A grassroots awakening of political involvement among Christians reminds us of the years preceding the American revolution.
Political activism is not new. It is as old as the American citizen’s freedom to change the government ruling him. But Christians often become so preoccupied with the matters of heaven that they have neglected to shape the world in which they live.
Recently, however, we have witnessed a new wave of Christian activism. Some Christian leaders are calling for activism as forthright as the Boston Tea Party, where angry colonists on December 16, 1773, dressed as Indians and dumped British tea in the Boston harbor as a protest against British taxation. Others believe as fervently that we should work by peaceful and orderly means to shape our government, using the legal processes available to all citizens.
Constitutional lawyer John Whitehead sharpens our awareness of Christian activism and then suggests some specific approaches Christians may use to get involved. CHRISTIANITY TODAY urges biblically instructed Christians to become actively involved in shaping government, working within the context of the Constitution, recognizing that we are ambassadors of Jesus Christ and should conduct ourselves in ways that please him.
Last July I was invited to participate on Moody Radio’s “Open Line” program to state my concern for Christians to be actively involved in all phases of culture, and especially in politics. Our governmental processes, especially those centered in Washington, D.C., have grown out of control.
The reaction of the audience was strong. Calls ranged from Christians who wanted all members of the Supreme Court removed and replaced with Christian judges, to those who encouraged all Christians to register to vote. When the program ended, the phone lines into the radio station were still jammed.
Such reaction is symptomatic of what is happening in grassroots America. People are beginning to awaken politically to pressing issues.
This awakening has precipitated a new Christian activism. Dedicated Christians want to see changes in the present course of society. The awakening itself is in some ways similar to the years preceding the American Revolution in which there was a broad awareness of the need for change. Such events as the Boston Tea Party were themselves the result of an earlier grassroots revival.
A Fourth Awakening?
The United States periodically has undergone heightened spiritual activity or what have been called “awakenings.”
The First Great Awakening, roughly from 1730 through 1760, emphasized the individual nature of religious experience. Many historians, Perry Miller of Harvard among them, believe that this spiritual revival helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution.
The Second Great Awakening (1800–30) again emphasized individual spiritual experience, opposing hierarchical religion. Some historians believe it supplied the moral framework for Jacksonian Democracy with its emphasis on the common man. And in the North it fed concern over slavery.
The Third Great Awakening (from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s) became an effective tool in opposing such forces as Social Darwinism and stimulated the Prohibition movement.
The new awakening (a fourth?) represents a progressive return to traditional values once associated with our major institutions, such as schools and government. It began a slow upward swing in the late 1950s, and played a role in the common evangelical concern over certain issues such as abortion. It has fed center, left-, and right-wing groups. Most recently it has stimulated the sudden entry into the national political arena of fundamentalist Christians with established right-wing views. Their influence played a part in the election of President Reagan.
But whether Christians have belonged to one party or another, at least we can say that evangelicals are awakening to their responsibility to penetrate society with their understanding of the Bible’s teachings. As in the First Great Awakening, there is a focus on issues and a call for change.
A growing number of observers are making a case that a new great awakening is under way. In 1977 George Gallup reported growing evidence that this country “may be in an early stage of a profound religious revival.” Brown University professor William McLoughlin suggests in his book Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (U. of Chicago Press, 1978) that the “Fourth Great Awakening” has occurred. Even New Left activists Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard write in The Emerging Order: God in an Age of Security (Putnam, 1979) that the evangelical movement has “the potential for a Second Protestant Reformation.”
The new awakening is also reflected in a systematic study commissioned by the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company and published in 1981. The study investigated the extent to which traditional American values have remained relevant. The findings surprised the researchers. Religious belief, the authors found, is rapidly becoming a more powerful factor in America. “The impact of religion on our social and political institutions may be only the beginning of a trend that could change the face of America.” The report concludes, “Moral issues through religion have vaulted to the forefront of the political dialogue. Something unusual is happening.”
Political analyst Kevin Phillips notes in Post-Conservative America (1981) that the emergence of the “New Right” is itself a religious phenomenon led in part by “lower middle-class fundamentalists.”
In his book Back to Basics (1982), Burton Pines, a former deptuy bureau chief for Time magazine, believes we are witnessing a return to what he calls the “faith of our fathers.” It is a transfiguration, he writes, “that is sweeping nearly all of America’s religious communities.”
