Two serious temptations confront Christians as they ponder the relationship between their faith and modern politics. The first is pietistic withdrawal. This approach dominated most of Western Christianity from the 1870s to the 1960s. It is the notion that good Christians don't dirty their hands with politics. The really important thing is individual piety Bible-reading, private prayer, church attendance, soul winning, and so on and getting ready for the any-moment rapture of the saints up to heaven. For Christians to get involved in politics is to divert their attention from their true calling.
Pietistic withdrawal created a vacuum into which secular humanism eagerly rushed. When Christians abandoned their world-conquering spirit, secularists and other non-Christians adopted a world-conquering spirit of their own. They soon assumed the crucial positions of cultural leadership: the denominations, education, technology, the arts, media, and politics. They became The New Establishment, replacing the long-lived Christian Establishment. It was Christians' pietistic withdrawal that permitted this. In other words, Christian withdrawal permitted secular conquest. The agents of withdrawal therefore have only themselves to blame for much of the evil in modern society.
In the 1960s a significant segment of Christians recovered certain aspects of the older world-conquering spirit. Led by aggressive Christians like Chalcedon's Colonel V. Doner, Christians left their marginalized cultural ghettos and began fighting battles to restore Christianity to more areas of life particularly politics. The Old Christian Right was formed from this ethos. It was partially successful.
Its very successes, however, contributed to another problem almost as dangerous as, and sometimes more dangerous than, pietistic withdrawal. I refer to political salvationism. This is the notion that politics is the chief sphere of social change or, worse yet, of Christian responsibility altogether. Since roughly the French Revolution, crusading secularists have been statist to the core. Why? Because when one abandons hope in the power of man's regeneration activated by the Holy Spirit, he must employ coercive methods of social change and, don't kid yourself, the state is all about coercion. So if you deny that God changes people's behavior by the gospel, you must presume that humans must change it by guns, prisons, torture, and electric chairs. This is the methodology of secular Marxists and secular Democrats and Republicans. Many politically active Christians over the last couple of decades have fallen into this trap at least in thinking that politics is central. They think that if they can just capture the White House (or state house), they'll have necessarily advanced the kingdom of God. This is delusional and the limited but real Christian political successes of the last two decades, which by no means advanced the kingdom of God, obviously refute that notion.
Preaching and Social Change
Legitimate social change is always the effect of legitimate religious change. Society is a religious fact. Relevant Christians produce a Christian society. In other words, when people get saved and are properly taught, they start gradually changing their lives and spheres of influence and, as a result, they start to change a society of which they are part. But the greatest instrument instructing them how to do that is the pulpit preaching. The problem today is that most of today's preaching liberal or conservative is effete and ineffectual. On the one hand are the blathering emotionalists, for whom Christianity is little more than heart-string-yanking sentiment and, on the other hand, highly orthodox lectures peppered with the original languages (and a little Latin to impress the undereducated) which lacks any fire and application and thus is worse than useless, settling the congregation into the diffident opinion that hearing the Word the God suffices, in spite of what St. James so pointedly says (Jas. 1:22). The preaching of the New Testament era that turned the world upside down (Ac. 17:6) was Spirit-empowered, doctrinally anchored, immediate, direct, personal, applicational. Read, to take but two examples, Peter's sermon in Acts 2 and Stephen's in Acts 7.
We don't hear many sermons like that these days.
We don't have too much world-conquering Christianity like that these days, either. The preaching in the liberal Protestant denominations offers stones for bread, scorpions for fish. The preaching in the conservative Protestant denominations offers moldy bread and anorexic minnows. It is no wonder that modern Christianity lacks the strength to advance the kingdom of God in history.
There will be no healthy society without healthy Christianity, and there will be no healthy Christianity without healthy preaching. It is preaching that changes lives, and changed lives change societies. From St. Paul to Chrysostom to Augustine to Luther to Calvin to Knox to Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Kuyper, Spirit-empowered, doctrinally anchored preaching sparks reformations and revivals. This kind of fearless, powerful preaching ignited the American War for Independence. (If you don't believe it, read Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, edited by Ellis Sandoz.) No real revival was ever inflamed by prissy scholars who transform the pulpit into a lecture podium, any more than it was started by blathering pulpiteers who engage the pulpit as a circus ring. It is not more and better scholars or politicians that we most urgently need. It is better preachers that we desperately need. From a human perspective, everything rises and falls on leadership. The leadership of today's church is largely feminized, relativized, and marginalized. Strong, decisive manliness is scorned by feminists of both sexes. This feminization has entered not merely the church, but also the pulpit itself. As Ann Douglas notes in her impeccably documented work, The Feminization of American Culture, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries an incipient feminism transformed virile, Calvinistic ministers into soap-opera, evangelical hand-holders. It has been that way ever since.
Conservative even Christianpolitics won't turn things around. If there is to be revival and reformation, it must start in the pulpit, not in politics.
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).