What Do We Do Now?

Oct 5th, 2019 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

In America, indeed in all of Western Civilization, we are experiencing what has been called “The Great Unraveling.”  Evangelical author and educator, Duane Litfin, writes:  “We live in a time of shifting sand. The avalanche of social, political and legal changes we’ve experienced has left many believers reeling. They are troubled by what they see but also befuddled about how to respond. Amid much wringing of the hands they hear some calling for a circling of the wagons; others insist we must ‘take America back’; still others counsel ‘engagement’ with the culture, often on its own terms. Confused by their times, many Christians remain uncertain about ‘what Israel should do.’  This last phrase is drawn from 1 Chronicles 12:32. The historical setting of this passage was also a time of shifting sand. King Saul had become unstable and was all but finished; yet he was still powerful and dangerous. The young upstart David appeared to be the future, but he was scarcely a sure thing. Israel’s tribes faced a ticklish decision. Each had to decide where their loyalties should lie. The tribe of Issachar made the right decision. This, the chronicler informs us, was because they ‘understood the times and knew what Israel should do.’”

What is going on in American culture?  Why is there increased polarization on every front?  How do we respond to a culture that perceives disagreement over cultural issues as a disagreement among enemies who need to be destroyed?  Civility, compromise and empathy no longer inform any discussion within our culture.  Crafting a wise and godly response to what’s taking place around us requires that we understand our times.  Litfin offers a superb analysis of “our times.”  Let me summarize some of his analysis in this Perspective.

Litfin draws on law professor Steven D. Smith’s book, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.  Smith is the co-director of the University of San Diego’s Institute of Religion and Law.   His book is a detailed chronicle of American jurisprudence on the subject of religious freedom, from the founding of the nation to the present.


  • “The tale we’re after begins in December of 1791, when Americans approved ten new amendments to the Constitution they had ratified just two years earlier. The first enumerated right in these amendments—preceding even the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly—was America’s so-called ‘first freedom,’ the freedom of religion. Thus the Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins with these striking words: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Surprising to many today, this wording was originally designed as not much more than a jurisdictional limitation, stipulating that the federal government (‘Congress’) must keep its hands off religion. With no federal laws for the judicial branch to adjudicate or the executive branch to execute, America’s new central government was to leave religion alone. Religious matters were to be left to the states or local jurisdictions.  Yet it was inevitable that complications would arise. The interplay of intricate questions surrounding the freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of worship, and the relation of church and government led early on to the development of what Smith calls the ‘American settlement’: a distinctive and uniquely valuable approach, says Smith, to the challenge of religion in American society.   This ‘settlement’ was designed to accommodate two contending interpretations of America, both of which were in play from the beginning. Smith calls these the ‘providential’ and ‘secular’ interpretations. The providential interpretation recognizes vertical premises such as the ‘self-evident’ claim of the Declaration of Independence that all humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. The secular interpretation prefers a horizontal view of America that disallows any such vertical tethers.
  • But, “roughly 70 years ago, argues Smith, America’s Supreme Court abandoned the wisdom of the American settlement. It committed the ‘basic blunder’ of granting official preference to ‘one among competing faiths or would-be orthodoxies.’ Beginning with a series of decisions from the late 1940s into the 1960s, the Court declared the secular interpretation of America to be the nation’s official dogma. Though still widespread at popular and ceremonial levels, providential ideas—such as the claim that the source of our human rights is God rather than the state, or that man’s law is but a mask of God’s law—would no longer be permitted any official role in America’s law, government or public education. The nation went officially horizontal, creating at the core of American society a massive, ever-expanding governmental dead zone devoid of providential thinking or reasoning.”
  • It doesn’t take much connecting of dots to recognize this mid-20th century shift as the root of today’s “culture wars.” In 1991, sociologist James Davison Hunter popularized this term in his aptly-subtitled book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. “There he described the conflict as ‘political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding’ . . . They are not merely attitudes that can change on a whim but basic commitments and beliefs that provide a source of identity, purpose, and togetherness for the people who live by them . . . Said Hunter, “The cleavages at the heart of the contemporary culture war are created by what I would like to call the impulse toward orthodoxy and the impulse toward progressivism.”  The orthodox impulse is oriented vertically toward some “external definable, and transcendent authority.” The impulse toward progressivism is oriented horizontally toward “a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.”   Says Hunter, the contest between these two worldviews and their respective social and political agendas is “cultural conflict at its deepest level.” It is a conflict over the very “meaning of America, who we have been in the past, who we are now, and perhaps most important, who we, as a nation, will aspire to become in the new millennium.”
  • What cannot be denied . . . is the reality of the ongoing cultural struggle described by Smith and Hunter. There isa campaign taking place, but it’s not against Christianity per se. It’s against providentialism in general. Christianity is simply the most prominent example.  “It was triggered seventy-some years ago when the secular interpretation of America was declared the cultural winner. Its social and political agenda, empowered by a now weaponized Constitution, began a steady, easily-documented advance through the second half of the twentieth century. It was inevitably a messy, inconsistent, up-and-down affair, but the overall trend was clear.  Then, after the turn of the century, that trend hockey-sticked up. Fresh developments signaled a new secular aggressiveness. On issues such as gender, homosexuality, marriage, the unborn and religious freedom, providentialist resistance by voters or legislators was summarily slapped down by the courts. The legal thumb that had always weighted the scale in favor of America’s first freedom’ shifted to the anti-discrimination cause. Livelihoods hung in the balance as conscience-driven proprietors resisted the secular push. Massive corporate boycotts were organized against states daring to buck the tide. The full weight of the executive branch of the federal government swung in behind the radical agenda. On campus, language and thought police ratcheted up the enforcement of their PC rule book. Dissenting voices were shouted down at the podium or punished by social media mobs. With few notable exceptions, the culture’s elites—intellectual, legal, media, entertainment, corporate—appeared to be singing in unison from the same secular score . . . Traditional Christian and pro-family groups were newly labeled social extremists.”
  • Most importantly Litfin concludes, “In a regime of open contestation it is possible to disagree respectfully. . . . [But] where disagreements are framed, not in terms of legitimate contesting conceptions but rather in terms of an official position or orthodoxy versus heretical and illegitimate deviations, respectful disagreement becomes difficult; it is replaced by a discourse of accusation, anathematization, and abuse.”

