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Restoring Christianity’s Influence in America

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It is fair to say that the election of Donald Trump represented a huge victory for conservatism, but not so much for Christian conservatism.  Christian influence in the nation is on a steep decline.  In my opinion there are two things at the heart of the matter.

The first one is a deep and mistaken conflation, pervasive across the nation, of cultural influence and political influence.  Those two things are partially intersecting circles on a Venn diagram, but they are distinctly different things – you can have one without the other.  Rick Warren with his oft-repeated, for more than a decade now, declaration that “Culture is upstream of politics,” makes the distinction plain.  I have tried to make this distinction numerous times since I joined this blog. (Not that my voice is anywhere near as influential as the others discussed in this piece.)  In recent years no one has tried to make this distinction more often or more loudly than Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I think he made his case most succinctly in the 2016 Erasmus Lecture, reprinted this January past in First Things.

Moore and I came down on different sides on the question of how a Christian was supposed to honor that distinction, and more importantly the intersection of the two things, in the election just past, but we most certainly agree on the essential point – as does pretty much everybody else in the discussion.  But apparently the conflation is so pervasive that it has landed Moore in some pretty hot water within his convention.  In the week just past things seemed to have reached a head and are now, hopefully, quieting down.  This is a discussion in which every serious Christian should participate on some level and I have struggled all week to find my own voice on the matter.  The public voices are largely Roman Catholic and the Protestants really need to be heard from.

On Thursday Jim Geraghty quoted a Ross Douthat piece on the Moore affair, and also Rod Dreher’s so-called “Benedict Option“.  The pull quote Geraghty used

 . . . one might also think of the Benedict Option not as an absolute demand – to the monastery, go! – but as an invitation to sort of religious ratchet, in which people start from wherever they are and then take one step toward a greater rigor and coherence in the way they marry faith and life.

If every Catholic high school or college were one degree less secularized and worldly; if every Protestant megachurch were one degree more liturgical and theological; if not every Catholic but more Catholics became priests and nuns; if not every Christian family but more Christian families decided to have a third child or a fourth or fifth; if not every young Christian but more young Christians looked at working-class neighborhoods as an important mission field; if Catholics and Protestants alike could imitate even part of Mormonism’s dense networking … all this would be a form of the Benedict Option in action, and both the churches and the common culture would be better for it.

…dovetailed well with something I wrote this week for one of my churches’ Lenten blog.  Before I get too deeply into that I should note, as does Douthat before me, that Dreher’s book should be read in conjunction with Archbishop Chaput’s book (widely discussed on the show) And Anthony Esolen’s “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.”

So, now, back to my Lenten blog post

It concluded this way:

God’s kingdom is based not on a political system, but on the people in it.  If we are all godly people then God’s kingdom is present, monarchical, oligarchical, democratic or socialist though the government may be.  It has been my privilege to travel a good bit of the world. – some of it behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.  I have witnessed the Holy Spirit move mightily even in the bowels of the Soviet Union and active efforts to suppress it.  God is bigger than our politics.

There is a tradition of Lenten sacrifice.  I’ve never really been into it, except when I was trying to lose weight.  Wrong motive makes it a bit of a cheat.  I think rather this Lent I will work on reordering priorities.  Life does not permit me, or anyone really, 40 days in the wilderness.  But I can make time with God more important than the news.

If we are losing influence, and we most assuredly are, then the second thing at the heart of the matter is that we are losing the idea that God is bigger than our politics. We are focused on our politics to the exclusion of the “everyday” things that truly make us Christians – reaching out to our neighbors, supporting one another – becoming more godly.  Earlier in that same post I wrote this:

In these passages God is not really offering guidance about the specifics of the ordering of the relationship, rather He is giving us guidance about who we are supposed to be, regardless of the relationship.  It’s not about politics, it’s about character.  How different would things be today if we worried more about our character than our politics? (or our income, or our status, or our taste in movies….)  Godliness is apolitical, and yet it would be amazing to witness how well politics would function if everyone were godly.

During Lent we celebrate the time Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing Himself for public ministry.  Jesus came, by His own admission, to establish God’s kingdom.  That sounds political.  Yet He did not spend that time in the wilderness writing manifestos, organizing a group, networking, or reading the news.  He spent that time in prayer and meditation with His Father and resisting the temptation of the evil one.  Even the Lord Incarnate worked on His character.

That’s the Benedict Option boiled down and put in more Protestant/Evangelical language – we need to figure out how to be more godly to have more godly influence on our culture.  The fact that that idea has gotten someone as influential a Russell Moore in trouble inside his convention is a very real call to pause for reflection.

Three quick points.  If rapid growth is the mark of a healthy body (and remember Scripture analogizes the Church to a body) then we should all wish for cancer, for rapid growth is the hallmark characteristic of cancer.  Growth is good only when it is growth harmonized with the body as a whole.  Our influence is based on being a healthy Body of Christ, not simply enrolling like minded people.

Secondly, I think it vital to consider why the Catholic voices are so prominent and the Protestant voices have little to offer in this discussion.  As a first blush hypothesis I think history has a lot to do with it.  Protestantism grew in protest to Catholicism, it relies on having an already Christianized milieu in which to operate.  As life-long Protestant it pains me to say this, but perhaps the Catholics, and by extension the Orthodox, are by virtue of that history the natural leaders in an increasingly secularized West.

Finally, I think we conflate our cultural and our political influence because politics is easy in comparison and the conflation allows us to get off easily.  There are a few quotes in this life that should be committed to memory and repeated to oneself on a daily basis.  The one I most often say to myself is from G.K. Chesterton:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

If we want to get serious about Christian influence in our world we need to get serious about being Christians.  That’s hard work.

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