Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Canon and Culture on May 20, 2015.
My grandfathers were men of tools. One was a plumber and builder of houses, the other an interior craftsman and designer at a department store. I have the head of the latter’s hammer displayed on a shelf in my home office.
These men worked hard all their lives. I cannot imagine either of them going to work and one day saying, “I think I’ll quit using my screw-drivers, wrenches and hammers and see what I can do without them. Maybe if I just smile nicely the pipes will fit themselves.” It’s an absurd proposition.
We, too, are a people of tools, only tools not made of iron or copper. Rather, the tools Christians employ as they participate in public life are moral and political.
Our fundamental rights are endowed to us by God. They are possessed within our very nature as persons. They are, thus, natural rights from which we cannot be alienated. To sustain them, we must use the tools of personal and cultural persuasion whose possession and articulation are commensurate with “the works of the law” written on every heart (Romans 2:15). All men everywhere have a conscience and are imbued with reason. Appealing to them in personal relationships and cultural involvement is essential to the proclamation of the Gospel and the advocacy of truth, honor, and ordered liberty in society and in government.
The Constitution affords us still more tools: the rights captured by the Bill of Rights, rights of religious liberty, speech, press, freedom to assemble, and so on. Unlike the persecuted early church, we do not live in catacombs but in the daylight of a republic founded on the blood and treasure of generations whose sacrifices demand not just our passing gratitude but our daily participation in and upholding of that which they bequeathed us. A nation unlike any other, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
To let the political tools entrusted to us corrode into the rust of history is to show contempt to those who, under God, handed them to us. And to the God Who gave us the life and liberty and peace and prosperity we should treasure.
Those tools should be used for, among other noble endeavors, the protection of life and liberty, marriage and family. To abandon such tools is to abandon human dignity in our time.
Yet that’s essentially what some Christians are calling for their fellow believers to do when it comes to the standing for marriage, the unborn, and religious liberty.
Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher calls for “a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church.”
I appreciate Dreher’s desire for a time of reflection and recalculation, but the withdrawal he envisions not only would simply open space for the advocates of abortion-on-demand, the full legal and social mainstreaming of homosexual behavior and marriage, and religious liberty suppression to gain enormous ground.
As theologian Owen Strachan writes in The Stream, if the relentless Left has its way, “religious groups simply may not have the chance to set up ‘monastic communities.’” Moreover, Strachan writes, “In conversion, God calls us out of privacy and into the polis. This is where the true glory of Christianity most shines: even as our neighbor seeks to silence us, we do not strike back. Out of love, we leave our isolation, and seek to bless even those who persecute us.”
As the late theologian Carl Henry once wrote me in a personal letter, “Not to oppose a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Mao would be an act of Christian lovelessness.” Analogously, not to oppose the redefinition of marriage, the slaughter of the unborn and the predation of their mothers, and the collapse of the religious liberty which is the ground of all of our other freedoms would be Christian lovelessness, as well.
To relax our opposition to such and revert solely into acts of personal compassion would relieve social pressure, unvexate our cultural status, and produce emotional relief. It would also be faithless, loveless, even passively ruthless.
Such withdrawal is also premised on a false understanding of confessing Christianity in America. Orthodox Christian faith is not a monolith whose leaders cohere in a common theological monastery, and Protestants disavow organizational unity or ecclesiastical hierarchy.
That being said, a substantial element of what Dreher envisions has already happened. Witness The Manhattan Declaration and the recent Evangelical and Catholic ecumenical letter “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage,” among other initiatives designed to define convictions, coalesce around them, and then prescribe courses of action. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the broad Evangelical coalition Together for the Gospel regularly address critical cultural and political issues in a thoughtful, principled, gracious way.
Finally, what about the claim that Evangelicals should disengage for the sake of the Gospel?
Writing in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” site, Ryan Gear, lead pastor of “One Church, an open-minded evangelical church in Chandler, Arizona,” asks, “Can anyone disagree that, over the past 30 years, culture war politics have, at least partly, co-opted the cause of Christ among evangelicals?”
Yes, I can and do. This is a buy-in to the media-driven narrative that Evangelical political action has been grating, divisive, and unthoughtful – a narrative as false as it is common. That Pastor Gear and so many other younger Evangelicals have accepted this proposition whole indicates a lack of knowledge of the Christian conservative movement and also, perhaps, a certain disinclination to stand publically for hard things exactly when such standing is needed.
I recommend that Pastor Gear look at the ministries listed on the “ServantMatch” site of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, not to mention connecting with other believing churches in his area and seeing what they are doing to share the Gospel and “do good unto all men.” These things are active reproofs to his assertion.
All Christian leaders will be quick to add that none of us is always perfectly modulated in tone or precisely right in every judgment. If these are the standards, no Christian should ever say anything about anything at any time. But our mistakes and sometime sins, once repented of (privately and, as needed, publically), must not be allowed to dissuade us from following our Savior wherever He takes us – including a forum of public contempt.
Engagement with culture and politics is a matter of fidelity to the truth of God’s Word. It isn’t easy, and in a post-Christian culture will only get harder. “It is a painful and difficult discipline to hold together conviction and forbearance, but this is a tension we are increasingly called upon to navigate,” writes Brad Littlejohn in Mere Orthodoxy. “Such a posture requires patience, a sense of the penultimacy of the political and a confidence in the lordship of Christ that can accept the loss of a battle today in the knowledge that one is on what will finally be the winning side.”
Ultimately, the weapons of our warfare are spiritual: The Word and the Spirit enflooding the Christian’s life and pouring out in words and deeds of “grace and truth” bring down strongholds of evil and hurt. Going forward unfilled with these greatest of all “power tools” assures discouragement and failure.
My grandfathers built the lives of their family and the heritage my scores of uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, and I enjoy with the tools they employed skillfully. They were exhausted at the end of every work-week. They could not always see if their projects would succeed.
But they kept using the tools at their disposal. So should we.