There’s been a lot of post-election reflection. One of the more interesting trends that has surfaced is that evangelicals got back into the political battle. From about 1925 to 1975, evangelicals were not viewed as a definitive voting-block. Evangelicals were generally dismissive of politics for a variety of reasons. The 1973 pro-abortion Roe v. Wade decision and the earlier 1962 prayer1 and 1963 Bible reading2 cases added to the political angst among evangelicals. Even so, there was Jimmy Carter’s “outsider” status as the first acknowledged “born again” candidate in 1976 that gave hope to Evangelicals that a number of these culture-changing decisions might find an advocate of opposition. But it wasn’t too long that Christians were disappointed at Carter’s pro-homosexual, pro-abortion, and pro-big-government policies. In fact, Evangelicals were so enraged that the previously anti-political Jerry Falwell entered politics with the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979. This was quite a change considering the sermon he delivered in 1965, entitled “Ministers and Marchers”:
[A]s far as the relationship of the church to the world, [it] can be expressed as simply as the three words which Paul gave to Timothy—“Preach the Word.” This message is designed to go right to the heart of man and there meet his deep spiritual need. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform externals. We are not told to wage war against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions or any other existing evil as such. Our ministry is not reformation, but transformation. The gospel does not clean up the outside but rather regenerates the inside.
While we are told to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” in the true interpretation we have very few ties on this earth. We pay our taxes, cast our votes as a responsibility of citizenship, obey the laws of the land, and other things demanded of us by the society in which we live. But at the same time, we are cognizant that our only purpose on this earth is to know Christ and to make him known. Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else —including fighting Communism, or participating in civil‑rights reforms.3
Fifteen years later, Dr. Falwell repudiated his earlier remarks calling them “false prophecy.” In Listen, America!, he outlined his new political agenda: “I am speaking to rally together the people of this country who still believe in decency, the home, the family, morality, the free enterprise system, and all the great ideals that are the cornerstone of this nation. Against the growing tide of permissiveness and moral decay that is crushing our society, we must make a sacred commitment to God Almighty to turn this nation around immediately.”4
What Falwell did not understand was that his 1965 remarks were biblical. There was nothing to apologize for. The first step in turning a culture around is to “Preach the Word.” The heart of man must be changed before there will be any external change, either individually or societally. There still exists in some parts of fundamentalism a dualistic worldview where one must give up reformation for individual transformation. There is no biblical reason to give up anything. The Christian’s ministry is first individual transformation (preaching the gospel and a changed heart) and only then reformation (discipleship and changed nations). It’s conversion then discipleship; justification then sanctification. You can’t have the second without the first, and the second is the natural outgrowth of the first.
The changing of the broader culture is based on two essential elements: (1) the preaching of the gospel and (2) the implementation of God’s Word to every area of life. Let’s look at an example of how this might work. For years, there has been a great concern over the content of music lyrics. One proposed solution was to put warnings on the outside of the albums informing parents that the contents contain explicit sexual language. Some even wanted a listing of the lyrics so parents would know what their children were listening to. In the digital age, with emails, texting, free internet access, YouTube, and downloadable music, self-control and parental direction are required. It is nearly impossible to enforce an ethic when a society constantly rebels against it.
Christians seeking to influence law and public policy must be sensitive not only to basic biblical and theological principles, but to practical considerations as well. Would the proposed law be enforceable? If not, the actual effect of legislation might be to undercut respect for the rule of law and the credibility of Christian political action. The unsuccessful attempt to outlaw the production and sale of alcoholic beverages during Prohibition is an example. The enforceability of a given law presupposes a significant degree of community consensus regarding its justice and wisdom. At times, however, a prophetic minority may be called to create a consensus where none exists. . . .5
The biblical approach is to change the heart and mind through the preaching of the gospel through which the sovereign work of the Spirit does His work and the application of God’s law to the issue. The result is that there is no longer a market for such material. Let’s look at a biblical example. When the Gospel was preached in Ephesus, the black arts were exposed and dealt with at a personal level:
And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing (Acts 19:19–20).
