There is no one-size-fits-all approach to cultural engagement. Christians with a different political calculus, with various regional sensibilities, temperaments, or experiences, may choose different courses of action. Debate over the best course of action is good and necessary. But culture warriors and culture engagers alike must be careful not to criticize unfairly or demean brothers and sisters whose different choices are not out of line with confessional faithfulness but flow from prudential judgments about how best to be faithful in the public square.
What should Christian public engagement look like as we move forward in this era? So far in this series, I’ve laid out some of the challenges facing traditional Christianity, and why it’s no surprise that some on the right claim a more combative posture is necessary for pushing back against harmful ideologies and practices in society.
Some Christians seem to believe that confrontational or combative approaches to public theology are inherently sub-Christian. This is not the case. Christianity has a long history of people willing to speak truth to power, to call into question the reigning ideologies of the day in the name of Christ the King.
Too often, the negative label of “culture-warring Christians” gets applied solely to Christians who oppose ideologies common on the left. When left-leaning Christians call out politicians or pastors who support sinful beliefs or behaviors common to the right, they get described as “prophetic” and “courageous.” This is unfair. Culture warring requires two sides, and one can be a left-wing culture warrior just as easily as a right-wing one.
But, speaking of being “prophetic,” sometimes, we think courage and boldness consist in bloviating bluster, “destroying” the opposition, “owning the libs,” or mocking the “nutcases” we find on the other side of the aisle. No. It takes little courage to be bold in opposing those whom your closest friends, family members, or online followers would expect you to oppose. What takes courage is to police your own side, to call out the problems not only in “the culture” but in your particular subculture, to buck the consensus of your own tribe and go against the people whose favor you usually enjoy. Compromise always involves capitulation, but capitulation can happen in more than one direction.
It seems likely that we will see a return to something akin to the older culture-war mentality among younger evangelicals in the years to come. Rather than rule that option out of bounds, I think it better to offer some encouragement and caution for younger evangelicals who are enthusiastic about this mode of public engagement.
The Reality of Christian Warfare
First, let’s dispense with the idea that warfare has no place in Christianity. I remember restraining my laughter when, 15 years ago or so, progressive Christians were protesting the “unbiblical” martial imagery of many Christians and churches. In taking aim at conservatives, they were shooting the Bible.
The language of spiritual warfare is pervasive in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus blessed the peacemakers and called us to turn the other cheek, and yet he said he came to bring division, not unity. His was the sword that separated son from father, and daughter from mother. The apostle Paul used martial imagery, as did the other apostles. We are on a spiritual battlefield. The response to such circumstances is for the church to be, dare I say, militant. Downplaying the stakes fails to do justice to the Bible itself.
In this battle, Christianity is “on offense”—not in a way that implies we should seek to be offensive, to take it as a badge of honor when others are offended. No, to speak of Christianity “on offense” is simply another way of describing the image Jesus gave us when he said that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. Jesus’s statement imagines the church moving outward, plundering hell, and pushing back the forces of darkness. Passivity has no place in the Great Commission.
The Danger of Misidentifying the Enemy
But the danger for Christians who apply the New Testament’s warfare motifs to political engagement is that we can easily misidentify the enemy. The apostle Paul makes clear we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. It’s the church moving forward into battle against the powers and principalities that hold people captive—against the evil forces that wreak havoc in our world, the supernatural realities the Bible describes as present and persistent.
We must distinguish the serpent from his prey. This is why we seek to convert our opponents, not own or destroy them. We seek their rescue, not their ruin.