How is it that Christians, called to dispense the aroma of amazing grace, instead pollute the world with the noxious fumes of ungrace? If grace is so amazing, why don't Christians show more of it?
Because I am writing in the United States in the 1990s, one answer to that question springs readily to mind. The church has allowed itself to get so swept up in political and cultural issues that it has adopted the rules of power, the rules of ungrace. In no other arena is the church at greater risk of losing its calling than in the public square.
I had a rude introduction to the polarization in our society when I visited the White House during Bill Clinton's first term as one of a group of 12 evangelicals invited to a private breakfast.
"The President has no agenda," we were assured. "He simply wants to hear your concerns." It took little political savvy to realize that the President was convening such a meeting primarily because of his low standing among evangelical Christians. Indeed, he addressed some of those concerns in his opening remarks at breakfast. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, he said, he was finding it difficult to find a Christian community in Washington, D.C., "the most secular city I've ever lived in."
"Sometimes I feel like a spiritual orphan," explained Clinton. When the First Family goes to church, it turns into a media circus, hardly conducive to worship. Few of his staff members (whom, of course, he had appointed) shared his concern for faith. Moreover, the conservative Christian community had dissociated itself from him. When the President jogged through the streets of Washington he saw bumper stickers like this one: "A vote for Bill Clinton is a sin against God." Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry was publicly labeling the Clintons "Ahab and Jezebel." And Clinton's own Southern Baptist denomination had entertained a motion to censure his home church in Arkansas for not kicking him off its membership rolls. In short, the President had not experienced much grace from Christians.
Of course, everyone in the Lincoln dining room that morning knew why the President was stirring up such animosity among Christians. His policies on abortion and homosexual rights, in particular, as well as reports of his own moral failings, made it difficult for many Christians to take seriously his profession of faith. One respected Christian leader had told me, "Bill Clinton cannot possibly be sincere about his faith and hold the views that he does."
I wrote an article about that breakfast, and a few months later I received another invitation from the White House, this time offering an exclusive magazine interview with the President. The interview took place in February, most of it conducted in the presidential limousine. After Mr. Clinton gave a speech to an inner-city school, David Neff, executive editor of CT, and I accompanied him on the long ride back to the White House. We sat facing each other in the back of the limousine—which, though spacious, still cramped the long legs of the President. Taking occasional sips of water from a paper Dixie cup in order to soothe his perennially strained throat, Mr. Clinton answered our questions.
Much of our conversation centered on the abortion issue. That morning all of us had attended the National Prayer Breakfast, at which Mother Teresa had boldly dressed down the President for the terrible plague of abortion in this country. Clinton had met with her privately after the breakfast, and he seemed anxious to continue the discussion with us.
In the article that resulted, I reported the President's views and explored the question that had been raised by my friend: Can Bill Clinton possibly be sincere about his faith, holding the views that he does? I had done much research, including conversations with his friends and associates from childhood, and the evidence seemed clear: Clinton's faith was not a posturing for political expediency but an integral part of who he was. Except during college days, he had attended church faithfully, had been a lifelong supporter of Billy Graham, and was an avid student of the Bible. When I asked him what Christian books he had read most recently, he mentioned titles by Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary) and Tony Campolo.
In fact, I found it almost impossible to understand the Clintons apart from their religious faith. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, believes we were placed on earth to do good by serving our fellow humans. Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, was raised on the tradition of revivalism and "going forward" to confess sins. Sure, he messes up during the week—doesn't everyone?—but come Sunday he goes to church, confesses his sins, and starts over.
After our interview, I wrote what I thought was a balanced account of President Clinton and his faith, giving considerable space to the controversial issue of abortion, in which I contrasted his waffling views with the moral absolutes of Mother Teresa. I was totally unprepared for the firestorm generated by my article.
"You say Clinton has biblical knowledge," said one; "well, so does the Devil! You got snowed." Many writers contended that evangelicals should not even meet with the President. Six drew parallels with Adolf Hitler, who cynically used pastors for his own purposes. Several more likened us to the church browbeaten by Stalin. Others recalled biblical stories of confrontation: John the Baptist and Herod, Elijah and Ahab, Nathan and David. Why hadn't I acted more like a prophet, shaking my finger in the President's face?
