Dr. Jamie Dew, Dean of the College at Southeastern, recently sat down with Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, to discuss how we can understand the relationship of Christianity and culture.
Jamie Dew: Russ, the church today and the culture that we live in seem to be going in different directions, and it seems as though we’re losing ground. Christians have adopted a particular model over the last few decades on how best to interact with culture and try to win the culture. Briefly tell us how we’ve done that in the past, if that’s worked, and, if not, why.
Russell Moore: In some ways it has worked. One of the things the church (or at least some of the movements coming out of the church) did… in the 1970s was to say to mainstream American culture, “We really do share a lot of similar concerns with you.” Say on the issue of life, to talk about the fact this isn’t just a religious issue (or a Catholic issue, as it was seen in the very beginning). This is an American issue. It’s grounded in the Declaration of Independence. It’s grounded in the Constitution. It’s grounded in who we are as Americans.
And so there was this call to America to see that, as a majority of people, we really do have a consensus and a lot of common ground on certain issues — on the importance of the family, on the issue of protecting human life, on what some people call the traditional values, a lot of that language was being used.
I think what’s happened is American culture has changed in many ways. In some ways, [the consensus] was an illusion. In some ways, there was an illusion of an agreement where there really wasn’t much agreement. But in some ways there really was [a consensus]. That is changing now demographically as American culture has become more and more secularized.
Dew: Whereas the illusion is going away now…
Moore: Yes, the illusion is going away, and some of the reality is going away as well, in terms of shared values in America. For instance, a lot of the arguments being used in the 1970s were seeking to persuade abortion right supporters that the unborn child is…a person, and therefore deserving of rights. That this is a human being, the sanctity of human life.
We’re living in a time now where many abortion rights supporters, especially at the grassroots level, will concede that [the infant] is a child, but they don’t believe [the infant] is deserving of life at all. So the differences have become much more divergent when it comes to the more basic questions.
Dew: As the illusion as gone away, and we see the differences between the two sides much more vividly, how well will the old approach work moving forward?
Moore: Well, we have to recognize that we’re in a different time. We have to recognize that we’re really not standing up with the mainstream of American culture on many things, though on some things we are. So I think one of the worst mistakes we could make would be to try to make Christianity normal for American culture. In a lot of ways, we’ve done that in the past. We say, “Christianity isn’t really that strange to you. It’s what you already believe as a traditional, values-holding American. We’re just adding Jesus to it, and heaven.”
That’s not what Christianity is. So as American culture secularizes, the more Christianity (and the gospel particularly) is going to seem freakish and strange. That’s not anything to panic about. When the Christian gospel is proclaimed, and when people actually understand what we’re talking about, it’s going to seem freakish and strange.
One of the things happening in the New Testament is that Jesus and Paul never run from the strangeness of Christianity. As a matter of fact, they press it. So Jesus, every time the crowds seemed to be on board with him (they shared his values about feeding the multitudes, or announcing the kingdom is coming, or about the newness of the kingdom as opposed to Rome), Jesus always stepped back and says, “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. What I’m saying is actually much stranger than you think.”
I think we’re living increasingly in that same sort of world, and that’s what we need to do: to reclaim the seeming freakishness of Christianity. To say what we believe in is a previously dead man who is now ruler over the entire universe who now asks you to submit your entire self to him. That’s going to seem odd and strange in American culture. But I think that offers us an opportunity to be a people of good news.
Dew: It seems then, though there may be some negative implications, that it really could present for us a new opportunity.
Moore: There are negative implications for the country. Because a Christian-seeming-ish sort of America kept some bad things from happening. But this sort of move towards secularization is going to have bad implications in many ways — for example, a decrease in marriage, a decrease in understanding what marriage is about.
For instance, in the early 20th century, there were a lot of people who didn’t get divorced. Not because they held to a biblical understanding of marriage, but because it would have meant the end of all sorts of social ties in their communities. They wouldn’t have been able to be promoted in the place they worked, or it would have cut off relationships with their families. As time went on, that changed, and a lot of people were harmed, and a lot of people were hurt. So there are going to be negative implications.
But what it does mean is that you no longer have an “almost gospel” kind of Christianity, made up of genuine believers and nominal believers — people who believe in Christianity as presented in the New Testament and people who hold to Christianity because it’s the normal American thing to do — which means you’re going to have a clearer contrast. And Christianity always thrives when there is a clear contrast between itself and the outside culture.
Dew: So then, moving forward, there are negatives and some positives. You’ve also been instrumental, especially in your new role as President of the ERLC, in calling for a new kind of approach that’s not quarrelsome, but kind and gracious. Tell us what you’re getting at there.
Moore: We need to be convictional. We need to be very clear about what we’re saying. And we need to push back…against the spirit of the age. But we do that in a particular way. We do that in the way Jesus did, which means that we see that our ultimate goal is not to win arguments. Our ultimate goal is to win people. Our ultimate goal is to press the gospel.
So we preach a message, as Carl Henry used to put it, of both justice and justification. We keep both of those things held together. So the people we argue with in the public square — and we do argue, we do debate — the point is to persuade. Sometimes we’re not going to be able to persuade the person we’re talking to right now, but we’re able to persuade people who are overhearing this conversation about whatever it is — about life, marriage, the cultural fabric, whatever.
And ultimately our goal is to press the gospel. So we never stop short of the gospel. There’s always that message that freedom and reconciliation with God is found in the person of Jesus Christ. So we see ourselves as evangelists as well as advocates, and advocates as well as evangelists, and those two things must go together.