Volume 42 - Issue 3

Tayloring Christian Politics in Our Secular Age

By Bruce Riley Ashford


Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age explores the implications of Western civilization’s transition to a modern secular age in which theistic belief has not only been displaced from the default position, but is positively contested by various other options. It is merely one option among many, and an implausible and unimaginable one at that. Building on Taylor’s analysis, Christians have a unique opportunity to reimagine our political witness in light of our secular age, reframe public issues, reform public dispositions, reshape political activism, and recover the lost art of Christian persuasion.

The contemporary era in Western civilization represents a radical desacralizing of the social order, unprecedented in human history.1 The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it as a “world come of age,” an era in which we have learned how to manage life without any reference to God.2 American sociologist Philip Rieff referred to it as the third era in human history, an era in which sacred order has been severed from the social and cultural order, leaving Westerners without a matrix of meaning or an obligatory code of permissions and prohibitions.3

But it is perhaps the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor who, more than any other, has explored the implications of Western society’s transition to a modern secular age. Although his analysis and evaluation can be found in a number of significant works, including Sources of the Self, The Malaise of Modernity, and Modern Social Imaginaries, it crystallizes and peaks in A Secular Age.4

Here he describes our secular age as one that considers belief in God implausible or unimaginable.5 As modern Westerners, we live entirely within an “immanent” frame of reference. In the immanent frame, theistic belief not only been displaced from the default position, but is positively contested by myriad other options. It is merely one option among many—and an implausible and unimaginable one at that.

This new context brings with it a new “feel” in which theists and non-theists alike are haunted by doubt. Within the immanent frame, we search for meaning, and find an explosion of different options. As a result we are “fragilized”; surrounded by competing options in close proximity to ourselves, we lack confidence in our own beliefs. We are “cross-pressured”; caught between the modern disenchantment of the world and the haunting of transcendence, we find ourselves in perpetual unease.

But none of this would have happened, Taylor avers, without a political shift in which the West cast off strong forms of sacral authority and embraced a generic sort of “natural” religion. Natural religion was unencumbered by Christianity’s code of permissions and prohibitions, and weakened or blocked out some of the ways Christianity had historically impinged on society and the public square.6

In a secular age such as ours, Taylor argues, Christians should avoid the error of secular humanists and Christian fundamentalists—namely, presenting our views with a smug condescension. Instead, we should present our faith humbly and sensitively to our cross-pressured and fragilized neighbors, suggesting that Christianity provides the key to human flourishing, moral transformation, and the unease caused by realities such as time and death. In short, we should allow Christian wisdom and virtue to animate our lives and shape our response.

Taylor’s account of modernity is richly suggestive and helpful for Christians who recognize that the gospel is a public truth that therefore must be brought into an interface with secularized society and culture.7 It’s helpful in particular for Christians who wish to make Christianity “imaginable” again in Western politics and public life. Just as the West arrived at the current moment via a political shift in which the West desacralized the public square was sacralized, so must we move beyond this moment by appropriately resacralizing our involvement in public life.

Politics is the art of persuading our fellow citizens—including elected officials—about matters of common concern. As Christians, we want to “win over” others to our point of view on public matters. The gospel is a public truth, and we want it to prevail appropriately on public life. The early church preached the gospel in a way that sacralized the public square and exposed the Roman kingdom as a fraud. How can we do the same in our own context? How can we make the Christian gospel once again plausible and imaginable in our fragilized and cross-pressured era?

As Taylor argues, we cannot offer a merely intellectual remedy. If we wish to make the gospel once again imaginable in our liberal society, we must offer a storied community who embodies its truth. And the church is this community, whose confession and members can make Christianity imaginable again. It alone can reintroduce strong forms of sacral authority, offer a narrative that reimagines public life, reveal a code of permissions and prohibitions that can cause society to flourish, and cultivate the virtues and dispositions that speak to a fragilized and cross-pressured society.

1. Church Gathered as Organized Political Assembly

In his essay “To Follow a Rule,” Taylor expands on an allusion he makes in A Secular Age against intellectualist accounts of public life that view “reason giving” as the end-all and be-all for justifying our beliefs and persuading others. Following Wittgenstein and Bourdieu, he argues that “reason giving has a limit, and in the end must repose in another kind of understanding.”8 Especially in a fragilized and cross-pressured context, reason-giving must be placed on the background of active and adroit bodily engagement with others and the world.

Taylor’s argument is consonant with biblical teaching that the local church is a community whose weekly gathering and liturgy embodies the gospel.9 One ought not diminish the centrality of the local church for public witness. When Christ ascended in bodily form, he left a new community to embody the gospel for the good of the world. This community is intrinsically political as it assembles weekly, gathering around the confession that the risen and ascended Christ is King. It nourishes our Christian identity and sends us out as public witnesses to Christ’s kingdom. It incubates the dispositions and virtues that advance the common good.10 In this way the church serves as a formation center for public righteousness.11

The church should recognize that its political “power” is not found primarily in 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, by implication, that Caesar is not), it nourishes our political identity and foreshadows the day when the King will return to install a one-party system and reconstitute the world under a reign of justice and peace.

