Russell Moore, the new president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, stirred up conservative evangelical culture warriors and stirred the hearts of their liberal counterparts by sounding a tactical retreat in the culture wars and a spiritual repositioning in Christ. “We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” he declared.
This has become a trend among Christian leaders, now that Reagan-era evangelical leaders are passing from the scene, and young people—who are themselves evidence of the lost battles against feminism and gay rights—are increasingly turned off by some of their parents’ concerns. A couple of years ago, Focus on the Family announced it was backing away from political involvement and (true to its name) refocusing directly on family and marriage issues. The ministry’s president, Jim Daly, said, “Christianity must transcend politics in order to change culture and politics.”
In Rome, Pope Francis may be reading the same signs of the times. He caused a stir on a more global scale with his cautionary remarks on what has been the Catholic Church’s focus on certain moral issues to the exclusion of others. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues [abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception] all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. … We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the gospel.”
This rethinking began in 1999 when Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson published Blinded by Might, their sober reflections on the one-generation reign of the religious right. The political push to save America for Christian culture, they noted, had lost decisively on every battlefront, and in the end did more harm than good.
A decade later, in To Change the World, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter argued that our “desire to change the world” has been a form of self-assertion born in resentment. To detoxify our souls, Christians should “be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization.”
Reforming the church in doctrine and morals is hard enough. Purifying a decaying society that is bolting from the church seems comparatively hopeless. But God gave us government to serve Him for our good (Romans 13:4). So government needs to hear from Christians what God says is good. In a democratic society with a republican form of government, Christians have a love-obligation to make that known. In the public square, what Hunter calls “faithful presence” has policy implications.
But the manner in which Christians advocate what is right should testify to our faith in the one who directs the course of nations, and to our awareness that, as Moore reminds us, “We are not Americans first. We belong to another kingdom.”