[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on January 27, 2014.]
The sharp-sighted cultural commentator Russell Moore strikes again. In “Evangelical Retreat?”, published in the December edition of First Things, he responds to the concern that younger Evangelicals’ drift away from conservative political activism is underlain by closet liberalism, political disinterest, or perhaps some other infelicity. His answer, which I think is correct, is that most young Evangelicals are not withdrawing; instead, they are engaging in ways which are more deeply theological and ecclesial.
Moore begins by noting certain concerns expressed by Christians outside of the Evangelical orbit: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square” (p. 46). The concern stems from several factors, and central among them is the breakdown of the religious right as a centering force for Evangelical cultural impact. In the wake of this breakdown, where and how will Evangelicals engage the culture? Will they try? This is a concern held not only by Catholic friends, but also by old veterans of the Moral Majority.
Moore notes that “engaging the culture” has changed in Evangelicalism because the present generation defines these terms differently from previous generations. No longer does “engage the culture” mean “get out the vote.” Rather, young Evangelicals regularly engage the culture at the congregational level primarily and the political level secondarily. As Moore points out, “They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability [the healthy union of one man and one woman], family accountability [including the sanctity of life], and personal responsibility [the practice of purity and community]” (p. 46). These actions are underlain by deep and profound theological and ecclesial concerns.
For this generation of Evangelicals, faithful and appropriate public action sprouts from the rich soil of orthodox theology. Moore observes:
As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture––especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt––it grows increasingly committed to the ‘strangest’ aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed ‘political’ isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. (p. 46)
In this case, “engaging the culture” will not look like Evangelical public action of the past. “As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right.” Evangelicals have begun to realize slowly “that they are no ‘moral majority’” in America (p. 47). So a more expansive theology, rooted especially in the Reformed Tradition, has replaced extensive campaigning.
Such theology also undergirds a more rigorous church polity and accountability. “Unlike the Bible-Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements . . . The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition . . . He is pro-life and pro-marriage” (p. 47). The challenge for many “young Evangelical” pastors and elders (a growing trend, too) is not whether to teach all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20), but whether public engagement fits within the mission of the local church. This is because he has most likely seen attempts at packaging “a transcendent message for decidedly worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levels of power” (p. 47).
With every theology and polity comes a worldview, or vice versa. As such, Moore observes, “To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people.” This refers to the biblical narrative but also to personal narratives. Personal testimonies demonstrate the reasons young Evangelicals worship, for example, in Reformed and liturgically oriented churches. These churches are decidedly different from, for example, the theologically vacuous and/or super casual churches in which they grew up. And as Moore notes, “What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement” (p. 48).
Moore also clarifies that the term “young Evangelical” is also confusing for many. The theological conservatives of whom he speaks are quite different from the “young Evangelicals” often sought out by the national media. “It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic” (p. 46). So “liberal” does not describe the “young Evangelicals” of whom Moore writes.
The current status and ethos of Evangelicalism, then, reflects a return to the evangel. “Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel.” But this does not mean that such “Gospel-centered Evangelicals” should retreat from public engagement (p. 48). The past mistakes caused by divorcing the Gospel from the kingdom cannot and must not be repeated. How then do we engage?
Moore argues for prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. He contends that the increasing secularization of America “ . . . will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts––and thank God. The engagement will be first congregational . . . ” (p. 49). Moore also encourages Evangelicals to look to Rome for help: “Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive . . . .” Likewise, though, Evangelicals can remind Catholics that natural law is as good as far as it goes, but that the universe “is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). So Evangelicals are still here, still engaging, albeit in new, more theological ways. “You can call that a ‘Rapture’ if you want, but don’t call it a ‘retreat’” (p. 50).
I agree with Moore’s assessment, and add only a few thoughts.
First, I hope that Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptist Evangelicals in particular, will take Moore’s lead, learning from him how to engage in public political conversation in ways that are not only theologically robust but also gracious and kind. If we fail to do so, the resulting combination of theological vacuity and dispositional snark will kill our gospel witness. If we succeed in doing so, the potent combination of truth and kindness in civil discourse portrays the gospel faithfully and strengthens our ability to be persuasive.
Second, I hope that Evangelicals will not neglect the fact that politics is a function (and a part) of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Religion’s influence expands outward across the entirety of culture (through the arts, the sciences, business, schools and universities, sports, home life, the public square, etc.), and it is this entire culture-religion complex which influences and underpins the political sector. For this reason, Christian “political” involvement must be “political” in the very broad sense (concern for the public well-being, including the spheres of culture listed above) as well as the narrow sense (concern with public policy, public administration, etc).
Third, such broad-based political engagement does not, of course, preclude activism, but such action must always come from something deeper and broader. We have a hope that paves the way for us to simultaneously move forward with boldness and lay down our swords to pursue interactions in a civil manner. We aren’t fighting to protect a Kingdom that is dependent on us for its very survival. We are on mission as part of a Kingdom that is already here.
 Russell Moore, “Evangelical Retreat?” First Things (Dec 2013: 45–50).