From the popular, influential, and usually-right-on-the-money conservative Protestant blog “Pyromaniacs” comes a post that illustrates an important gap in understanding. The post is correct and important, but something is missing.
Here are some quotes:
One of the greatest dangers of the political activism of the so-called “religious right” is this: It fosters a tendency to make enemies out of people who are supposed to be our mission-field, even while we’re forming political alliances with Pharisees and false teachers.
To hear some Christians today talk, you might think that rampant sins like homosexuality and abortion in America could be solved by legislation. A hundred years ago, the pet issue was prohibition, and mainstream evangelicalism embraced the notion that outlawing liquor would solve the problem of drunkenness forever in America. It was a waste of time and energy, and it was an unhealthy diversion for evangelicals and fundamentalists during an era when the truth was under siege within the church. Lobbying for laws to change the behavior of worldly people was the last project evangelicals needed to make their prime mission in the early 20th century. Just like today. Remember Galatians 2:21: “If righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” And Galatians 3:21: “If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.”
We have the true and only answer to sins like homosexuality, divorce, drug addiction, and other forms of rampant immorality. It’s the glorious liberty of salvation in Christ. It’s a message about the grace of God, which has accomplishes what no law could ever do. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation—Good News that truly changes hearts—and we need to proclaim that message. Politically-driven hostility against our neighbors is not the best way to let the light of the glorious gospel of Christ shine unto them.
The author, Phillip Johnson, is an elder at a large and respected independent reformed Baptist Church in the Los Angeles area and a well-known author. His understanding of Christian theology and of the current theological and ecclesiological trends is deep and accurate. He is correct that we must not allow our political beliefs to cause us to express personal hatred of those we ought to be evangelizing. [On the other hand, opposition and even combat of a sort are intrinsic to politics. We cannot be so evangelically winsome that we fail to defend our interests.]
But something vital is missing.
The post’s clear implication, and the position held by most theologically astute and conservative American Protestant leaders, is that “political activism” is at best a waste of time because it cannot solve, or even ameliorate, the problems of our disordered society. “If you want to renew American society, stop wasting time on politics and get to work proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ,” say these voices.
But although proclamation of the gospel is obviously necessary for the renewal of America, it is also not sufficient.
Both Scripture and common sense show that it will never be the case that a majority of people are Christians. There have been times when a majority called themselves Christian, but those who actually have repented of their sins, have a saving faith in Jesus Christ, and therefore are committed to a Christian worldview, will never be anywhere near a majority. Therefore we cannot renew society simply by creating a Christian majority through evangelism.
And our society has not degenerated because millions of people independently and spontaneously decided to rebel against God and tradition. No, America’s leaders have been teaching people to reject God and tradition for several generations now, and the people have responded. Until our leaders begin showing respect for proper morality and social order, no amount of personal evangelism will make a significant difference for society. The non-Christian majority will continue to follow our leaders in rejecting truth and approving of a disordered society.
This does not mean that the people always automatically follow everything the leaders say. There is a general atmosphere of ideas in any nation, and the leaders cannot afford to deviate too far from this general consensus. If significantly more people were Christians, it would have an effect on society. But the effect would not be decisive until a new group of leaders began explicitly leading in a Christian way.
In one sense, I do not blame the author for what he has failed to state. His forte is Christianity, not statecraft, and what the renewal of American society would require is not well understood. As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of Americans think about social renewal in one of only two ways: either being brought about through the ordinary processes of American politics (voting, legislative action, lobbying) or by individuals being renewed in their private lives. The specific ways by which renewed individuals might lead to a renewed society are rarely discussed, except to say that Christians would vote for better candidates. But this would not lead to renewal even if the Christians voted properly. Christians will always be outnumbered by non-Christians and if the prevailing atmosphere of ideas is explicitly hostile to Christianity and its principles of social order then society will continue to be disordered.
There is very little talk about any other means of social renewal because these are the only two categories Americans know and accept as valid. But evangelism will not be enough to renew America. It is necessary, but not sufficient. We will also need deliberate action aimed not at superficial fixes such as passing laws, but at more fundamental change that is organic and not formal, social and not individual. For this we will need new leaders who lead in new ways, and we will need new laws, rules and customs that are not just formal acts of the legislature, but articulations of the new ways of a new society.
And to have even a chance of bringing this about we need leaders and statecraft, not just personal renewal. How exactly can society be renewed? Nobody knows for sure. We are in unfamiliar territory. The current situation, in which our leadership class is enthusiastically destroying the social order we have received from our ancestors, is probably unprecedented. Not even the Bolsheviks enthusiastically supported the legitimization of homosexuality or mass immigration by unassimilable foreigners. And the creation of social order out of chaos, while not unprecedented, is sufficiently rare that it is for all practical purposes an unknown process. But as society continues to disintegrate (or, more accurately, to be disintegrated by its leaders), we will soon be in the position of having to form a new social order.
Should Christians be involved in this process? Of course, because otherwise the new order will, by definition, be non-Christian
And in the meantime even standard-brand political activism can be beneficial. While many conservative Protestant leaders, for example, are lukewarm at best about the passage of DOMA-type laws, viewing them as a waste of time, we must acknowledge that such laws are beneficial. They block evildoers from forcing us to honor homosexuality. The law does not produce true righteousness, but it has a legitimate role. Christians therefore have a role to play here too.