Farewell, Cultural Christianity
How a changing landscape can strengthen our witness.Evangelical Christians, of almost all sorts, are a narrative-driven people. Our evangelism often includes personal stories of how we came to meet Christ. Our worship often includes personal “testimonies,” either spoken or sung. To those outside the community, these can seem cloyingly sentimental, and sometimes even manipulative. Even so, those who emphasize the personal nature of knowing Christ often define following Christ in terms of our past, what we’re leaving behind. But even without a spoken testimony, one can often read what an evangelical is walking away from based on what he’s reacting, or over-reacting, to.Whenever I hear a Christian say that we shouldn’t emphasize the imperatives of Scripture (the commands of God), but rather the indicatives (who we are in Christ), I can predict that, almost every time, this is someone who grew up in an oppressive and rigid legalism. By contrast, when I hear an evangelical Christian wanting to build hedges of rules around the possibility of sin, I can usually guess that this someone was converted out of a morally chaotic background. The Christian who was converted out of a dead, lifeless church often dismisses liturgy as “formalism” and contrasts “religion” with “relationship.” At the same time, one who was converted despite an emotionally exuberant but theologically vacuous church will often seek out the ancient roots and structure of a more liturgically ordered church.What’s true at the personal level is also true at the movement level. We tend to ping back and forth between extremes—always seeking to avoid the last bad thing. As David R. Swartz points out in his book Moral Minority, The Religious Left of the last generation was, in many ways, a reaction from some sectors of the “Jesus People” era to the empty consumerism and racism and militarism of the post-World War II religious establishments. The old Religious Right was in many ways a reaction to the awful consequences of a real or perceived pietistic withdrawal of some in the church as the country veered into Sexual Revolution and an abortion culture. As we move into a new era, the church in America will seek to correct the course from some aspects of the past. We should simply make sure that we correct in the right way.Some will see any reframing of Christian public witness as a “pullback from politics” or a withdrawal back into the enclaves. But this is not the case, for several reasons. First of all, it will be impossible. It is one thing for Christianity to correct errors in past forays into the public square: triumphalist expectations, for example, or theatrical panic and paranoia rooted in a victim-status siege mentality. It is quite another to, with silence, constrict the liberty of future generations.Total disengagement is itself a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away.Total disengagement is itself a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away. A church can avoid taking controversial stances on what it means to be human or what it means to be married only so long as the outside culture at least pretends to share the same basic ideals. A church can ignore the culture only until, as the divorce culture did in the past, that culture reshapes the church in a way that obscures the gospel itself. And a church can ignore the state only as long as the state respects the territorial boundaries of Mr. Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” A state that sees some aspects of Christian witness as bigoted and dangerous will not long stay on the other side of that wall.The primary reason I think evangelicalism will not go wobbly on public engagement is the gospel. In the rising wave of evangelicals, one hears the constant refrain of “gospel focus” and “gospel centrality.” Some might dismiss this as just more evangelical faddishness and sloganeering, and perhaps some of it is. But I think it is far more than that.The focus on the gospel is tied up with the collapse of the Bible Belt. As American culture secularizes, the most basic Christian tenets seem ever more detached from mainstream American culture. There is, for those who came and will come of age in recent years, no social utility in embracing them. Those who identify with Christianity, and who gather with the people of God, have already decided to walk out of step with the culture. These Christians have already embraced strangeness by spending Sunday morning at church rather than at brunch.This is leading to a sort of mirror image of the Rapture that the traveling evangelists warned us about. Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.To understand why this leads to greater engagement rather than to lesser engagement, we must understand what the slow-motion collapse of the Bible Belt is about in the first place. This changes not just the number of unbelievers, but the way that believers themselves think and relate to the outside culture. Philosopher James K. A. Smith, in his book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, gives the example of an evangelical church-planter relocating from the Bible Belt to a “post-Christian” urban center in the Pacific Northwest. The church planter is equipped to evangelize and make disciples by asking people diagnostic questions about what’s missing in their lives.A generation or two ago, that might have been what they were trusting in to get to heaven. In more recent years, it would have been what’s missing in order to grant meaning and purpose to their lives. The central issue isn’t that the church planter isn’t adequately trained to answer their questions; it’s that they are asking different questions. They do not feel “lost” in the world, and they don’t feel as though they need meaning or purpose. The effective evangelist must engage not only at the level of the answers, but also at the level of the questions themselves.The same will be true when it comes to the social and political witness of Christianity in a new era. Older generations could assume that the culture resonated with the same “values” and “principles.” They could assume that the culture wanted to conserve their “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Increasingly, the culture doesn’t see Christianity as the “real America.” If Christianity is a means to American values, America can get by without it, because America is learning to value other things.This is, perhaps counterintuitively, both good for the church and good for the church’s engagement with the outside world. In the 1920s, J. Gresham Machen warned the church his book Christianity and Liberalism not only that bartering away orthodoxy wouldn’t gain the church cultural credibility, but also that the great danger for the church is to see Christianity as a means to some other end. Christianity does indeed build stronger families, he argued, and it does indeed provide an alternative to Marxist ideologies. But if Christianity is embraced as a way to build strong families or assimilate people into American values or fight Communism, it is no longer Christianity but an entirely other religion, one he called “liberalism.”In the last generation of Christian public engagement, there were some genuine prophets and saints, who called the church out of isolation but constantly warned against a political captivity of the church, a captivity that would tap Christianity of its righteous zeal for the sake of power but would, ultimately, drain it of what every culture finds most troublesome: the exclusivity of Christ.As American culture changes, the scandal of Christianity is increasingly right up front, exactly where it was in the first century. The shaking of American culture will get us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” As the Bible Belt recedes, those left standing up for Jesus will be those who, like Simon Peter of old, know how to answer that question. Once Christianity is no longer seen as part and parcel of patriotism, the church must offer more than “What would Jesus do?” moralism and the “I vote values” populism to which we’ve grown accustomed. Good.