The emergence of popular support for same-sex marriage and ever-loosening moral norms in the US have Christians backpedaling on their perceived mission to shape the culture with their faith. Matt Lewis wrote a few days ago at The Week that this may be good news for Christians and Christianity in America, in part because it allows for a return to focus on faith rather than politics:
Just as political parties wrestle with whether or not it’s better to be a big tent, or (to paraphrase Reagan) to fly “a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors,” there is an argument that “nominal” Christians cause more problems than solutions. In politics, numbers matter, of course, and Christians who are still looking for a political savior may view this trend as bad news. But for Christians focused on something more transcendent — saving souls and winning real converts — there is a silver lining to losing the culture. …
The problem of “nominal” Christianity seems to have observable societal consequences, too. In his latest column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat hints at it, observing that “the social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief.”
Another possible silver lining: As Christianity recedes as the dominant cultural paradigm, it might also have the ironic affect of sparking a renewed interest and curiosity about spirituality. Absence, I suppose, can make the heart grow fonder. With Noah triumphing at the box office, and a new show called Resurrection on ABC (a show filled with biblical allusions), it would be easy to conclude that a disenchanted and dispirited nation — having given up hope that salvation will come in the form of traditional American institutions — is yearning for some sort of spiritual fulfillment.
Christ promised that genuine Christianity would be met with opposition. And the entire book of 1 Peter was written for this purpose: how do we live as a faithful minority? I don’t think anyone should be rooting for persecution, of course, but I do think there may be some very positive developments to come from a nation that no longer pretends to be Christian. It’s hard to be a rebel when you’re The Man.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because it’s a phenomenon not limited to cultural ascendancy. Recast this argument in terms of political parties, and one reaches the same conclusion. When the GOP was out of power completely in 2009-10, it was easy for party leaders to stick to conservative orthodoxy, since they couldn’t impact much in terms of governance. The same was true for Democrats in 2002-6; it was easy to proclaim the progressive agenda when they had no power to enact it. The problem for both came when they actually had to govern, in whole (Democrats in 2009-10) or in part (GOP control of the House, 2011-present). It’s not so much a lack of political commitment as it is the complexity of interacting in a society where those really of the True (Political) Faith are actually a minority.
Now, this isn’t a perfect analogy, because despite the hysterical accusations of the coming American theocracy!, Christians don’t want to establish clerical rule in the US. The faith has always been about shaping the culture, with the policies and politics a natural end result. That’s why the activist Christians who got into politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s engaged on culture more than, say, budgetary policy in the first place. The cultural upheavals of the 1960s that Matt described were the focus of this counter-Deformation, to employ a pun. To a large extent, they still are — which is why it’s called the culture war.
The question remains, though, as to whether politics — and especially partisan politics — has co-opted the cultural mission. To some extent it has, and that has drawn some odd divisions as politics trump faith. For instance, the Gospels are filled with demands on Christians to prioritize their efforts on the poor. When Pope Francis warns about the poor being left behind in a global culture that idolizes money and capital, though, he ends up having to rebut the notion that he’s a communist for talking about poverty and exclusion:
In a March 31 interview with communications students, Pope Francis responded to previous accusations of being a communist, explaining that his preference for the poor is in fact based in the Gospel.
“I heard two months ago that a person referred to my preference for speaking about the poor, saying: ‘This Pope is a communist, no?’ And no, this is the banner of the Gospel, not of communism — of the Gospel,” the Pope explained during the meeting.
Given to three Belgian youth who are studying communications, the interview was broadcast on April 3 on the Belgium website deredactie.be., and it was later picked up by Italian news agency ReppublicaTV.
During the interview, one student asked the Pope where his preference for the poor and most needy comes from, to which the Holy Father responded: “Because this is the heart of the Gospel, and I am a believer, I believe in God, I believe in Christ, I believe in the Gospel, and the heart of the Gospel is the poor.”
“And because of this, I believe that the poor are the center of the Gospel of Jesus. This is clear if we read it,” he affirmed.
As I explained in my notes on Evangelii Gaudium, anyone who read the document would never have concluded otherwise — especially those with some knowledge of Catholic teachings on economics embraced by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two men hardly disposed towards communism. If Christians cannot discuss poverty and the shortcomings of economic policies towards the poor without being summarily dismissed as crypto-communists, then the mission to change the culture and then its politics has been replaced with simple power struggles. And in service to what?
Still, the point here is that the cultural battlefield is precisely where Christians must work, and setbacks are not going to make our job of proclaiming the truth of the Gospel any easier. If we needed evidence of that, Mozilla proved it after the publication of Matt’s column. Matt cites 1 Peter as a model for living as a faithful minority, and that’s solid advice; Matt isn’t prescribing a retreat, but more of a reorientation and consolidation. However, I would recommend 1 Corinthians as a warning to Christians about the impact of culture to the faith as well as the other way around. Paul discovered that the church he founded in Corinth still proclaimed the Gospel but had largely stopped living it. They had re-adopted the practices and mores of the notoriously-hedonistic Corinthian culture as a way of getting along with everyone and “fitting in.” They did not want to provoke the dominant culture or really to shape it outside of their own enclave — and that led the outside culture to shape their practice of Christianity instead. Under Paul’s direction to Corinth and the wider Christian world after the publication of his letters, Christians did shape the culture and created post-Greek Western Civilization.
In our long history, Christians have had many setbacks in addressing cultural decay and misdirection. We have our 1960s; the early church had its Corinth. That didn’t mean that Christians shrank from challenging the social ills of Corinth, nor should we shrink from proclaiming the full spectrum of Christian teachings in order to shape our world now and in the future. We are sent out as sheep amidst the wolves, always — not to become wolves looking only for political power as an end to itself, but to spread love, joy, truth, and beauty so that our politics will follow the culture we can still shape and uplift.