Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The dazzling efficiency with which corporate America exchanges its turkeys and pumpkins for snowmen and reindeer each year confirms that our society is fully post-Christian. The occasional earnest performance of “O Holy Night” is a rule-proving exception. For the most part, endless ranks of crooners sing “holiday” songs, pumping us up for our sexiest, most UNICEF-approved yuletide yet. If that’s not demoralizing enough, Christians in the American Babylon have to contemplate critics such as Harvard’s Mark Tushnet, who openly relishes the possibility of bringing conservative Christians to heel through constitutional litigation. Time to turn up the heat, Tushnet has argued: “The culture wars are over; they lost, we won.” It was the threat of a post-Christian culture bent on reeducating benighted believers that split Christian communities over the unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump. Some were thrilled by his anti-establishment rhetoric; others were horrified by his dissolute character.

The fact that we have Justice Neil Gorsuch instead of Merrick Garland has lowered anxiety. Tushnet’s vision of secularism ascendant has not materialized. Yet believers continue to face uncertainties in post-Christian America. The fate of religious objectors to Obergefell’s gay marriage regime is anything but settled. Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission awaits decision by the Supreme Court. In California, during the 2015–2016 legislative session, S.B. 1146 sought to strip students at colleges affirming a traditional sexual ethic of access to state funds and scholarships. During the 2017–2018 session, A.B. 569 sought to ban codes of conduct at religious institutions that prohibit abortion and extramarital sex. Although neither bill was ultimately successful, the threats they posed to Christian institutions are likely to return. Trump notwithstanding, in all likelihood Christians must continue to defend their religious liberty. This, in turn, requires asking how we can be faithful citizens in a post-Christian culture. 

When I was young, in the 1980s and ’90s, a prominent approach of the religious right was to affirm our history as a Christian nation. Faithful citizenship meant reestablishing America’s Christian identity. I sensed then (and think now) that for historical, theological, and philosophical reasons, this view is flawed. We need to abandon that paradigm. It is unclear, however, that anything more helpful is readily available to American Christians. In the main, Evangelical reflection on faithful citizenship remains deficient. That’s because we fail to think institutionally about political matters.

Hugh Heclo tried to remedy this in On Thinking Institutionally, a work that draws on Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison, and Edmund Burke, among others. By his definition, to think institutionally requires us to be active participants in social or political practices, and to do so as those who take responsibility for ensuring the reception and passing on of the goods essential to them. Burke employed a legal analogy to make the point. He argued that Englishmen possess their rights as an “entailed inheritance.” This inheritance gave them great benefits, but it also vested them with communal obligations. On this view, citizens do not individually possess rights; they enjoy rights which are part of a common possession. We are all bearers of God-given natural rights; however, their core meaning and application must be institutionalized in the political practice of a people. Those institutions become the shared possession of generations, and we think institutionally insofar as we exercise our prudence to ensure that those institutions flourish.

Evangelicals should have no trouble thinking institutionally, because they do so about the Church all the time. To be a Christian is to play a role within the Body of Christ. The life of faith seeks the common good of the faithful. Increasingly, Evangelicals are also doing a better job of understanding the ecclesial common good in a fuller sense. We are looking back to received tradition and thinking more carefully about the long-term flourishing of our communities.

This institutional perspective does not extend to politics, however. Instead, Evangelicals often instinctively engage political questions in liberal terms, focusing on personal rights and particular issues. In the past, this has meant emphasis on the right to life and a defense of marriage. But many young Evangelicals are turning this approach on its head. They have serious doubts about long-standing institutions such as traditional marriage and even about constitutional fixtures like religious liberty. Don’t these merely serve the special interests of our churches? To defend them seems like a bid to advance our rights over against the competing interests of fellow citizens. How can we insist on norms based on the Bible? What’s the point of this in a thoroughly post-Christian society?

A prominent Evangelical writer recently suggested that there is something distinctly un-Christian about rallying for a defense of constitutional rights. Drawing on Jesus’s call for us to lay down our lives, he argues that Christians are called to lay down their rights. Didn’t Jesus tell his followers to go the extra mile, renouncing self-interest for the sake of self-giving love? By this way of thinking—which is popular among Evangelicals who struggle to find a political stance in post-Christian America—a countercultural witness means that we turn the political cheek, as it were. Faithful presence in the public square does not mean defending our rights, but rather that we sacrificially yield them, and so set an example of Christian civic friendship. For some, this political kenosis is especially necessary given what they take to be the religious right’s historically belligerent role in the culture wars. It is time, we are told, for a new era of political empathy.

These arguments are influential. Yet they suffer from a fundamental flaw. They cast the Christian citizen in the same liberal mold as secular politics do. We are individuals who possess rights, which are conceived of as personal privileges and immunities. With this picture in mind, the proponents of Christian political self-sacrifice urge us to be selfless and to lay down these rights.

This gets political reality wrong. Religious liberty is not my right or the special interest of our group. To be sure, Christians will rally against existential threats such as California’s S.B. 1146, which would have done tremendous harm to the budgets of religious universities. But an ethos of civic engagement grounded only in individual rights hamstrings one’s ability to think institutionally.

We need to orient our thinking away from ourselves and toward generations past and future. We have an “entailed inheritance.” It is our duty to preserve political and constitutional institutions not for our sake alone, but to honor those who came before us and to serve those who come after. Even St. Augustine, who strongly emphasized the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, recognized the great (but also fragile) good achieved by the partial justice of the earthly city. Institutions that honor real human goods are cultural achievements worthy of protection for their own sakes, not just because they protect us right now.

A failure to think institutionally also has other deeply damaging effects. It obscures the centrality of the common good in political life. Democratic societies tend to encourage the vice of pursuing private interests without regard for the common good, as Madison points out in Federalist 10. Institutional thinking, on the other hand, focuses attention on communal goods that emerge from a shared history. As Aristotle argued, politics seek to order our common life together according to principles of goodness and justice. That effort requires discussion and debate about what those principles are, and institutions establish the outcome of those deliberations in practice. To think institutionally is to recognize politics as an expression of our pursuit of a just life together.

The common good, in turn, invites discussion of the human good because sharing goods in common requires a shared human nature. If religious liberty is simply the interest of our group or my right, maybe we should just lay down our rights and cheerfully bake cakes or arrange flowers for gay weddings. Maybe, in fact, that’s what Jesus himself would do. An institutional perspective, on the other hand, sees this liberty as part of a larger project to secure conditions of human flourishing for everyone in the community: Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, Hindu, and so on. As Thomas Aquinas observed, we are created with a basic inclination to seek the truth about God. Thus, religious liberty isn’t any one person’s or any one group’s special interest. It is our shared birthright as human beings. For this reason it is part of the First Amendment, our common heritage as American citizens. The individualist perspective impedes our ability to talk about common goods and a shared human nature.

It can seem selfless, but to lay down our rights is, at times, the most self-centered thing to do for the simple reason that they are not our rights. They are part of a political tradition—our tradition—that belongs to our grandparents and will, if we are faithful, belong to our grandchildren. In our political engagement, the cultural changes in America have forced Evangelicals to abandon the Christian nation thesis. Let’s not fall victim to liberalism’s individualist paradigm. It is time to think and act institutionally.

Matthew D. Wright is assistant professor of government in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and a contributor to the American Project at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University.