Sunday, September 27, 2015

American Evangelicals: Strategic Withdrawal?

I appreciated Laura Ortberg Turner’s recent article in The Atlantic (“What Happens When the ‘Moral Majority’ Becomes a Minority?”). She identifies a suggestion by some American evangelical leaders that Christians withdraw from the political scene, emulate the Benedictines by engaging for a season in the contemplative life, and then prepare to reemerge in order to change the culture.

It is interesting to me that, after thirty-five years of presence in American culture—a culture that identifies itself as 70% Christian and 25% evangelical—those who are associated with the Moral Majority would think that withdrawal and reengagement would result in changing the people of the United States. I wonder what they might think would be different once evangelical Christians returned to the political scene after a time of isolation. Would God allow the rest of the USA to suffer consequences in the meantime that might parallel the disasters that befell ancient Israel?

A time of rest and contemplation might actually be good for American evangelicals, if that time of contemplation is less of a strategic withdrawal in preparation for a new attack on culture, and more of a humble time of reflection about what it means to follow Jesus into the world that God loves. We could all probably use a time out in order to give thought to our identity.

I am also interested in the way that the term “American evangelical” often suggests a unified body of religious people. There are a number of prominent voices that do not speak for all evangelicals. There are seminaries that consider themselves to be evangelical, and yet differ with one another about certain areas of theology, ethics, and social justice. There is probably a lot less uniformity among evangelicals than many people think.

Roman Catholics are sometimes described as though they are similarly uniform. In reality, the Roman Catholic Church is made up of a number of orders that are expanded by many sub-orders. There are orders that focus on attending to the inward life (like the Benedictines), and those that attend to the active life (like the Franciscans). They would all say that they are Roman Catholics and share a common life of prayer, but that they also express their vocations in a variety of ways.

I once heard Dr. Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, wish out loud that we Protestants could see our various denominations in the way that Roman Catholics see their orders. I wish that for evangelicals. I wish that some would, indeed, withdraw from the divisive drama of American political life and seek a fresh identity as the people of God. I wish that others would see their evangelical vocation as humble service to the poor and suffering of the world. I’d like to see others give themselves over to the enrichment of the church, calling people prophetically to live their lives in the way of Jesus.

Maybe that’s already going on. If so, then it might be good for some of the more dominant evangelical voices to withdraw for awhile so that the caricatures attributed to evangelicals would wither and die and people might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. Just maybe.

And maybe we could, indeed, redefine “evangelical” so that the term, rather than attributed to a particular block of American voters, would describe a people who continuously proclaim and demonstrate the present reality of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that Jesus said is now upon us. As such, we could become comfortable with that identification being expressed in ways as diverse as the orders of the Roman Catholic Church.

I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when used the metaphors of “salt” and “light.”

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