The Church and Cultural Power

Tuesday, 05 Jun 2018

A recent article by Douglas MacKinnon on the Fox News website asked an interesting question: “How long will I be allowed to remain a Christian?” I must stress at the outset that I share MacKinnon’s love for (and concern about) religious freedom and the manner in which it is under some cultural and legal pressure in the United States. Times are definitely changing—we’re watching the rise of a generation for whom religious freedom, and indeed freedom of speech, are not the self-evident social goods which they were once considered to be. There is no doubt that the lives of many Christians are more uncomfortable in the US than they once were. Few face the financial ruin of the cake bakers and florists who have been sued over refusal to provide services, but many find workplaces increasingly difficult to navigate as the politics of sexual identity seep into every area of life.

Yet for all of the furore concerning society’s current anti-Christian moral tendencies, it is worth pausing for a moment to ask if Christians themselves have been complicit in the formation of this culture. Take marriage, for example—as Robby George argued in What is Marriage?, marriage was redefined as a sentimental attachment to last only as long as convenient to the parties involved by the advent of no-fault divorce. How many churches—and how many florists and cake bakers—have effectively accepted such divorces as legitimate?

We might make a similar argument about abortion. Yes, abortion is a deep evil, but it arises within a society that prioritizes human beings as individual economic producers, not image-bearers of the living God. Plenty of Christians functionally buy into a paradigm that sees children as accessories or as impediments to careers, rather than as one of the primary purposes of marriage.

We might also reflect upon the hashtag wielding mobs that now seem to exert such influence. MacKinnon mentions how he is mocked for a vision he once had. Well, speaking for myself, I have received more hate-mail and more blog vitriol from Christians than I have ever received from non-Christians. I say that not to generate sympathy—far from it—but simply to point out that there is a general culture of insults and nastiness out there in which every group, from atheists to Christian fundamentalists, is represented.

Then there are the subversive, anti-democratic methods by which the Left has increasingly pursued its task, from the politicization of the judicial branch of government to the strategic use of economic power. Well, as to the first, that has been something of an arms race between left and right: both sides of the political aisle have helped to create the politicized judiciary. Losing the game is not a sufficient basis for retroactively declaring the game illegitimate. Christians and non-Christians alike have not scrupled to wield economic power to drive change. With the measure you measure it out, it will be measured back to you.

MacKinnon himself alludes to how Christianity operated in an ancient Rome that was hostile to the faith, and wonders if we are returning to such a situation today. Well, one of the interesting things about that Rome was that it provided the political and cultural context for the Apostle Paul, and yet Paul spends almost no time bewailing the wider cultural context at all. His letters are not preoccupied with whether the Roman authorities will allow him to be a Christian; rather they are preoccupied with whether the church that claims Christ’s name will allow its members to be Christian by teaching orthodoxy and cultivating Christian community. Yes, religious freedom is something we should all treasure. But Paul’s response to lack of such was to make sure that the church was functioning correctly, not to spend his time decrying the policies of Nero. He wanted the church to be the church, to march to the beat of a different drum to that of the world around.

And that perhaps is the real problem many Christians have with the current anti-Christian culture. It is not that they really object to vile insults, mischaracterizations of opponents, hashtag wielding mobs, and the use of corporate economic power and the politicization of the judiciary as a means to subvert constitutional rights and democratic process. It is that they no longer have the influence over the culture which embodies such things. And that should give cause for heart-searching and reflection upon what the church really is, not indignant fist-shaking at those who use the same methods only with greater effect.

 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He blogs regularly at First Things and does a weekly podcast with Aimee Byrd and Todd Pruitt, Mortification of Spin.

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