By Obbie Todd
For years scholars have debated the validity of “secularization theory,” the idea that, as society progresses, religion will irrevocably lose its authority in the public square and in society as a whole. In his monumental work A Secular Age (2007), philosopher Charles Taylor described this view as the “disenchanting” of the world through modernity, or the draining of the spiritual realm from the material. A generation of Dispensational premillennial Christians raised on the Scofield Reference Bible and Left Behind theology have perhaps unconsciously imbibed this worldview. However others aren’t as pessimistic about the trajectory of our culture. According to ecumenicist Lesslie Newbigin, “There are good grounds for saying that the secularization theory has been accepted uncritically by Christians to justify a social institution.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 215) Can a developed society actually elevate the role of religion in its political and moral culture over time? Depending on one’s particular theology (and specifically eschatology), evangelicals seem to be divided on the matter.
While positions on “secularization theory” are manifold, evangelicals generally find more agreement concerning the role of the church in its relationship to culture: God’s people are to stand apart from worldly culture as to be distinguishable from it, while also speaking into that culture with truth and love. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, urges the church to become a “prophetic minority” in the midst of an increasingly hostile secular culture: “If we ever were a moral majority, we are no longer. As the secularizing and sexualizing revolutions whir on, it is no longer possible to pretend that we represent the ‘real America,’ a majority of God loving, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth cultural conservatives like us. Accordingly, we will engage the culture less like the chaplains of some idyllic Mayberry and more like the apostles in the book of Acts.” (Onward, 26-27) Times have indeed changed. Therefore, in light of our current election cycle, evangelicals must be vigilant so as not to confuse conservative politics with a conservative faith.
Secularization can don the Republican elephant as comfortably as it can the Democratic donkey, and the Donald Trump campaign has demonstrated this repeatedly. The presidency of Donald Trump, on the other hand, brings much hope and excitement for the fiscally conservative and religious right, however it apparently does the same for white nationalist groups. While evangelicals are free and encouraged to vote for the candidate they feel will best offer a faith-based America, Trump’s incendiary remarks about minorities and women, his heavy involvement with the casino industry, his publicized stance on the family and LGBT issues, as well as his past dealings both financial and sexual must be met with an equally staunch response from those who profess to be “not of the world.” (John 17:16) Today Christians are commanded to pray for Donald Trump and his new administration. (1 Tim. 2:1-2) However, they’re also exhorted not to conform to the patterns of this world – a pattern represented vividly in the life and exploits of Donald Trump. (Rom. 12:2) In its blind, wholesale devotion to a party, a church unwilling to distinguish its own voice from secular voices will lose the authenticity of its message and its ability to reflect the God they claim to serve. In an age of Christian politicization, what is perhaps most at stake is the prophetic voice of the church.
German-born Albert Einstein observed firsthand the purity and holiness of a church standing apart from a secular government, and his testimony is a powerful reminder of its prophetic and evangelistic voice:
“Having always been an ardent partisan of freedom, I turned to the Universities, as soon as the revolution broke out in Germany, to find the Universities took refuge in silence. I then turned to the editors of powerful newspapers, who, but lately in flowing articles, had claimed to be the faithful champions of liberty. These men, as well as the Universities, were reduced to silence in a few weeks. I then addressed myself to the authors individually, to those who passed themselves off as the intellectual guides of Germany, and among whom many had frequently discussed the question of freedom and its place in modern life. They are in their turn very dumb. Only the Church opposed the fight which Hitler was waging against liberty. Till then I had no interest in the Church, but now I feel great admiration and am truly attracted to the Church which had the persistent courage to fight for spiritual truth and moral freedom. I feel obliged to confess that I now admire what I used to consider of little value.” (quoted in Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, Epilogue)
If love calls the lost, so does holiness. Far it be for evangelicals to make concrete parallels between Trump and Hitler, however the prophetic voice of the church is no less at stake under a leader who also trumpets themes of nativism, xenophobia, and threatening speech that makes many minorities nervous for a Trump Presidency. The unbelieving world is watching Trump, but it’s also watching the church in its support of a man who brandishes rhetoric often at odds with the Gospel message. Can the church balance support for their President as the man instituted by God to lead the nation with a proper understanding of its call to holiness? Will the church stand apart? Or will it simply mirror and be molded by a populist political figure? The prophetic voice of the church is at stake, and evangelicals should remember that the holiness of the church will always inform its message of love.
John the Baptist was willing to be beheaded for a message of repentance to an unbelieving world. (Matthew 3:7-8) His prophetic voice stretched high enough to challenge the immorality of a secular leader who seized another man’s wife. (Matthew 14:4) Likewise, will evangelicals balance their message of love with one of holiness? Will they balance support for their President with a message of public repentance? The consequences assume much more than failed politics. At stake is the prophetic voice of the church and its message of holy love against the Herods of our age. Will we preach repentance? The kingdom of heaven is at hand. (3:2) And it should look a bit differently than the kingdoms of this world.