Perhaps one of the greatest setbacks to Evangelicalism has been our own crusade in the ongoing Culture War. And perhaps the greatest casualties of our war have been the victims of the misguided belief that elections shape culture (instead of the other way around).
Jesus told us to go and make disciples, but too many of us have focused instead on making policy.
And so, many Christians have placed an inordinate amount of effort, resources, and emphasis on the necessity of winning elections for the cause of the gospel: Win the election, win the culture. And as I’ve heard in mournful, hushed tones during periods of political setback: Lose the election, lose the culture. Unfortunately, trying to change culture through elections is like changing your hair by drawing on the mirror. The changes, as substantial as they may appear, last only as long as the (voting) body stays in place.
Our misguided theory of elections only amplifies our need for a more discerning Christian theory of involvement.
Take gay rights, for example. We wring our hands over the success of the gay rights movement and attribute it largely to President Obama’s supportive policies. Yet, “most of the gains in visibility, legitimacy, and legal rights by the gay rights movement were made during the twelve consecutive years of the Reagan and Bush presidencies.” *
Ours is not a Christian nation, and our demands that it behave as one will only frustrate us and in turn alienate those in need of the gospel. Suppose, for example, that a brother or sister struggles with homosexuality. If we say, “I’ll deal with you through legislation, precedent, and elections,” but we do nothing to love him or her, what good is it?
Our hope for change must be rooted in more than votes, and our witness must be more winsome that our politics. Our involvement must be as holistic as our discipleship. This is because institutions have greater power than individuals, infrastructures more influence than ideas, and interlinking networks shape national morals more than pietism.* For example, if we want to shift the gay rights movement, we have to be involved in Obama’s 2nd inaugural address… and the repealing of ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell…’ and the entertainment industry… and the arts… and powerful lobbying groups… and people with gobs and gobs of money… and our own church’s failure to retain our youth… and many more.
Our hyperactive focus on the government’s ability to legislate morality distracts us from true discipleship, which in turn neuters our ability to bring true change. We need to see that instead of making non-Christians do what we want, we’re called to make Christians, everywhere.
We need Christians everywhere because elections and the government don’t project cultural values; they reflect them. Take the abolition of slavery. It is evident from Lincoln’s writings and speeches that he detested slavery and opposed its expansion throughout his political career. It is equally evident that he had no intention of abolishing slavery until he believed the majority of the population shared a similar view. That’s why he assured the Southern States that he had no intention of interfering with slavery in his 1st Inaugural Address, and yet pushed for the 13th Amendment to abolish the institution of slavery shortly before his 2nd Inaugural Address.
Lincoln was a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, with the primary goal of preserving the Union. He abhorred slavery, but he waited until the events of the Civil War and the abolitionist movement shifted the heart of the populace to a point where his gut told him they would accept first the Emancipation Declaration and then the 13th Amendment.
Imagine if the abolitionists waited for a political election to define their cause.
The government can force people to be moral (don’t kill), but it can’t make people Christian. This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics–of course Christians should be involved in politics! But our involvement in politics should flow naturally from our faithful presence in what we do, who we know, and where we exert influence.*
Which is another way of saying, Christians should make their life their ministry instead of making politics their life.
*James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World