Martin E. Marty is a mainline church historian and theological analyst who faithfully tracks major trends and ethical issues. I have interviewed Marty and spent some time with him in private conversations. I often disagree with him on a number of social and political issues but always find him an engaging and useful dialogical voice.

The Martin E. Marty Center at the University of Chicago produces a regular publication “Sightings.” You can subscribe to for free by writing Jeremy Biles at jbiles@midway.uchicago.edu. Marty’s post for March 13 is immensely important for evangelicals. He interacts with Jason Byassee’s guest column in the March issue of Christianity Today. Byassee is a youngish editor of the Christian Century, which Marty correctly refers to as “moderate to liberal.” Byassee, who I find personally a probing and insightful voice in the Christian Century, warns evangelicals to be careful about exercising their present public power, reminding us that mainline Christian groups had such power in an earlier era and did not use it well in many cases. He sees important parallels between his own movement and our evangelical movement. Writes Byassee, “Church influence on politics is fickle. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” and “the last people who want to be caught dead pledging allegiance to the wrong Lord ought to be evangelicals.” Marty notes that this is what many evangelicals now are doing.

I want to be as clear as possible in how I put this point. The problem is not evangelical involvement in public and political life. Faith has public consequences and real faith should always lead us to be involved in the whole of public life, not just in our little corner of the world. Simply put, faith is never private!

Our problem is not in getting involved in public issues. Our problem is much, much deeper. Byassee writes, “Do you really want to be allied with foul-mouthed know-it-alls on AM radio or with politicians who don’t care a lick about Jesus?” He then cites C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters where Wormwood, a young devil, is advised to lead Christians to “make the world an end and faith a means.”

Here then, in short, is the problem. The first task of the church is always to be the church. The evangelical church is losing its way because it is not being the church. It has no prophetic voice to speak of and retains virtually no concern for the things that Scripture reveals truly move the heart of God; concern for the poor, for justice, etc. 

Marty notes that Byassee concludes his Christianity Today article by asking if mainline churches, now disencumbered of the imperial-dominion burdens of an earlier era, might actually be ready to “remember that the first task of the church is to be the church.” I hope so and I am inclined to think it very possible. This is precisely why I have not written off the old mainline churches at all. I have often found more hunger to “be the church” in many of these older struggling churches than in the typically fast-growing megachurches among us evangelicals. We are far too comfortable with our imperial power and our present moment in history. I pray the day will soon come when we get back to putting our emphasis on the most important thing(s). Then, and only then, will we be truly ready to make a real difference in the public arena. Someone please tell this to the growing number of radio and television preachers, and the conservative talking heads from the right, that keep giving the impression that they speak so clearly for God and the rest of us.

Personally, I am a genuine political and social conservative, which a few generations ago meant that I embraced what then was called liberal political theory. Modern liberalism is not like the old kind and thus the modern debate is so important at one level. But all of this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. And my views on these issues are not what will help the church to really be the church. This distinction is one that many who read me do not, or will not, bother to make. I am not sure some can make these distinctions, being followers and conservatives without the prophetic component of Scripture. This may be because they are already the captive of a Christian Right mindset that speaks to a few select issues and then confuses the church’s role in the process.