In part one I sketched briefly, in broad strokes, why and how many American evangelicals came to see cultural engagement as fruitless. According to scholars of American evangelicalism, the world-flight that marked fundamentalism and evangelicalism began to shift after World War II. Carl Henry’s call to re-engage the culture is symbolic of the shift. Thirty years later, after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, it seemed as if everyone was “born again..” Through the 1980s the Moral Majority and other like organizations announced plans to “take back America,” wherein the neo-evangelicals would take their place once again in a place of influence in the culture. Jimmy Carter had proved a disappointment, but with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 it seemed as if the campaign was succeeding. During the next 12 years of the Reagan and G. H. W. Bush administrations it seemed as if the Republican Party might indeed be the evangelical church at prayer. In their success, however, were planted seeds of future discontent and reaction.
In the same post-World War II culture that saw the re-engagement of fundamentalism (Henry’s term) with the culture also saw a growing influence of neo-Kuyperianism in the broader evangelical world. Those evangelicals who lacked a grammar and categories to account for cultural engagement found it in the way Kuyper had been appropriated. By the 1980s “worldview” was a buzzword. During the 1980s evangelicals had also turned to the theonomy and Christian reconstruction movements for inspiration and intellectual leadership. Those two sources of engagement, neo-Kuyperianism and theonomy/reconstructionism, both tended to speak in triumphalist terms relative to the future and relative to the broader, largely non-Christian culture. Supported by their postmillennialism, theonomy/reconstructionism looked forward to a future Christian “dominion“ through the gradual leavening of the culture by Christian cultural and political influence. In their own way, in contrast to the culturally pessimistic Dispensational versions of pre-millennialism, the neo-Kuyperians also looked optimistically at the future. They spoke of “transforming” the culture and “redeeming” the culture.
Nevertheless, Washington and American culture more broadly proved to be harder to reform than some, perhaps many, evangelicals had anticipated. Just as evangelicals (including, for the sake of this discussion, theonomists/reconstructionists, and neo-Kuyperians of various sorts) were positioned close to the levers of political and cultural influence, the culture squirted, as it were, through their collective fingers. During the Reagan administration broadcasting was deregulated, cable television exploded in popularity, and suddenly the sources of cultural influence were not three broadcast networks but a growing number of cable outlets that were not subject to the same sorts of regulations that had governed the broadcast stations. Radio stations, which once aired a considerable amount of religious programming as part of their “public affairs” commitment dumped it in favor of revenue-producing commercial programming. The market for media became increasingly fragmented. Then, came public access to the Internet in the early 90s. The speed at which media sources proliferated, at which niche marketing became the norm, increased exponentially so that today, just as the Big 3 (or 4) broadcast networks no longer set the agenda for television, not longer do two newspapers (The New York Times and the Washington Post) set the agenda for print (as it were) journalism.
Thus, the “Christian Right” did not achieve much of what it had hoped. 20 years after the inauguration of Jimmy Carter, another Southern Democrat was in the White House and he was seeking to reverse the Reagan Revolution. A series of scandals, his impeachment (does anyone remember that a president was impeached in our lifetime?) and opposition by a Republican House of Representatives slowed his momentum in his second term. The 9/11 attacks plunged the West into a long war with a hard-t0-find, religiously motivated enemy that, for some—perhaps unfairly—cast doubt on very idea of social engagement fueled by a deeply held religious rejection of Modernity.
Those born after the first Reagan inaugural have grown up assuming the post-Reagan prosperity as a given but they’ve also grown up with a president who did not have sex with “that woman” (even when it turned out he had) and who wanted to deconstruct the verb “is.” They’ve grown up under the specter of 9/11. The city shining on a hill had lost some of its luster. The decades of religious scandals and embarrassments (Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy, Robert Tilton, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn ad nauseam) had diminished the credibility of the evangelical project of Christian cultural renewal. The parents and grandparents of the Millennials (18–34) have been ambivalent about late modernity. Mom works because they like the new standard of living but she feels guilty about it. Many of their friends are divorced, so heterosexual marriage hasn’t fared well during the very period when evangelical political-cultural influence was at its height. The children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers seem largely to accept a high divorce rate among heterosexuals and homosexual marriage as inevitable and even as a good thing. As a group, the Millennials tend toward subjectivism. Even the true believers, the theonomists/reconstructionists seem to have given up their original program of cultural transformation through direct political action (Rushdoony’s followers). Instead, they’ve turned to a program of cultural transformation through sacerdotalism, via their theology of baptismal election-union-justification etc ostentatiously self-glossed as “The Federal Vision.” Jerry Falwell spins in his grave. Despite the evangelical rhetoric of triumph, renewal, and transformation, the culture today seems largely dominated by low-information voters who are more like Snooki than Groen van Prinsterer (1801–76).