Sunday morning public worship, then, prepares us for Monday morning public life.

2. Church Scattered as Organic Public Witness

The church’s political witness is rooted in the soil of the church’s corporate worship, but branches out to bear fruit far beyond the corporate gathering. Our corporate confession of Jesus’s lordship causes us to reimagine the political, reframe public issues, reform public dispositions, reshape political activism, and recover the lost art of persuasion. Each of these fruits nourishes a secular age starving for transcendence.12

2.1. Reimagining the Political

In A Secular Age, Taylor explores the complicated relation between Christianity and democratic liberalism in the Western political imagination. On the one hand, liberalism grew out of Christian belief and practice and continues to borrow capital from the Christian tradition. On the other hand, liberalism has increasingly distorted that tradition, even while drawing on it.13

Instead of positing an intrinsic antithesis between Christianity and liberal democracy, or between Christianity and any given modern political ideology, we should draw on the biblical narrative to help reshape the Western political imagination. God is always sending his people (e.g. Gen. 1; Matt. 28), preparing us to bring the gospel into an interface with new contextual realities. The church is always drawing us into worship to nourish our mission-political identity so that it can send us back into the world. Why would the disputed space of free markets, political elections, and public policies be an exception to our missional mandate?

In our secular age, therefore, we must cultivate the type of public witness that recovers the contours of the gospel’s political vision—and then brings that vision into a “missionary encounter” with late-modern liberal democracy’s political vision.14 We must find compelling ways to show that the biblical narrative—rather than the narrative of our preferred political party, public intellectual, or media outlet—is the true story of the whole world.15 We must be keen to identify the idols that haunt modern political ideologies.16 We must make clear, not only through spoken word but also through embodied habit, that our political affiliations and commitments are tentative in light of our allegiance to Christ. We are a people who believe occupants to Caesar’s throne come and go, but Jesus remains forever.

2.2. Reframing Public Issues and Reforming Public Dispositions

Taylor describes the value our secular age places on human flourishing, yet notes that the secular vision for flourishing is stunted, having no transcendent source and no further purpose. In fact, an increasing number of public intellectuals do not merely lack a transcendent source; they urge our society to view “transcendent” morality as something that poisons society and undermines human flourishing.

In response, the Christian community has an opportunity to show how Christianity’s transcendent vision not only provides the context within which society can flourish, but how it also does so better than rival visions. Following the lead of patristic fathers such as Augustine and modern intellectuals such as Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper, we can argue theologically and philosophically that the “immanent frame” always and necessarily absolutizes some aspect of created reality and, in so doing, distorts cultural institutions and deforms society. We can substantiate our arguments by drawing on social scientists such as Philip Rieff and Robert Putnam to explore the ruinous effects of the “immanent frame” on specific cultural institutions and social goods such as marriage and family, sexuality, art, literature, education, and the economy.

Additionally, we can explore crippling effects of the “immanent frame” on the notion of public morality itself. Historically, all societies have justified moral codes by means of an outside source, but in an unprecedented move, modern Western society has reduced morality to self-authorization.17 This brings about an ironic situation: our secular age is increasingly concerned with moral permissions and prohibitions, but decreasingly able to justify them.18 This causes problems politically both in terms of public policy-making and civil demeanor, as citizens cannot articulate why “the other” should submit to their self-authorized moral code. Taylor calls this the “extraordinary inarticulacy of modern culture.”19 Referring to this inarticulacy, Tim Keller writes that we find ourselves in a situation in which “all we can do is shout the other person down.”20

Finally, in a public square in which citizens are shouting each other down, we must build churches and communities that incubate Christian virtue. For example, Taylor bemoans the egocentric disposition fostered by our secular age—a disposition of “mutual display” and “confident smugness” in which we use every medium available to express ourselves loudly so others will overhear.21 In response, the church, by God’s grace, can inculcate in us a cruciform disposition of humility in which we use our gifts and resources to serve and empower others. If our Lord—the King of the universe—was willing to serve as a homeless itinerant teacher whose life was crushed on a cross, then we can be willing to work on behalf of persons and groups who are financially disadvantaged, ethnically downtrodden, or socially marginalized. If our Lord turned the other cheek to his tormenters, then we can refuse to respond in kind when we are mocked, demeaned, purposely misrepresented, or demonized.

2.3. Reshaping Political Activism and Recovering the Lost Art of Persuasion

Over the course of the past half-century, many American evangelicals have put their eggs in the basket of short-term political activism—with the emphasis on the political and the short-term. Often operating out of what Taylor calls a Secular¹ or Secular² mentality, we reduced culture to politics, and politics to short-term activism, assuming a large part of the remedy to our social and cultural ills lies in a quick political fix.22 Repeatedly, we’ve treated each presidential election or mid-term election as the one that—despite all historical evidence to the contrary—will finally deliver our hopes and ease our fears.

