When I was growing up in the evangelical world, we did not think that it was appropriate to be involved in public life. One of our favorite songs was: "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through. . . . And I can't feel at home in this world anymore." We were a faithful band of believers in a world that was headed for destruction. Our main task was to warn others of the wrath that is to come and invite them to join the spiritual minority whose wealth is stored up in a place where moth and rust do not corrupt.

As a graduate student in the 1960s, I became convinced that evangelical Christians should be actively involved in the political process, and I engaged in such activities, often with a sense of deep alienation from the evangelical community. Later, I used my position in academia to call for an aggressive evangelical involvement in movements of social, political, and economic reform.

Currently, I am much more ambivalent about that whole project, given the ways in which evangelicals have become aggressively "public" in their social witness during the past few decades. There are times when I wish I could call off the whole thing, urging the evangelical community to return to its earlier posture of politically passive other-worldliness.

Yet, I am not ready to retract what I said 20 years ago by silencing the evangelical voice in the public arena. The better strategy is to understand the reasons for the current grassroots, evangelical political involvement and to encourage evangelical reflection about an appropriate Christian witness to society.


Like our pietist forebears, we North American evangelicals stress the need for a religion of "the heart." To be a Christian is to experience inner regeneration in a very personal way. "Only changed hearts can change society," we like to say. This is why our activism is often expressed in a passion for "personal evangelism" rather than a concern for politics and the welfare of society.

Strictly speaking, though, there is no contradiction between an emphasis on personal experience and a commitment to social change. In fact, within our own heritage, there are prominent examples of evangelicals combining a strong experientialism with social activism: John Wesley's bettering the lot of the poor is one; William Wilberforce's crusade against slavery is another.

Despite these heroes of the faith, the truth is, we vacillate when it comes to political engagement. Evangelicals have tended to shy away from social reform movements whenever we slip into an apocalyptic mood; but when there seems good reason to expect a modest degree of success at social reform, we are capable of cultivating a passion for political activism.

Article continues below

In colonial America the political impulse was strong. The Puritans saw themselves as the new Israel, an elect people--a theocratic society viewed as the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Lord would raise up a people who would serve as a "light to the nations," a "city set upon a hill." These motifs are glimpsed in the hymn "America the Beautiful," where Holy City symbols are applied directly to the American nation.

This Puritan notion of America's divine appointment among the nations, however, was suppressed for at least a century, starting in the last half of the nineteenth century. The Darwinian crisis and the rise of a secularist spirit in American public life brought about a deep cultural disillusionment among our evangelical forebears. We had moved from the New Israel to the New Babylon. "America the Beautiful" was replaced by "This World Is Not My Home."

This was the mood of evangelicalism 20 years ago. But today things have again tipped the other way. One need only observe this year's presidential campaign to see the prominence of evangelicals on the political scene. How did the change of mood occur?

First, in recent decades we evangelicals began to feel an intensified cultural desperation as secularism and the "sexual revolution" began to dominate the public arena. As pornography, homosexual rights, abortion-on-demand, rising divorce rates, and sex education in the schools became increasingly prominent on the cultural agenda, it became difficult to think of ourselves as a remnant group capable of protecting ourselves from cultural forces. The very fabric of family life, even within our sheltered communities, was now threatened by these new trends.

Second, we evangelicals have been undergoing a significant shift in social location involving a high rate of upward mobility. We have had a special knack for mastering new technologies as evidenced in the use of church-growth techniques, mass media in televangelism, and the flourishing of megachurches. Martin Marty has observed that the old distinction between evangelicals and "mainline" Protestants is no longer operative, since evangelicals have become the mainline.

This sense of a cultural crisis and the attainment of social leverage resulted in a new activism. We felt we had the power, status, and agenda to fix America's problems.

Article continues below

In the process of this renewed political fervor, though, some long-standing theological formulations were altered. Seeing ourselves as a remnant does not sit comfortably with today's prospering, upwardly mobile evangelicals. Hence, we have switched from a remnant, apocalyptic mentality to the other political theology deep within our collective unconscious: a "chosen nation" triumphalism.

