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Hope for America Despite Signs of Death

Written by Greg Forster on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Greg Forster

Editors’ note: This year’s election season clearly revealed what many have long suspected: America is a deeply divided nation. What has caused this division? What is the way forward? How can evangelicals respond in a way that leads to healing and increased unity? The Gospel Coalition invited several writers and observers to explore those and related questions for an online symposium on the State of Evangelicalism.

Previously:

The American republic and the evangelical church within it both show clear signs of dying. Churches, however, are often not as mortal as they look, if history is any guide. They even have a way of suddenly getting up and walking back out of the grave. And often, as a side effect of their resurrection, they bear their civilizations back from the grave with them. The histories of Rome in late antiquity, Europe in the High Middle Ages and again after the Reformation, and England in the Industrial Revolution, among others, are instructive in this regard.

For the church in America today, there is a path back from cultural enslavement to faithful discipleship. And that means for America itself, there is a path back from decadence and injustice to national honor. The road is hard, but the path is actually not that difficult to find, if we want to find it.

Our public crisis is a crisis of discipleship. Churches must build ways of helping people live their whole lives, 24/7, as disciples of Jesus Christ. That means we need models of public discipleship—ways of participating in the political life of our nation that bless God’s beautiful, broken world and bring honor to our King.

However Bad You Think It Is, It’s Worse

Never mind who won. There are three death signs for America today, and none of them is that Donald Trump will be the next president.

The first death sign is that it didn’t much matter who won. The two major candidates were just two different ways of repudiating founding principles of the American republic. As several people have remarked, this election was like the Ghostbusters being asked to choose the form of their destructor. The elevation of either candidate signaled the death of the rule of law—the only possible foundation for religious freedom; for a constitutional, democratic republic; or for an entrepreneurial economy that produces livelihoods and removes material poverty.

In the older, aristocratic social orders, the injustice and cruelty of the rulers was hard to restrain, but at least their power was effective in crushing all other sources of injustice and cruelty. In a democratic republic like ours, public respect for the law is the only political restraint upon anybody and everybody’s injustice and cruelty. We have no other protection against one another’s unlimited wickedness, and the election of either candidate this year represented its repudiation.

The second death sign is that in spite of the monstrosity of both major candidates, alternative candidates drew remarkably few votes. In 1992, when the two major candidates were no worse than is typical for a U.S. presidential election, a half-crazy billionaire named Ross Perot bought himself a few half-hour TV shows and got 20 million votes—19 percent of the total votes cast. This after he dropped out of the race and jumped back in!

While final vote totals are still coming in, all alternative candidates combined appear to have gathered only 5 percent of the vote in 2016. Against candidates whose election would represent a repudiation of the rule of law. 

Who have we become?

The third death sign is that all the weaknesses of American democracy that were once hidden are being exposed. Neither of the major candidates was actually the aspiring fascist dictator their detractors painted them as, but somewhere in America there actually is an aspiring fascist dictator. This person—do not kid yourself, he or she is out there—is neither a juvenile buffoon like Trump nor a transparent phony like Clinton. This person is self-disciplined, charming, ruthless, and taking a lot of careful notes.

Cheapest Date in American Politics

This is the sewer into which so many American evangelical leaders have done their best to plunge the church. They have had substantial, though not complete, success. There is a saving remnant who have not bowed the knee, but that does not much mitigate the almost total destruction of evangelicalism’s public credibility as a voice of love and righteousness.

The vain hope of the sellouts was that Trump would be marginally preferable in office to Clinton. Trump may have been a fervent supporter of abortion and deadly enemy of the rule of law (the only foundation of religious freedom or constitutional government) right up until the day before yesterday. But don’t worry, he promises he’s changed his mind. His long track record of keeping such promises to everyone he makes deals with, borrows money from, or marries will surely outweigh all the lucrative incentives he will have, once in office, to sell us down the river and laugh all the way to the bank.

And after he sells us down the river, we’ll vote for him again anyway. That’s exactly why he’ll sell us down the river; he knows there’s no price. Except for a saving remnant of indeterminate size, we have proven that we are exactly what fellow evangelical David French called us: “The cheapest date in American politics.”

Who have we become?

Evangelical Protestantism as a share of the American population has been stable in recent years, while other Christian communities have lost ground. I no longer expect that trend to continue.

