Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Christian Culture War in the Age of Obama

In his April 2009 farewell speech to the Focus on the Family staff, Dr. James Dobson surveyed what his more than thirty year defense of the Christian American family had accomplished. Far from triumphalist, he described the work of his mammoth organization on behalf of the unborn child and the dignity of the family as "a holding action." He seemed to concede defeat, but if so it was only for the present. "We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say that we have lost all those battles, but God is in control and we are not going to give up now, right?"

It does look bad on the culture front. Thirty-six years after Roe v. Wade, abortion is still legal. All manner of depravity is broadcast over the airwaves, taught and tolerated in the public schools, and pressed into our souls from every direction. It is more difficult than ever to raise godly or even just polite children without sealing one's family off from the world. Like Dobson, I do not think that the war is over. It cannot be. As God has not rescinded the cultural mandate to "take dominion over the earth" (Gen. 1:26), neither has Christ told his people to be anything other than salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13-14), taking captive every thought for him (II Cor. 10:5).

John Barber and David Brooks have separate responses to the state of the Christian culture war in the age of Obama.

In a conference address at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church this spring entitled "Have Christians Lost the Culture-War? ," John Barber challenged the way Christians assess success and failure in our efforts to transform culture by comparing it to our view of evangelism.

What is successful evangelism? Is it successful only when you share the gospel with someone and that person becomes a Christian? What if no one comes to Christ? Are we to say that we failed? Isaiah preached for nearly fifty years and hardly anyone responded positively. Was he a failure? I think of Bill Bright’s helpful definition of successful evangelism. Bright often said, “Successful evangelism is witnessing in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.” Now apply what Bright said in reference to the Great Commission to the cultural mandate, and let’s define the cultural mandate. “Successful Christian activism is laboring in culture in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.” You see, if we looked at evangelism the way some look at the culture-war, we’d look at all the people we’ve witnessed to, and see how few have come to Christ, and [following Dr. Dobson] say, “We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.” But no one who is biblically informed thinks this way regarding evangelism. So we ought not to think this way regarding the cultural mandate.

David Brooks, whether or not he thinks that these old battles (are they so old?) over abortion and the normalization of homosexuality are obsolete, is certainly convinced that we have missed one of the great battle fronts of the age. He has a point.

In "The Next Culture War" (New York Times, September 28, 2009), he writes:

[D]espite the country’s notorious materialism, there has always been a countervailing stream of sound economic values. The early settlers believed in Calvinist restraint. The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardship during their treks out west. Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed. Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint. ...

Over the past few years, however, there clearly has been an erosion in the country’s financial values. This erosion has happened at a time when the country’s cultural monitors were busy with other things. They were off fighting a culture war about prayer in schools, ... and the theory of evolution. They were arguing about sex and the separation of church and state, oblivious to the large erosion of economic values happening under their feet.

He cites widespread and government sponsored gambling and the avarice it incites, scandalously huge executive compensation packages, supersized restaurant meals, a sharp rise in personal consumption as percentage of GDP, the explosion of personal debt (133% of national income vs 55% in 1960), and runaway government spending.

Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.

Brooks calls for a “moral revival” in the form of a “crusade for economic self-restraint.”

He sent the same message in his June 10, 2008 column, “The Great Seduction.”

The people who created this country built a moral structure around money. The Puritan legacy inhibited luxury and self-indulgence. Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance and frugality....The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal.

Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened. The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money.

Evangelical Christians have had to mount counter-offensives on seemingly innumerable fronts as the culture has been unraveling, hastened on by the ubiquitous and (yes) demonic efforts of the nihilistic left. We have rallied to the defense of babies in the womb. Murder is a bloody and obvious evil. We have stood against public acceptance of the horror and perversity of homosexuality alongside its wholesome and natural counterpart. Prompted by these conflicts, evangelicals have thought seriously about the nature of healthy family life and have developed helpful resources to support people in their marriages and child rearing.

But the seductions of wealth and comfort and self-indulgence were harder to discern, and they so went largely unopposed. The megachurches went as far as embracing them. Why should I not sit in my own theater-quality chair? Why should I not be entertained on Sunday morning the way I was on Saturday night? Why should I not enjoy a Starbucks coffee after or before church, and why should I not be able to buy it in the church lobby? But Christians in small churches too went heavily into debt and voted for governments that did the same, and also supersized their drinks.

The Institute for American Values has initiated the sort of moral reform movement that Brooks has advocated. Indeed, Brooks praises them for this in his 2008 column. David Blankenhorn, the institute's founder and president, has written Thrift: A Cyclopedia, as well as “There is No Paradox of Thrift” (The Weekly Standard, June, 15, 2009). You can learn about the organization's Thrift Initiative here: http://www.newthrift.org/.


R.B. Glennie said...

excellent posts these days Prof. Innes!

