The Meaning of ‘Faithful Presence’

The below is a talk which I gave at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on March 1st of last year, a talk that was not recorded and never published.

In scheduling tonight’s discussion, we did not realize that today would be Super Tuesday. Had we known, we may have instead focused on the shape of faithful presence in an age of Trump. That we did not is an unintentional blessing: the choice between attending to the momentary upheavals of our political calendar, and searching out the more distant horizons of Christianity’s place within our society throws into sharp relief the tensions and decisions that lie before evangelicals. Anxieties about religious liberty and about the politically correct silencing of unpopular opinions have fueled evangelical conservatives since the Supreme Court’s miraculous discovery of a constitutional right to gay marriage last June. While Trump’s rise is due to more than just this, evangelicals have flocked to him in part because of his willingness to flout the rules our progressive overlords have placed upon us. Now that evangelicals feel more alienated from their government than ever, they are responding with all the subtlety of Robespierre: why settle for tri-corner hats and Tea Parties when you can toss everyone in Washington DC out in the streets? Few, after all, have ever been interested in a modest revolution. You might say that one answer to the question of what faithful presence demands in the age of gay marriage is the Trump option: burn everything down and salt the earth beneath you.

Still, evangelical anxieties about our place in the world have been brewing for a long time. For years, evangelicals had been ‘embattled but thriving,’ as sociologist Christian Smith described us. On the one hand, we bemoaned the imminent peril of a hostile secularism hiding in every college classroom and Hollywood movie. On the other, our institutions and our political power were rapidly expanding. Obergefell did not mean something new: it simply vindicated and intensified the narratives of decline and decadence we were already experts at telling. If anything, gay marriage has only poured new life into the cocktail of introspection and self-loathing that evangelicals have turned into an art form. At least white, middle-class, conservative evangelicals, anyway. Many black evangelicals have looked upon the conservative hand-wringing with a bemused and frustrated eye. Having long known a deeper and more vicious alienation from the structures of American power, the black churches have not suffered the same degree of consternation at our new political order.

It is important to understand the reasons for this palpable dismay, though, if we are to properly discern what faithful presence demands of us. I here identify three causes, which are by no means comprehensive or complete: First, the soft-establishment of the Protestant churches in American civic life made conservative Christians uniquely interdependent with the government. Quaint though the issue now seems, evangelicals virulently denounced the death of prayer in schools as stemming from a hostile form of secularism. (I make no judgment on the accuracy of this charge.) The presupposition of vaguely Protestant convictions on matters of morality permeating our social and political institutions could not, after the school prayer battles, be taken as a ‘given’ any longer.

The second source of evangelical anxiety is like unto it: evangelicals have leaned heavily upon the state to uphold moral discipline, both inside and outside their churches. This is, perhaps, most clear in how evangelicals end marriages. The absence of divorce procedures in many churches outsourced the primary responsibility of dissolving marriages to the state, reducing churches to an appendage. (Ask your church leadership about the last time they initiated a divorce procedure before a couple called a lawyer.) But evangelicals have a long history of turning to legislation for social reform as well: from the Comstock Laws to Prohibition, religious conservatives have often used the gears of state power to enforce morals.

Third, evangelicals have approached ethical and political questions through twin commitments to biblicism and voluntarism, leaving them bereft of the resources they need to speak persuasively in other, non-Biblical tongues. By leaning too heavily on the contents of special revelation for ethical guidance, evangelical political action was left susceptible to being used for political power and gain. If there is no reason that we can offer for our views besides the Divine Edict, our pronouncements will be met as naked power plays — and will eventually be inclined to become them.

Evangelicals responded to the slow unwinding of their establishment by cultivating a distinct political voice, which was animated by fear and resentment about the changes afoot. The Religious Right aimed at restoring a uniquely Christian politics, but found themselves instead in a ghetto. A sizable and influential ghetto, perhaps, but one that always remained on the outskirts of political power. Their few successes, such as Proposition 8 in California, could not endure, as their tactics created a backlash that endures to this day. Their ‘close calls,’ which were more numerous, kept alive both the resentment against their secularist foes and the false optimism that the next election would change things. The grievance politics that animated the Religious Right were not especially unique in American public life, though the boycotts that gave shape to such outrage may have been. But they meant that even when the Religious Right won, they were losing: the deadly and undetectable toxins of resentment and alienation ran through their blood, filling them with false passions that could not be sustained and hollowing out their victories in ways that would only become clear afterward.

This environment, which is best diagnosed in James Davidson Hunter’s volume To Change the World, is the inescapable backdrop for any evangelical who wants to respond to contemporary events. The fear that has inflected evangelical political life for the past thirty years has made it impossible to persuade a generation exhausted by the constant harbingers of doom that the challenges to religious liberty and American civic life that gay marriage presents are real. Any attempt to warn evokes the same protectionist anxieties of our forbearers. Until very recently, there has been no category for an evangelical Christian who thinks the Religious Right was correct on some of their substantive positions, and who also believes their degraded political theology undermined their witness — and ours.

