“Leadership is disappointing your own people at a pace that they can stand.” —Tod Bolsinger
Leslie Newbigin was a well-known British missionary to India in the last century. He and his wife were effective cross-cultural church planters and understood how to translate the gospel to the culture they had come to live in. But after several decades in India, Leslie Newbigin came home to a very different Britain.
Upon his return, he noticed that in his decades away England had become dramatically post-Christian. Not non-Christian or pre-Christian, but post-Christian. Even still, the values of Christianity were still very much a part of the moral furniture, and they were assumed as the way things had always been and would always be.
Newbigin, whom I consider one of the best cultural thinkers of the past 100 years, made a profound prediction for Western civilization. He believed that human beings are worshiping creatures, and so in turning away from Jesus of Nazareth, post-Christians would turn toward politics as their religion de jour.
Which sounds familiar.
I don’t know what your Facebook feed is like, or for that matter your Thanksgiving table, but Newbigin seems eerily prophetic with his prediction.
I’ve been involved in Renew.org for the past 2 years, primarily because I’ve seen that what we’re doing in churches in America isn’t working. We’re not producing disciples who look like King Jesus and are filled with the fruit of the Spirit. But we are producing something…Passionate, partisan voters.
“We’re not producing disciples who look like King Jesus and are filled with the fruit of the Spirit. But we are producing something…Passionate, partisan voters.”
Leftists Going Legalistic
There are voters who if you asked would say that they are fighting for gospel implications. They are sharing that post and owning the libs as they stand up for truth. Or they are fighting for justice for the most vulnerable (with ever-shifting definitions) and standing against oppression.
In my experience with progressive Christianity, in an effort to make the way of Jesus more palatable to the secular values of the left, they have often just become an uncritical celebration of the Democratic party and its cultural agenda. Discipleship becomes politicized in a way that has nothing to do with personal holiness or true justice as defined by the Scriptures.
But there’s enough cultural Christianity in the Bible Belt that it still makes progressivism seem like this nice shiny thing—where you can sleep with whomever you want to sleep with and just be nice to everyone, and yeah, people may have different sexual orientations, but let’s not be judgmental.
“There’s enough cultural Christianity in the Bible Belt that it still makes progressivism seem like this nice shiny thing.”
Progressive Christianity has this impressive veneer (which in my experience isn’t the reality) and it has really good PR. And because there are still some vestiges of cultural Christianity, people sometimes think that there’s a future there. But as someone who’s looked into going down this path, let me tell you I don’t think it’s beautiful up close. There are some good things about it, but it’s not the utopia you may think it is.
My friend Lee Camp once wrote,
“The legalisms and shaming of the Left are too often, in fact, a sort of perverse mirror image of their perceived enemies on the right. Let us not forget that the Pharisees were something like first-century progressives, while the Sadducees were something like first-century conservatives. And just as with the Pharisees, we see a tendency among the Left to draw judgments of inclusion and exclusion, public shaming, and puritanical moralisms. ‘He eats with sinners and publicans!’ said the Pharisees of Jesus. ‘He eats with racists and Republicans!’ might be the analogy for today.”
Today, politically speaking, there’s a right version of the world and a left version of the world. The left tends to be more atheistic, and the right tends to use the language of God to cover up ideas, many of which turn out to be anti-God.
“The left tends to be more atheistic, and the right tends to use the language of God to cover up ideas, many of which turn out to be anti-God.”
I live in Little Rock, Arkansas, not exactly a hot bed for progressivism. This is my home state; these are my people. And since leadership is disappointing your own people at a pace that they can stand, I don’t spend a lot of time arguing against progressive Christianity these days.
Rightists Going Post-Christian
Recently, Christianity Today published an article about the decline of white evangelicals in Southern churches with some surprising data. It turns out that the very things that turn post-Christians off about church might be the very problems that church actually helps people resist. Let me explain.
