The problem of the “culture war” is dividing evangelicals, especially in the rising generation, into two camps. This conflict is going to determine the future direction of evangelical political engagement. My problem is that I’m on both sides.
One camp says we should pull back from politics. Because of the culture war, political struggle has become an act of enmity toward the neighbors we’re supposed to be loving and serving. What appears to be a fight for justice is really, functionally, an effort to conquer people and subjugate them to our will, imposing Christianity upon them by force.
The other camp mostly agrees that politics today is defined by a power struggle between Christians and non-Christians. However, they say we have no choice but to fight for justice. That’s part of what it means to be the “church militant” and answer the call to defend the weak and the helpless. How many babies should we allow to die so we can feel like we’re being nice to the abortionists? We need to love our enemies, but we still need to fight them. At some level that means we just have to accept the culture war and ensure that our side wins.
The one thing these camps agree on is that we have to make a stark choice. We can fight for justice in politics, or we can build civic solidarity with our unbelieving neighbors. We can’t do both.
Not me. I say we can have our cake and eat it, too!
Fighting for Justice, Not Imposing Christianity by Force
We have a moral imperative to be the church militant and fight for justice; we also have a moral imperative not to impose Christianity on people by force. God did not create a chaotic universe. Therefore, a way to do both at the same time must exist. Our job is to find it.
I am a political guy and always have been. Politics affects every aspect of human life. The things we say and do in politics are the most important single factor controlling what people throughout society perceive to be just and unjust. That’s why we have such an important responsibility both to be involved in politics and also to keep our involvement faithful to real justice.
However, I have also come to realize how dangerous it is when political people like myself start to view everything in society as merely “downstream” from politics. Church, family, the economy, and other social spheres also have an effect on every aspect of human life, just as much as politics does. We have to preserve the integrity of these other spheres rather than merely subordinating them to politics.
In every society and every era, one evil has always been the most deadly temptation in politics. From the Old Testament to the New, from the prophets to the parables, Scripture rings out with condemnation of this vice. Political philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Locke all focus their energies on denouncing it. James Madison identified it as the key danger that the U. S. Constitution was designed to counteract.
This evil? Taking the desires of one faction or social subgroup and identifying them as the will of the whole nation, or as the common good of the polity. When we talk about the culture war and its dangers, this is the real issue. Taking a hard and sober look at the rhetoric of the past, I think it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that American evangelicals have very often spoken and acted as though our views represented the public will simply as such, or that whatever policies we favored had to be identical with the general good. That must stop.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers worked out. But here are three concrete steps I think we can take to fight for justice in politics without imposing Christianity on people by force:
1. Detach moral victory from religious victory.
The way the issues are presented to people now, if you vote for justice on issues like life or marriage, you’re effectively voting in favor of putting Christians in charge of society. We need to clearly demonstrate that a vote for these issues is not a vote for neo-Constantinism. We can do this by identifying our positions on these issues as representing the basic moral values of human civilization in general, rather than as exclusively Christian commitments. That will not only be true (which is a considerable recommendation by itself) and bring our support for these policies into alignment with humane treatment of our neighbors. It is also the only way we might actually hope to win the battle on those issues. Constantine doesn’t poll well these days.
2. Deinstitutionalize enmity.
The festering of the culture war over the last generation has deeply ingrained into our politics a default assumption that moral disagreement implies radical hostility. We can’t disagree about justice without becoming mortal enemies. We have to bend over backward to demonstrate that we do not view our neighbors as enemies simply because they disagree with us.
Of course, we can’t always avoid enmity. It takes two willing parties to make peace, but only one willing party to make a war. When the mayors of Boston and Chicago announce—in flagrant violation of the law—that Chick-fil-A is not welcome to build restaurants in their cities because it supports marriage, they have made themselves Chick-fil-A’s enemies. There is nothing Chick-fil-A can do about that. (God bless New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for rebuking his peers on this! He had nothing to gain and much to lose by doing so.) But it’s clear, at least to anyone who looks at the facts without prejudice, that the enmity comes from the mayors’ side. That’s what matters.
3. Prioritize religious liberty for all.
American evangelicals have always been this country’s strongest and most grateful supporters of religious liberty. Let’s reclaim that role. If we’re looking for moral issues to fight for, you can’t find a better one. And it’s a timely issue! If you don’t think your right to worship and live out your faith is endangered today, you’re not reading the news.
It’s also great for evangelization. The more people feel secure that their rights as citizens are protected regardless of whether they’re Christians, the more open they will be to the gospel. As J. Gresham Machen once put it, freedom of religion is the foundation of effective evangelization because “persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument.”
But it’s also the best way to defuse the culture war. Religious liberty means liberty for all. Let’s prove, with words and deeds, that we value our neighbors’ religious liberty as much as our own. We want America to be a place where people of all faiths are on equal civic footing and can all live in accordance with their consciences. That, more than anything else, will show our neighbors that they have nothing to fear from us.