Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has an excellent article called Left Behind in America: Following Christ after Culture Wars over at 9marks.
The problem with American Christianity is that we always assumed there were more of “us” than there were of “them.” And we were sometimes confused about who we meant when we said “us.”
…Now, politically and socially speaking, this is what a group is supposed to do: to attach itself to a broad coalition and to speak then as part of a majority. The problem was that, from the very beginning, Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak with great acclaim, in almost any era of the nation’s history, of “God and country,” but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned “Christ and him crucified.”
Note well “from the very beginning”. Note the circumstances of America’s founding:
The English Church [Pilgrims] had not been very long at Leyden [Holland], before they found themselves encountred with many inconveniences. They felt that they were neither for health, nor purse, nor language well accommodated ; but the concern which they most of all had, was for their posterity. They saw, that whatever banks the Dutch had against the inroads of the sea, they had not sufficient ones against a flood of manifold profaneness. They could not with ten years’ endeavour bring their neighbours particularly to any suitable observation of the LORD’S DAY ; without which they knew that all practical Religion must wither miserably. They beheld some of their children, by the temptations of the place, were especially given in the licentious ways of many young people, drawn into dangerous extravagancies.
The pilgrims fled to Holland from England in order to worship freely according to their conscience, which they were able to do. But that was not enough for them. They did not want to live in a mixed society amidst profaneness.
These good people were now satisfyed, they had as plain a command of Heaven to attempt a removal, as ever their father Abraham had for his leaving the Caldean territories… (Mather, 48)
So they set out for America to establish a theocracy as banks against the “flood of manifold profaneness” of the world.
The Theocracy, that is, God’s government, is to be established as the best form of government. Here the people, who chooses its civil rulers, is God’s people, and, equally with those they choose, in covenant with him; they are members of the churches; God’s laws and God’s servants are enquired of for counsel.
John Cotton, quoted in The New England Theocracy, Uhden, p. 75
In 1636, several men grew concerned with Governor Winthrop’s laxity in holding off this flood:
Then the ministers were desired to consider of the question by the next morning, and to set down a rule in the case. The next morning, they delivered their several reasons, which all sorted to this conclusion, that strict discipline, both in criminal offences and in martial affairs, was more needful in plantations than in a settled state, as tending to the honor and safety of the gospel. Whereupon Mr. Winthrop acknowledged that he was convinced, that he had failed in overmuch lenity and remissness, and would endeavour (by God’s assistance) to take a more strict course hereafter.
The view eventually settled on was summarized in the New England Platform of Church Discipline:
6. It is the duty of the magistrate to take care of matters of religion, and to improve his civil authority for the observing of the duties commanded in the first, as well as for observing of the duties commanded in the second table. They are called GODS (Ps. 88 : 8.) The end of the magistrate’s office is not only the quiet and peaceable life of the subject in matters of righteousness and honesty, but also in matters of godliness, yea, of all godliness (1 Tim. 2 : 2).
And thus the Puritan Pilgrims of New England whet their sword, putting to death heretics, adulterers, and witches, while banishing many others. But all this was to no avail because Christ never promised an earthly society free of profaneness. Christ said “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:51). These Pilgrims sought out a “New-English Israel” because they thought this division was between nations and societies, but they neglected Christ’s next sentence “For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
The sword cannot change hearts, and after a few generations they faced the reality of what Moore observed.
When our churches were come to between twenty and thirty years of age, a numerous posterity was advanced so far into the world, that the first planters began apace in their several families to be distinguished by the name of grand-fathers ; but among the immediate parents of the grand children, there were multitudes of well disposed persons, who, partly thro’ their own doubts and fears, and partly thro’ other culpable neglect, had not actually come up to the covenanting state of communicants at the table of the Lord. The good old generation could not, without many uncomfortable apprehensions, behold their offspring excluded from the baptism of Christianity, and from the ecclesiastical inspection which is to accompany that baptism; indeed, it was to leave their off-spring under the shepherdly government of our Lord Jesus Christ in his ordinances, that they had brought their lambs into this wilderness.
When the apostle bids churches to “look diligently, lest any man fail of the grace of God,” there is an ecclesiastical word used for that “looking diligently;” intimating that God will ordinarily bless a regular church-watch, to maintain the interests of grace among his people: and it was therefore the study of those prudent men, who might be call’d our seers, that the children of ‘ the faithful may be kept, as far as may be, under a church-watch, in expectation that they might be in the fairer way to receive the grace of God; thus they were “looking diligently,” that the prosperous and prevailing condition of religion in our churches might not be Res unius ailalis, — “a matter of one age alone.”
