July 9, 2004

For Christians in America who believe their faith can and should have an impact on their culture, it has not been a good year.

In less than a 12-month span: The Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws, in effect invalidating both natural law and the Judeo-Christian foundations of our nation as a sound basis for our society; The Episcopal Church consecrated an openly homosexual man as one of its bishops; The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage; and a halftime show on the Super Bowl -- in which a pop singer's breast was exposed -- shoved in nearly everyone's face just how debauched our pop culture has become.

Nothing that Christians or pro-family groups have done has seemed to stop American society from rushing headlong down the tracks to moral oblivion. It appears that secularism and postmodern relativism have successfully teamed up to overthrow Judeo-Christianity as the dominant philosophical force in our culture.

Evangelical Christians have long operated under the belief that sharing the Gospel is an important part of their faith, and that their faith was meant to serve as "salt and light" in the culture in which they lived.

However, evangelicals in America are a numerical minority, with the best studies putting them anywhere between 7 percent and 25 percent of the population. More importantly, they are a distinct cultural minority as well, as American society continues to reposition itself on a post-Christian foundation.

Engaged Yet Uncorrupted

Such facts are true, but may not necessarily be that significant, because since the first century, Christians have often lived their faith in circumstances that defied the odds. What may be a more important question, however, is whether or not the church can avoid becoming irrelevant as the culture comes to grips with monumental social issues.

Certainly what worked for evangelicals and other Christians over the last 30 years doesn't appear to be working now. Changes in the moral and religious beliefs of the American people have occurred with breaktaking speed -- all within virtually a single generation.

American culture is now dominated by a rather mushy morality that eschews principles of black-and-white truth and lives in an always-gray world where truth is individually determined and relativistic.

In The Public Interest, University of Toronto professor of political science Clifford Orwin said that, in America, "moral laxity is a way of life, having mysteriously emerged as the fundamental principle of morality itself. Not only do they treat the sinner with charity, but they've become curiously indifferent to the sin."

Over the last generation, this moral laxity has, understandably, led to a growing cultural decadence that alarms many Christians. Everywhere they look, the triumph of hedonism and, simultaneously, both secularism and paganism, seems at hand.

"For the first time in the nation's history," said Orwin, "religious opinion does not inhibit society as a whole .... Christianity, which once pervaded the one culture practiced by the one nation, has slipped to the status of a subculture -- we might even say a counterculture. And the other subcultures, having shaken off Christianity's hegemony, go their own riotous ways."

Such epochs have, in the past, led evangelicals to distance themselves from society's corruption. As religion writer Jefferey Sheler noted in a U.S. News & World Report article, in such circumstances "evangelicals created their own parallel institutions -- schools and colleges, music, books, movies, and magazines -- to preserve their biblical values."

In Sheler's opinion, evangelicals do not seem to be abandoning the culture as in times past. Nevertheless, this may bring with it the opposite danger: entanglement.

Sheler said that "the question remains: What will be changed more by their continuing engagement in politics and pop culture -- evangelicalism or the culture?"

In order to be salt and light, the church must stay engaged in American culture without being corrupted by it. That's not easy to do, as evidenced by the mainline Protestant retreat from a more orthodox perspective.

"Since the late nineteenth century and the emergence of the Social Gospel, the typical response of the mainline churches to the challenge of secularism has been to capitulate to it," said Orwin.

Thus, instead of being salt and light in the culture, some mainline churches have completely adapted themselves to the spiritual darkness which surrounds them.

Moreover, many of these churches seem only too happy to have yielded, said Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, in her book One Nation, Two Cultures. She said that many mainline churches fit quite comfortably in the prevailing culture, "priding themselves on being cosmopolitan and sophisticated, undogmatic and uncensorious."

But evangelicals have not escaped this tendency, either, she said. "Even evangelicals are divided between those practicing a 'classical' spirituality derived from earlier Protestant and Puritan traditions, and those partial to a 'postmodern' or 'existential' spirituality, which is more therapeutic and individualistic."

If the church is going to avoid irrelevance in American culture, it must, as Orwin put it, have something "distinctively Christian to bring to the table."

Finding Common Ground