There were cracks in the intellectual foundation of the post-WWII evangelical social re-engagement. The evangelical appropriation of Kuyper was thin. It borrowed bits of his vocabulary without his theology and especially without his ecclesiology (doctrine of the church and sacraments). Fuller Seminary isn’t the Free University of Amsterdam. The American evangelicals weren’t much interested in the antithesis and common grace as much as they were in practical, political, cultural, and social outcomes. Where, for Kuyper, “worldview” had referred to a comprehensive interpretation of the meaning of God’s world in light of God’s Word as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches, it became, among American evangelicals, a fairly shallow cliché, a symbol that stood of evangelical-Republican politics and a return to the Eisenhower years. It’s not an accident that Happy Days was one of the more popular TV shows of the 1970s.
It is one thing, however, to write of “redeeming” culture but it is another thing to justify that way of speaking from Scripture and the Christian tradition. Biblically, “to redeem” is to purchase from slavery or to deliver from bondage. Where does Scripture speak of the redemption of the arts or commerce? It does not. According to Scripture we have been redeemed from the curse of the law. Believers have been redeemed from lawlessness and we have been redeemed from transgressions.
It is difficult to see how speaking of redeeming or “taking back” culture doesn’t imply the very sort of dualism against which the neo-Kuyperians and theonomists/reconstructionists were reacting. If someone removes food from my plate, I might reach across the table to take it back. It was mine, then it was lost, then it was recovered. That’s simply not true if we’re speaking of God’s sovereign providence. Nothing has been removed from his control and dominion. Christ was Lord when the West (at least nominally) recognized him under Christendom. He was Lord when the Enlightenment rebelled against him and he is Lord now that most of the culture, most of the time, seems completely ignorant of him.
Of course, what is usually intended by the verbs “to redeem” and “to take back“ is actually something like “to acknowledge Christ’s Lordship over all things.” Where or among whom should Christians expect to see the Lordship of Christ openly acknowledged? Did the apostles expect Herod, Pilate, Claudius, Nero, or Domitian to acknowledge Christ the Lord as a matter of their office? Nothing about Romans 13 even hints that only those are truly God’s civil ministers who acknowledge Christ as Lord.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
The great difficulty, however, is that most of the time evangelicals haven’t been thinking principally in biblical or confessional Reformed categories but in Constantinian categories. Consider the prevalence of the imagery and ethos of the crusades among evangelicals. It is so deeply engrained in our way of looking at the broader culture, the non-Christian culture, that, particularly in reaction to the cultural rebellion of the 1960s and the sexual hedonism of the 1970s, we adopted a crusade stance without even realizing it. How many Christian organizations continue to use the image of crusading? Campus Crusade for Christ may now be Cru but it’s just an abbreviation. How often has post-WWII Christian cultural engagement been cast as a crusade? Do a Google search using the terms “Christian,” “school,” and “crusaders.”1 In turn, the renewed adoption of the “crusade” provoked a renewed, if more sophisticated, sort of world flight.
So, the question persists: Is there a way for Christians to engage the culture that gets us off the whipsaw of world-flight (monasticism, Anabaptism, pietism) and dominion/transformation (Christendom, theonomy/reconstruction, neo-Kuyperianism)?
Stay tuned for more in part 3.
1. It’s interesting to observe, however, how frequently the Christian Coalition uses the crusade metaphor to describe its ideological opponents. In this case, the coalition isn’t describing itself as crusading entity but rather positioning itself as the victim of crusading.