One of the most interesting findings in this data is that the same thing is happening in the South that happened in New England after many Catholics left church. People didn’t lose their moral intuitions for how they approached politics, but their politics became intensified. So in New England, people became much more politically liberal, while in the South they are becoming…something else. Daniel Williams of Christianity Today explains,
“When whites leave church, they don’t usually become political liberals. Instead, the individualistic moralism they have imbibed from their regional milieu survives in secularized form. Contrary to popular stereotypes about religion’s polarizing effects, Southern churches may actually temper these inclinations at times.”
“Giving their allegiance to this ideology has caused many Christians to turn a blind eye to crass moral failings of their leaders.”
To be sure, many Southern churches have promoted a rightist political ideology, and giving their allegiance to this ideology has caused many Christians to turn a blind eye to crass moral failings of their leaders. The ideology has even been used to promote a xenophobic perspective of America. Still, continues Williams,
“At the same time, even the most politically conservative churches have promoted a sense of community that encourages people to be concerned for others and trusting of them. They have encouraged sexual fidelity and have frowned on self-indulgence, especially when it comes to alcohol and marijuana.
When people leave church, they retain that moralism—at least insofar as it pertains to other people—but lose the sense of self-sacrifice and trust in others. They keep their Bible, their gun, their pro-life pin, and their MAGA hat, but also pick up a condom and a marijuana joint and lose whatever willingness they had to care for other people in community.
For decades, many pundits have warned about the political dangers of a Southern Christian Right that was intent on blurring the boundaries of church and state. But whatever those dangers might have been, perhaps the greater threat to democracy in the South right now is a de-churched populist Right that is just as angry about efforts to correct racial injustice and even more individualistic.”
“Perhaps the greater threat to democracy in the South right now is a de-churched populist Right.” —Daniel Williams
Christians on the political right wouldn’t likely list Christianity Today as one of their top publications. But here CT is offering an insight that should be encouraging and motivating to all followers of Jesus, whether you find yourself more on the right or left, or whether you’re more one of those weird apolitical types like myself: Churches have in their DNA what we need in order to keep us from killing each other over politics.
Don’t Get Hijacked
When the attacks on the United States Capital happened on January 6, 2021, we saw giant banners with the name of Jesus held by people who were also holding automatic weapons and attempting to prevent the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in America’s history. I immediately knew that the Jesus they were promoting was not the King Jesus of the gospels, but I also knew many of my non-Christian friends would think it was. But Jesus, the real One, that we don’t get to make up in our image, is neither Republican nor Democrat.
In the Bible Belt, there is quite a bit of a very toxic kind of Southern Alt-Right Christianity. I know a lot of these people, and I’m doing the slow, deliberate work of challenging their assumptions and calling their allegiance to King Jesus above everything else. But these kind of heretical Christian nationalism movements make the job of the Church hard. It is a huge turn off for most younger Christians who hear a NewsMax version of the Gospel and mistake it for the real thing.
“It is a huge turn off for most younger Christians who hear a NewsMax version of the Gospel and mistake it for the real thing.”
I’ve spent the last few months hosting a podcast with former Christian brothers and sisters who walked away from Jesus, and Christian nationalism was one of the main reasons.
And maybe they have a point.
Consider this quote from not-too-distant history:
“The national government will maintain and defend the foundations on which the power of our nation rests. It will offer strong protection to Christianity as the very basis of our collective morality. Today Christians stand at the head of our country. We want to fill our culture again with the Christian spirit. We want to burn out all the recent immoral developments in literature, in entertainment, and in the press—in short, we want to burn out the poison of immorality which has entered into our whole life and culture as a result of liberal excess during recent years.”
Any ideas who said this? This statement actually comes from a radio address that Adolf Hitler gave to Germany on July 22, 1933.
This was after Hitler was elected by majority vote in a democracy, winning what was considered to be the “Christian vote.” And true to his word, Hitler outlawed pornography, gave churches who went along with his racist Nazi vision of Germany a privileged position, and made Germany great again. Until he didn’t. It’s true that Hitler despised historic Christianity. But he wasn’t at all opposed to using a caricature of it for his agenda.
