Society’s values resist rapid reversal but can shift substantially over a generation. Evangelicals need to plan for the long haul.
Evangelicals are supposed to be the salt of the earth. Christian people and the moral values of the Bible they espouse are a saving and preserving salt in society. But the preserving quality of salt becomes effective only when it is used, and its use is governed by the moral taste buds of society. That’s another way of saying people get the kind of government they deserve.
A taste for salt can be stimulated or suppressed. And in recent months many evangelicals have begun to wonder if salt has not lost its savor for the palate of the American people. For nearly a century we allowed the moral taste of America to change bit by bit away from a solid commitment to biblical values. The change was so gradual it was scarcely noticed—except by a few who were widely regarded as alarmists.
Then in the sixties we suddenly became aware of how radically we had shifted in our moral standards. The seed planted by Carl F. H. Henry a quarter of a century earlier in his volume The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism began to take root. Evangelicals, including fundamentalists, moved into action, and Bible-believing Christians were exhorted to act now or we would forever lose our American freedoms and the ethical heritage we had taken so lightly. Evangelicals, and especially fundamentalists, were going to “make America once more a righteous nation.”
The surprise is not in their failure but in how close they came to securing their goals. Things began to happen in 1976, “the year of the evangelicals.” For the first time in this century America elected a president who openly identified himself with the evangelical movement. Then in 1980 all three major candidates for the highest office in the United States claimed to be or were claimed by evangelicals.
Ronald Reagan moved into the White House and with him came a Republican majority in the Senate, the first time in 27 years a Republican president has had a conservative majority of his own party in either house of Congress. For Christians sympathetic to Reagan’s election, this created an unprecedented opportunity.
Religiously conservative lobbying organizations, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority at the fore, quickly staked out their claim in the fertile territory they saw ahead. Support for family life and prayer in public schools, together with opposition to abortion and pornography ranked high on their list of priorities. With the new President publicly committed to the issues these groups espoused, and with political conservatives (most notably North Carolina’s Jesse Helms) suddenly in the majority party in the Senate, the way seemed clearer than anyone could have predicted.
But that was two years ago. Now, as the ninety-seventh Congress concludes, the daily newspapers and the network newsmen have pronounced this agenda for social justice to be at a dead end. During an eight-day period in September, Senator Helms failed to surmount filibusters against his antiabortion and school prayer bills, and suffered jolting defeats on both issues. Because of these developments, news analysts raised substantial questions about the political muscle conservative Christians are able to flex, even with Ronald Reagan in the White House and Jesse Helms in the majority party in the Senate.
For all who believe in the sacred value of unborn human life, and who regard the ban on prayer to God in the nation’s public school classrooms to be an aberration born of absurd thinking, the close of the ninety-seventh Congress is not a time for rejoicing.
But neither is this a time for despair. It’s too soon to quit! Those who follow the leftish analyses in the newspapers will hear that these issues are passing from the scene. But others who are willing to look deeper will find many reasons to believe the ninety-seventh Congress was, as Winston Churchill once said in another context, neither the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning.
Consider the progress on just one issue, abortion:
• On September 30, shortly after the celebrated defeat of the Helms antiabortion and school prayer bills, the House passed by 160 to 140 an amendment barring federal money for government-sponsored research programs on living fetuses, before or after abortion.
• On that same day the House also voted to eliminate abortion from coverage under federal health insurance plans for government workers. This legislation is similar to the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits abortions for Medicaid patients, and continues in force. Both measures are to be sent to the Senate this month.
• We must not forget earlier gains. Foremost was the presidential appointment of Everett Koop as surgeon general, a forceful (if now latent) spokesman for the unborn’s right to life. Also, in July 1981, Congress passed the Adolescent Family Life Bill to finance programs promoting alternatives to abortion. These programs are to be administered by Marjorie Mecklenburg, a long-time prolife leader from Minnesota.
