This piece will be to some extent a bit of inside politics for Christians, but I believe it may be of interest to all readers concerned about the nexus of politics and religion.
The conservative columnist and radio host Doug Giles had an interesting article on Christianity and culture on TownHall a couple of days ago. Giles takes Jesus's statement that his followers are "the salt of the earth," and expounds on what this means in regard to Christians' relationship to the broader, secular society. Unfortunately, his position reflects a common misconception among Christians that has done a significant amount of damage to both the church and the culture.
Giles points out that the prophets written about in the Bible were "salty dogs" who were "raw and fiery" and "were not genteel placaters of the people." He says that Jesus's fiery statements make "the Dennis Miller Show look lame" by comparison. He chides contemporary Christians for not displaying this same sort of intensity, and strongly criticizes American Christians for the various ills that beset the nation today. Giles says,
"I do not blame Playboy, Las Vegas, the gay agenda, Air America, or whomever for our societal tooth decay. I blame the 'righteous' ones who will not shamelessly proclaim truth in such a way that it is persuasive, provocative and preserving. Yes, churches that do not seriously stand for truth commit institutional suicide and effectively marginalize themselves, rather than being the salt-shaking organisms God has called them to be."
I surmise that Giles is not referring to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson here, but to the nation's mainline Protestant denominations and perhaps to many leaders in the Catholic Church. in America.
Giles certainly has a point, and his argument should be taken seriously, though I wonder whether one can truly be "persuasive" to the overall public while being extremely "provocative" and salty. Too much salt ruins a dish. After all, Jesus said that the world would hate those who followed him, and his judgment has proven quite accurate. (By the world, he meant unbelievers.)
Giles superbly represents the Puritan-derived position of today's American evangelicals regarding how Christians should live in the world. In doing so, however, he also indicates the limitations of that view. It is a position that would be much more accurate and effective if fortified with greater attention to some important thoughts from pre-Calvinist Christianity. Specifically, a respect for the power of Original Sin.
I absolutely agree with Giles's point about how the Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets, spoke, and I entirely disagree with his statement about the cause of the problems of the world.
Jesus was, if anything, even harsher in his language than Giles suggests. Jesus called clean-living church leaders a "brood of vipers," referred to one of his own apostles as "Satan," and told people that their father was the devil. However, it is important to note that Jesus did not use these words to condemn moral failings. He reserved these words for religious hypocrites who would prevent people from direct contact with God or who would impede the coming of Christ's kingdom.
When dealing with moral failings, Jesus typically did not call people names, though he was always firm about telling people to stop their sinning. Thus Christ made his priorities clear: first one is redeemed by God, and then one's behavior is sanctified; never the other way around. He told his followers to love God, and then to love their neighbors. The latter follows from and is made possible by the former.
Giles's point that Jesus was by no means the meek and mild sufferer some people have portrayed him as, is quite good and valid.
However, I disagree strongly with Giles's notion that the weakness of the Church is the reason for sin being so strong in the world. Sin is strong in the world because it is central in every human being's heart. Jesus cane to liberate people from that enslavement, and he sent the Holy Spirit to work in people's hearts to fight for us against our own sinful desires. That is the only way that people can be freed from sin. And insofar as the Church fails to proclaim the Gospel, it does fail in its duty to the world.
But, all told, the Church has not failed to proclaim the Gospel. Some sects and denominations have done a wretched job of it, certainly, at various times. They have indeed watered down Christ's message into social, moral codes that Jesus would have condemned as a secondary matter that actually impedes God's direct work of saving souls. As Paul said, the reason for the law is to point us toward the need for a Savior.
In the main, however, the Church does proclaim the Gospel very well. People have little doubt about what the Church stands for, who Jesus claimed to be, and what he came here to do. That message has certainly got out there.
Yes, the Church is far from perfect, riven with human jealousies, rivalries, arrogance, ignorance, and inanity, but in the main it has not failed to proclaim the Gospel while doing all those unnecessary and indeed counterproductive things. The world knows what Jesus said, why he said it, and what he meant by it. The Church has not failed in sending that message.
Yet people continue to resist, because they do not agree that the claims of Christ and His Church are true. This resistance is a direct product of the sin in people's hearts, which veils the truth from their eyes. It is not attributable solely or even in great part to a failure to preach the Gospel. The reason sin remains so prevalent in the world is simply that the human heart is utterly inclined toward rebellion, according to Christian theology.
Hence, Giles is entirely incorrect when he says that Jesus, the prophets, and the Apostles were always "challenging people whose attitudes and actions were corrosive to the culture." They were most assuredly not doing that. What they were doing was challenging people whose attitudes and actions were standing in the way of their own and their neighbors' salvation, redemption, and sanctification. That was the central concern for the prophets and apostles, and it was and is always Jesus's concern; and everything else follows from that.
As the twentieth century theologian Richard Niebuhr noted, in his excellent book Christ and Culture (1951), Jesus is not in, outside, above, or beyond culture–he transforms human cultures. He does so through the transformation of individual souls, which liberates them from our natural slavery to sin and blindness.
The Church's duty, then, is exactly that of any individual: love God, love your neighbor. We all fail in that duty, utterly and tragically, every moment of every day. But that failure is not the reason there is so much sin in the world. There is so much sin in the world because sin is central to the human heart, and so many human hearts remain unredeemed.
Christians are not the cause of that. All we can do is love God, love our neighbors, and pray for the redemption of the world and Christ's swift return. The culture will be transformed as individual souls are redeemed.
Like the Social Gospel preachers whom he so rightly criticizes, Giles places too much emphasis on transforming society and too little on transforming individuals. I am sure that he recognizes the essential importance of the latter concern, but the failure to translate that insight into a practical perspective that puts political matters in their proper, distinctly secondary position among concerns for the church harms both church and society.