Have evangelicals come full circle in just 50 years—from fundamentalist isolation to mainstream acceptance? Have we embraced a national creed that values personal growth over doctrinal orthodoxy?

Unhappily, one of America's most insightful observers says that's precisely what we've done. Conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times argues that Americans no longer take religious doctrines seriously. We assume religious differences are temporary, that denominational distinctions will fade away, and "We will all be united in God's embrace."

This comforting assumption means that millions feel free to try on different denominations (as several presidential candidates have done), and we're inclined to think all people of goodwill are "basically on the same side," Brooks writes. As evidence, he cites President Bush's comment that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God—an assertion that is "theologically controversial, but … faithful to the national creed."

The result, says Brooks, is a religion that is easygoing and experiential rather than rigorous and intellectual. To fill their pews, Brooks writes, pastors "emphasize the upbeat and the encouraging and play down the business of God's wrath. In modern "seeker sensitive" churches, "the technology is cutting edge, the music is modern, the language is therapeutic, the dress is casual."

This easygoing attitude, combined with a belief in holy homogenization, is why Christians have difficulty sustaining culture war efforts, Brooks maintains—and why fire-and-brimstone groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition are now "husks of their former selves." Evangelicals are, he concludes, quoting sociologist Alan Wolfe, "part of mainstream culture, not dissenters from it."

Brooks's column set me back on my heels. If he's right, it's a devastating indictment of the church. Is it really possible that we've become mainstream?

I didn't want to believe it, but after discussing the column with friends, and studying the latest and most depressing data from George Barna, I realized that Brooks—standing on the outside peering into our high-tech sanctuaries—may see evangelicals more realistically than we see ourselves.

At least two evangelical luminaries have written articles with a whiff of resignation, explaining that, after all, we shouldn't expect to transform the surrounding culture; it has always been hostile to evangelicals and always will be, so we should just hunker down. While they didn't intend it, their words can be read as an acknowledgement that we should no longer engage the culture.

This is an attractive proposition to battle-scarred cultural warriors. Just give us our lovely sanctuaries, our padded pews, and our upbeat music, and we'll no longer worry about society disintegrating around us. The culture will ignore us, and we'll ignore the culture, which will be nice when we socialize with nonbelievers who will no longer consider us backwoods fundamentalists trying to impose our morality on them.

That's the definition of "mainstream": To get along. To get there, all we have to do is abandon biblical responsibility.

God forbid. Christians are called to be countercultural, a force for moral change in a sinful world. But if we surrender that role, we should be forewarned: If we stop attempting to change the culture, the culture will have already changed us.

Two Christian families recently—and tragically—discovered this. Both were deeply involved in the church, and homeschooled their children. Then one day, the husband from one family ran off with the wife from the other family. When shocked friends questioned her, the wife defiantly replied: "Don't I have a right to be happy?" It could have been a line from the postmodern film, The Hours, in which the central character leaves her family to find happiness.

Article continues below

Clearly this woman, like so many, had compartmentalized her faith. God was for Sundays; secular culture shaped her worldview the rest of the week.

We must fight the temptation to treat our faith the way we treat our careers—as a source of entertainment, fulfillment, and happiness. Remember the warning of C. S. Lewis: If you're seeking happiness, don't choose Christianity, choose port wine.

When it comes to the culture, there's no such thing as peaceful coexistence. If we're not defending truth, fighting for Christian values in all of life, the truth will be sacrificed on the altar of mainstream secularism.

Does this sound like a militant call to arms? I hope so. I can think of nothing more important than proving David Brooks wrong. God will judge us harshly if we stand around enjoying the warm glow of our culture's approval—while the culture crumbles.

Related Elsewhere:

Recent Charles Colson columns for Christianity Today include:

Confronting Moral Horror | It's a witness even the most jaded find impressive. (Feb. 04, 2004)
The Postmodern Crackup | From soccer moms to college campuses, signs of the end. (Dec. 09, 2003)
Sowing Confusion | One small ruling for Texas; one giant leap into a cultural abyss. (Oct. 03, 2003)
Being Here | Why we should sink our roots in the places we call home. (July, 28, 2003)
Beyond Condoms | To alleviate AIDS, we must sharpen our moral vision. (June 10, 2003)
Taming Beasts | Raising the moral status of dogs has created a breed of snarling, dangerous humans. (April 3, 2003)
Faith vs. Statistics | Beware of doing ethics by crunching numbers. (Jan. 28, 2003)
Just War in Iraq | Sometimes going to war is the charitable thing to do. (Dec. 10, 2002)
A Clan of One's Own | Hacking through the jungle of identity politics. (Oct. 9, 2002)
Undaunted | Bioethics challenges are huge. But so is God. (July 31, 2002)
The Wages of Secularism | New laws won't prevent another Enron. (June 4, 2002)
More Doctrine, Not Less | We need to proclaim truth to a truth-impaired generation. (April 15, 2001)
Post-Truth Society | The recent trend of lying is no accident. (March 4, 2002)
Drawing the Battle Lines | We need to be informed and discerning about the Islamic worldview. (Jan. 9, 2002)
Wake-up Call | If September 11 was a divine warning, it's God's people who are being warned. (Nov. 5, 2001)
The New Tyranny | Biotechnology threatens to turn humanity into raw material. (Oct. 5, 2001)
Merchants of Cool | We should be angry that the media hawks violence and that parents allow it. (June 6, 2001)
Slouching into Sloth | The XFL is but the latest sign of the coarsening of our culture. (Apr. 17, 2001)
Checks and (out of) Balance | Moral truth is in jeopardy when the courts enter the business of making law. (Feb. 27, 2001)
Pander Politics | Poll-driven elections turn voters into self-seeking consumers.(Jan. 3, 2001)
Neighborhood Outpost | Changing a culture takes more than politics. (Nov.8, 2000)
Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
Previous Charles Colson Columns:

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