This is why we’ve got to be unwavering in promoting the real thing.
“This is why we’ve got to be unwavering in promoting the real thing.”
“Christian Nationalism” is not a new innovation. The relationship between the church and the state has been a constant tension since the time of Constantine and one that Christians often get wrong historically. Whether you’re a Republican or Democratic, you can point to numerous examples of the other side hijacking the Christian faith for their own political gain. But wherever you align politically, let us not use the errors or excesses of “the other side” to excuse the very real poison that is happening beneath our own noses and cities and churches.
A Shift of Priority and Tone
If Jesus really is the King of kings (and of presidents), then you would expect the Body of Jesus on earth to be equally prophetic for Presidents of each political party. If you consider our primary citizenship to be in King Jesus’ kingdom, you should expect a level of humility, patience, and grace when it comes to how Christians hold their political convictions.
You would expect that, regardless of political affiliation, the ethics of the New Testament and the words of Jesus would influence us more than political legislation when it comes to how we talk about and act out our convictions for immigration, helping the poor, racial justice and reconciliation, care for human life and human dignity, helping children and the vulnerable in our society. You would expect, in other words, the church of Jesus Christ to do what it has done historically and globally is still doing.
“You would expect that, regardless of political affiliation, the ethics of the New Testament and the words of Jesus would influence us more than political legislation.”
I’m a part of the Restoration Movement because of a 10-person church that functioned for me as a colony of Heaven. I was poor growing up, but some members of that church took out a loan for me to go to Harding University. We were racially diverse, our worship leader was a down-syndrome man named Brian, and we were sacrificially in each other’s lives loving each other with a rugged commitment to other people’s good. And we never reached for words like “conservative” or “liberal” to describe what God was doing in our lives.
Those words belonged to different worlds, worlds of power and culture wars. This was something else. Something better.
I’m a member of the Restoration Movement because, like our distant cousins the Quakers and Amish, we believe that the way of Jesus must be chosen, not coerced or legislated. We believe that, when an adult is baptized into the Body of Christ, that is the most significant political act in the universe. Whatever their political leanings, they are pledging their ultimate allegiance to the King of kings and to his way for his people. As citizens of his kingdom, Jesus’ followers live out his ways of forgiveness, generosity, sexual fidelity, and radical love across cultures and ethnicities, gender, and class.
“As citizens of his kingdom, Jesus’ followers live out his ways of forgiveness, generosity, sexual fidelity, and radical love across cultures and ethnicities, gender, and class.”
Anything less than that is not the way of Jesus; it is a bastardization of the gospel and a betrayal of our baptisms.
So, what do you say, Christian leaders and pastors? Is it helping things to spend your days wringing your hands over the cultural decay? Is it helping matters to keep that spiritually de-forming cable news channel blaring in your home’s background? Is it making things better to voraciously hate-read all the bad stuff about those people on the other side of your political aisle? Or would it be more helpful to look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you’ve been more passionate about a political party’s vision for our country or about Jesus’ vision for his kingdom. When we let Jesus’ vision be eclipsed by any other vision, we end up lowering the bar of discipleship in our churches and indeed our own lives.
“When we let Jesus’ vision be eclipsed by any other vision, we end up lowering the bar of discipleship.”
I mentioned earlier that, when it comes to the political spectrum, I tend to be more apolitical. If you’re a disciple of Jesus who is more politically engaged, that can be a good thing. But please resist the temptation to turn your political heroes into gods and your political enemies into demons. You’re a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom first and foremost. This means that your heart beats in cadence with what Jesus cares about. This means that making disciples of all nations is your great passion, never to be set aside whether you’re on Facebook or in the ballot box.
The world is watching. If we’re going to hold up the banner of Jesus, let’s make sure it’s the real one.
 From “The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922-1939, vol. 1, Norman H. Baynes, ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), 871-71.