Now, though, Obergefell’s final death-knell for Protestantism’s soft-establishment has set evangelicals free (at last!) from the methods of the Religious Right. We now have options — oh, do we have options. Russell Moore has welcomed the destruction of ‘cultural Christianity,’ heralding this moment as a clarifying one and pushing us onward as a prophetic minority. (Just recently he has said that during the election cycle, he does not wish to be described as an ‘evangelical’ because of its baggage.) Writer Rod Dreher has made much of the Benedict Option, which I take to be an attempt to recover thick practices of formation within intimate, local communities in order to transmit the forgotten and obscured virtues of the Christian tradition. Not wanting to be left out, others have offered their own advice. So far I have seen the Wilberforce Option, the Jeremiah Option, the Buckley Option, the Escriva Option, the Dominican Option, the Franciscan Option, the Daniel Option — which, I must say, is different than the Daniel Plan — the Kuyper Option, and the Judas Iscariot Option. (This final one I made up, just in case anyone is trying to come up with a name for my own view.) Whatever else we make of Obergefell, it has been good business for the evangelical advice industry.

I have been asked to join the chorus of advice-givers by describing what I think faithful presence demands of us. The phrase comes from the book by James Hunter that I mentioned earlier, and I have reluctantly grown fond of it for a number of reasons. For one, the language of ‘faithful presence’ may be elusive, but this is a feature and not a bug. I think it best these days to avoid offering sweeping, all-encompassing cultural solutions the way we once offered grand narratives of cultural decline. The responsibilities before us are mainly very small and insignificant: most of us will be asked to tell our friend the truth about the quality of his haircut before we are asked to make a dramatic stand for the truth of traditional marriage.

Second, the language of ‘faithful presence’ is neutral with respect to whether we are a majority or not; the rhetoric of being ‘countercultural’ and a ‘prophetic minority’ frames our identity by contrasting us with the world, which tends to make being persecuted a mark of True Christianity. Such a stance is too easily swept up into the smoldering remains of the Religious Right’s grievance theater. I, for one, am not especially pleased that cultural Christianity is dying: if the fires of revival descended and Christendom returned tomorrow, would we welcome the glorious reversal and get about our business? ‘Faithful presence’ offers us an indefinite and open future, in a way that the rhetoric of being ‘countercultural’ does not. We should earnestly hope for the day when the evangelical counter-culture becomes the culture, and the prophetic minority a majority…as long as we learn our lessons in the meantime.

The language of ‘faithful presence’ has one other virtue: if it aims at ‘cultural renewal’ at all, it does so only in a wonderfully indirect fashion. Evangelicals have often succumbed to the temptation to pursue the transformation of society through direct efforts. But change is always a byproduct of sustained and deliberate attention at something else, some common object of love that can grip our interest and motivate our action. As T.S. Eliot once wrote with respect to culture, it is “the one thing that we cannot deliberately aim at,” but is the “product of a variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake.” Something similar could be said about cultural change. Now that our Total Culture War and the internet have eviscerated our common culture, renewal can only come by returning to the first things — which require being perfectly inattentive to whether our efforts to bring change succeed or fail.

Faithfully present in what, though, and how? I offer three tentative and fragmentary proposals, which stem more from my own failures to practice them than my successes. I offer them cheerfully, though, as our illustrious panel will doubtlessly straighten things out when I’m done.

Our first task must be to establish our political affections and passions on a new foundation, which will involve expunging the atmosphere of resentment and anxiety. Such a repudiation must begin by acknowledging our missteps and by taking responsibility for our own role in generating animus and hostility against us. At every turn in the culture war, evangelicals re-entrenched politically even as they lost ground culturally. Conciliation was treated as capitulation. Evangelicalism’s focus on morals legislation skipped over other more difficult, but more durable avenues to social change. Again and again we sowed the legal wind, and we have been reaping the whirlwind of the backlash against us. Hope and confidence will again permeate our public witness only when we properly acknowledge these missteps.

More personally, preserving our native habitat of good cheer might require that we simply ignore the grand cultural struggles happening around us. In December, Rod Dreher highlighted a profile about the creator of Transparent, a TV show about an elderly man who transitions into a woman. Dreher titled his post “The Next Culture War Front,” and suggested in a distressed manner that “We religious conservatives had better do everything we can to protect our institutions and our families from [the ideology of transgenderism].” Fine. That seems wise enough. But Dreher went on: while the subject may be “deeply distasteful,” he said, “attention must be paid.” No matter if the language is too salty, too: “Again,” he wrote, “attention must be paid.”

But why? Or, more precisely, paid to whom? And at what cost? The culture wars monopolize our attention and our energy in part because we need them to: what would we write about, or be invited to speak about, if there were no more grand dramas before us? (Anyone who knows my own work is permitted to think ‘Physician, heal thyself.’) Faithful presence demands denying the Lords of our Culture War their tithes and offerings of our attention, so that we can give them instead to the higher acts of prayer and charity, and toward keeping alive the permanent things of music, art, Shakespeare, and play. The culture war is a war against culture: by introducing political conflicts into our chicken sandwiches and coffee cups, it leaves the soul bereft of the very goods that are worth preserving, until there is nothing else left for us to talk about. Culture war disputes are the contemporary equivalent of the gladiatorial dramas Saint Augustine warned his parishoners about; they are spectacles that demand our attention, so that to remain silent is to be a ‘traitor to’ whatever cause you are most closely aligned with. But as long as we remain transfixed by such spectacles, we will not care for the hidden and overlooked goods that are all around us. Unless you are called to culture-warring as a vocation — and not many are, and even fewer are chosen — attention must not be paid, not any more. If you are here tonight, you already know well the game that is afoot: let us get on with our responsibilities with gladness.

