The latter half of the 20th century has seen the emergence of two extremes in the American Church and its relationship to the culture – liberal revisionism on the one side and conservative fundamentalism on the other. Both, I contend, have hindered the work and ministry of the Church. One renders the Christian faith meaningless while the other makes it irrelevant.
Liberal revisionism has capitulated to contemporary culture and with it many truths of the historic faith. Liberal revisionism ultimately renders the Christian message meaningless by reducing Christ to anything you want him to be – there is simply no authority in this view beyond your own preference and cultural whims. My concern herein however is not for liberal revisionism but conservative fundamentalism, which has become the predominant view. Additionally, unlike liberal revisionism, conservative fundamentalism remains Christian but a distorted version of it that is often difficult to distinguish. A recent conversation with Os Guinness offers this further insight:
Fundamentalism has become an overlay on the Christian faith and developed into an essentially modern reaction to the modern world, a reaction that tends to romanticize the past … and radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian or worse.
I think Os puts this well when he describes fundamentalism as "an overlay" which, as a result, has captured the thinking of many unwitting Christians. This is frequently expressed in terms of conservative politics, Christian nationalism and what one Evangelical writer revealed when he referred to the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount as "Americanisms." Being Christian and being American are often thought to be synonymous.
Practically, these expressions are manifest in the almost exclusive reliance upon coercion and politics as the means and method of bringing culture under the influence of biblical principles. The idea is that if "we" can only capture political control we can bring about cultural change in a way that recovers biblical values. Cal Thomas refers to this as expecting the "Kingdom of God to arrive on Air Force One."
This is, in large part, inspired by a romantic, but inaccurate, view of the past in which we believe that America was once a distinctly "Christian nation" and from the time of our founding has suffered the linear descent from once Christian to now secular. There is no doubt that secularism has achieved its pinnacle in our time, however this does not mean that Christianity was the singular prevailing reality that occupied its place prior to this point. More accurately, the Church in America, much like the Israelites of the Old Testament, has been cyclical with periods of spiritual apathy punctuated by periods of great Awakenings and faithfulness. A serious survey of history will quickly confirm this. Consider that on the eve of the American Revolution, church attendance in this country was less than 10 percent, significantly lower than it is today. Nonetheless, driven by a romanticized view of the past, there is the desire to recover this past but this is often nothing more than a conservative social/political movement with a shallow Christian identity.
To be sure, Christians should be involved politically. This is part and parcel of being a good citizen within a democratic republic. However, Christianity is not nor ever should be defined politically—it is and always must be defined theologically and confessionally. This is where these two extremes share an equal role in undermining the Church's mission. While liberal revisionism errs in defining Christianity culturally, conservative fundamentalism errs in defining Christianity politically, which is often limited to nothing more than conservative political positions. To be sure, these may tend more toward biblical values than the liberal position but neither political expression is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. They, in and of themselves, are not the source of truth; they are merely political positions that must be tested against the truth of Scripture. Ironically, politics has never changed culture as politics is a reflection of culture not vice versa.
The ultimate effect of conservative fundamentalism upon the Church is one of cultural irrelevance. Fundamentalism tends to see the world as something to oppose rather than to engage and influence. As a result there naturally follows a disregard for anything deemed "worldly" and this includes among other things, intellectualism. Fundamentalists will say "The only book I need is the Bible" and thus remain uniformed about the world and incapable of meaningful influence. This same attitude is expressed toward the study of theology and Church history, which results in a sophomoric theology – wholly inadequate to shape a coherent biblical response to the complexities of life and culture.
Fundamentalism inevitably reduces the Christian faith to a simplistic set of behaviors and the emphasis tends toward legalism and personal piety – it remains a private belief and not a public truth to be pressed into every aspect of life and culture. Additionally, with the emphasis on external behaviors, (i.e. sin management) there is little effort applied in the converting the human heart and mind with all of its wretched attitudes. This theological myopia has been central to the deplorable lack of a consciously Christian life and worldview among so many professing Christians as documented by George Barna and others.
Additionally, this "opposing" posture is inherently adversarial, inciting an "us versus them" mentality rather than an "us for them" attitude. This mentality can even be seen in much of the Church's approach to evangelism, which often treats the gospel message as an argument to win. In such a state, the Church is polarized against the culture and the "Good News" is reduced to a "sales pitch" often relying on high pressure and committed to closing the deal. In many instances the gospel is subtly defined in terms of "happiness," which is not even the true gospel. Gone is the demonstration of the gospel where the Christian is encouraged to "love his neighbor" and then through the course of a, possibly long and at times difficult, relationship, disciple him or her into the truth. This is the Great Commission and it remains unchanged to this day.
Fundamentalism is not only antagonistic to the world but often toward other Christians as well. Fundamentalists tend to view anyone outside their particular tradition or beyond their theological distinctions with suspicion at best or as outright unbelievers at worst. The result is increasing division within the Body of Christ over what often amounts to non-essentials.
Liberalism won't press the kingdom in the culture because it has surrendered to the culture; it is of the world, and Fundamentalism won't because it is not in the world but rather opposed to it. What is needed is a return to the historic Christian position of being in but not of the world. This position requires that we do the hard work of renewing our minds to form a coherent and comprehensive view of life and reality through the lens of a distinctively Christian worldview – being confident in the Truth. It also means that we endeavor to understand and engage the culture in a humble and intelligent way so that we might reach the lost and suffering with the reality of Jesus Christ.
S. Michael Craven is the Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to the reformation and renewal of society through the reformation and renewal of the Church. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources, and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org