The assertion that being a Christian in contemporary America is more difficult than it once was will garner widely divergent responses from the two poles of our divided society. Some on the Right will claim that there is widespread persecution of professing Christians in our land; on the Left, Christianity is sometimes viewed as a dominant and even oppressive cultural force. Despite isolated incidents that might lend credence to either of these extreme viewpoints, reality—as is often the case, even in our highly fractious cultural moment—lies somewhere in the middle. The fact remains that many of our society’s laws, institutions, and mores reflect a sort of vestigial Christianity, since that faith formed or at least informed the worldviews of so many of our ancestors. It is, in that sense, still a very influential part of our culture. Nevertheless, while churchgoing remains a respectable activity, it no longer provides the cultural cachet that it once did. Ours may not be a moment of widespread persecution, but it is also not one where the message of the Bible enjoys uncritical acceptance. That might actually be good in some ways, but it brings difficulties, as well.
In this environment, the question sometimes asked is “how do we as Christians regain this lost influence?” If the American politics of my entire lifetime offers any indication, the answer is not “organized political action.” The past 40+ years have seen some conservative and Christian electoral and legislative victories, but also many defeats. More tellingly, the cultural momentum has moved steadily in the other direction regardless of which individual or party was in office. This does not mean that politics and government are unimportant or that Christians should not seek to serve therein. We believe that civil government is ordained by God for the good of humanity and is a worthy calling. Nevertheless, even the most faithful public service will not by itself reverse the cultural trends of the better part of a century or more.
So, if the answer is not to be found in government or in politics, where is it to be found? Honestly, I’m not even sure this is the right question. What if instead of asking “how do we regain this lost influence” we begin to ask if we can or even should embark on a deliberate and organized attempt to regain Christianity’s cultural dominance. The Christendom of past centuries was not an unmitigated good, after all, and in any case the New Testament does not lead one to expect true, believing Christians to ever constitute a majority in civil society. The recipients of Paul’s letters received a message that, when it touched on civil matters, seemed focused on how to live faithfully as a minority faith within a pluralistic culture. Perhaps the better question to ask, then, is “what does it look like to live faithfully in this post-Christian age?” Happily, both the Old and New Testaments provide ample guidance in response to this question (which suggests that it is the right question to ask).
Two texts come immediately to mind as I think about this. One is Jeremiah’s admonition to the people of Judah who were exiled to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
The recipients of Jeremiah’s message were no doubt both confused and demoralized. Although the prophets of Yahweh (including Jeremiah) had been warning the people for decades about a coming judgment, their message had been mostly ignored. Moreover, false prophets were encouraging the people to rise against their conquerors and return to their own land. But this people, the descendants of those who had through God’s enabling escaped Egypt and then conquered Canaan centuries before, now found the hand of that same God turned against them. God’s message to them is one of hope, but a tempered hope. There will be a return to the land one day, but in the meantime their calling is not to convert Babylon to the religion of Yahweh, but simply to live as faithful citizens where they are, until such time as God returns them to their own place.
In the New Testament, Paul’s message to Timothy has similar overtones.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 1:1-4)
The vision of faithful Christianity Paul gives here is not that of a mighty and conquering faith wielding great political and societal influence. It is, rather, one of communities of believers living simple, faithful, quiet, and dignified lives. When we pray for our leaders, we do not ask that they would establish Christianity as an official state religion or even a dominant cultural force. We simply ask that they would govern in a wise and righteous manner that allows us to go about our lives as Christians without interference. That includes evangelism and hopefully the spread of our faith to our families, friends, and neighbors, and even to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). But more often it simply involves being good friends, neighbors, workers, and citizens.
Of course, Christians may sometimes find themselves possessing greater than usual amounts of political and social power. Paul did not hesitate to leverage the rights bestowed by his Roman citizenship when doing so would benefit his mission, and both Joseph and Daniel stand out as individuals who offered decades of faithful civil service to pagan governments while never compromising their allegiance to the One True God. But while these exceptional cases offer valuable insight as to how a Christian might live faithfully when in such a position of influence, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. For most of us, the simple instructions of Jeremiah and Paul are much more applicable.
Would it be nice if our society at large still had the widespread Christian influence it once did? Sure, but the Bible does not lead us to expect this or to make it a priority. Faithful Christianity is most often smaller, simpler, more local, and can exist in even the most difficult of circumstances. Pursue a quiet life, serving God and man where you are, and pray for the freedom to continue doing so, all the while looking forward to one day obtaining “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:16)