My last few days have been spent at home, with my mother visiting us so we could celebrate her ninetieth birthday, as well as our family Thanksgiving Day meal. We have eaten way too much, enjoyed a lot of good conversation and watched more news television than I usually see in two months. The big deal on the chat circuit last evening was Christians and Christmas celebrations in the public square. Jerry Falwell was on, doing what Jerry Falwell does—making comments about the culture that are quite unhelpful if the goal is to actually win minds and hearts for Christian values. The particular debate was about Boston having a "holiday tree" rather than a "Christmas tree." Barry Lynn, the UCC minister who represents the Americans United for the Seperation of Church and State, was Falwell’s opposite. Lynn, in contrast with Falwell, appeared reasonable and calm. His arguments were legally sound and his reasoning had a measure of sanity behind it.
The problem for Barry Lynn’s position, however, is that there really has been a serious loss of Christian values in the the public arena. And the courts have plainly been involved. Lynn is unwise, if not deliberately calculating, to deny such an obvious point. All of Rev. Lynn’s assurances aside, there is a concerted secularist attack on Christian values in America. You have to be fast asleep not to see it. And this attack wants to strip the culture of all remaining Christian influence as quickly as possible.
The question I have is why efforts like Falwell’s, representing the majority of Americans (if the polls are right) on a host of public issues, seem to do so very little to actually stop this slide away from Christian influence in the culture?
I have answered this question in several other contexts but in short the reason is quite simple. We do not influence the way culture is produced and shaped at the head of the culture stream thus we do not change much at the place where we encounter culture day-to-day. We keep attacking the results rather than training the leaders who can make a real difference where culture is actually created.
In short, if we would change our culture we must train new leaders and we must make a solid case for Christian values by proving how and why these values are best suited to impact this culture for good. If we cannot make this case, without appearing to be Bible spokespersons and preachers, we will never make a serious impact on the culture. We have a good argument but this argument will never be heard the way we are presently making our case. Jerry Falwell, in my estimation, gets high marks for courage and conviction. I am sure he is a sincere and earnest Christian. But I give him a failing grade for actually making a real difference. He fails to understand that people simply will not listen just becuase he is a preacher with deep moral convictions.
At this point I have to agree with the Catholic Church, which requires priests to make a choice. If you are going to engage politics in partisan ways (and become an office holder, which of course Falwell is not I do understand) then you must stop serving as a priest first. You can’t mix serving the church with serving the political interests of the culture directly. The church does not engage politics as a mandate for teh church itself so much as the church equips Christians to live Christianly in the world. When this happens we will realize that we do live in a political environment and this requires us to exercise our considerable influence in various positive ways. Some Christians have a divine call to run for office, thus to tackle partisan issues. The church should support such members, regardless of their party. But when these politicians step outside the moral framework of the Christian faith (e.g., they actively endorse and support pro-choice positions, or promote gay marriage, for example) they should be corrected by the church. Again, the Catholic Church offers a far better model to us by keeping things properly separated and properly emphasized.
We really do need Christians engaging the culture, in every possible way. My fear is the spokesmen like Falwell have actually led many thoughtful evangelicals to give up on culture altogether. The unhappy alternative is to suggest that our only role in culture is to preach the gospel. By this means we have allowed the dualism of Greek philosophy to keep us out of the world in which we actually live, a tragedy fed by the fundamentalism of an earlier era that Falwell seemed determined, to his credit, to escape. I also have serious doubts that preachers who promote "Left Behind" theological views can ultimately make a credible case for Christians in culture.
On this Thanksgiving Day I rejoice that I live in a culture that officially recognizes a holiday for giving thanks to God for our collective and personal blessings. I believe we have work to do but I am quite convinced many younger Christians more clearly understand this work than Falwell’s generation did.