Simply put, a refusal to engage the cultural and political issues of the day is no longer an option for thoughtful conservative Christians in America. The battle has been forced upon us. Reasons for this have to do with current political realities, especially the wholesale shift of administrative power to a technocratic elite with a rather clear progressive social agenda.
It seems to be a truism today that a good many conservative Christians, and especially younger evangelicals, are tired of the “culture war” and its attendant unpleasantness. For some this sentiment is driven by a sense that “single-issue,” pro-life politics have not panned out. After three-plus decades of effort to overturn it Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. Others may be motivated by a desire for cultural acceptance. After all, even the casual suggestion that gay marriage and abortion might not be such good things will quickly get one labeled a weirdo or worse in many circles today.
Some are opposed to Christian political involvement on theological grounds. Here we think of the current proponents in Reformed circles of the so-called “two-kingdoms” doctrine (2K). According to this way of thinking, Christians have no business involving themselves as Christians in the political process, nor of proclaiming that there is a Christian position on the issues of the day. Such political activity, it is argued, fails to recognize the essentially spiritual mission of the Church, and to acknowledge that the task of the Church is to prepare people for the hereafter, not to work for political or social transformation. Some 2K advocates (e.g., here) have recently upped the rhetorical ante, suggesting that there is no essential difference between Christians who seek cultural transformation and Muslims seeking to impose Sharia law.
Although my main point here is not to provide an extended critique of current Reformed 2K thinking, I do have significant reservations about it. I tend to agree with the standard objections—that it has rather little connection to the two-kingdoms theme in Calvin and the earlier Reformed tradition (Calvin certainly thought that Geneva should be governed in accordance with broadly Christian principles), and that it confuses the Kingdom of God and the Church (biblically speaking, the Kingdom involves the Church but is not coextensive with it). Moreover, its working assumption that there is no middle ground of principled pluralism between theocracy and 2K is certainly open to question, and I sense that what traction 2K is getting stems largely from the fact that it provides a theological fig leaf for the evangelical culture-war fatigue referenced earlier.
Simply put, a refusal to engage the cultural and political issues of the day is no longer an option for thoughtful conservative Christians in America. The battle has been forced upon us. Reasons for this have to do with current political realities, especially the wholesale shift of administrative power to a technocratic elite with a rather clear progressive social agenda. Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism has recently explored this development in an insightful article in The Weekly Standard. Smith writes, “Liberals today seek to create a stable, and what they perceive to be a socially just, society via rule by experts—in which most of the activities of society are micromanaged by technocrats for the economic and social benefit of the whole. In other words, social democracy without the messiness of democracy, like the European Union’s rule-by-bureaucrats-in-Brussels. This is the ‘fundamental transformation’ that President Obama seeks to implement in this country.”
As Smith recognizes, such secular technocracy is heavily value-laden (even if it is loath to admit it). Such people tend to have defined ideas of right (abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, state-mandated and run education for our children, etc.) and wrong (opposition to abortion and contraception, complementarian views of gender roles, opposition to promiscuity and gay marriage, etc.). As Smith observes, “Technocracy is ultimately not about expertise but about determining the common moral values of society. It does not countenance competing centers of moral authority. It is no surprise that the first major regulation promulgated under the ACA [Affordable Care Act] by the Obama administration directly attacked freedom of religion by requiring sectarian institutions and private businesses to provide their employees free birth control and sterilization surgeries even if it violates their religious consciences.”
If Smith is correct, and I think he is, culturally conservative religion and religious believers are in the crosshairs of these secular, culturally progressive technocratic elites. Witness, for example, the Obama administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit against a Lutheran church (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) in which it argued, according to the opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the astonishing proposition that the First Amendment has “nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.” Thankfully, the Supreme Court decisively rejected the administration’s arguments, but we can expect similar efforts to hamstring religion in the future.
Much more could said, but the larger pattern is clear—the cultural battle has been decisively joined, and with the vast expansion of technocratic bureaucracy the progressive left now has many more weapons at its disposal than before. This is not a time for cowardice, or for a theology that effectively silences conservative Christians from speaking to the great moral and political issues of the day.
William B. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in theology, American religion, and religion and culture. He holds degrees from Taylor University, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and Vanderbilt University.