In the last month there have been some dramatic changes in culture and politics in our country. Reactions by professing Christians have varied, but far too often they have been of the sky-is-falling variety. I choose to see the good, however; for I think these changes can direct Christians to focus and gain greater perspective on how to understand and engage civic culture in our country and our communities.
It could be argued that Christians have struggled with engaging in politics as the empowered majority ever since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The temptation to bring about Heaven on Earth using the levers of power often seems irresistible. Sometimes the errors are based on theological beliefs, other times just because everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer. Sadly, the end result has often led to sin and compromise of the gospel.
The United States is not excluded from this struggle since it has a long history of being perceived, and at times has self-identified, as a “Christian nation.” But recent decades have seen an accelerating trend of fewer and fewer people identifying as Christians. The recent dramatic changes in public opinion and policy on social issues have led some to increasingly vocalized fears of persecution of Christians.
And yet Christianity has historically thrived in exile and persecution. And in light of the historical persecution faced by Christians across the world, the claim of persecution in the U.S. today seems exaggerated. But a valuable outcome of these reactions can be a healthy and necessary process of examining some assumptions that drive how Christians view our relationship with civic culture.
Ever since John Winthrop preached to the Pilgrims about a “City on a Hill,” many U.S. Christians have held the view of American Exceptionalism. While there are truly many exceptional things about this country, it is ultimately a flawed nation of sinful people, just like every nation in the history of our world in that regard. To the degree that exceptionalism blinds Christians to the failures of our culture and politics, or prevents us from needed criticism of actions or institutions, it is a dangerous thing. Here I think of Hebrews 13:14 – “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” The true City on a Hill will not be found this side of heaven.
A second error exposed in response to these changes in our culture is the argument that “we” are losing “our country.” Many groups may claim to have good reasons for this mindset, but among Christians it is sometimes based on the belief that a majority of citizens historically identifying as Christians made it “our country.” Yet, a valuable way to think through these issues is the understanding that we live in exile—for in fact, as Christians, we always have been. Our true home lies elsewhere. The only real question is, how will we act while we are here, passing through? Will our efforts, in civic life or elsewhere, be guided by eternal concerns, or temporary victories?