Moreover, among the next sons or daughters descending from that generation, there was a numerous appearance of sober persons, who professed themselves desirous to renew their baptismal-covenant and submit unto the church-discipline, and so have their houses also marked for the Lord’s; but yet they could not come up to that experimental account of their own regeneration, which would sufficiently embolden their access to the other sacraments. Wherefore, for our churches now to make no ecclesiastical difference between these hopeful candidates and competents for those our further mysteries, and Pagans, who might happen to hear the word of God in our assemblies, was judged a most unwarrantable strictness, which would quickly abandon the biggest part of our country unto heathenism. And, on the other side, it was feared that, if all such as had not yet exposed themselves by censurable scandals found upon them, should be admitted unto all the priviledges in our churches, a worldly part of mankind might, before we are aware, carry all things into such a course of proceeding, as would be very disagreeable unto the kingdom of heaven.
In other words “Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel”. The result was the Half-Way Covenant.
We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The closeness of American culture with the church caused many sectors of the American church to read the Bible as though the Bible were pointing us to America itself.
Consider these quotes from Cotton Mather:
This at last is the spot of earth, which the God of heaven spied out for the seat of such evangelical, and ecclesiastical, and very remarkable transactions, as require to be made an history; here ’twas that our blessed Jesus intended a resting place, must I say? or only an hiding place for those reformed CHURCHES, which have given him a little accomplishment of his eternal Father’s promise unto him; to be, we hope, yet further accomplished, of having the utmost parts of the earth for his possession?…
[T]hese passengers were divers worthy and useful men, who were come to seek the welfare of this little Israel; though at their coming they were as diversly affected as the rebuilders of the Temple at Jerusalem…
However, I am going to give unto the Christian reader an history of some feeble attempts made in the American hemisphere to anticipate the state of the New-Jerusalem [“which we expect at the descent of our Lord JESUS CHRIST from Heaven”], as far as the unavoidable vanity of human affairs and influence of Satan upon them would allow of it ; and of many worthy persons whose posterity, if they make a squadron in the fleets of Gog and Magog, will be apostates deserving a room, and a doom with the legions of the grand apostate, that will deceive the nations to that mysterious enterprize…
“And that’s why in the most culturally conservative parts of the country, Christianity often became a rite of passage to a place in the community, often without the self-crucifying power of regeneration.” (Moore)
The myth of a Christian nation was the residue of sacralism that is only now being washed off 17 centuries after Constantine hijacked Christianity. Do not underestimate how your ecclessiology and eschatology affect your view of culture and politics. Your politics may even be implicitly influenced by an ecclesiology and eschatology you don’t even share.
Recently, Larry E. Ball, a retired PCA minister wrote in The Battle Between Between Exile Theology and Dominion Theology
America was once Christian (imperfect, but rooted in Christian principles), but we lost it. Actually, we gave it away. Now the political neo-conservatives misconstrue the past as “American exceptionalism” without the influence of Christianity. A nation that was once a sign of the conquering Jesus has become the fodder of many in the church to capitalize on our persecution and suffering. Exile Theology is presently preeminent in the church although that has not always been the case…
However, even in my old age, there is something else (other than exegesis) that holds me in the Dominion Camp. It’s the children and grandchildren! To consider only myself and my future is actually selfish. The covenant teaches me that more important than myself are the generations that will follow me. I may want to escape the trials of this earth, but my children and grandchildren will have to live in a world that we leave to them. Better to leave them with hope in the ascended and reigning Christ than a hopelessness that surrenders to a world that belongs to the Devil.
I believe Ball is quite wrong (note his concern for his children, like the Pilgrims’), and Moore is quite right.
We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in… The church now has the opportunity to bear witness in a culture that often does not even pretend to share our “values.” That is not a tragedy since we were never given a mission to promote “values” in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and of judgment, of Christ and his kingdom…
Our end goal is not a Christian America of the made-up past or the hoped-for future. Our end goal is the kingdom of Christ, made up of every tribe, tongue, nation, and language. We are, in Christ, the heirs of this kingdom. The worst thing that can happen to us is not cultural marginalization or social setbacks. The worst thing that can happen to us is crucifixion under the curse of God, and we’ve already been there. The best thing that can happen to us has already happened, too. We are raised with Christ, and seated with him at the right hand of God. That should free us to stand and to speak, not because we are a majority, moral or otherwise, but because we are an embassy of the future, addressing consciences made to long for good news.
(See also The Parable of the Wheat and Tares Opened)