Much of this shift has happened instinctively, however. As a church, we allow cultural withdrawal or theocratic triumphalism to dominate our collective patterns for a while, as befits our cultural mood. We tend to shift from one stance to the other without nuanced reflection on the basic issues of public life and how Christians should make a witness to it.


As an evangelical who cares about theologically appropriate patterns of Christian political engagement, I am convinced we need to engage in careful thinking about how our basic perspectives on life can contribute to political dialogue in the United States. Neither a theocratic triumphalism nor a withdrawing separatism is adequate for addressing the political challenges for the church today.

Our challenge today is to determine how religious convictions can engage public life in a pluralistic context. There is much confusion on this issue of how faith can and does influence public life, but the confusion is not perpetuated by conservative Christians alone. Many cultured despisers of religion dismiss faith as irrelevant to issues facing the public sector, or they typically depict religious conviction as a dangerous presence in the public square. Echoing Rousseau, they argue that people who have strong religious convictions cannot be good citizens, because they will inevitably exhibit intolerance in the civil realm.

This assumption that strong convictions and toleration don't mix relates to evangelicalism in both its activist and its inactivist phases. When we have stayed aloof from public life, it was often because of a sense that people with strong moral and religious beliefs do not fit well into the public square where tolerance is a key virtue. In recent decades, evangelical activists have seemed to be convinced that toleration should be avoided, but they have become more hopeful about the successful promotion of a politics imbued with strong convictions. We have to ask: Is it possible to provide a framework for an evangelical activism that preserves strong convictions but places a high value on toleration?

Article continues below

Recently I was on a panel of three persons who had published books about religion and public life. One panelist based his case for Christian toleration of pluralism on the presumption of an underlying human unity: Christians should be tolerant of a plurality of viewpoints in the public square because the differences do not really go that deep. The other panelist also called for a Christian endorsement of pluralism, but she did so because she believed that the radical diversity that marks the human condition is a very good thing.

I agreed with the first copanelist that human unity is a good thing, but unlike him, I do not think we have very much of it; and like the second panelist, I am convinced there are deep and seemingly ineradicable differences, but unlike her, I think this situation is regrettable. They each exhibited a different contemporary tendency: the one discounts the depth of human differences; the other treats the existence of deep differences as a cause for rejoicing.

Christian toleration can never rightly align itself with an anything-goes relativism. In our culture we often hear someone ask rhetorically: "Who is in a position to tell other people what is right and wrong for them?" suggesting that each person is his or her own reliable guide to the basic issues of life. From a Christian perspective, the question has a definite answer: God is in a position to tell us how we ought to think and act. The divine Creator has fashioned us in accordance with his wise purposes, and God has given us instructions for living that "fit life's designs" (Lewis Smedes).

We Christians should not simply impose our beliefs and convictions on others, however. In God's wise design, human beings are created with the capacity for free choice. God does not want grudging service from us; God wants our freely offered obedience. Christians witness best to God's revelation when we invite others to consider the convictions associated with the way of discipleship: "O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him" (Ps. 34:8). Inviting others to consider discipleship is a highly appropriate means of Christian witness in a pluralistic culture.

The Scriptures regularly portray God as "long-suffering" in dealing with rebellious humans. We are living, to use a Mennonite phrase, "in the time of God's patience." In accordance with a wise and mysterious plan for creation, God has chosen not to rush to judgment. In the human realm, people are relatively free to follow through on their basic life choices, for good or for ill.

Article continues below

This state of affairs will not continue forever, however. Divine judgment is coming. Two lessons here are important for nurturing Christian toleration. First, it is for God to decide when the final accounting will take place. Until then, Christians must share in the divine patience, tolerating the beliefs and values that people have chosen for living. The primary Christian obligations are to demonstrate what it means to live in obedience to God, and to invite others to join in that way of life through faith in Jesus Christ.

