When Christians Look Up, Things Will Be Looking Up

Posted: September 22, 1997

The Christian Coalition held a convention recently in Atlanta, during which it honored its retiring executive director, Ralph Reed. Reed did an excellent job articulating moral and ethical issues most politicians are embarrassed to talk about except in generalities. His retirement provides an opportunity to consider whether two decades of political activity by evangelical Christians has been worth it.

When contemporary Christian political activism caught fire in the late '70s, some said that a sleeping giant was stirring and that it was a majority. But one-third of this Christian ``majority'' voted for President Clinton last November. A majority was said to oppose abortion and, despite the phenomenal growth of crisis pregnancy centers that have helped many women and saved many babies, more than 1 million abortions are performed per year.

When Christian activists emerged from their churches into the political arena, they targeted pornography, offensive television, drugs, the gay-rights movement and crumbling families. Pornography is worse than ever, television continues to stink, drugs remain a problem, the gay-rights agenda advances, and the divorce rate remains about the same. The Christian Coalition takes credit for the $500-per-child tax credit in the budget bill, heretofore unrevealed as a Christian doctrine.

I would be the last person to suggest that believers should embrace apathy. As citizens, they have a duty to ``render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.'' But conservative evangelicals run the risk of depreciating their ultimate value, that of speaking for and building a kingdom ``not of this world.'' There is precedent for what happens to the church's primary witness when it becomes overly entangled in the cares of this world. Look at the liberal churches, which long ago gave up preaching salvation (at least through Jesus Christ) and now focus mainly on political themes.

Researcher George Barna wanted to know what non-Christians think of Christians. Their first two thoughts, he learned, were that Christians attend a lot of meetings and they oppose many things. How far they have strayed from their leader's admonition to ``love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you; feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison.''

What would have a greater impact on the ailing culture the Christian Coalition seeks to influence? Clearly the attempt to organize a minority constituency to influence a majority who do not share their views is not working. Suppose the coalition became known for transforming people's lives instead of trying to transform Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court? Might it be argued that their example would be so compelling that millions of Americans would want to follow it?

Conservative Christians claim that by force of numbers alone, which they do not have, they can redeem a culture gone sour. It won't happen through the ballot box, no matter who is elected. It can happen only through the heart.

C.S. Lewis put it bluntly: ``If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth `thrown in.' Aim at Earth and you will get neither.''

Writing in Forbes magazine, University of Maryland professor Robert Nelson says the baby boomers ``know instinctively that real values are home-grown, derived from families, churches, neighborhoods and communities. They are not imposed from above. One of the great failings of the Progressives rose from their addiction to the use of government power to try to impose one uniform set of national policies and beliefs. By contrast, there is a strong libertarian streak in the baby boomer generation.''

Nelson says it will be tougher to clean up the mess than it was to create it. But the Christian Coalition won't do it from the top down. It might succeed if it started at the bottom and worked upward.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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