The death sign for the evangelical church in America is that we have forfeited our spiritual credibility, and religious communities live and die by that credibility. We claim to bear a message and a power from beyond the world. Everything hangs on whether that claim is credible or not.

Scripture and common sense unite to teach that the good works of the church—its labor for justice and mercy in the world—establish the credibility of our witness, rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The claim is not naturally credible. People need to see an unnatural goodness in our way of life if they are to find it credible that Jesus rose from the dead. 

After this election, how do I look my neighbors in the eye and tell them that, as an evangelical, I’m an ambassador from an invisible kingdom ruled by love and righteousness? That might have been credible if the church had resisted both candidates forcefully. But now?

American evangelicalism has sold its birthright for a bowl of bean soup. It remains to be seen whether it will get the bean soup; I’m skeptical. But the birthright is gone either way.

American evangelicalism has sold its birthright for a bowl of bean soup. It remains to be seen whether it will get the bean soup.

Problem Behind the Problems

More than anything else we need a clear understanding of the long-term, world-historical problem that lies behind all our more immediate problems. Religious freedom, precious as it is, has disrupted the relationship between morality and social order. We have not yet solved this problem.

Clinton vs. Trump is only the local version of an emerging global confrontation: technocrats vs. tribalists.

Technocrats are globalist cosmopolitans. They are committed to securing pluralism through secularized political systems based on shallow, utilitarian moral narratives. They trust the elite institutions of international order. They are complacent (or worse) about cronyism and corruption, which they see as the price of the emerging global economy that brings growth to all. We all get rich and can enjoy the freedom of living in a moral vacuum. We may all live however we choose, so long as we don’t choose to believe in a moral order that makes public claims.

Tribalism—the demand for a social order that serves a particular nationalistic, religious, racial, or other group at the expense of others—is the natural reaction to the moral vacuum created by technocracy. Trump, for all his race-baiting and shameless nationalism, is actually one of the milder forms of tribalism. At the other end of the spectrum are France’s National Front, Alternative for Germany, and (ultimately) Kim Jong-Un and ISIS. (Trump is also a lifelong technocrat who has only recently reinvented himself as a tribalist to swindle the gullible masses—but then, the same could be said of many tribalist leaders in history.)

People need identity, meaning, and purpose in their lives. Technocracy not only doesn’t provide that, it undermines the social conditions most conducive to it. So, to escape the moral vacuum, people scrape together whatever identity, meaning, and purpose they are able to get from inauthentic tribal narratives jerry-rigged by cynical, manipulative political leaders.

Tribalism is also fueled by resentment at the unequal distribution of technocracy’s benefits. This is both because the global economy is naturally better for some than for others, and because the technocrats shamelessly cheat, gobbling up wealth and power through cronyism and corruption.

Religious freedom brought an end to the medieval Christendom social order, and let’s be glad it did. After the religious division introduced by the Reformation, the only alternative to religious freedom was—and still is today—endless religious warfare. But religious freedom did not solve the problem of how to relate morality to the social order. It made that challenge more acute, not less.

We used to understand this point, back when we used to talk about “the American experiment.” Modern forms of social order were, and remain, an experiment.

Right now, the lab is on fire.

Technocracy, Tribalism, or Holy Love for an Unholy World

Technocracy vs. tribalism is not a fight between good guys and bad guys. We obviously need to retain some elements of both technocracy and tribalism, and we need to reject others.

We need a social order that seeks to do justice to all impartially. In the absence of any viable alternatives, that pretty much means we’re going to have religious freedom, constitutional democracy (mostly democratic republics, though a few monarchies have figured out how to reconcile themselves to modernity tolerably well), and entrepreneurial, dynamic market economies.

But we also need to place a public value on deep moral commitments that resist this social order’s natural gravitational pull toward shallow utilitarianism and go-along-to-get-along corruption. For a century, our culture has been looking within for that kind of deep moral commitment. We’ve been told that the autonomous individual self is the source of commitment.

We need to wake up: Deep moral commitments only come from religious or quasi-religious communities that have clear boundaries and historically rooted, transcendent, non-negotiable moral commitments. Such communities demand a lot from their members, and get it.

The question is how to steer a middle path between utilitarianism and bigotry. How can we have both universal goodwill and particular identity at the same time?

