It was a meeting of 100 evangelical leaders and political activists. We had gathered in Washington to strategize our response to the rising tides of anti-Christian bias.

A friend I greatly respect was speaking, citing one example after another. They were bizarre stories: like the high-school students informed that they could not wear their Fellowship of Christian Athletes T-shirts to school (though satanic T-shirts were okay); or the court decision forcing Zion, Illinois, to change its 88-year-old city seal because it included religious symbols. Or the fact that The Last Temptation of Christ was shown in an Albuquerque high school, while the Genesis Project’s Jesus film, whose script is all Scripture, would not be allowed near school grounds.

“Enough is enough,” my friend concluded, as hearty “Amens” filled the room. Evangelicals, he argued, should take a cue from the Jews, who battled prejudice by creating an antidefamation league. We should do the same thing.

He was interrupted by thunderous applause, mine included. We have been discriminated against long enough, and it’s time we fought back.

But as I looked around the room I began to experience a sinking sensation. In a mere decade, the 1980s’ Moral Majority has become the 1990s’ persecuted minority.

Christian Defeatism

This Washington meeting was symptomatic of a growing sense of despair and defeatism in evangelical ranks that I’ve witnessed around the country. James Dobson, whose radio appeals in the past have short-circuited the Capitol switchboard, has publicly lamented declining evangelical interest in public issues. For example, in Focus on the Family’s back yard, Pomona, California, more homosexuals than Christians turned out to lobby the city council over a pending gay-rights week.

Another prominent evangelical, veteran of the battles of the eighties, told me he was through. “Why bother?” he confided privately.

It seems that those who so boldly set out to bring moral values back into the mainstream of American life are now just trying to survive, circling the wagons against the slings and arrows of hostile secularists.

Granted, we have taken some beatings. All the proabortion lobby had to do was warn that “rights” were about to be taken away—any “rights” are sacred today—and public opinion flip-flopped on the issue, sending formerly brave-talking politicians scurrying for cover. Meanwhile, television shows and movie scripts portray Christians as hypocrites, oafs, or both. School prayer is still banned; the kids in public-school sex-education classes are taught about alternative homosexual lifestyles, condoms, and “safe sex” in a so-called value-neutral environment—though, in fact, values hostile to Christianity are perpetrated with impunity.

Clearly, it is open season for Christian bashing. But is the answer to retreat into our protected enclaves, demanding our rights and angrily denouncing our antagonists: “You’ve called us fools, so we’ll call you bigots!”?

A Protected, Persecuted Minority

I know this would make us all feel better—after all, those supercilious, secularist know-it-alls have it coming to them. But such a strategy poses some dangers: the first is that it wouldn’t work, creating even more hostility.

The second and even greater danger is that it might work. Suppose anti-Christian bigotry became as noxious a term as anti-Semitism. Suppose city councils passed ordinances protecting us, like the gays, against harassment. Suppose we succeeded in becoming a protected, persecuted minority?

Is this the biblical vision for the people of God, for the holy nation? I think not. It would amount to a tragic surrender of our biblical commission to win men and women to Christ (which isn’t accomplished by poking them in the eye); to be salt and light, to get the blessings of God to show forth in every area of life, as Cotton Mather once put it.

This is not to suggest that we do not contend with the culture. We must point out its faults, helping our secular neighbors to see they are dangerously adrift; that, in fact, the Judeo-Christian tradition provides the moral consensus upon which our rule of law rests; and that society desperately needs that foundation in order to survive. This must be part of our defense of truth in a pluralistic culture.

But we must defend the truth lovingly, winsomely, letting others see in all we do the excellence of him who has called us from darkness into light.

An Inextinguishable Light

As I thought about that Washington meeting, I could not help reflecting on the many other times in history when Christians have encountered hostility from a secular culture. I thought about the early church, subjected to persecution not by school boards or news anchors or skeptical state legislators, but by the dictator Nero, who not only held an anti-Christian bias but practiced it by using believers as human torches at his dinner parties.

In the face of such hostility, those Christians understood, as Jesus had taught, that suffering and injustice were to be expected. They took as their example the one who, when he was reviled, reviled not in return, but stayed the course in obedience to the Father.

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Those Christians sought not to demand their rights, not to withdraw into their sanctuaries. Instead, living as the “holy nation,” loving one another and the world around them, they followed Peter’s admonishments to a persecuted church: They did good deeds, keeping their behavior excellent even as they were slandered as evildoers.

My brothers in Washington are to be commended for alerting the church: We are facing very real anti-Christian bigotry today. But I suggest we respond by casting our lot with the early church’s strategy. Not only is it biblical, but it worked: Nero and his empire are long gone, while the light of the gospel continues to shine brightly today. And it is a light, as our brothers and sisters from the persecuted churches of the East have proved, that cannot be extinguished.

It is that legacy that should set the evangelical strategy for the nineties: not to demand our rights, but to live our faith ever more boldly.

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