Of course, the basic faith of our fathers—those who framed the documents that provide for our freedoms—was, in general, Christian theism. This was true whether the individual founding fathers were theists, deists, or Christians. The great majority of these men stood on the biblical foundations laid by their predecessors. Their writings and our founding documents reflect this.
For example, the Declaration of Independence indicates that the founders believed there is a “Creator” who endows all men “with certain unalienable Rights.” King George, labeled a tyrant by the colonists, had violated those rights and helped stimulate resistance to such a government. In fact, the Declaration says that if a government interferes with and destroys those rights, then “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
This is a radical faith and philosophy, but it was shared by many who preached from the pulpit during the colonial era (leading some commentators to say that the American Revolution was, in large part, fomented in the colonial pulpits). It was a faith filled with protest and a firm stand against tyrants. It was a time when Christians like Samuel Adams (termed “the grand incendiary”) and John Witherspoon (a Presbyterian minister) were calling for resistance to Great Britain. This is the kind of faith that is now making itself known.
The present awakening is apparently a grassroots movement; it comes from the bottom up. It has not been, as some have argued, primarily an orchestrated movement dictated from the top by the evangelical establishment. It is a movement that appears to be more individual than corporate.
This awakening emerged in its earlier stages through such groups as the National Association of Evangelicals, and in the last few years through, for instance, the evangelical element in the Moral Majority. However, it spans a wide political spectrum that goes beyond the borders of such organizations. Although these groups have had an effect on what people do and think at the grassroots level, they are, in reality, more reflective of what is happening than being the directive force behind the movement.
Thus, to understand the new awakening, we must not see it as an organizational movement. It is a Christian movement that has included a large group since the fifties from the evangelical middle (Carl Henry, Sen. Mark Hatfield), a smaller group since the sixties from the evangelical Left (Jim Wallis of Sojourners), and most recently a large group from the fundamentalist Right (Jerry Falwell). A basic characteristic of all these elements is the desire for social action and a return to Scripture. Although the groups may differ on how to apply scriptural truths, they are part of the same general awakening.
Signals suggest that changes in society are coming. Moreover, as a rule, movements, activist-oriented or otherwise, are often co-opted and eventually make up part of a later generation’s mainstream of thought. Thus, the ground swell of this awakening, along with its activist element, could indeed have a pronounced effect on the future course of this country.
The Speaking Church
Many evangelicals and fundamentalists deplore the strong foothold that so-called secular humanism has gained in American society. The reaction has helped spawn the new Christian activism.
As a result, in a growing number of instances Christians have challenged the present course of society—often on the ground of religious freedom. For example, during the Supreme Court’s fall 1980 term alone, the justices heard 34 cases concerning religious matters. In fact, during the past ten years, various churches and Christian schools have been embroiled in a virtually continuous legal confrontation with the government. As the awakening reaches further into the political process, it is expected that the tension that presently exists between church and state will heighten.
Abortion has been a key issue, especially since the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade where it became legitimized. If anything strikes a raw nerve, it is the issue of death versus life. A number of Christians have reacted to the life issue by picketing, and have conducted sit-ins at abortion clinics (which in some cases have resulted in arrests and jail sentences).
This issue has branched out to include the whole spectrum of concerns for the sanctity of human life. In the Infant Doe case, the trumpet call was clearly sounded when the Indiana Supreme Court last April upheld a lower court’s decision giving the parents of a newborn infant the authority to allow the baby to die. After withholding food for six days, the child did indeed starve to death, bringing outcries from virtually every sector of society.
An obvious clash looms in the future over such things as genetic engineering and the coming control of human life. Christians are also becoming acutely aware of government encroachments on the family, and have become more vocal in their stand against pornography and sex on television.
Signs Of 1776
In summary, Christianity has witnessed an awakening, a return to basics, that is closer in nature to the spirit of 1776 than the early and middle 1900s. Inner faith is showing up as outward action. This, in turn, brings contact and confrontation and, we may hope, clear-cut change.
John W. Whitehead is a practicing attorney in Manassas, Virginia, and an expert in church-and-state legal issues. Besides The Second American Revolution, he authored The Separation Illusion (Mott 1977) and Schools on Fire (Tyndale 1980).
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