Aristotle is credited with saying, "Change in all things is sweet." And perhaps no change of late is as sweet as that among young Christians in the public square. While the last several decades of Christian engagement have often been marked by partisan tactics and a polemical tone, a new generation is changing its political tune. These individuals aren't leaving the public square altogether, but they are looking for less divisive and less partisan ways to engage. They want to follow Jesus without fighting the culture wars.
Here are seven reasons why this new political approach is a good thing:
1. Nobody likes a whiner.
Two-thirds of Americans believe we have a major problem with civility. And yet during the past several decades, many non-believing Americans' only glimpse of Christians has been picketing masses, condemnatory street preachers and shouting pastors on cable news shows. While many Christians believed their participation in the culture wars was important, crucial even, some failed to realize its tragic side effects. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has pointed out, culture-warring Christians express themselves "almost exclusively in the language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment, and desire for conquest."
2. The "culture wars" divide unnecessarily.
The culture wars, like all wars, seek to divide. They pronounce our differences rather than celebrate them. They highlight disagreement instead of common ground. As we rush angrily into the public square to fight off our perceived enemies, we're increasingly fragmenting not just society but the Christian Church itself. The culture wars force us to see brothers and sisters as enemies rather than friends with whom we may disagree. Jesus prayed in the Gospel of John, "Holy Father, protect them by the power of Your name, the name You gave Me, so that they may be one as we are one." Wherever Christians fight the culture wars, unity is almost always absent and Jesus' prayer is ignored.
3. It's killing us.
The exodus of young people from the Church has been widely reported, but their stories leave us with the lingering question: "Why are they leaving?" According to sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their recent article in Foreign Affairs, our overt political partisanship is partly to blame. Looking over the data, they conclude, "In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, 'Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I'm outta here.'"
4. The Church is cheapened.
When the Church becomes involved in partisan politics, it allows the community of believers to be reduced to a voting bloc. We're like a teacher's union or senior citizens -- a constituency that must be pandered to and pleased during campaign speeches so it'll cast its votes for a particular party. Can you hear the refrain? "Politicians and inside-the-beltway hucksters, come one, come all. The Christians are yours to be had."
5. We're getting used.
American Christians are a cheap date. We allow politicians to court us with a few empty promises only to spend their time in office apologizing for not keeping any of them. When speculating on the question in electoral politics of "who is using whom," James Davison Hunter writes, "The obvious answer is to say that it is the candidates who cynically use the symbols of the culture war and thus one constituency or the other in the service of their own political ambitions."
6. Our approach isn't working anyway.
The strategy of the religious right has been largely a failure. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, and countless man hours have been invested -- yet there has been little to no progress on most culture war issues. Abortion is still legal, gay marriage is still being debated, and the size of government continues to grow. But switching teams and joining the religious left isn't the answer either. They employ the same partisan approach as the right, except on opposing sides of the issues. As one philosopher has observed, "the emerging Religious Left is just a funhouse mirror of the Religious Right."
7. The Gospel suffers.
While preachers are qualified to speak on morality, they don't have the expertise to speak as authorities on the particulars of complex public policy. Often, however, religious leaders push well outside of their core competencies on everything from economic and tax issues to foreign policy. When people hear Christians speaking foolishly about political realities, should we not expect them to tune us out when we speak about the Gospel? If they see the irrationality of Christian partisanship, how can they expect anyone to believe other incredible claims about God and Jesus?
For the reasons listed here and more, the Christian Church should -- and is beginning to -- change its political tune. For the sake of our faith and the sake of the Gospel, the Church needs such a shift -- and we need it now.
Jonathan Merritt is author of 'A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.' He has published more than 300 articles in outlets such as USA Today, The Washington Post and CNN.com. Follow him on twitter @jonathanmerritt.
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