Is America Post-Christian or Pre-Christian? A Review of Russell Moore's 'Onward'

Book cover for Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, 2015. | (Photo: B&H Books)

For much of its existence, America has been defined as an extension of the conservative Protestant values of its first settlers. That worldview is rapidly vanishing in America, and Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Church, says now is the time for the church to reclaim its mission.

"We were never given a mission to promote 'values' in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgement, of Christ and his kingdom," writes Moore.

His new book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, offers a blueprint for how to speak to a culture that is not only indifferent to, but at times openly hostile to Christianity.

We've heard for decades that many younger leaders within the church have grown tired of culture wars and a politicized Christianity, and Moore, in his mid-40s, certainly falls within this camp. Moore reminds us that "for those for whom everything is politics, claiming minority status seems nonsensical."

Moore openly celebrates the end of civil religion and calls on the faithful to "embrace the freakishness" of the Gospel message because it is the "power unto salvation." He often says that to be Christian means to believe strange things like "a previously dead man is going to show up in the sky, on a horse."

Focusing on the strangeness and alien aspect of Christianity is a central focus for Moore. He likes to remind believers that because of the cross, Christianity started on the wrong side of history and that according to the world, the right side was the Roman Empire. For too long, cultural Christianity has watered down the Gospel witness and made Christians lazy. Moore believes it is essential for the church and believers to recapture the richness of their doctrine and orthodoxy before the culture can again be truly engaged and transformed.

Despite all that has been lost within the culture and the wasteland of spiritual and moral poverty scattered across the land, this is not a pessimistic message. Besides, Moore likes to say the next Billy Graham might be drunk right now and the next Mother Theresa might be a "heroin-addicted porn star." Nor is it a surrender in any way to the culture which now demands pain and penalties for many who are unwilling to reimagine human sexuality and bow to the rising-tide secular worldview.

"In the short term, we have lost the culture war on sexual and family issues," writes Moore. "Long-term, though, we ought to stand by our conviction that marriage and family are resilient because they are embedded into the fabric of creation and thus cannot be upended by cultural mores or by court decrees."

Moore wants readers to embrace the prophetic minority voice, not think of themselves as the defunct remnant of the moral majority. Embracing that mission allows for the church and believers to offer greater clarity in the public square concerning issues like salvation and atonement and what that means for the human person and their life. Championing a generic God and country message for the public square was never enough Moore argues.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. | (Photo: Russell Moore)

Moore offers an example of his ideal pastor in the church: "He is pro-life and pro-marriage, although he is likely to speak of issues like homosexuality in theological and pastoral terms rather than in rhetoric warning of the 'the gay agenda.'"

Moore is especially critical of groups like "Red Letter Christians" or professional church activists who demand of government and the taxpayer the work assigned to the church and private charities. They, too, damage the church's witness and a holistic Gospel.

One of the most perilous issues in America today is religious liberty, and Moore, of course, offers a rigorous defense. He calls on the church to articulate exactly why religious liberty is important in the American Republic and to explain what happens without it, which history has repeatedly shown ends in violence and war. Moore is fond of echoing the thought of Christians throughout the centuries that freedom of conscience and religious liberty are essential reminders that the state is not ultimate.

"A state that can pave over the conscience — anyone's conscience — without a compelling interest in doing so, is a state that is unfettered to do virtually anything," declares Moore.

Moore's aggressive defense of religious liberty is essential, too, because it emphasizes his insistence on the church's championing of evangelism. While the overly political church in America compromised the Gospel witness, Moore hopes the bludgeoning defeat within the culture wars allows the church to be vigorous again with evangelism. Undoubtedly, it's important that the church focus on improving its witness and word within a fractured, decaying culture.

"But our vote for president is less important than our vote to receive new members for baptism into our churches," reminds Moore.

Emphasizing the strangeness of Christianity highlights the differences between it and the culture all the more. This is important because as the casualty list from a spiritually bankrupt culture continues to grow, so does the need for a message and Savior that will rescue them. Moore's voice is powerful and relevant because he better than most recognizes this fact.

He notes that "people who don't want Christianity don't want almost Christianity." This is why he has the optimism to boldly declare and hope for an America that is not merely "post- Christian" but is a "pre-Christian" missionary field with a starving populace seeking meaning and fulfillment.

Moore's Onward is a powerful reminder that the strongest voice and witness often come from an emboldened and confident minority that is willing to cling to and declare the truth at any cost.

This review was originally published in Fall 2015 issue of Religion & Liberty, a publication of the Acton Institute. 

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