• Placement in key federal offices of those who believe deeply in the value of unborn human life must be reckoned as a long-term gain. Jerry Regier, who spent 14 years with Campus Crusade for Christ, serves as commissioner in the federal Administration for Children, Youth and Families. Stephen Galebach, a young Harvard lawyer who drafted an antiabortion bill of strategic importance, has left the Christian Legal Society to join the White House domestic policy staff. Carl Horn, director of estate planning at Wheaton College, will soon join the Justice Department as special assistant in the Civil Rights Division, a strategic office for the preservation of religious freedom.
• The Supreme Court will soon rule on the constitutionality of five state laws limiting abortion, the first time the court has addressed the issue since its infamous Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973, in which it struck down existing state antiabortion laws. The court may now put strictures on the free practice of abortion.
• During the heat of September’s Senate filibuster against the Helms bills, Sen. Mark Hatfield, an evangelical who has maintained political liaison with a much broader segment of the Senate than has Helms, announced that he will introduce an antiabortion bill when the ninety-eighth Congress convenes next month. A bill with Hatfield’s name on it is likely to progress farther than did the Helms measure.
Because the President’s own religious beliefs, and his willingness to state them publicly, have laid the foundation for so much hope for the progress of these issues of social justice, last month’s elections were crucial in evaluating the level of confidence people have in him and his programs. This is not to say that these issues played an important role in the elections. They did not. The unemployment rate, the President’s economic program, and defense spending all but eclipsed the social issues on election day. The election and the polls that preceded it show that the President remains personally popular. His economic strategy was not wholly rejected by the people. And his position on moral issues and social justice were not on the line in this election. Thus, the president has no ground for “course correction” in this area. On the contrary, he has full warrant to move ahead strongly.
Nor do those battling for the right to life and other freedoms have cause for discouragement. Five incumbent senators, all leaders of the prolife cause, were reelected. While some prolife candidates lost in House races, a majority in both the House and Senate are against abortion. Proabortionists who won elections did so because of other, overriding issues.
But too few evangelicals are concerned. Robert Dugan, who heads the Washington office of the National Association of Evangelicals, believes the collective moral force of those who hold conservative Christian beliefs is a sleeping leviathan. He asks how many evangelicals have ever planted a candidate’s bumper sticker on their cars, or written a letter to their congressman. He adds, “Most evangelicals are still sitting on their hands.”
The Christmas season has often been a time of moral and spiritual renewal because it reminds us of the birth of our Savior. It reminds us of his life, and those he would have us compassionately assist: the poor, the sick, the unborn, the orphaned and helpless. And for a Christian, just as it reinforces fundamental truths essential for the advance of God’s kingdom, so it also focuses his attention on essential principles in his other role as a citizen of this world.
1. Incarnation. Salvation came when the Son of God chose to leave his heavenly home to enter our earthly life. The Christian citizen cannot serve as preserving salt in a society from which he absents himself. For too long evangelicals have chosen to withdraw from the marketplace of political and social action. For Christians living in a democracy this is unconscionable. We must become involved. We must be out there in the flesh upholding righteous causes, for God holds rulers accountable; and in a democracy we are the rulers.
2. Sacrifice. Our spiritual life came only by the death of Christ. And only by sacrifice can victory come on the social and political scene. Evangelicals must not only create a presence in government, they must be willing to pay the necessary price in time and money. And they must be prepared to face ingratitude, insecurity, misunderstanding from fellow evangelicals, malicious attack from the people they are trying to help, and sometimes, ultimate failure. The price is high, but the reward is great.
3. Perseverence. God did not give up on the human race. His steadfast love pursues us relentlessly, and that is the lesson we need to learn today. American evangelicals have a well-deserved reputation for the quick fix. A sustained and steady effort seems beyond our capability. But basic human values rarely turn on a momentary crisis. Evangelicals cannot undo in a single election what took three generations to form. We must design our strategy for the long haul and plan for the twenty-first century. Let 1982 mark the end of the beginning—one that will introduce a long and sustained effort by responsible citizens in a democratic nation.
Evangelicals dare not be quitters. It’s too soon to quit. Far too soon.
TOM MINNERY AND KENNETH S. KANTZER
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more