evangelicals saying it’s time to be like Daniel—to stand in the window and pray publicly, no matter what earthly rules we transgress or tyrants we cross. To be like the captives who refused the king’s meat. To defy the command to bow to the statue.
Pulling Apart Conviction and Civility
Rightly understood, these two postures do not have to be in conflict.
The confrontational types would say defiance is precisely the way we pursue the well-being of the city, and the winsome types would say there’s no better example of convictional kindness than the attitude on display in Daniel and his friends. And both sides make a good point. This is what David Dockery calls convictional civility, and it’s what we should all aspire to, whether you think the emphasis today should be placed on civility or on conviction in terms of your posture.
Unfortunately, what happens (often online) is that the kindness aspect of convictional civility gets reframed as “weakness” and “accommodation,” or the convictional aspect gets viewed as “hateful” or “mean-spirited.” The result is a pulling apart of two camps—a vicious polarization—so that conviction and kindness get pitted against one another. Those who emphasize the need to be civil and peaceable begin to shy away from stating with boldness their convictions (so as not to appear like those mean-spirited jerks) and those who emphasize the need for boldness and confrontation move away from kindness and respect (so as not to appear wishy-washy or convictionless). Each camp then cheers on the worst impulses of its side.
What happens next? Well, just as it’s easy for those who emphasize civility to slide into relativism or compromise, it’s possible for those who emphasize confrontation to move from an attitude of respectful defiance to a posture of ill-will or a quest for dominance. In such an instance, the goal is no longer faithfulness in refusing to bend the knee but instead taking control of the levers of power in order to coerce or “defeat” our “enemies.” It assumes the political landscape is ground zero for cultural change and Christians must win at all costs. There are reasons why this road is attractive right now, and we’ll look more closely at this trend in future columns.
A Few Takeaways
I do not have simple answers as to how to extricate ourselves from this mess, but there are several takeaways I hope we can all acknowledge.
First, winsomeness is not a political strategy. We do not seek to be kind and gentle merely as a strategy for winning over our neighbors to our point of view. We seek these characteristics because our Lord commands and exemplifies them. Kindness is a fruit of the spirit.
Secondly, in different seasons of cultural change, the church can and should shift its public posture. We fool ourselves if we think that only one of the typical postures (Christ “above” culture, or Christ “against” culture) will fit all times and circumstances.
Third, some Christians may be temperamentally inclined to a particular posture, while others may be more gifted in displaying different virtues necessary for faithfulness. We should not insist on a cookie-cutter approach to cultural engagement. The idea of a one-size-fits-all approach in the United States of America is ridiculous; we live in a country with various cultures and subcultures. We should listen to and learn from leaders who may demonstrate different approaches depending on their context.
Fourth, we should all be conscious of different avenues toward compromise. It’s true that the greater danger for “winsome” and “thoughtful” pastors might be to compromise Christian convictions out of desire to win favor with left-leaning cultural influencers and political activists. It’s also true that the danger of “confrontational” and “combative” pastors and leaders will be to compromise Christian convictions and characteristics out of a desire to curry favor with right-leaning “culture warriors”—to dismiss or downplay common Christian decency or disregard our Lord’s commands so as to look like a “fighter” and garner the respect of others in the political battle. No one is immune to the temptation to win the favor of the world; the question is, Which group’s favor would be more likely to cause you to compromise your convictions, and in what way?
Next up, we’ll look at Aaron Renn’s “Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” which seeks to describe the changing cultural moment and why younger evangelicals are responding differently than previous generations.
This is the second 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