What Faithful Presence Demands
Recent events and discussions within evangelicalism have reminded me of the below, for reasons that will become obvious. I wrote it for a discussion at the Evangelical Theological Society hosted by the Colson Center on — what else? — evangelical cultural engagement. (The audio of the discussion was, unfortunately, never released.) We were allowed five minutes. This is what I said.
Three urgent tasks lie before the evangelical world.
First, the most important and accurate part of James Davison Hunter’s prominent book To Change the World, which forms the basis of my reflections here, is his analysis that the conservative evangelical political witness has been fueled by a narrative of decline and of its own precarious position in the world. This narrative, that to be an evangelical means to be an embattled minority fighting the dark forces of an oppressive secularism lurking in every public school and in every corner of Hollywood, empowered evangelicals to be adept users of the grievance politics we are now so familiar with from other communities. After all, outrage, and the boycotts that demonstrated it, were a conservative evangelical specialty.
Every response by evangelicals to contemporary events happens against this backdrop, whether we like it or not, or were responsible for it or not. Regardless of our intentions, our denunciations of the spirit of our age invariably take on the atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and resentment that has suffused evangelicalism’s political life for the past 30 years. The first task, then, is to purge ourselves of such affections and passions and establish the evangelical political witness on a new foundation. Such fear and resentment cannot be simply verbally repudiated; they must be expunged, rooted out and replaced by a hope that is less spoken of directly and more felt, a hope that we do not name but that permeates and suffuses our response to culture war conflicts. Such good cheer must be hearty, for Christ hath made our hearts glad — and he is waiting for our political discourse to someday catch up.
Second, with this gladness I would commend a deflationary attitude toward those grand narratives of decline and to the day-to-day disputes and dramas that we think embody them. If the West is dying….so? If we are all going to be bigots, well, we might as well get on with it and become likeable bigots. If “marginalization” or “dhimmitude” are the new form of persecution, I for one will happily take it over many of the alternatives. The sooner we turn such instruments of stigma into pieces of art, the sooner we will begin actually resisting the very ideology we claim to be. As the prophet Taylor Swift hath said unto us, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate….you just gotta shake, shake, shake…” [I went for a chuckle here, and failed — as I deserved to.]
Taking a deflationary stance toward such cultural dramas and inculcating ourselves with a sanctified indifference to them will happen only if we saturate our lives with more obligations to our immediate neighbors than we can possibly fulfill. If we do need thicker communal ties in order to discover and transmit virtue, I fail to see how they can be had when our time is directed toward neighbors far away, through the internet, and the majority of our emotional energy is consumed by conflicts that have no immediate bearing on our lives. The culture war will someday touch us all — but it hasn’t yet, and if our own lives were more entangled with the lives of those in need who we can see face-to-face, its hastening may be delayed longer than we expect.
Finally, if evangelicalism’s leaders are going to ask laypeople to risk their livelihoods and influence for the sake of a courageous witness to the gospel, we should be willing to do no less. The incentives for most of us on this panel, and most of us in the room, are the reverse of many laypeople’s: the bolder our rhetoric in public, the more conference invitations, retweets, book deals, and — if we’re really lucky — phone calls from NY Times reporters we get. Our stature and influence grows, while the laity’s diminishes when they do likewise. Unless we are willing to enter into their difficulty firsthand, and risk our own constituencies and “platforms” by modeling faithful forms of life and engagement they are unwilling to consider, we fail to equip them at all.
One clear opportunity to engage in such risk, it seems to me, is to model within the church the very principled pluralism that many writers have recently encouraged our society to adopt. If holding firmly to our convictions across disagreement is one of the great challenges of our day, then nowhere do we need to see it modeled publicly than among our Christian leadership — which requires bringing criticisms that others would want to happen behind closed doors into the light of day. And such modeling might also require bringing the world into the church, dialoguing with those we deeply disagree with on our own turf because we are glad and not afraid. To pick one example, Karen Swallow Prior has admirably taken up this burden — and has, as we have seen, been subject to a great deal of pressure from other Christians as a result. Until our evangelical leadership is willing to follow suit and risk losing our platforms for the sake of Christ, any rhetoric about the courage of our convictions or the love we have for the world will sound more like a clanging gong than we realize.