About 300 letters came in all, and fewer than 10 percent had positive things to say. The vicious tone of personal attack in many of the letters caught me off guard. One wrote, "Perhaps the move from the flatlands of the Midwest to the rarefied and reclusive atmosphere of Colorado has short-circuited Mr. Yancey's oxygen supply and dimmed his discernment." And another, "I hope Phil Yancey enjoyed his cozy eggs Benedict breakfast at the White House because as he was busy wiping the yolk off his fuzzy face (lest it run down his back), the Clinton administration was forging ahead with its radically anti-theistic and amoral agenda."
In 25 years of journalism, I have received my share of mixed reviews. Even so, as I read through stacks of vituperative letters I got a strong sense for why the world at large does not automatically associate the word "grace" with evangelical Christians.
Through my experiences in writing about President Clinton, I sensed the need to explore the complicated issue of Christians and politics. Many of the letter-writers were looking to the federal government to reflect their biblical values. Should we? And how can Christians uphold moral values in a secular society while at the same time conveying a spirit of grace and love?
This was not the first time I had wrestled with these questions. Many years ago I read Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr, a book that struck me with startling force. In that classic work Niebuhr describes five different approaches to the relationship between church and state. I grew up in the 1950s, when the school principal began each day with a prayer read over the intercom. In school we pledged allegiance to a nation "under God," and in Sunday school we pledged allegiance to two flags: the American flag and the Christian flag. I had never thought about the vast differences between church and state—and the consequences of confusing the two—until I read Niebuhr's book.
Since then, of course, much has changed. Students no longer pray in school, nobody mistakes the federal government for the church, and Niebuhr's seminal work has attracted some proper criticism. Nonetheless, Niebuhr's sketch of five approaches does offer a shorthand list of how Christians have responded to the world around them.
Once a persecuted minority, Christians under Emperor Constantine the Great (early fourth century) actually enjoyed favored status. Niebuhr calls the Constantinian approach "Christ above culture." The Catholic church perfected this model: medieval princes knelt before the pope, not vice versa. Until World War II, in fact, the Catholic hierarchy viewed secular democracies with deep suspicion. Such democracies recognized no higher power over them, which made them vulnerable to the kind of radical heresies seen in the French Revolution.
Lutherans developed a doctrine of Christ in paradox with culture. On earth we belong to two kingdoms, said Luther: the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world. Each has its own realm of authority, and we are subject to both. This model helped define the Christians' role in a secular society, but it also set up difficult questions. What happens when the government asks Christians to do what goes against their moral law, bringing the two kingdoms into conflict? In Luther's home country, many of Hitler's soldiers justified their service as an act of obedience to the secular kingdom.
Anabaptists and other splinter groups got around this tension by opposing and withdrawing from the surrounding culture: "Christ against culture," Niebuhr labels their approach. According to these groups, Christians ought to separate themselves from the culture around them. Their behavior—and perhaps even their clothing—should stand out. The refusal of these dissenters to take oaths, to doff their caps to authorities, and to serve in the army and on juries infuriated their governments, and as a result countries like England, Russia, France, and Germany cruelly persecuted them. The United States has served as a place of refuge for many of these groups, including Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterians—though even here, until the development of conscientious objector status, Mennonites and others were jailed for their refusal to bear arms.
John Calvin's model, tried not only in Geneva but also in Cromwell's England and Puritan America, calls for Christ to transform culture. As part of fallen creation, government will never be "redeemed" in the sense the church is redeemed; nevertheless, Christians should work toward the transformation of surrounding culture, bringing it in line with Christ's teaching as far as possible. As one Dutch theologian put it, everyone needs two conversions, from the world to Christ, then back to the world with Christ.
Finally, a fifth group identifies Christ with culture. This approach may take many forms, from liberation theologians who mix theology and politics, to secularists who see Western civilization as the fulfillment of what Christ taught. Niebuhr used the Social Gospel movement as an example of this category. As they work to reform society, these folks tend to adopt the culture around them; after a while the distinctives of their faith may disappear.
I remember that Niebuhr's book left me feeling enlightened, but as confused as ever. All the approaches seemed to have something to contribute, and in fact, I could point to biblical examples of each one. Elijah hid out in caves and made lightning raids on Ahab's regime; meanwhile, Obadiah worked within the system, running Ahab's palace while sheltering God's true prophets on the side. Moses worked to transform culture. Solomon virtually combined church and state. Daniel loyally served a pagan empire; Jonah called down judgment on another. Jesus submitted to the judgment of a Roman governor; Paul appealed his case all the way to Caesar.