The answer, of course, is the gospel.

I have learned much on this problem from David Wells’s God in the Whirlwind. God is holy love, and his gospel is characterized by holy love for an unholy world. The trick is to keep our own holiness while genuinely loving, rather than hating, an unholy world.

Wells writes that human culture always tends to demand either love without holiness (technocracy) or holiness without love (tribalism). This is why the church is always both in connection and in tension with human culture. It affirms the goodness of the culture’s desire for one side of the “holy love” formula, but demands the culture accept the other side as well.

Public Discipleship

The world’s crisis (technocracy vs. tribalism) and the church’s crisis (cultural enslavement) are two sides of the same coin. By conforming to the world in our way of life, the church destroys its credibility as the ambassador of a message and power from beyond the world. And then the world, no longer influenced by the strong cultural presence of a gospel alternative, chooses sides between love without holiness and holiness without love, and goes to war with itself.

Yet there is hope. There is always hope. It is the same hope available to the church in every age. God does not owe us success in this or any other endeavor, but we owe God our best effort to succeed. Hope will not put us to shame.

There is hope. There is always hope. It is the same hope available to the church in every age.

We need to face this crisis not with fear, but with confidence in God and the gospel. This emphatically does not mean we should only talk about the gospel and never talk about politics or other public matters. It means we participate in public life in a way shaped by our gospel transformation.

We need confidence not only in God and the gospel, but also that godly life is possible—here, now, in the present age, in our nation and culture. Yes, even in 2016.

We need confidence that we can share this country with our fellow Americans. This country is big enough for all of us. Perpetual war is not the only possibility.

We need a public form of discipleship, a way of following Jesus that manifests itself in our lives 24/7, including in public spaces and activities. As a publisher’s review of John Stott’s The Contemporary Christian once wrote: “People today reject Christianity not because they think it is false, but because they believe it is irrelevant.”

Our public discipleship is also what America needs. Public discipleship influences culture even among those who don’t accept the gospel. When we show another way to live, we force the world to respond. Some will co-opt elements of our way, moving in the direction of justice and mercy. Others will refuse to do so, and their refusal will expose their wickedness for all to see. Either way, our civilization is improved by our cultural presence.

America needs neither technocracy nor tribalism, but a new creation.

America needs neither technocracy nor tribalism, but a new creation.

There is no space here to get into what public discipleship would consist of and how it can be done, but thankfully there is no need. A whole library of books could be written—has been written—about it. David Wells’s God in the Whirlwind is as good a place as any to start. There’s also John Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World and Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling. Beyond the Reformed world, the works of Dallas Willard are deeply fruitful, as is the Acton Institute’s video curriculum For the Life of the World. (As a last resort, you could try my book, Joy for the World.)

What about politics specifically? As I’ve described at greater length elsewhere, I propose a six-point plan for building a credible, responsible gospel witness in politics:

  • The church should hold government, law, and politicians publicly accountable to trans-partisan moral commitments—principles of justice, mercy, reconciliation, freedom, and flourishing that have implications for the social order and are not captive to one or the other side of the political divide.
  • The church should demonstrate a costly commitment to religious freedom for all, not just for ourselves and those who agree with us on contested moral issues.
  • The church should ground its political witness in an authentic Christian consensus, not a superficial centrism that strives in vain to keep the church on the 50-yard line between the two parties.
  • The church should seek a renewal of public theology from both pastors and practitioners, digging deeper into how the mystery of spiritual transformation relates to the structures of human culture and civilization.
  • The church should create institutionalized, credible, mostly non-clerical political leadership that has a specialized knowledge of politics and a long-term incentive to steward its public voice responsibly.
  • The church should make it a critical priority to build public discipleship beyond politics, finding ways to manifest the fruit of the Spirit in every domain of public life, not just in the voting booth once every four years (or, if you’re really spiritual, every two).

To do all this in full would be the work of a generation. But if our leading institutions really wanted to do it, we could have a preliminary version of this up and running well before the next election cycle.

But do we really want to do it? That is the big question. It is the same question God put before the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30.

Let’s choose life. Hope will not put us to shame.

Greg Forster (PhD, Yale University) is the director of the Oikonomia Network, a visiting assistant professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University, and the author of numerous books and articles.

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