Where the Religious Right Went Wrong

My parents both came of age with the Moral Majority.

They were both new to the Christian faith and appreciated the values being represented in that movement. At the same time, they often reminded me that G.O.P. does not stand for “God’s Own Party.” In other words, even if I ended up sharing their same political convictions (I did), I needed to make sure to delineate between political and religious causes.

Yet it was the merging of these two causes that briefly made the Religious Right a force to be reckoned with, and also ushered in its demise. In hindsight, it looks like a Faustian bargain with many evangelicals trading opportunities for long-term growth in the church and substantive engagements with the culture for a short time of political power.

I remember when the writing first appeared on the wall. President Clinton had engaged in yet another sexual escapade—this time in the Oval Office—and perjured himself to boot. Most of America didn’t care. By the end of that ordeal, Republicans were reeling—not the Clintons. Paul Weyrich, an icon of the Religious Right, called for a general withdrawal of evangelicals from politics. Most Christians couldn’t understand the postmodern obfuscations of Bill Clinton during his trial, but the culture did—and largely shared his values.

If evangelicals had known their history (and like most Americans, they do not) they would’ve remembered that the fundamentalist heydays of t he early 20thcentury did not turn out well for the church. While William Jennings Bryan railed against the teaching of Darwinism, the theological depth and spiritual vitality of many churches quickly eroded. In rallying Christians to restore a “Christian America,” America was simultaneously losing its Christian church.

Much of the same occurred in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The G.O.P. became God’s Own Party and certain political positions became litmus tests of one’s theological orthodoxy. This trend had several deleterious effects on the Christian church in America:

First, the church lost sight of its primary goal—to glorify God through the clear proclamation of the person and work of Jesus Christ—and got distracted by mythical notions of a Christian America. In many ways, the church became a means to a desired political end, rather than the end in itself. When the question of where one can find hope is answered by something political rather than something biblical, the church declines.

Second, the church neglected the internal for the external. Sin doesn’t belong to certain political and cultural movements—it belongs to every human heart. When sin became more or less located with those on the other side of the “culture wars,” every person who checks the right boxes can pat himself on the back and not challenge his own sin. While Christians shouldn’t be myopic about their own spiritual growth, they also shouldn’t neglect their own growth by focusing exclusive on the culture.

Third, the church lost the culture wars by fighting them on the political plane—after they had already been lost. Practically speaking, hearts and minds are won at the ground level. Bill Clinton’s sad struggle with defining terms was a reflection of a culture shift—not the producer of that shift. As the Religious Right engaged the latest political provocation, deeper changes were occurring across the culture. Speaking anachronistically, they were engaging Harry Potter’s use of witchcraft when they should’ve been paying attention to the wholesale worldview attack in The Golden Compass.

Now the culture wars are over. Gay marriage will soon be recognized across the land, men can follow little girls into the bathroom, and religious liberty is increasingly under attack. The foremost casualty of this conflict is the church, which rarely is able to speak now with a sense of biblical fidelity and moral authority. It has too often validated its opponent’s critique that its claim to truth is merely a means to power.

Yet the church’s clear lack of cultural influence carries with it a wonderful opportunity: To regain its focus on preaching the Christ-centered, God-glorifying Word of God to the people of God and all those who will listen. Each week, sinners can come to this God-appointed hospital for souls, have their wounds exposed by the law of God and cleansed by the Gospel of God.

And there is a seemingly paradoxical truth at work in all of this: The less the culture becomes the primary focus of the church, the more the culture will be changed. A revitalized culture requires a revitalized church, and a revitalized church requires revitalized preaching and revitalized sinners loved by God.

Several times a week, I ask my three-year-old basic questions about the Christian faith. “Why did God create you, son?” “To glorify God!” “And how do you glorify God?” “By loving Him and obeying His commands!” “Why do you love Jesus?” “Because He first loved me!” This message starts from the pulpit and continues around the dinner table. And regardless of the present state of the culture wars, this message will always ring with hope around the world because it is the precious, life-saving truth of God for all who would believe, whatever their politics.


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