To complicate matters further, the Bible offers little specific help for those who live in a democracy. How should lessons from the largely authoritarian societies of the biblical world be translated to the much different context of our democratic, pluralistic society?
Although Niebuhr had helped clarify the various approaches, he had not solved the debate in my mind. Toward what goal should a Christian work in the modern United States? As Lesslie Newbigin poses the question, "Can one who goes the way of the Cross sit in the seat of Pilate when it falls vacant?"
On assignment for this magazine, I spent several days interviewing Francis Schaeffer a few years before he died. He was living in an apartment in Rochester, Minnesota, in order to be near the Mayo Clinic where he was receiving treatment for cancer. In the morning and in the afternoon, we would talk until he tired, then I would return to my motel to await his next call. Although Schaeffer's body was in decline, his mind was fully alert.
Schaeffer devoted much of his mental energy in his last few years to the issue of the church in society. Through his book and film series with Dr. C. Everett Koop, Schaeffer had led evangelicals back into the political arena. He awakened them to the moral issues of abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide, and marshaled the troops to vote and also to picket.
At the same time, Schaeffer insisted that we must not confuse the kingdom of this world with the kingdom of God. Having lived in Europe for several decades, he knew well the seduction—and the ultimate failure—of the Constantinian model. Though the church had shared the throne there for centuries, now the great cathedrals of Europe served not as houses of worship but as museums, empty of all but tourists. A church that lives by power dies by power.
Our conversation kept circling back to these issues. The year was 1978; we had just lived through George Gallup's "Year of the Evangelical," and the church in the United States was gaining prominence in the media and in the corridors of power. At times Schaeffer seemed to wonder what he had helped set loose. He wrote the book The Mark of the Christian to remind the church that our primary calling in the world is to show love, to dispense grace.
Several times I tried to pin Schaeffer down to one of the approaches outlined by Niebuhr. Which of the five did he prefer? He ducked and dodged, refusing to settle on one. Finally, he said, "I believe what works best is a nation that operates out of a moral consensus that is Christian." The Christian faith should not be imposed by the state. Rather, government and laws exist ideally as a kind of spillover of Christian sensibility, reflecting God's values as revealed in the Bible: peace; respect for life; environmental, racial, and economic justice.
Schaeffer credited the great achievement of the United States to the fact that for most of its history it has enjoyed something like that Christian consensus. At the same time, by separating church and state, the founders had built in a protection against the Constantinian model with all its problems.
Our religious roots run so deep that the United States has been described as a nation with the soul of a church. The Mayflower Compact specified the Pilgrims' goal as "undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country." Later, as the colonies broke away from England, Alexander Hamilton proposed a "Christian Constitutional Society" in order to promote the Christian religion within government. And although the founders disconnected the functions of church and state, all of them affirmed the role of religion in making a democracy work.
That Christian consensus was maintained well into the twentieth century. In 1931 the Supreme Court declared, "We are a Christian people, according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God." Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1952, "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." In 1954 Earl Warren, a chief justice notorious to many conservatives, said in a speech, "I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses." Charters for the original colonies, he added, all pointed to the same objective: "a Christian land governed by Christian principles." Even now both houses of Congress employ a chaplain who opens each day in prayer. The military also supports an extensive chaplaincy corps.
By no means has this Christian consensus resulted in a utopia. Having grown up in the South, I know that African Americans as a group do not look back with nostalgia on the Eisenhower era. Nor do they yearn for the "godly" days of our early history: "I would have been a slave back then," John Perkins reminds his audiences when he speaks on the subject. Catholics, too, have a different perspective on the Protestant consensus in America: they had to listen to Protestant versions of the Bible in schools, sing Protestant hymns, pray Protestant prayers, and put up with anti-Catholic passages in textbooks.
Nevertheless, Schaeffer is surely right that the spillover effect of a Christian consensus has brought great benefits to the United States. We live amid daily reminders of our Christian heritage. Americans say, "Have a nice day" to strangers, (sometimes) return lost wallets intact, stop to help stranded motorists, give billions of dollars to charity, and show many other signs of kindness and mercy—these "habits of the heart" reflect a national culture that grew from Christian roots. Only someone who travels extensively overseas can fully appreciate the fact that not all cultures include such grace notes. Indeed, the word grace itself, in its many uses in English, overflows from our heritage.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
February 3, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 2, Page 30
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