FAITH IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE – Rusty Reno on Russell Moore

FIRST THINGS April 2016RoseIII

Faith in the Public Square

Russell Moore has written a very good book. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel seeks to orient us in the changing culture of twenty-first-century America. It’s written with the folksy verve of a very good Southern Baptist preacher, which Moore is. I can’t count the number of memorable sentences I underlined. After a thoughtful analysis of the fatal temptation to confuse God’s Kingdom with the United States of America: “Jesus promised those who overcome a crown of life. But he never said anything about a ‘God and country’ badge.” On put­ting political power ahead of Gospel truth: “It would be a tragedy to get the right president, the right Congress, and the wrong Christ.”

Onward is more than mellifluous; it’s also astute about the moment in which we live and the kind of Church we need to become. Moore’s analysis has a strong critical thrust. Again and again he observes that the days are over when Christians could imagine themselves at the center of a “Christian nation.”

Moore emphasizes our post-Christian cultural context because he’s a son of Biloxi, Mississippi, which was once part of the Bible Belt, that wide swath of God-haunted America that runs from West Virginia to Texas. In those communities, being Christian and being an upstanding American citizen often seemed fused together. As Moore points out, this can make us complacent “have-it-all” Christians who want to follow Christ while fitting in with mainstream culture. The problem is that this can tempt us to dilute the Gospel so that we can remain “normal.”

The Moral Majority approach tried to solve the problem by “taking back” the mainstream culture through political action. Moore thinks that project failed. The bad news is that this failure has made America increasingly post-Christian. That’s as true in the Bible Belt as elsewhere, as he illustrates with vivid anecdotes. The good news is that we can no longer fool ourselves. We’ve got to make a choice. Will we live according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the gospel of the American way of life?

By Moore’s reckoning, this is a renewing choice. It pro­vides us with the opportunity to rediscover the power of the Christian message. The choice also winnows. He re­ports that Evangelical churches are undergoing “a mirror image of the Rapture.” Nominal Christians are vanishing from the pews, and those who choose to be defined by the Christian Gospel rather than “Christian America” are “left behind.” This clarification will not weaken Christian engagement and influence in American public life; it will strengthen it. A post-Christian context is a forcing ground: “Once Christianity is no longer seen as part and parcel of patriotism, the church must offer more than ‘What would Jesus do?’ moralism and ‘I vote values’ populism to which we’ve grown accustomed. Good.”

Moore fleshes out the “more.” He argues for an expan­sive understanding of our duty to defend human dignity. It includes a wide range of efforts on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. We should attend to the needs of the poor, migrants, the disabled, and the homeless, as well as the unborn. To be pro-life is to be whole-life, to paraphrase one of his lapidary formulations. But Moore avoids a fac­ile “seamless garment” approach. Defending the lives of the innocent, especially the unborn whom our legal cul­ture has abandoned, is the foundation of a culture of life. Without a pro-life commitment, no “whole-life” stance can endure.

His treatment of religious liberty and freedom of con­science draws upon the Baptist tradition. From its incep­tion it recognized the dangers that flow from too close a connection between religious authority and civil authority. Moore provides theological justification for our constitu­tional principles of non-establishment and free exercise. But he draws attention to a deeper truth about religious freedom: Our greatest freedom comes from the strength of our faith in God, not by way of rights given to us by constitutions. The freedom of the martyrs is the founda­tion of the Church’s freedom.

Sex, marriage, and family are today’s battlegrounds. They’re the reason why we’re arguing over religious lib­erty. They’re the reason our society ignores the claims of the unborn. There are moral arguments to be made, and they should be made. But at root these battles are spiritual, not merely moral, as Moore helpfully reminds us. Far from being a liability, the Bible’s countercultural sexual ethic and theology of marriage may end up being the Church’s greatest tool of evangelization. The day is coming when more and more people damaged by the sexual revolution’s false promises will seek a gospel promise they can trust.

Onward suggests a sober rethinking of pub­lic engagement by conservative American Protestants, one that moves in the direc­tion outlined by Stanley Hauerwas over the last four decades. Put succinctly, Hauerwas has argued that the Church fails to leaven society when it poses as culture’s friendly chaplain, because in that role it gets coopted. The same is true when the Church poses as culture’s stern, disciplining chaplain, which is, perhaps, a way to sum up Moore’s appraisal of the Moral Majority’s approach to influencing society at large.

Hauerwas’s genius was to see that living a faithful Christian life explodes the pretensions of the world. Going against the grain—as sojourners or pilgrims, to use the bib­lical image—is a public statement that does more to shape the future of American society than “cultural engagement.” Moore’s insight is similar. He points out, rightly, that we can fix too much attention on discussions about how to get cultural leverage. We forget that, in a society in which aborting Down syndrome children is taken for granted, pastoring a Church that forms Christian parents to wel­come them is a powerful way to claim cultural territory.

Unlike many who recognize the de-Christianizing main­stream culture, Moore does not shy away from the culture wars. As he knows, we can’t avoid them. Secular progres­sives wish to conquer all the territory in American society. That means they cannot help but battle with Christ-formed communities for our spiritual loyalty. The battle is coming to us, even if church leaders wish to avoid controversy. We see this in the contraceptive mandate and gay marriage. Here Moore is admirably clear. The Moral Majority may no longer show the way to stand for what we believe in public life. But stand we must. “If we do not surrender to the spirit of the age—and we must not—we will be thought to be culture warriors. So be it. Let’s be Christ-shaped, Kingdom-first culture warriors.” Amen. – Rusty Reno           Pages 6-7.

(The preceding article which appears in the April 2016 Issue of First Things is the author’s rationale which makes clear how and why we have come to the conclusions about a number of issues such as Secularism,  the loss of a Christian-based society upon which our Constitution was founded, marriage of same sex couples, the black eye which has been administered in our culture to rule out religion and the values which our Constitution was based upon and the stalemate in our political system, not to mention the establishment of individualism in place of the common good in our social systems, nevertheless you may want to become a bit more real by reading the other articles  (2) which I recommend to you.)   — Pinionmarc.com