Failed Strategies

Jonathan Merritt:

Three decades ago, the evangelical faithful was galvanized by public debates over abortion, the size of the federal government, the future of the traditional family, and religious liberty. Many responded by following divisive leaders into the culture wars with the promise that voting for “moral” leadership would end abortion, protect traditional marriage and put our country on the right track.

How did that work? Not so well, it turns out. Today, abortion remains legal, divisions over same sex rights linger and we’re still debating religious liberty. The federal government continues to expand, the economy is struggling and millions of Americans divorce each year. Christian Millennials are now coming of age and recognizing the flawed strategies and broken agendas embraced by their forebears. They’ve seen how the religious right (and the religious left, for that matter) has used the Bible as a tool to gain political power and reduced the Christian community to little more than a voting bloc — and they are forging a different path.

“We are seeing head-snapping generational change,” notes conservative columnist Michael Gerson. “The model of social engagement of the religious right is increasingly exhausted.”

Thank God. A distinctive way of being Christian in the public square — a softer, less partisan way — is emerging. And this cultural change could be the very thing our faith needs to survive.

Three primary shifts are occurring:

•From partisan to independent. Christians of yesteryear saw the two-party political system as an indispensable mechanism for promoting their values, but young Christians recognize the limitations and pitfalls of partisan politics.

•From a narrow agenda to a broader one. An earmark of the culture wars was a tightly defined agenda, focused almost exclusively on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and, occasionally, religious liberty. There is no longer a strict hierarchy of arrangement in the minds of the emerging faithful, but rather a broad range of issues to which Christians must attend.

•From divisive rhetoric to civil dialogue. Americans in general are weary of the reactionary, angry, polemical language that stymies progress and the common good. Two-thirds of Americans believe we have a major problem with civility. More than seven in 10 agree that social behaviors are ruder than in the past.



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  • Anon

    I am cautiously seeing this trend as a good thing, provided that Christians are not so apologetic that they abandon all intellectual courage and, thus, fail to ever say anything prophetic.

  • CGC

    Wow Scot,
    Great post and this somewhat describes my own journey on these issues. I will add it seems one of the reasons the pro-life position did not work out so well politically was because they believed that giving an inch on anything was moral compromise. For example, many pro-lifers said that the five percent at one time of the hard cases like rape, incest, and the mother’s life at stake was morally questionable to still have an abortion (despite the fact that the strong majority of Americans believed these at least were the exceptions). Rather than save 95 percent of the babies being aborted by giving in on these exceptions and fighting later if they wanted on this last five percent, it was an all or nothing strategy. Has anyone noticed that all or nothing strategies are not working out so well for Christians or the church?

  • I reviewed Merritt’s new book recently. And I think he’s on to something—something that has been at various times throughout history more robust that it currently is among Christians (in the West): a proper distinction between the two kingdoms (ruled over, of course, by one Lord).

    I’m not so sure that it’s largely a Millennial thing (as Merritt seems to suggest by focusing solely on his generation)—that is to say, I’m not so sure the Millennials didn’t have their way paved in this regard by GenXers, but I don’t have the stats to back that up. My gut would say young folks today are both embracing GenXers distrust of power while reacting to their public disengagement.

  • MattR

    Good post… agree with much of it!

    I would add, with Chris Donato, that this is a shift that has slowly been happening for a while. Much of what was thought of as the early ’emerging church’ movement had a similar perspective… it’s just that most folks were still thinking in either/or culture war terms, and so saw it as ‘liberal’ (because it wasn’t politically ‘conservative’), when in reality many were advocating for more of a third way.

    Also, the question is not whether we engage in social/political issues as Christians, but HOW we engage. And I still think there is a lot we need to learn about the ‘how.’

  • Is there a time in American history where that third shift was not present? When have we ever not been tired of the lack of civility?

  • E.G.

    Chris said: “My gut would say young folks today are both embracing GenXers distrust of power while reacting to their public disengagement.”

    Speaking as a Gen X-er, I my gut is that your gut is right on this.

    I’m not one for generational stereotyping to the n’th degree. But there is something to it. And I am always struck at how similar every second generation seems to be. Frankly, Gen-Y seems rather Boomer-ish to me as well.

    I suspect that it has something to do with some level of convergence of economic cycles with the definition of what makes a “generation.” The Millennial bunch are, like the Gen X bunch, graduating into a horrible job market and looking askance at what seems to be a bogged down (and corrupt?) political system.

    Boomers and Y’s, on the other hand, hopped out into easily found jobs, etc.

  • Steph

    I think the second bullet point misses the mark a bit (though I may be misunderstanding what the author means by a broader agenda. Everything else in the article seems spot on.)

    Have you seen the two latest posts at Rachel Held Evans’ site? She is responding to the recent vote in North Carolina regarding the definition of marriage and the changing of the state constitution to include a definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.

    The generational shift is apparent there in her posts; in fact, the first of the two posts describes people over forty as more likely to engage in culture warfare (part of the problem) and those under forty as less likely to do so (part of the solution). She calls for an end to culture wars and a beginning to the washing of feet (her imagery, in her post titles), so it’s not really an expansion of the agenda, but a striking off and rejection of certain items on the agenda to begin with, and also a redefinition of the agenda. The agenda is not warfare … tackling issues … but peacemaking, rebuilding, bringing together, and promoting dialogue, not debate. Hmmm, in other words, the third bullet point in what you posted.

    What I’m worried about, and have my feelings a little hurt about, to tell the truth, is that we are replacing culture wars with generational wars. I’m forty. I grew up in a pretty authoritarian environment where youth culture was defined as bad, as the problem, as dangerous. And now I’ve jumped right into the “bad” generation that is holding change, forward movement, progress, back. I’m right at the cut off. And as I was reading the posts and comments at the RHE blog, I was also reading a post and comments here where people older than I am were expressing a great deal of pain over being pushed aside by the younger church, mostly through changes in all things relating to church services.

    I guess I’ll just have to try to get over my hurt feelings! Ha ha. Hopefully the generational warfare is just a transient symptom in this time of upheaval. I really love that blog of Rachel’s … and it’s the one that brought me here. I envy this young (younger than me) generation. I think they underestimate what kind of world the Internet has created for them. So vibrant, so full of possibilities, with each other’s minds and thoughts open to them. The ability to speak out, find each other … just astounding how much the world has changed already, what can happen and how it can happen. (I realize there’s only ten years between forty and thirty, my age and Rachel’s age, but I do feel like I’m on the outside looking in, and catching up.)

    I really want the twenty somethings to also be able to engage those my age and those my parents’ age as patiently and lovingly as they want to engage the culture at large.