Christians who intend to remain orthodox in faith and morals, having aspired in the last generation to recover America as a Christian society, must learn to live as a “prophetic minority” in a post-Christian society that is in considerable measure hostile. That was the message of Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, at the Faith and Law lecture on Capitol Hill on Sept. 13.
Moore related that there was a time in the “Bible Belt” of the American South and West when public adherence to Christianity was “socially, culturally, and even at times economically” beneficial. The least common denominator Christianity found in these areas of the country was “strong on values” but weak on matters of truth and theology. It was the power base of the Moral Majority and its backlash against the elite driven social revolutions of the 1960s, and acted in the name of the “real America, where most Americans share the same values.” It saw “McGovernites trying to impose an alien value system on America.” While Moore claimed that the Moral Majority was “in the best traditions of democratic movements in America,” at its worst it turned into a “prosperity gospel” in which supposedly one could have “everything that America offers you plus heaven.” But now the benefits of cultural Christianity in these areas are “slowly starting to melt away,” Moore said. It is always possible to follow Christ, but in the future “there will be a cost.”
Moore held that the Moral Majority was not in fact a majority in its full Christian position, but seized on enough areas of agreement on social issues between committed and nominal Christians to at least present the appearance of being a majority. Its appeals to the public were not uncommonly characterized by “faux outrage” and “apocalyptic language” to aid in fund raising, while a younger generation found it to be taking positions in voter guides not compellingly derived from the Bible.
But while hostile to the outside world, the world of the old “Religious Right” was composed of “slow motion sexual revolutionaries,” taking positions that had been advanced in the secular culture decades earlier. Moore gave the example of the way divorce is handled in the conservative Evangelical world. Before the impact of the sexual revolution began to be felt, Evangelicals understood that divorce was a reality that had to be addressed, but dealt with it both in terms of 1) what divorce is (i.e., contrary to God’s plan of a one flesh union of man and woman), and 2) strong church discipline. In recent decades, however (the time of the Moral Majority), divorce has been dealt with in primarily or exclusively therapeutic terms (helping the divorced person return to normal life). Thus in the strongly Evangelical areas of the South and Midwest, divorce is dealt with very differently from pulpits than homosexuality. Christian leaders are not willing to condemn sins commonly committed by their own Christian communities, but only in the world outside their communities. This leads to a didacticism which is the opposite of that advocated in Scripture (i.e., judging those on the outside of the Christian community, not inside). Moore compared it to the antebellum South, in which a common claim was that “let’s not be concerned about issues of public ethics, let’s just preach the gospel.” A logical extension of this in real life today was given as the pastor of a large Evangelical church who staked out a possible position on same sex marriage as “let’s support marriage equality in the public sphere, but have our own understanding [of homosexuality] in our churches.”
In addition to the incremental acceptance of the sexual revolution, the Evangelical world is also plagued by the fact that people tend to react against positions taken in the previous generation (which may or may not have been in error). Thus the Moral Majority’s insistence on holding to Biblical precepts is attacked by a younger generation embracing antinomianism. This is seen in such admonitions as “don’t deal with the imperatives, only with the indicatives of Christianity.” Against this, Moore advanced a contrasting doctrine of “moral communitarianism.” This is not just a “church as counterculture” doctrine, or an “angry clenched fist,” but a “different way of seeing priorities.” It centers on a correct understanding of the Kingdom of God, resulting in an optimistic vision of where the world is going in the sovereignty of God. It holds that the conclusive triumph of the sexual revolution is false, even though the hand-wringing of Christians concerning the loss of religious liberty suggests the opposite to the world. A correct understanding of the Kingdom of God however is that the kingdom is rooted in a transcendent reality, but with implications for the present. Jesus’ calm assurance before Pilate displays a correct understanding of the Kingdom of God.
To embrace this correct understanding, we must be “concerned first with ecclesial culture.” Churches are “colonies of the Kingdom … this is a place where Jesus is king.” Evangelical Christians have to the contrary been “perennially willing to dismiss the church,” preferring instead to develop parachurch organizations, according to Moore. The church should, however, be “previewing and showcasing” the Kingdom of God.
Looking to the future, Moore proposed that orthodox Christians be diverse in outreach but not in message. The mission of the church is to enable people “to hear the voice of Jesus Christ.” Because of his death and resurrection, “Jesus welcomes the world to reconciliation through him.” While kindness in Scripture is not weakness, we are not to regard people who disagree with us as our enemies, rather they may be future Christians. “The power of the gospel is found in the freakishness of the gospel,” Moore said. “As the Moral Majority goes away, we have the power to be a prophetic minority.”
As a prophetic minority, we do not need a gospel which essentially accepts the prevailing American values of self-fulfillment. “Your Best Life Now” has not been translated into Sudanese, Moore said. Offering instead an uncompromising message of Biblical faith and morals will make Christians a prophetic minority with a real reason for being, Moore suggested, but it will entail penalties because religious liberty, while good for the country, is rapidly disappearing. Natural marriage, to which even President Obama maintained a favorable position until one and a half years ago, is now regarded as an unacceptable standard by the new morality of inclusion. Christians, however, need to move from the fear-based model of the past. We should not be “trying to raise money from paranoid senior adults.” We should be trying to engage the culture as a “remnant in time, but with a transcendent connection.” In general, Moore staked out a hard, discernibly orthodox, but optimistic road into the future for the heirs of the Moral Majority, the new “prophetic minority.”