In response, the Christian community needs to draw on Kuyper and others to cast a vision in which culture is not reduced to politics. We should take the broad view of cultural influence by working faithfully to renew every dimension of culture—not merely politics, but marriage, family, art, science, business, and education. Our political witness—especially in a Secular³ context—will gain plausibility from a unified and faithful presence in society’s many spheres. Additionally, we need to play the long game by not putting all of our hopes in short-term power political power plays. Short-term activism has its place, but its ability to shape society and culture is limited, and it can tempt us to sacrifice long-term witness on the altar of short-term political gain.

As we take the broad view of culture and play the long game of sustainable public witness, we are seeking to recover, as Os Guinness puts it, “the lost art of Christian persuasion.” In the decades and centuries immediately after our Lord’s ascension, the church used two symbols for the art of Christian advocacy: the closed fist and the open hand. The closed fist represented dissuasoria, the negative side of apologetics that defends against attack. The open hand represented persuasoria, the positive side of apologetics that uses intellectual, aesthetic, and relational creativity in defense of the gospel. “Expressing the love and compassion of Jesus, and using eloquence, creativity, imagination, humor, and irony, open-hand apologetics had the task of helping to pray open hearts and minds that, for a thousand reasons, had long grown resistant to God’s great grace, so that it could shine like the sun.”23

We must regain this lost art of persuasion in the midst of our radically unprecedented cross-pressured and fragilized age. Lesslie Newbigin’s exhortation is prescient:

The call to the Church is to enter vigorously into the struggle for truth in the public domain. We cannot look for the security which would be ours in a restored Christendom. Nor can we continue to accept the security which is offered in an agnostic pluralism.… We are called, I think, to bring our faith into the public arena, to publish it, to put it at risk in the encounter with other faiths and ideologies in open debate and argument, and in the risky business of discovering what Christian obedience means in radically new circumstances and in radically human cultures.24

We must embrace the moment God has given us—a secularized, cross-pressured, fragilized moment. When the Lord returns, we will meet him first and foremost as Christians. But we will also meet him as citizens of the modern West. Being a cross-pressured and fragilized Westerner is not the most important dimension of our identity, but it is an unavoidable one for which we will give account. For that reason, it is incumbent on us to tailor our witness for a secular age.

[1] This essay is originally published as “Politics and Public Life in a Secular Age,” in Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, ed. Collin Hansen (Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, 2017), 87–98.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letter to Eberhard Bethge (June 8, 1944),” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 425–27.

[3] Philip Rieff, My Life among the Deathworks (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press), 1–44.

[4] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); idem., The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1991); idem., Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); idem., A Secular Age.

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, 83.

[6] Ibid., 234–42.

[7] The gospel is a public truth in the sense that it announces publicly God’s rule as king. The early church proclaimed the gospel in a way that exposed the Roman kingdom as a fraud. It is God through Jesus, not Rome via Caesar, who rules over all. See John Dickson, “Gospel as News: Euangel from Aristophanes to the Apostle Paul,” NTS 51 (2005): 212–30; Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

[8] Charles Taylor, “To Follow a Rule,” in Philosophical Investigations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 179. For a brief exploration of the connection Wittgenstein makes between epistemological justification and embodied communities, and the implications of this connection for theology, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “Wittgenstein’s Theologians: A Survey of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Impact on Theology,” JETS 50 (2007): 357–75.

[9] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 131–214.

[10] See James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), which provides a corrective to the underemphasis on virtue in Reformed and evangelical accounts of politics and pluralism; John Inazu’s account of “aspirational virtues” and “living speech” in John D. Inazu, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 83–103; and David Brooks’s account of the connection between society and character formation in The Road to Character (New York,: Random House, 2015).

[11] Richard J. Mouw, Political Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 35–50.

[12] Taylor, A Secular Age, 595.

[13] Taylor, A Secular Age, 234–59.

[14] This point is integral to James K. A. Smith’s thesis in Awaiting the King.

[15] Lesslie Newbigin, “Evangelism in the Context of Secularization,” in The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, ed. P. W. Chilcote, L. C. Warner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 46–55.

[16] For an exploration of the idolatrous tendencies of modern Western political ideologies, see David T. Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002).

[17] Taylor, A Secular Age, 580–89.

[18] Taylor, A Secular Age, 605–6.

[19] Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, 18.

[20] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God (New York: Viking, 2016), 180.

[21] Taylor, A Secular Age, 473–95.

[22] In Taylor’s taxonomy of our secular age, Secular¹ represents the Classical/Medieval era, in which “secular” is the opposite of “sacred,” and represents the temporal realm instead of the heavenly. Secular² refers to the Enlightenment era in which the notion of “secular” refers to a purportedly neutral or non-sectarian standpoint. Secular³ refers to our current cross-pressured and fragilized era in which all religious belief is contestable and any particular religious view is merely one option among many.

[23] Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Lost Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 253.

[24] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 59.

Bruce Riley Ashford

Bruce Ashford is provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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