How does the church address a culture that has, in Orwin's words, "shaken off Christianity's hegemony"? How does it speak to the moral debates under way when American society, by and large, no longer speaks the same language as Christians?

Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney and senior policy advisor for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, said, "It is an unhappy circumstance that Christians are left to persuade others on moral questions in a culture that lacks common philosophical assumptions, let alone common theological beliefs."

Christians, therefore, need to develop the intellectual capacity to argue for moral solutions that are not explicitly rooted in theology. Fahling said that "if religious conservatives continue to talk in the language of their 'true feelings,' that is, the language of the Bible, they will never find ground for agreement with non-Christians on society's great issues."

In order to find such common ground, believers must be able to present practical and rational reasons why a traditional moral solution to a problem is best. On the subject of homosexuality, for example, Christians can oppose the "gay" agenda by appealing to the fact that the homosexual lifestyle exacts both a physical and emotional toll on those who practice it.

"Trying to find that common ground between non-Christians and Christians is not easy, and whatever agreements could be reached would be fragile," Fahling said. "No doubt it would be better if Christians could cooperate with other groups on such issues if they could base that cooperation on biblical theology. But that is not an option available to us today. Christians tilt at windmills when they require that non-Christians accept [biblical] justifications for action as a condition to agreement."

If Christians cannot develop -- or refuse to develop -- this "common ground" approach, there may be little hope of anything else beyond a political and cultural stalemate. "The possibilities of cooperation in our divided culture are few," Fahling said. "We reject them at our own peril."

Fire on the Earth

This is not to suggest that the church is to cease its prophetic witness within American culture in order to facilitate a dialogue with non-Christians. Fahling insists that "the Christian's ultimate [biblical] reasons and justification for participating in the political life of the culture must remain intact and vibrant."

In fact, the spiritual awakening for which many Christians are praying will require what Himmelfarb called a "dissident culture," which she defined as "a culture distinct from the dominant one in important respects," while still part of American society as a whole.

In other words, something must exist outside the prevailing culture to challenge its suppositions and its actions. This has always been the place of the Christian church in America -- at least when it has heard its prophetic calling and answered.

Joseph Bottum, an editor for The Weekly Standard and First Things, said that there is something in the Scriptures "that has no patience for political compromise, or moral casuistry, or conventional prudence, or philosophical judiciousness."

Bottum said in an article for The Public Interest, "Throughout our history, biblical America has stood outside political America: the wayfaring stranger far away from the public man, however much the political world echoes with the words of a public God."

Orwin said this is a perfect role for evangelicals, because evangelicalism "offers a timely and focused response to the current situation. It adeptly fills the void left by its secularists and mainline rivals .... [They] stand as an impressive reproach to the gross defects of rampant secularism. That evangelicals are increasing in number does not make them any less a counterculture; it attests to their success as one .... The further American society lists toward the secularist subjectivist side, the larger the minority that will peel off to shift to the opposite rail."

That there is compromise in American politics and common ground among groups from different philosophical perspectives, Bottum said, is good. In part, that is what defines our culture.

"But America is also not America unless, underneath it all, a small voice whispers that the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as the small dust on the balance. America is a triumph of political philosophy because it is not entirely political -- because it also hears, even in these days, the murmur, 'I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?' [Luke 12:49]"

It may be time to find out if the church can still speak in that small yet potent voice. Perhaps it is time to discover whether the church is worth its salt.


Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is news editor for AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association.  This article appeared in the July 2004 issue.

© 2004 Agape Press.