"We need to take our country back." "We need to get back to a time when ..."
These are refrains you often hear from well-meaning Christians. I've actually said them myself. But there are a few problems with this kind of language. It may convey something we don't intend.
When conservative Christians (such as myself) lament the corrosive culture and political decisions that have seemed to edge God out of the public square, we might say, "We need to get back to the time when we honored God in this country." And this is well-meaning. Clearly America was founded on at least broad Judeo-Christian principles.
But we still don't want to go back. Here's why:
First, there was never a time of utopia in American history. Were the 1950s the ideal time in American history? There was much good about about the 1950s. America was more predominantly Christian. American heroes from World War II were building this country. But if you were a black person, it was a time of racism and suffering, especially in the South. Certainly the racial situation has vastly improved in our country since then. We don't want to roll those things back. There are also more opportunities for woman today than their were in the 1950s. The 1950s also were a time of great fear of Communist aggression. We fought the Korean war in the 1950s. So while there were many good things that were worth keeping from the 1950s -- values that we wish we saw prevalent in the culture today -- there were also things we are glad no longer exist. Plus, there were no disposable diapers in those days. I'm glad I'm a father in 2011.
But seriously, this is just one era. You can find similar good and bad in every period in American history.
Secondly, nostalgia isn't the language of the Christian. History is a great teacher and memories are good. But Christians believe that God has called us to live out our faith as ambassadors in this world, right now. The Great Commission is present and forward-looking. We're called to minister to today's generation. In a way, overwrought nostalgia is a subtle denial of the sovereignty of God. As if God has lost control of the culture and the gospel no longer works today as it did in our mythical time period. You don't hear the New Testament writers speak the language of nostalgia to the churches, even though many were victims of an anti-Christian culture. There's no pining for a bygone era. No, they looked forward to a better day, when faith would be sight. They looked for a new city (Hebrews 11:10) as their home.
Third, the gospel calls people "back" to their Creator, not to a time period. We do want to call America back, but not back to a mythical time period of manufactured utopia, but back to God. In other words, the gospel calls sinners to be reconciled to the Creator who designed them (2 Corinthians 5:11-20; Ephesians 2:12). These are the "old paths" (Jeremiah 6:16) the timeliness message of God's love and redemption. This is the message of the Church. This is the message that saves. This is the gospel.
Fourth, the Scriptures are for progress, not against it. If you study world history, Christianity has always led to dramatic social, economic, and technological progress in the cultures in which it was, at least broadly, embraced. Sociologist Rodney Stark has documented this in books like The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Technological and social advancement is part of the mandate of Creation (Genesis 1:28). Often we're presented with a false choice: progress that leaves behind all good values and traditionalism that idolizes the past. The truth is we want our society to progress technologically and socially while conserving values that endure. Where we have abandoned Biblical truth, we should "go back," but where we have advanced in areas of benefit, we do not want to retreat.
So as Christians, we'd be wise to clarify our language when speaking prophetically about our culture. Let's call people first back to God through the gospel. Let's avoid memorializing time periods while ignoring the sins and blind spots of those generations. And let's be in favor of measured progress that doesn't toss the bedrock values we cherish.
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