What now should we do?  Should evangelicals now withdraw from the culture as they did in the late 1800s, only to re-engage in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan?  Or should we go back to the New Testament and refresh our collective memories on how the 1st century church represented Christ?  Many scholars have begun to compare the 1st century church (e.g., Corinth) to the American evangelical church of the 21st.  Several thoughts:

  1. An excellent way to begin might be to steep ourselves in the godly counsel of 1 Peter, a letter addressed to first century “exiles and sojourners” whose allegiance to Christ and his word also placed them at odds with their prevailing culture.
  2. “No superficial assessment of America’s current struggles will do. Evangelical Christians need to think deeply about what they’re facing: the mounting cultural dominance of a very different—and increasingly intolerant—‘system of moral understanding,’ one that is anchored in the purely horizontal assumptions that became official America’s established ‘religion’ (‘worldview,’ set of ultimate beliefs’) 75 years ago. The cultural battle lines of today are but the latest ripple effects of that irreversible shift.”
  3. “Crafting a godly response to this reality must begin with the recognition that our society’s illness is not a temporary ailment; it is now a chronic condition, one which is likely to demand of America’s 21st century evangelicals a much more costly Christ-like response than many of us have yet contemplated. ‘Behold,’ Jesus said, ‘I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’”
  4. As Tim Keller has observed, going to church in America used to have a social benefit, whether you agreed with the preaching/teaching or not. It was good for someone socially to be seen in church.  Today, there is a social risk to going to church.  It can cost you to do so!
  5. It is imperative to remember that secularism does have articles of faith, even though secularists will never admit it. It involves:  (1) Be true to yourself; (2)  Do what makes you happy; (3) No one can tell you what to believe; and (4) You are free to do as you wish, only do not harm anyone.
  6. What can we learn from the early church on the 1st and 2nd centuries? Keller suggests several ideas:
  • The church must be willing to deconstruct the doctrine of secularism. The public ministry of Jesus might offer an insight.  He often said, “You have heard it said. . . but I say to you.”  Sound, biblically centered doctrine must be utilized and championed.
  • Evangelicals must develop what James Davison Hunter calls “an alternate cultural economy.” Evangelicals are afraid and defensive about almost everything.  When I study to Apostle Paul I see a man representing Christ in a gracious, thoughtful manner, evidencing dignity and respect, all the while refusing to either accommodate to or separate from the Greco-Roman culture.
  • The social conscience of the early church must be re-claimed. Keller offers some thoughts on what this involves:  (1)  a multi-ethnic outreach.  Reading the book of Acts deepens that conviction.  (2)  A concern for the poor.  (3)  Never retaliate.  Always be gracious and magnanimous.  (4)  Be an advocate for pro-life, consistently across the entire cultural spectrum.  (5)  Build a sexual counter-culture.

In John 17:13-18, Jesus declares that as He was sent into the world, so He is sending us into the world.  As was He, we are to be in the world but not of the world.  There is tremendous tension in understanding and implementing Jesus’ directive here.  We identify with the culture into which God has placed us but separate from its evils, all the while seeking to be the agents of God’s transforming grace.  We must reclaim the agenda and strategies of the early church.

See Duane Litfin, “The Lost Genius of the American Settlement,” Today in Church History (20 September 2019); and Tim Keller’s address to the Hendricks Center on the campus of Dallas Theological Seminary (19 September 2019).

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