Speaking personally, I was always wary about the increase in consumerism over the last twenty and more years - encouraged in turn by `conservative' economic and political theory, as it was propounded since then.

I think you're right, too, many social conservatives (as opposed to neo-classical economic cons.) embraced the consumerist ethic.

Anonymous said...

Those who claim to follow Jesus need not concern themselves with these cultural issues.

One of the temptations experienced by Jesus in the desert was that of wordly power -- political and cultural. It is important to note that Jesus rejected this tempation. It is important to note also that cultural power actually IS a tempation. It is important to note the source of the tempation to political and cultural power.

As those who profess to follow Jesus spend so much of their time and attention focusing on gaining political and cultural power they appear more like the Talaban than they do followers of Jesus.

When asked how one should pray, Jesus said, "..do not be like the Hypocrites for they love to stand in the synagogues and at street corners so that they may been seen by others.... whenever you pray,go into your room and shut your door and pray to your Father who is in secret:..."

When Jesus was asked about who would be judged favorably by God, he answered thus: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

There is nothing in our political or cultural enviroment that prevents anyone from praying in private (or even from gathering together for the purpose of worship). There is nothing in our political or cultural environmet that prevents anyone from feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty or welcoming the stranger.

Importantly, there is nothing in the true life, words and gospel of Jesus that would allow any person or group of people to create powerful institutions or centers of power or profit in his name. So, don't be fooled by those who (for the past 2,000 years) have attempted to manipulate faith in Jesus for their own political or financial advantage. During his life on earth, Jesus' anger was reserved soleley for those who did that.

So, those of you who claim to follow Jesus, why not practice real faith? -- pray to your heavenly father in private, help those who need help, and don't worry about whether or not the culture encourages superficial displays of pseudo-faith.

Can you imagine what things might be like if those who profess to follow Jesus actually did these things routinely and spent less time pursuing the political and cultural power that Jesus rejected as a temptation from Satan?

David C. Innes said...

Christian do those things. In great numbers. They are citizens not only in heaven but also in America, however. They are called to be good citizens. In America, that means petitioning your government and fellow citizens in support of what you believe to be good. Loving your neighbor and calling your Congressman are not mutually exclusive activities.

Anonymous said...

I notice, David, that there is nothing in your response that actually relates to anything Jesus said or did. Did Jesus petition the governent of His time? No. Who did? The pharisees and hypocrites. The Roman state had the power to cruficy Jesus but no motivation to do so. The religious leaders threatened by Jesus had no power to crucify Jesus but were moticated to do so. It was that colluson between "Church" and State (the politics of religion) that made possible the murder of the person Christians claim to follow.

When those who claim to follow Jesus advocate political action (action that Jesus explicitly refused to take) they ought to at least be able to refer to either the words or actions of the person in whose name they speak to justify that action.

David C. Innes said...

It is arbitrary on your part to restrict the foundation of the Bible's moral instruction to our Lord's direct words and actions, and those alone. "All" Scripture is profitable for training in righteousness (I Tim. 3:16). Jesus speaks every word of Holy Writ. He quotes it, saying, "It is written." So whose hermeneutic should I follow, yours or Christ's? I'll leave you to ponder that.

You call me David, and you rebuke me passionately, and yet, Mr Anonymous, I don't know you. Keep in mind also that you are not entitled to a lengthy response to any of your objections. I have students, and (as far as I know) you are not one of them.

Examine your indignation. Some time in the last year, I posted a cartoon (click the tag, "humor") that depicted a man tapping away furiously on his computer. His wife comes up behind him and says, "Honey, come to bed." He responds, "I can't! Someone is saying something wrong on the internet!" How many of us laughed at ourselves when we laughed at that cartoon?

I'm all for adding comments to blogs, but we need to keep a proper spirit, i.e. a spirit of intellectual humility, discussion, and mutual respect.

Tim said...

If we were Muslim or Jewish, I would agree that it would be arbitrary to look toward Jesus as the foundation of moral teaching. As Christians, however, we believe that Jesus Christ was and is the incarnation of God, the most complete revelation of God's nature. While the Gospels do not speak directly to every moral issue and other scripture is necessary and helpful in many ways, the foundation for the beliefs and principles of Christians is the Word Made Flesh.
Christians first and foremost ought not to be acting in direct opposition to the life and teachings of Jesus. To use Christ's name to pursue things that Jesus' life and teachings explicitly opposed -- judging others, seeking wealth, seeking prestige seeking political and cultural power -- seems the ultimate example of using the Lord's name in vain. If you and Dr.James Dobson and others of your ilk are going to do these things and leave Christ Jesus out of it, then at least have the decency to leave His holy name out of it.

Anonymous said...

Have you guys ever done a study of what the Bible says on whether and/or to what degree should Christians be involved in government/politics? If so, could you post a link to it?