Dec. 7, 2010
In recent days, some Evangelical leaders have called for fellow believers to declare failure and withdraw from the public square. Academic sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, is among those who believe that mere personal faithfulness should supplant Christian political engagement.
Gabe Lyons, another believer with a deep commitment to the Gospel, asserts on ABC News that “the Religious Right” achieved its goals in electing prominent leaders but asks, “Did anything change?”
It is a valid question, but purveys less careful thinking than it does weary aggravation, a frustration borne of false expectations.
Over the years, some believers seem to have thought that if only the “right” people were elected, somehow liberalism would disappear and that a new, halcyon era of truth and light would emerge across America’s fruited plain.
The events of the past three decades have proven this premise false, and instead remind us of the veracity of Scripture’s injunction, “Put not your trust in princes” (Psalm 146:3).
Political triumphalism is an idol, and political involvement is not the path to temporal salvation. We cannot, through legislative action, induce the kingdom of God to emerge on earth. Such attempts are neither new nor effective; witness the tower of Babel.
Evangelicals need to bear in mind that political victory almost invariably is incremental, and only occasionally does it transform culture. The two great racial justice movements in American public life – the abolition and civil rights efforts of the 19th and 20th centuries – were once-in-a-century phenomena. They were grounded in campaigns that included many disparate and sometimes mutually suspicious alliances, political efforts at the local, state, and national levels, and efforts to persuade the heart and mind of a nation through moral suasion and Christian exhortation.
A case in point: William Wilberforce and his friends in the Clapham group worked for the abolition of British slavery for decades. The final bill ending slavery in Britain was enacted only days before his death. But he never gave up.
Most of the time, political action achieves only incremental victory. For example, when
advocates of disengagement argue that after decades of Evangelical political activism, Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, they should consider that to shift the culture is a trans-generational effort. It involves continuous and creative initiatives to persuade fellow-citizens and woo their consciences with fact and reason, grace and truth.
And we now see that 37 years after Roe, the majority of Americans reject unrestricted access to abortion on demand. When public judgment becomes settled, laws start to change. We have seen this already: Over the past decade, we have succeeded in:
- Banning partial birth abortions (the act prohibiting them was upheld by the Supreme Court)
- Enacting the “Born Alive Infant Protection Act”
- Enacting the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act”
- Preventing federal funding of abortion through the Hyde Amendment (although this is now threatened under President Obama’s health care plan)
- Applying the Mexico City Policy, created by President Reagan and now lifted by President Obama, but which under more conservative Presidents has prevented federal funding of overseas agencies that perform abortions
- Fostering the growth of roughly 2,000 pregnancy care centers for women with crisis pregnancies.
This list contradicts Mr. Lyons argument: Elections do matter. From funding directives to specific laws to appointment of Supreme Court justices and federal judges, participating in the political process clear-eyed about what to expect is indispensable for Christian citizens and for what the Bible calls the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7).
Of course, we have much work to do. Such abortifacient drugs as “ella” and RU-486 and Planned Parenthood’s relentless predation on troubled pregnant women remain open wounds on the national soul. Yet the examples I have cited constitute real change, and with the advent of a more pro-life milieu among younger Americans, how long can Roe and its attendant evils stand?
Additionally, when the Supreme Court finally invalidates Roe, those doing so will be justices appointed by a President and confirmed by a Senate elected by We the People. Thats change we can work for, if not put our unguarded confidence in.
When Roe falls, much more will remain to be done, from sustaining traditional marriage to delimiting the authority of courts that defy the plain meaning of the Constitution to upholding religious liberty in all its facets. And faithful Christians, whose obligation to bear witness is not mitigated by political discouragement (or self-pity), will keep working to advance life-affirming biblical principles in public affairs.
Is this the whole sum of Christian public duty? Of course not! Christians are actively serving the poor, at home and abroad; defending the persecuted in the courts and quietly with foreign governments; working to free the many millions of people trapped in sexual slavery and involuntary servitude; and a host of other ways, not least of which is simply getting to know their neighbors and showing them the love of Jesus in tangible, practical ways.
Yet to disengage from the public square is to deliver it up solely to evil. This would be an act of what the late theologian Carl F. H. Henry called “Christian lovelessness.” For serious believers in Jesus Christ, this is an option they must never accept. Let us, instead, do the work not of human princes but of the Prince of Life, to Whom alone belongs eternal victory.