The evidence is clear: Many Christians have grown weary of the culture wars. Compared with prior years, Christians have little visible presence in this season's election campaign, and certainly younger evangelicals see the conservative religious agenda as strident and often offensive. What's more, prominent Christian leaders are telling us to take a sabbatical from politics—a seductively appealing message for so many fatigued by our 30-year-long uphill struggle.

At the same time, secularists berate Christians for the culture wars, claiming that we are trying to impose our bigoted agenda on them. Often intimidated, Christians fear raising controversial questions.

But someone should ask: Who started the divisive culture wars in the first place? Far from being the aggressors—as the press would have us believe—religious conservatives have simply been responding to the relentless secularization of American life.

There was a time when Christianity's positive influence on society was applauded. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a strong civil libertarian, stated in the 1952 Zorach v. Clauson case: "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being …. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities … it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs."

Scarcely a decade later, the Supreme Court, in an astonishing reversal, declared in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempp (1963) that prayer and Bible reading in public schools were to be outlawed—and thus opened Pandora's Box. In case after case, justices decided against the traditional values of our country, culminating in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, when the Court ruled that killing human life at its earliest stages was now a constitutionally protected practice—leading to an unbroken string of such cases since.

The changes in American life weren't limited to the law. School boards discovered programs like values clarification that were far from neutral and were clear assaults on Christian values. Condoms were made vailable in schools, while many religious materials were forbidden.

This was part of an unprecedented assault on the traditional moral fabric of the country. People of Christian conscience could sit still no longer. What followed was what Harvard professor Nathan Glazer called a "defensive reaction of the conservative heartland."

Article continues below

Far from seeking to impose their beliefs upon the nation, Christian conservatives were manning the ramparts, protecting the moral foundations of society.

Is 'faithful presence' enough for Christians even as the forces of secularization grow stronger and more militant?

Today is no different. As other Christian leaders and I wrote in the Manhattan Declaration, "Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense."

On each of these fronts, the forces of secularism have assaulted foundational principles necessary for true human flourishing and the preservation of moral order.We defend them not for parochial interests but for the good of society.

It was under somewhat similar conditions that Augustine wrote The City of God. As buildings smoldered in Rome, accusations flew that Christians, by seeking to replace the pagan gods, had caused the fall of the city. But Rome's demise, as Augustine explained, could not be laid at the feet of Christians. Compelled by love of God and neighbor, Christians, he argued, make the best of citizens, working to create the kind of society where all can live peaceable and godly lives. His classic work has served for 1,600 years as an apologetic for the wholehearted participation of the citizens of the city of God in the city of man.

So is now the time to back away? Is "faithful presence" enough for Christians even as the forces of secularization grow stronger and more militant? Do we say nothing when, for perhaps the first time in our nation's history, the administration seeks, as a matter of policy, to redefine "freedom of religion"? From the very beginning of our republic, freedom of religion has meant free exercise of religion—the right to live out one's religious beliefs. Instead, our Secretary of State and the administration speak of nothing more than "freedom of worship"—the right to worship privately as one pleases. And we are to disengage from politics?

Absolutely not. We cannot do so and remain faithful to the command to love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.

This is no time for despair. And it is no time for retreat. Instead, it is time, in the tradition of Augustine, to work for justice and the common good—not just for ourselves, but for all who are made in God's image.

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today articles discussing Christianity and the culture wars include:

Faithful Presence | James Davison Hunter says our strategies to transform culture are ineffective, and the goal itself is misguided. (May 14, 2010)
Sit Down, Sit Down for Jesus? | Contrary to rumor, the culture wars aren't over. Nor should they be. (September 1, 2006)
'Moral Values' Tops Voters' Concerns—But What Does It Mean? | Sexual morality probably trumped social justice concerns, say observers. (November 1, 2004)

Previous columns by Charles Colson are available on our website, including:

The Lost Art of Commitment | Why we're afraid of it, and why we shouldn't be. (August 4, 2010)
Who Are Americans? | What Christians contribute to the search for a national identity. (June 21, 2010)
Valentine's Dynamic Love | Our love is most godly when it is against the world for the world. (February 12, 2010)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Contra Mundum
Chuck Colson & Timothy George

Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.

Timothy George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and a member of Christianity Today's Editorial Council. His books include Reading Scripture with the Reformers and Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Like Colson, George has been heavily involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together discussions. George began cowriting "Contra Mundum" with Colson in 2011.

Previous Contra Mundum Columns: