Voices > Soul Food

Regaining lost ground

Catholics and Protestants can unite on social issues

Issue: "Steve Largent," Feb. 13, 1998

In a 1668 sermon, William Stoughton, who later became Governor of Massachusetts, made the claim that "the Lord hath said of New England, 'Surely they are my people, Children that will not lie.'" But for much of the 19th and 20th centuries the folks of New England have been intent on distancing themselves from their Puritan heritage.

Boston is better known for its Combat Zone (where prostitution is tolerated) than the Covenant. The decline of the Ivy League from training ground for preachers to preaching ground for the politically radical and correct is well-known. After decades of futile reaction to these trends, many evangelical denominations have largely abandoned Massachusetts along with much of the rest of New England. Unfortunately, in surrendering this national center of academic influence to the forces of secularism, Christians have effectively guaranteed that they will continue to lose most of the decisive intellectual struggles going on today on university campuses across America.

A defensive cultural strategy is insufficient. In the face of a secular onslaught, both Catholics and Protestants have tended to allow our vision of society to be defined solely in terms of opposition to the agenda of the forces of secularism. As a result, Christians attempting to be salt and light in our culture have often been forced into a reactionary mode of cultural engagement that is unbiblical and ineffective.

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Jesus did not come simply to react to the social and cultural vision of others. Instead, he confronted the world with a positive message of salvation that was a radical challenge to the established order.

How can Christians undertake a more biblical and effective cultural witness in the hostile and highly secularized power centers of our culture like Massachusetts? Last year, Protestants and Catholics there began a long-term effort to work together to regain the social and cultural offensive. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference (representing the Catholic Church) and the Massachusetts Family Institute ( a public policy organization associated with Focus on the Family) entered into a long-term partnership to attempt to reframe the entire social debate in Massachusetts around the concept of the critical importance of two-parent families.

This partnership does not deal with theological issues, but is founded on a belief that Catholics and Protestants can glorify God in our post-Christian culture by working alongside in the social debate. At the center of this partnership is a comprehensive legislative and cultural agenda, covering a wide range of social reforms, all designed to encourage and strengthen two-parent families.

In a region that is a stronghold of secularism, such a strategic partnership among Protestants and Catholics holds great cultural promise because it allows Christianity to reclaim its rightful role in American society as champion of the common good. And it allows us to emphasize our common commitment to social values derived from the gospel, without drawing us into debates that emphasize our theological differences.

After decades of social decay, many of the reforms incorporated into our family-strengthening agenda offer the only hope for a culture ravaged by the moral and social effects of secularization. By God's grace, several bills of the sort not seen in Massachusetts for many years have already been filed from our legislative agenda. For example, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference and the Massachusetts Family Institute recently succeeded in filing a bill to increase criminal penalties for statutory rape. This bill is designed to address the reality that the majority of children born to girls under 16 in Massachusetts are fathered by men in their 20s and 30s. Sadly, because the forces of secularism have succeeded in sexualizing our children, the tragedy of teen pregnancies caused by statutory rape has gone unaddressed in Massachusetts for decades.

Does the initial success of this partnership in Massachusetts have any relevance to Christians in other regions of the country? The experience suggests that at least three factors will need to be present for the body of Christ to regain some of our lost cultural influence in post-Christian America. First, Christians will need to take the social and cultural offensive. Second, Christians will need to recognize that we can successfully engage the forces of secularism where they are strongest. Finally, Catholics and Protestants will need to recognize that they can glorify Jesus Christ by working side by side for the good of everyone in our society.

-Matt Daniels is president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

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