As explained by my friends Tim Dalrymple and Mark Tooley, it has become fashionable among some young evangelicals to call upon social conservatives to disengage from the political fight. Instead, they urge their peers to serve our neighbors with Christian affection and anonymous quietude. Matt Anderson, Jon Shields and John Mark Reynolds have commented on essentially the same phenomenon.
The disaffection of some younger believers toward political action seems animated by two factors: the reality that more has not been accomplished, despite decades of evangelical political activism, and the perception that evangelical social conservatives are an angry and bumptious lot characterized more by enflamed rhetoric than compassion or effectiveness.
The first issue reflects more a naiveté about politics than anything else. Political change is incremental. Only on rare occasions (e.g., the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s) does massive social change occur. The great majority of the time, it is a matter of slow, deliberate and prudential action.
For example, the ruling legalizing unrestricted access to abortion, Roe v. Wade, remains the law of the land nearly 40 years after it was issued by the Supreme Court. Those who look with despair on the failure of conservatives to correct Roe say that we should admit legal and political defeat and simply concentrate on pro-life and pro-adoption ministries.
Those ministries are essential, but incomplete: As long as Roe is the law, however generous and effective Christian efforts to save the unborn and help their mothers might be, they will fail adequately to end abortion’s culture of death.
In addition, the ground has shifted beneath the feet of those who believe in “a woman’s right to choose” an abortion above the right of the unborn child to live – according to a recent Gallup Poll, more Americans than ever before identify as pro-life (50-41 percent). Changes in public opinion usually lead to political action. In this case, that action will (continue to) be pro-life.
Progress can be slow. That does not mean it is unimportant or that noble efforts should be discarded. It means thinking tactically and strategically, persuading and voting and running for office and putting up yard signs and a thousand other large and small political tasks. It means taking what victories are possible now and laying the foundation for more victories in the future. That’s the very nature of politics. I believe these younger evangelicals may very well come to grasp this concept as they mature and gain experience.
Insofar as the stereotypes of “the Christian Right:” it is easy to caricature, much harder to evaluate honestly. Those younger believers who have accepted the narrative offered by critics of Christian conservatives often will win the accolades of the “elites” who insist that evangelicals are uninformed, frightened and reactionary.
The rare flippant remark, the episodic rhetorical overreach, the infrequent but stinging criticism: yes, evangelical leaders in political and social action have occasionally made them. Yet they reflect neither the Gospel nor the remarkable, even historic work of those same leaders – men and women who, sporadically, say things they regret (and, unlike most of their critics, for which they often and quickly apologize).
That such verbal mots are used by those who denigrate Christian activists to generalize about the social conservative movement is intellectually disingenuous; such generalizations are inaccurate and unfair.
To reiterate: Socially conservative evangelicals are fallen, like everyone else. Sometimes we overstate, say things in the heat of the moment, etc. But these isolated comments are not characteristic of the generally irenic language or compassionate actions we seek to bring to the public arena. Verbal gaffes are noticeable – citable – because of their relative rarity.
Undeniably, political triumphalism is an idol. We will never inaugurate the Kingdom of God until the King Himself rules on earth. The battle will never be fully won; as long as our culture is occupied by sons and daughters of Adam (that would be all of us), social evil will exist and merit resistance. Wrong ideas never die but only lapse into episodic somnolence. Agendas of power, slaughter and cruelty wait calmly in the wings of human affairs.
Yet secession from political engagement because it is hard, its success impermanent and its achievements incomplete, is more a form of self-comfort than moral conviction. As Carl Henry wrote me in a personal letter years ago, “not to oppose a Hitler, a Stalin or a Mao would have been an act of Christian lovelessness” – in other words, passivity in the face of evil is acquiescence to it and, in some cases, even partnership with it.
Paul enjoins us to not grow weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:13) for a reason: It is hard to persist in doing good when the results of our labor seem modest. Battles are wearing, and trenches are discomfiting. The overconfidence of some conservative Christians in politics as the means by which to “change the world” was misplaced.
But abandonment is a poor substitute for uninformed striving. Enthusiasm for an immodest aim produces frustration, or even bitterness, since that aim can never be reached. Withdrawal is a welcome alternative, surely, in the short term: It is always easier to rest than fight.
It is then that the faithful Christian remembers we are citizens of an eternal commonwealth, that doing right in all spheres of life is pleasing to – and required by – God, and that small, incremental victories can build momentum such that substantial and more climactic victory becomes possible. For example, Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, but it took another 26 years to end British slavery itself.
Evangelicals should stand for justice and righteousness (our English terms both stem from a common Hebrew word, tsehdek) wherever such a stance is needed. This means defending marriage, the unborn and religious liberty wherever they are endangered.
There is nothing more important than sharing the good news that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave. Yet as central as this is to the church’s proclamation and ministry, it cannot stand in isolation from works of compassion and working for social structures and political initiatives that protect the unborn and their mothers, bolster marriage and the family, and supporting religious liberty.
To herald the Gospel without actions commensurate with it is insufficient. These actions include works of charity and works of public initiative. To jettison either facet of our witness and work would be, to use Dr. Henry’s phrase, “loveless.”
May the church resist such a self-satisfying and thoroughly unbiblical practice and such a dangerous temptation.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Christian Post