Cultural Christianity in America is dying. The signs are everywhere: Blue laws have disappeared, pornography pervades our culture, and Christian views on sexuality and the family are increasingly attacked in the public square. Gone are the days in which a sitting U.S. President (Ulysses S. Grant) could write to America’s Sunday School students: “Hold fast to the Bible as the sheet-anchor of your liberties; write its precepts in your hearts, and practise them in your lives. To the influence of this book we are indebted for all the progress made in true civilization.”
Many non-Christians rejoice in the decline of Christian culture. But many Christians do, too. Some evangelicals worry—not entirely without reason—that the purity of the gospel can be tainted by the worldly quest for power and prestige, and rightly point out that an outward show of faith is not the same as inward conversion. But some evangelical opponents of Christian culture do not merely decry abuses and hypocrisies: They oppose Christian culture tout court.
“I rejoice at the decline of Bible Belt Religion. It made bad people worse—in the name of Jesus,” Ray Ortlund, founder of a prominent Nashville church and a leader in The Gospel Coalition, recently tweeted. Russell Moore, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has written that the decline of Christian culture is “both good for the church and good for the church’s engagement with the outside world,” because, in a post-Christian culture, it is less likely that the faith will be invoked to advance some worldly end.
There are evils, abuses, and hypocrisies in every human society. But the collapse of a Christian culture in America is nothing to celebrate. The old Protestant establishment in this country did much to promote human flourishing and to restrain destructive ideologies in the public square. With the decline of that establishment, we are now at the point where, if one hopes to maintain a position in politics or business, one may not publicly maintain that men cannot become women, or that homosexuality should be condemned. Violent and degrading pornography streams on countless computers and smartphones.
The evangelicals who rejoice in the demise of cultural Christianity also tend to be wary of using political power in service of the common good and the flourishing of the church. For them, political power is at best a necessary evil and at worst a dangerous and destructive idol that will “harm our witness” to the broader world.
But this runs counter to the view of classical Protestant political theology. It is also unbiblical: The state is “God’s servant for your good. . . . an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4); the governing authorities are “instituted by God” to punish evil, shape society for the good, and bring blessings to all (Rom. 13:1–7).
Protestant theologians have traditionally argued that the state, although it must not interfere in the governance of the church, has a positive role to play in promoting the flourishing of morality and truth. Frédéric de Rougemont, a nineteenth-century Swiss Protestant layman and politician, stated this historical position well:
While there is a distinction between church and state, there is no separation, let alone opposition. The kingdom of grace is God’s, but God is also the king of nature. The church is a divine institution, but the state is also established by God. Church and state rule—each in its own sphere—the same men, whom they cannot pull in opposite directions.
Those who celebrate the decline of Christian culture seem to miss that this collapse has in many ways damaged the church’s engagement with the outside world. Celebrating the decline is convenient for evangelical elites who are tired of fighting the culture wars, but they face a subtle temptation here: the desire to gain approval from our secular culture under the guise of speaking prophetically to it. This temptation is rapidly leading to the abandonment of orthodox Christian teaching on church leadership, to deviations on sexuality and gender, to massive confusion about race, and to embarrassment about traditional Christian teaching on marriage and the family.
The Christian who holds fast to the teachings of Scripture will never be loved in this world. It won’t matter how winsome he is, nor how many of the valued causes of the world he adopts. Jesus Christ said: “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
What we urgently need in order to renew Christian culture, then, is the courage to provide godly leadership in troubled times, to seek goodness and truth in the public square. This might look like taking Netflix to court for peddling child pornography; or passing a constitutional amendment similar to the one in Hungary that requires “children to be raised with a Christian interpretation of gender roles,” and provides governmental and societal support to help families put this into practice; or seeking extensive financial damages through the courts for the irreparable disfigurement brought about by transgender surgeries. In the end, it will mean taking back political and judicial power from those who seek to further degrade our nation. This will require a willingness to speak unfashionable (even despised) truths about the state, sexual morality, and the roles of men and women in the family, society, and church. The courage to do so can only be found when we spurn the praise of the world (Luke 6:26), seeking only to please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9) in all that we do—individually, in our families, in our churches, and in our nation.
Ben C. Dunson is the editor-in-chief of American Reformer.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Photo by John Phelan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.