Don’t call it a pullback; we’ve been here for years.
The recent profile in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a generational change in terms of the way evangelicals approach cultural and political engagement: toward a gospel-centered approach that doesn’t back down on issues of importance, but sees our ultimate mission as one that applies the blood of Christ to the questions of the day.
The headline, as is often the case with headlines, is awfully misleading. I am not calling, at all, for a “pullback” from politics or engagement.
If anything, I’m calling for more engagement in the worlds of politics, culture, art, labor and so on. It’s just that this is a different sort of engagement. It’s not a matter of pullback, but of priority.
Pullback? No. Unless, that is, we mean pulling back to the ministry of Jesus-who addressed everything, body and soul, public and private, political and personal, but who did so with the cross in his vision at every point. That’s what the church has done in every era.
We want to see our so-called enemies out-voted when they’re doing harmful things, unelected from office when they’re hurting the common good. But we don’t stop there. We want to see them transformed by the blood of Christ. We don’t only want to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching As to War.” We also want to sing “Just As I Am, Without One Plea, But That Thy Blood Was Shed for Me.”
There are two essential lessons in this pair of very interesting reads.
There first is that you can bet your bottom dollar that if you are discussing sophisticated Christian thought, the mainstream media is not going to get it. Even a conservative outlet like the WSJ does not understand what Moore is really trying to do. One is tempted to talk about the fact tat you have to be religious to get religion (That, by the way, is one of the things Moore is saying needs to be understood in the recalibration of approach) but there is something else at play here.
Most media outlets write at an eighth grade level or below. That’s because that is where the audience is – that’s the level most of the nation operates at. Moore is making essentially the same argument we have made here over and over and over again. To really be politically effective, we have to first be effective as a church. If enough people are deeply genuine in their commitment to Christ, the political ramifications will flow naturally from them. In other words, Moore is more worried that the church is failing to be the church as younger Christians fail to understand some of the imperatives that are so important to their parents generation.
That is a very sophisticated argument, one not likely to be properly understood at the level where the media operates. Somehow, we have to learn how to communicate graduate level arguments at eighth grade levels.
The second lesson is related. Politics is done in a very specific way and to attempt to change that way is to not really do politics. Here I think Moore does not get it. Moore is playing a long game, and I think the right one for a person affiliated with a denomination or church. But politics is about the immediate. It is about organizing and fundraising and voters guides and phone banks and direct mail and so the list goes on. Moore does seem to be taking the Southern Baptist Convention out of that game. So in a very real sense, the WSJ piece is correct – it is a pullback.
So, what future for religiously motivated political activism? From my perspective we need both things going on. Moore is right, the church needs to fix its priorities and concentrate on being the church. It needs to make political professionals of deep and genuine faith that go out and use related, but different, organizations to do the stuff of politics. Of course, that is probably more sophisticated than the media can deal with too. Which means those political professionals are going to have to be very sophisticated communicators – perhaps even more sophisticated than the preachers that breed them. The media will never “get” the church, but we have to figure out a way for them “to get” our political arms.