Does Christian Cultural Engagement Have to Take the Form of War?
Yesterday the Aquila Report was generous enough to publish my response to Bill Evans’s recent article calling conservative Christians to engage in a culture war. Evans is a smart fellow, a professor at Erskine College with a PhD from Vanderbilt. But unfortunately his article merely propagates what regular readers of this blog will recognize to be a caricature of the two kingdoms doctrine which Evans can use as a foil for his own culture war agenda. This is unfortunate, in part because as I have tried to show on this blog over the past few months, a healthy two kingdoms paradigm provides a perspective on cultural engagement that Evans might find much more useful for some of his most basic goals than the militant and exhaustive rhetoric of culture war. I suspect my fellow two kingdoms scholar Brad Littlejohn will also find Evans’s take somewhat problematic.
Anyway, here is the article:
Does Christian cultural engagement have to take the form of war?
So argues William B. Evans in an article published in the Aquila Report. Evans, a professor of religion and culture at Erskine College in South Carolina, pleads that while the younger generation of Christians seems to be exhausted with decades of culture war they should not abandon the fight due to “cowardice” or “theological” scruples. The Obama administration, representing liberal elites who are seeking to suppress democracy and run America from the top-down, will launch its attacks on conservative Christians whether we like it or not. Although the Supreme Court defeated certain efforts by the administration to suppress religious liberty, rather than take refuge in such constitutional protections, Christians need to fight back.
Evans makes it quite clear that in addition to those who are simply tired of defending traditional marriage and the right to life he has a particular group of contemporary Reformed theologians and pastors in mind. They are those who advocate a “so-called ‘two kingdoms doctrine.’” Evans acknowledges that Calvin also articulated the two kingdoms doctrine, but he insists that contemporary two kingdoms advocates reject governing society according to Christian principles, whereas Calvin insisted on it. He also suggests that two kingdoms advocates identify the kingdom of God too closely with the church, although he does not explain in what sense he disagrees with this perspective, nor does he note that in this respect the contemporary two kingdoms advocates are solidly in line with the perspective of Calvin.
Finally, Evans gives a hint of who he is after when he offers two links to two kingdoms advocates who supposedly “up the rhetorical ante” by saying that there is “no essential difference between Christians who seek cultural transformation and Muslims seeking to impose Sharia law.” That would be quite a provocative and highly problematic claim, particularly for someone like me, whose vocation is social ethics. Lo and behold my surprise when I find that one of the links is to an article I wrote comparing Islamists to the sort of militant Calvinists who advocated disobedience to and even rebellion against any government that does not promote the Reformed faith, and who urged the death penalty upon false teachers and blasphemers. I didn’t realize that this was the ordinary referent of “Christians who seek cultural transformation.”
But Evans seems to think that because he is not interested in carefully engaging the two kingdoms doctrine in this article he can launch a few hit-and-run attacks, lump all two kingdoms advocates together according to the most extreme version of the doctrine, and then move on. After suggesting that two kingdoms advocates oppose Christians engaging culture and politics as Christians (which most of them certainly do not!) he neatly associates them with those who for reasons of cowardice or bad theology do not want to engage culture at all. Never mind the fact that I have repeatedly articulated arguments in defense of traditional marriage (despite the cost I have endured as a doctoral student at a major American research university) and seeking to apply the insights of the Christian political theological tradition to contemporary American politics. Never mind the fact that David VanDrunen has articulated numerous principles found in Scripture governing how Christians should engage culture and politics as Christians, not to mention that he wrote an excellent primer on bioethics seeking to help Christians work through some of the most difficult, controversial, and political ethical issues of our time.
After representing two kingdoms advocates as those who do not want to engage culture and politics Evans turns to argue that faithful cultural engagement must take the form of culture war. The liberals and elites of the Obama administration have launched a battle against us, and our only choice is to fight or run. Surely good Christians will not run. It does not seem to occur to Evans that many of those opposed to culture war as a model of public engagement do so not because they care any less than he does about marriage, life, religious liberty, or political freedom, but because they think that a less militant approach to culture and politics is both more politically and culturally effective and more faithful to Christ. Rather than taking the approach of divide and conquer, many of these advocates want to effect cultural change through faithful witness and loving persuasion. They understand that cultural change is effected first and foremost not through war or power politics, but through education and patient influence. Indeed, they work hard to promote the very same causes Evans seems to value so dearly, and yet they seek to do so in a manner that will build consensus across political traditions and religious communities. Yet they also understand that the rhetoric of the gospel and of Christianity is easily hijacked by people and movements whose agenda is most certainly not that of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Did Jesus call us to go out into all the world and wage a culture war? To be sure, the New Testament does occasionally use militant imagery, though Evans might consider the fact that these texts make it quite clear that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” and that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (2 Corinthians 10:4; Ephesians 6:12). He might consider the thought that for many Christians talk of waging a culture war against people in our own country – indeed, against our own government – might violate Christ’s teachings regarding the honor, respect, and obedience we are to give to those in authority over us, and the thanksgiving we are to give for them (Romans 13:7; Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:17). In short, he might take seriously the fact that for many Christians it goes against their conscience to conceive of their cultural and political engagement with their neighbors as a form of war, rather than as a form of sacrificial service according to the image of the one who went to the cross to take away the sin of the world (Philippians 2:5-11).