A change in heart and mind (transformation) resulted in a change in lifestyle (reformation). The market for these books dried up. Obviously, the consensus had changed.
Rousas J. Rushdoony has written that humanists believe in history but not in God, and Christians believe in God but not in history. The “other side,” as James Dobson describes the political left, “finds a way to get its people involved, to raise money. Our side is thinking about something else.” Why? The typical secularist has only this world, so he puts all his efforts in the things of this world. There is no “next world” this side of heaven to consider. For the humanist, this world is both heaven and hell. What a person does with his life and his environment determines his earthly future and the future of this terrestrial ball he calls Mother Earth. Man, the humanist believes, is the master of his destiny, the captain of his soul, the determiner of his fate.
Many Christians err on the other side by asserting that this life and the world in which we live count for very little. Christians have a stake in the world to come through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and this redemptive work has made us and this world to count for very little. But this world does count. “The earth is the LORD’s, and all that it contains” (Psalm 24:1). As “fellow‑heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), we possess, as a stewardship, this world. God’s good creation‑gift requires a righteous stewardship. History is not something to be despised. History is the domain of God’s redemptive work. Until God decides to do something with us personally (through death) and the world in which we live (by creating a new heaven and a new earth), this world is the only place where we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
On a Focus on the Family broadcast, James Dobson lamented how inactive pastors were on a particular issue. The reason many pastors gave for not getting involved was that such activity is “too political.” Dobson said that “it’s not political. It’s everything we care about and hope for. It’s everything that Christ taught us, and we are losing it.” Dobson went on to say that the church was “asleep,” and that he was “weary” of coming to the microphone and saying that.6 What was missing?
There is still very little in the way of a comprehensive alternative agenda being offered by Evangelicals. Focus on the Family has done well with family concerns. Dobson’s listeners held him in high regard during his tenure at Focus because he espoused definitive answers to specific personal and family problems. When it comes to the family, James Dobson does more than curse the darkness. But in other matters, the Evangelical mind‑set has not worked out societal alternatives to counter the humanistic worldview in other areas. The claim is that politics is not a relevant area of Christian work. I don’t know of a Christian who would argue that it would be OK for a neighbor to steal his property. I suspect that he would call the police to stop the theft. But if his neighbors voted for government officials who planned to confiscate his property through taxation, the disengaged Christian would say, “That’s politics, and as a Christian, I shouldn’t be involved in politics. Politics is dirty. Jesus didn’t get mixed up in politics. We’re to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesars.’”
Family issues, unlike political issues, are experienced firsthand at close quarters; they occur on a daily basis, and they are ongoing. Political issues do not seem to affect us immediately. We don’t see the effects of political decisions until it’s too late. Politics becomes an issue only every two years during national elections. Even then Christian political activity is minimal. In addition, politicians have made the tyranny of political power seem painless. Consider what your reaction would be if you had to write a check each month to pay for Social Security and federal and state income taxes. But since we never see the money, we’re not as affected by the tax tyranny of the national government. In fact, we are so pleased when we get money back from the IRS at tax time (money we overpaid) that we view the return as a gift from the government. Christians of all types want solutions to problems that only later come home to roost.
Civil government is God’s government. He instituted it. The civil magistrate is God’s “minister” (Rom. 13:4). We should work and expect magistrates to acknowledge God and rule accordingly, not only in word (oaths to do so) but in action. This won’t happen if we sit on the sidelines or sit at home as the game is played. We don’t live under Caesar; we live under the Constitution. The Constitution makes it clear that we can petition the government for a redress of grievances. And even if it didn’t, we can change it. Civil government needs to be put back into its proper place.
- Engel v. Vitale (1962).(↩)
- Abington School District v. Schempp & Murray v. Curlett (1963).(↩)
- Quoted in James A. Speer, New Christian Politics (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 19–20.(↩)
- Jerry Falwell, Listen, America! (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 244.(↩)
- John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues facing the Church Today (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985), 19–20.(↩)
- This material was taken from National and International Religion Report, 3:24 (November 20, 1989), 4.(↩)