The second lesson is that God alone will do the final judging. The decisive verdict as to who is "in" and who is "out" is for the Lord alone to make. On that day, no one will be saved except by sovereign mercy. To absorb these supremely important lessons is to learn humility, which is foundational to Christian toleration. This humility does not exclude Christians advocating social and political policies that conflict with the views and practices of others. It does mean we should do so in a way that encourages reasonable dialogue and mutual respect.

I agree with John Calvin that involvement in public life provides the opportunity "to shape our manners in accordance with civil justice." This holds for our present-day public arena as much as for Calvin's Geneva. Such an obligation is quite compatible with strong Christian convictions. If God and God alone is the judge of heaven and earth, and if we are presently living in the time of God's patience, then it is quite proper for Christians to cultivate such traits as toleration, civility, and humility for our participation in public conversations. Indeed, the Christian faith provides best the resources for cultivating these traits.


Christians can best avoid a triumphalism in public activities by developing an "ethic for the interim" that recognizes the need for patience as we await the future judgment. Christian discipleship, suggests John Murray Cuddihy, "puts a ban on all ostentation and triumphalism for the time being, before the [Lord's] return, at which time alone triumphalism becomes appropriate and fitting." For Christians, trying to claim our glory here and now "is precisely vain glory--it is vulgar, empty, and in bad theological taste. 'Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted' (Matt. 23:12)" ("No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste;" Seabury Press, 1978).

Article continues below

The posture of public modesty that I am advocating does not presuppose an ultimate synthesis of what are, in fact, only apparent differences. Nazism, Marxism, monarchism, Jeffersonian democracy, and the politics of ethnic cleansing will all eventually face the Day of Judgment. The conflict is real: truth and righteousness must someday win out over all falsehood and oppression. The triumph, however, will belong to God. Our appropriate creaturely response to that victory will be one of humble gratitude and not smug vindication.

The contest between diverse visions of life cannot finally be decided by political means; politics does not provide us with the resources necessary for adjudicating the conflicting claims that give rise to our differences in the public arena. The outcome of such contests can only be awaited. In the meantime, opportunities for political cooperation should be employed as much as possible, keeping ourselves in suspense as we anticipate the future, facing the present with a tolerant openness that is not grounded in indifference but is animated by the hope that, in the end, all that is important to our patterns of public life will be touched by the divine shalom.

To tolerate something, of course, is not to accept it as justified. The tolerance I am prescribing for evangelicals does not rule out a genuine apprehension of harmful and even destructive consequences that accompany the promotion of certain visions of life. What will the ideology of secular liberalism do to the public square? What will result from the inroads of Islam into the free societies of the West? Such questions are important ones.

Tolerance does not mean acquiescence. A Christian vision anticipates a public arena where righteousness and justice prevail; this vision, however, will never be fully realized until the eschaton arrives. The public square as we presently experience it has to be seen against the background of the eternal horizon of the Heavenly City. Nevertheless, for those of us who embrace a partially realized eschatology, it is not unrealistic to expect signs of that city here and now.

This yearning makes us bold to join others in the human quest for a healthy public arena. On that journey, we hope to experience mysterious and surprising inklings of a larger kind of love that can take concrete shape--even in the midst of our highly pluralistic context-in new forms of citizenship and community.

Article continues below

Again, none of this comes easily. We must work hard and think hard about what it takes to promote the necessary spiritual formation for our faithful participation in public life. What Luther said about the difficulty of being a Christian prince applies equally well in our own day to any Christian who seeks to take part in public life: such a person, if she is spiritually vigilant, will soon feel the cross lying on her neck.

Perhaps, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested, we are already in the new dark ages. A major cosmic conflict may soon come. But the case for toleration holds even if the apocalyptic scenario turns out to be the correct one.

We should seize the present opportunities for humble participation in the conversation about the social good we can seek together. This brand of tolerant openness does not flow from indifference but from the firm conviction that, in the end, our record of public discipleship will be judged not by the number of our victories but by the quality of our faithfulness. It is important for the sake of that faithfulness that some of us will want to think carefully about how our theology and spirituality can give healthy shape to our patterns of public witness.

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.