My report to the April 7 board of directors of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC.
The World Vision imbroglio, in which Evangelicalism’s largest international relief group recognized same sex marriage among employees for 48 hours before backtracking after loud denunciation by much of organized Evangelicalism, aptly illustrates where we are today in American religion.
Almost all of imploding official Mainline/oldline Protestantism is lost to moral relativism. So the major cultural battles have all shifted to the now much larger and far more politically and demographically significant Evangelical world. The Evangelical Left and its fellow travelers have long pushed for Social Gospel political activism on behalf of environmentalism, Big Government and pacifism. Now it is much bolder in demanding surrender on a key Christian doctrine relating not just to marriage, but Christian cosmology and anthropology. Christian orthodoxy in the church of course cannot coexist with an ideology that pretends humans can reinvent their gender.
They who have professed to be politically liberal but theologically conservative, like Evangelicals for Social Action once did, will fade or fully succumb to the secular culture. Some who have professed to be conservative will also pivot and triangulate according to shifting cultural winds. Look for future surprises. The Evangelical world, once a narrow subculture, became so big that it’s now partly hostage to its success with many even of its reputed leaders on the squishy fringes. In some ways Evangelicalism now resembles fracturing Protestantism 100 years during the debates over Modernism.
We can be encouraged by the somewhat surprisingly firm reaction against World Vision’s brief new policy. Even as most Evangelicals now seem passive over marriage in civil law, they recognize the need for boundaries in the church. Liberal social determinists will likely be disappointed that not everyone, especially most Evangelicals and faithful Catholics, will inevitably embrace their deconstruction of marriage and family as they imagine.
The challenge for orthodox Christians now is both to model our faith’s teaching about marriage and family while not withdrawing politically. Even if we lose on marriage in law, thanks mostly to court imposition, we most hold aloft the still true societal definition of marriage according to both natural law and Christian teaching, validated by millennia of human experience.
Roe versus Wade did not compel Christian acceptance of unrestricted abortion and instead created a new coalition of conscience for the unborn that after 40 years is bearing fruit. Likewise, even in a sort of legal exile, Christians and other traditionalists will have to maintain an ongoing challenge to the destructive fashion of our era, having confidence that, like all things of this world, this too shall pass.
We all know there will be and already are assaults on religious liberty under the LGBTQ banner. We can expect worse to come while praying that these attacks will create a new and greater unity within the authentic Body of Christ. We also know that the Devil often overplays his hand.
Meanwhile we in the church mustn’t overreact by exaggerating our plight, ignoring our own continued blessings, or forgetting the examples of saints in the past. Too many are claiming we are now a post Christian society, even as the latest Pew poll says 78 percent of Americans profess Christianity. If we are not demographically Christian, then what are we?
Obviously many who profess are not fully faithful, which to some extent is true for all of us. But when was America fully Christian. Under slavery? Under segregation? Under laws of eugenics? During the last 41 years of abortion on demand? There was never an easy time for Christian faith and practice. Christians who take their faith seriously are always a minority and always sojourners in a strange land.
Oddly, Methodist preachers in the late 19th century, at the height of Victorian Christianity, were commonly kicked out of town for challenging brothels, saloons, gambling and political corruption. At the same time they hailed Christian America. We similarly must live in this ongoing contradiction of a culture deeply shaped by Christianity and yet hostile to it. As the Proverbs note, there is nothing new under the sun.
Part of IRD’s witness in the current climate is to remind our constituency and a wider audience of what deep down they already know but are tempted to neglect about God’s lordship and the church’s vocation in society to redeem and reform. These truths are simple yet often difficult.
God ordained the state for civil order and to punish the wicked, not to build utopia.
God created man male and female.
All human life is created in God’s image.
We are to worship the Creator not the creation.
The human body is sacred.
We are called to help the poor not romanticize them or deny their moral agency.
God is lord over all human history.
The Church’s is God’s instrument for proclaiming the Gospel and, in its institutional manifestations, is not routinely called to political specifics.
Add to this list the insight, not unique to Christian revelation, that 25 year olds don’t necessarily have a monopoly on wisdom, nor are their supposed views fixed for all time and therefore a strict forecast of the future. The current obsession with Millennials is exploited by old liberals who project on young people all their own hopes for overthrowing traditional faith and morality.
The young people at IRD are much wiser than most of course (!!) and can helpfully challenge the mindless groupthink common outside and inside organized Christianity. The Church properly understood is all the saints across time and culture, not just a snarky few who own larger bullhorns and hope to override everybody else.
Let’s hope that 100 years from now there are some who look back and reflect on IRD’s witness in these times as imperfectly reflecting the continuous historic teachings of our faith, buffeted by malevolent crosswinds but not bending to them. Countering the grim determinism of both zealous secularists and pessimistic Christians, many of whom are discouraged friends, IRD insists there is always hope for the future, because history is on the side of Jesus Christ, who is its Lord.Google+