This editorial originally appeared in the August 9, 1985, issue of Christianity Today.
In the White House, the moral forces are strikingly friendly to most theological conservatives. As for the Supreme Court, hope flows like a freshet in anticipation of a new majority that will change the onerous Roe v. Wade decision. Nativity scenes on public property are, officially, no longer a sinister threat to the Constitution, and high school students may now study the Bible in classrooms after school. Prominent televangelists are emboldened as never before to speak up on public affairs. They are generating high voltage awareness about public issues among their mass congregants, and because of that they are becoming a potent force on the political power spectrum.
Clearly, conservative moral forces are having more influence in the councils of government than in a generation. Why is this so? Those who closely follow the changing "power curve" point to several influences: a general conservative swing in the United States; religious radio and television personalities who have captured huge audiences (this giving them unprecedented publicity in the national news media); and evangelical lawyers who have used the courts intelligently to advance the cause of religious freedom.
We are pleased by these advances, but we see potential for trouble ahead. Gospel values triumph ultimately when they are victorious in the hearts of the lost, not when they advance in the courts and the halls of Congress.
Fired by the fuel of righteous moral anger, the Christian political lobbies are sure to prosper in skill and stamina. As they grow, the tendency will also arise to equate legislative accomplishment with spiritual victory. We trust this will not happen, but we fear it might, and so we raise the caution.
An illustration: equal access
A year has now gone by since Congress passed the equal access legislation, a significant victory for the evangelical church. The bill allows student-led groups to hold Bible studies on school property before and after classes. The atmosphere has now improved dramatically for student outreaches in high schools, and although some young people have been taking advantage of it, on the whole there apparently are no large numbers of Bible study groups materializing in the nation's high school classrooms.
In fact, the biggest influence on teenagers as a societal group this year is not a wealth of new Bible study opportunities but a pig lot of sordid, soft-porn movies. Titles such as Porky's Revenge, Hardbodies, and Private Lessons moved Newsweek to report recently that "teenage audiences are grossing out on grossouts."
With all evangelicals, we rejoice that moral initiatives are being heard in the national forums. We stress, however, that the church's mission is to bring the lost to Christ and to equip the saints for valid Christian living, regardless of the government's friendliness toward the church. Is it possible that the evangelical cause will find growing success as a political lobby and still fail in its primary mission? Several writers warned against this very problem in a special series of articles in this magazine last April, dealing with the Christian's duty as a citizen.
Christians must persuade, not push
Carl Henry wrote in that series, "Christians are not to rely on legal implementation to fulfill divine imperatives that they themselves are to communicate to the nonbelieving world through preaching and persuasion." David McKenna wrote, "By refusing to align himself with political parties and rejecting the use of temporal power, Jesus warns against the political captivity of the church by parties, lobbies, or candidates." This is not to disdain the courageous antiabortion campaign that involves so many Christians, for in this case the aims of the church accord well with the Constitution, which affords protection of life to all.
Understandably, distinctions between church and state get muddled when a President of the United States quotes John 3:16 and speaks in public of the Savior. Speeches like those turn pastors into patriots, just as they are designed to do. They make Paul's admonition in Romans 13:1 much easier to accept: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (NIV)." Some Christian activists tend to quote this verse more often when the political winds blow favorably, but as Paul wrote his letter, the Roman government was turning ever more hostile to the nascent church.
Likewise, Peter advises Jewish believers whose ancestors had been scattered across Asia Minor by governmental persecution to "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men" (1 Peter 2:13). What hard words those must have been or Peter's beleaguered flocks to follow. The point is that it is spiritual vigor, not political power, that is essential for believers.
In a democracy, of course, all citizens are participants, and Christians can accomplish much through heir government. Indeed, they have a duty to do so. But the essential message to the faithful is spiritual strength to season society, not political strength to overpower it.
Darkness sharply defines light
Regardless of how much or how little the government woos the church, the church must never be turned from the task of talking to the lost about the God who finds, for despite the evangelical gains in the political corridors, the spiritual darkness deepens on Main Street. George Gallup declares that people are hungry for depth and meaning in 'their lives, but fewer than ever have specific beliefs about God. Harold O. J. Brown echoes that in the National Review when he writes, "Our culture is still nominally theistic, even Christian, but in fact the society no longer believes in God."
Many argue that it is the ugliness of secular society-its television, movies, popular music, and the venal values of its heroes-that turn people from God. Brown says these values do not create unbelief as much as they are created by unbelief.
If he is right, then there is overwhelming unbelief in the land to have created the emptiness we see on every hand. But it is against the very darkness that gospel values stand in sharpest relief. In fact, more and more of society's sleek and envied are discovering for themselves that the world's standard of success and happiness is only so much groping in the dark. These days we see dramatic evidence of successful people who have decided they can no longer live by the world's expectations. Consider a few examples:
After six Eastern Division championships, four American League pennants, and a World Series championship, Earl Weaver, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, drops out of baseball at the age of 52, disillusioned, saying it might not have been worth the price: "It cost everything . My children are all married, grown, living away, four grandchildren, and I have had no time whatsoever to see them." Will his recent reluctant return be temporary, in light of this mood?
Time magazine declares in a cover story that the sexual revolution is over, killed off by loneliness, the pain of broken relationships, and the fear of sexually transmitted diseases.
A dental surgeon with a six-figure income and a luxurious home quits his practice to enter Princeton Theological Seminary at the age of 46. The Wall Street Journal reports this as an example of a new trend: there are now so many second-career seminarians, many of them business and professional people who are searching for meaning in life, that the average age of Protestant seminary students has risen from 25 to 32.
People who realize they are in darkness will grope toward' the light. It is the task of the church to lead people to the light, and to explain why there is darkness. The task is vital. The secular world is producing a flood of evidence to prove that much un-Christlike conduct is foolishness.
During the bleak, early days of World War II, when the British people grew prematurely excited over Eisenhower's successful invasion of Algeria and Morocco, Winston Churchill sought to pull them back to reality. He declared of the invasion that "this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
That is roughly the status of the church when its cause has gained an advantage through legislation or legal mandate. The true victory comes only when one's heart is changed. All else is merely the end of the beginning.
This editorial originally appeared in the August 9, 1985, issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Minnery was senior writer for CT. He is now senior vice president of government and public policy for Focus on the Family.
Editorial, Christianity Today, Aug. 9, 1985, Vol. 29, No. 11, pp. 14-15
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