The impassibility about our grand cultural dramas I am describing should not be construed as a sanctimonious indifference toward our neighbors. The opposite, in fact: the culture war mentality thrives by abstracting our foes from the context of their real lives, by directing vast quantities of our emotional resources to conflicts that have no immediate bearing on us. Decline narratives that are scribbled and consumed at a comfortable distance from the levers of cultural power offer conservatives emotionally satisfying distractions that often substitute for real action. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape offered this bit of diabolical advice: “The great thing,” the demon suggests, “is to direct [a person’s] malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know.” Ours is a society where that temptation has been perfectly reversed.

Evangelicals, then, should saturate our lives with more real obligations to our neighbors, more covenants among men to act for our mutual good, instead of vague abstractions about the importance of maintaining a “courageous witness for Christ” on marriage. Those with the purity of heart that comes from doing their duty will not be shaken by the suggestion they are bigots. They will see that the appropriate response is: “So?” and then get on with it. The anxiety about what might happen to us is among our most tempting distractions from those obligations upon us here and now, as it comes in the form of thoughtful, sober reflection about the world.

However, redirecting our attention and presence toward our immediate neighbors is not the equivalent to the quasi-monasticism of the Benedict Option. Indeed, I suspect that the many variations of “Monasticism Light” will fail because they do not offer a sharp enough contrast to the sterile sexuality of our age. If we are to have monasticism, let us have it pure and unadulterated, as an alternative vocation sanctioned and supported by our churches. And let the rest of us embrace and glory in our more worldly lives, by marrying and welcoming little bundles of joyful and exhausting obligations into the world. “It would perhaps be more natural,” Eliot has again written, “as well as in better conformity with the Will of God, if there were more celibates and if those who were married had larger families.” The permanently celibate, the hopefully infertile, and those with children all, together, are needed within the community of faith if it is to bear fully-orbed witness to the beauty of human sexuality. Evangelicalism’s rhetoric about the problems with gay marriage has rarely drawn from such springs of everlasting life: if our appeals for courage sound shrill and empty, the absence of such communities is why.

None of this is to say that attending more closely to our neighbors before us will allow us to escape the trouble at hand. And here I come to my final proposal. Though it may tarry, conflict will assuredly meet us. Whether we are prepared to meet it with hope, confidence, joy, and peace will depend upon whether we are secure in the knowledge that, when we were unencumbered and free, we sought the good for all people and not only for ourselves. Much has been made in recent months about our society’s need for a ‘principled pluralism,’ a manner of living together that seeks to foster common goods without asking us to compromise core convictions. While admirable, such a pursuit cannot be a plea from Christians to everyone else: it must be a gift from the church to the world, lest it devolve into the most banal forms of anything-goes relativism. How can our society practice such a virtue when they have not believed it? And how can they believe if they have not heard of it? And how shall they hear if we do not teach them? And, most importantly, how can we teach a ‘principled pluralism’ if we have not practiced it?

It is not enough to tout the value of pluralism without embracing it ourselves, which means that Christian institutions that wish to be ‘faithfully present’ must extend their hospitality to those who might despise us. If we are to be called bigots, let it be said to our faces — and let our faces meet it with a grin. After all, however weird our views on gay marriage are, they are only the small surface of a completely bizarre iceberg. The worry about ‘protecting the sheep’ from heterodox views lacks the confidence that our principles will survive pluralism, and undermines the trust that laypeople have in their leaders. Where will they go that they might be kept safe? If we suspect that opposition will beset us even if we are ‘nice’, we may as well welcome those who would perpetuate it into our communities and be good to them anyway. At the very least, such hospitality would remind both our people and the world of a very simple, yet fundamentally powerful truth: that we are not afraid.

The days of the Protestant establishment are long behind us. The Religious Right with their lifeless, undead, zombie politics are still grabbing headlines for their antics, but have finally dropped the pretense that their religiosity matters at all for their political life. (This may be the most important gift Trump has given America, though it is not a long list of options to choose from.) Wide swaths of their constituency have been gripped by a despair that is both economic and cultural in its roots. But the word of the Gospel to us is one of hope: Christ hath made our hearts glad with a joy that bends backwards into the penultimate, into our politics and our churches and our lives together here and now. If our presence in this world is to be faithful to the good news we have received, we must, above all else, be carried along by the strains of angels rejoicing. It is our task, it is our freedom, to echo the whole company of hosts and all the saints who have entered their promised rest with singing. For this day, with all of its anxiety and despair and fear, is the day that the Lord hath made and given to us: let us rejoice, and be glad within it.

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