As we accelerate into a year of intense presidential politics, CT will offer essays about how evangelical Christians understand our times and what our response should be. This is the first in an occasional series. --Eds

We live in a time of shifting sand. The avalanche of social, political and legal changes we’ve experienced has left many believers reeling. They are troubled by what they see but also befuddled about how to respond. Amid much wringing of the hands they hear some calling for a circling of the wagons; others insist we must “take America back”; still others counsel “engagement” with the culture, often on its own terms. Confused by their times, many Christians remain uncertain about “what Israel should do.”

This last phrase is drawn from 1 Chronicles 12:32. The historical setting of this passage was also a time of shifting sand. King Saul had become unstable and was all but finished; yet he was still powerful and dangerous. The young upstart David appeared to be the future, but he was scarcely a sure thing. Israel’s tribes faced a ticklish decision. Each had to decide where their loyalties should lie. The tribe of Issachar made the right decision. This, the chronicler informs us, was because they “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”

Crafting a wise and godly response to what’s taking place around us requires that we understand our times.

This is the challenge many evangelical Christians face in our own generation. Crafting a wise and godly response to what’s taking place around us requires that we understand our times. To gain that understanding, however, we must be willing to look beyond our society’s presenting symptoms to underlying causes. Only then can we make sense of our current cultural predicament.

The Backstory

Thoughtful accounts of how we’ve gotten to our present plight are many and varied, from Charles Taylor’s massive A Secular Age, to Rod Dreher’s thumbnail sketch (“The Roots of the Crisis”) in The Benedict Option. Yet the story we need most won’t be found in any of these books. It’s a little-appreciated technical narrative told by law professor Steven D. Smith in a very different kind of book: The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom (Harvard, 2014).

Smith is the co-director of the University of San Diego’s Institute of Religion and Law. His book was not written either for or about evangelical Christians, and it does no special pleading on our behalf. It’s a book about the law. More specifically, it is a detailed chronicle of American jurisprudence on the subject of religious freedom, from the founding of the nation to the present. Smith’s careful analysis deserves in-depth attention, but we will settle here for only the briefest summary of one of the book’s key insights.

The tale we’re after begins in December of 1791, when Americans approved ten new amendments to the Constitution they had ratified just two years earlier. The first enumerated right in these amendments—preceding even the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly—was America’s so-called “first freedom,” the freedom of religion. Thus the Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins with these striking words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Surprising to many today, this wording was originally designed as not much more than a jurisdictional limitation, stipulating that the federal government (“Congress”) must keep its hands off religion. With no federal laws for the judicial branch to adjudicate or the executive branch to execute, America’s new central government was to leave religion alone. Religious matters were to be left to the states or local jurisdictions.

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Yet it was inevitable that complications would arise. The interplay of intricate questions surrounding the freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of worship, and the relation of church and government led early on to the development of what Smith calls the “American settlement”: a distinctive and uniquely valuable approach, says Smith, to the challenge of religion in American society.

This “settlement” was designed to accommodate two contending interpretations of America, both of which were in play from the beginning. Smith calls these the “providential” and “secular” interpretations. The providential interpretation recognizes vertical premises such as the “self-evident” claim of the Declaration of Independence that all humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. The secular interpretation prefers a horizontal view of America that disallows any such vertical tethers.

The important point for our purposes is that under this arrangement both of these interpretations played significant roles in shaping the nation’s law, government, policies and public education. The idea was that both options could and should be openly contested in American society. The genius of the American settlement, says Smith:

was that instead of officially elevating one or the other of those interpretations to the status of constitutional orthodoxy and condemning the other as constitutional heresy, the American approach left the matter open for We the People to reflect on and debate and negotiate on an ongoing basis.

By this means, says Smith, America long managed to avoid the “basic blunder—namely, of officially preferring one among competing faiths or would-be orthodoxies—that in earlier centuries had produced civil havoc and often war in European societies.”

Roughly seventy years ago, argues Smith, America’s Supreme Court … committed the “basic blunder” of granting official preference to “one among competing faiths or would-be orthodoxies.”

So it was, so to speak, for the first two-thirds of American history. Now fast-forward to the middle of the 20th century.

Roughly 70 years ago, argues Smith, America’s Supreme Court abandoned the wisdom of the American settlement. It committed the “basic blunder” of granting official preference to “one among competing faiths or would-be orthodoxies.” Beginning with a series of decisions from the late 1940s into the 1960s, the Court declared the secular interpretation of America to be the nation’s official dogma. Though still widespread at popular and ceremonial levels, providential ideas—such as the claim that the source of our human rights is God rather than the state, or that man’s law is but a mask of God’s law—would no longer be permitted any official role in America’s law, government or public education. The nation went officially horizontal, creating at the core of American society a massive, ever-expanding governmental dead zone devoid of providential thinking or reasoning.

The Culture War

It doesn’t take much connecting of dots to recognize this mid-20th century shift as the root of today’s “culture wars.” In 1991, sociologist James Davison Hunter popularized this term in his aptly-subtitled book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. There he described the conflict as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding.”

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The end to which these hostilities tend is the domination of one cultural and moral ethos over all others. Let it be clear that the principles and ideals that mark these competing systems of moral understanding are by no means trifling but always have the character of ultimacy to them. They are not merely attitudes that can change on a whim but basic commitments and beliefs that provide a source of identity, purpose, and togetherness for the people who live by them.

As a sociologist, Hunter early on recognized that when the complexities of America’s culture wars are distilled to their essence, the underlying contest is between two “different systems of moral understanding.” Said Hunter, “The cleavages at the heart of the contemporary culture war are created by what I would like to call the impulse toward orthodoxy and the impulse toward progressivism.”

The orthodox impulse is oriented vertically toward some “external definable, and transcendent authority.” The impulse toward progressivism is oriented horizontally toward “a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.” Hunter’s orthodoxy thus parallels Smith’s providential interpretation of America, while his progressivism parallels Smith’s secular interpretation. Says Hunter, the contest between these two worldviews and their respective social and political agendas is “cultural conflict at its deepest level.” It is a conflict over the very “meaning of America, who we have been in the past, who we are now, and perhaps most important, who we, as a nation, will aspire to become in the new millennium.”

Again, Smith stresses that the struggle between these two interpretations of America was present from the beginning. What transformed their ongoing arm wrestling match into the deep cultural impasse it has become was the earlier abandonment of the American settlement. By this move, says Smith, the Court:

thereby unlearned the lesson that Americans had taken from the religious strife that had afflicted post-Reformation Europe—namely, that if among competing faiths one is to be singled out as the officially preferred position, then the devotees of the various faiths will fight for that honor (and, perhaps more urgently, will fight not to be among the losers).

This dynamic explains much of the bitter acrimony of our current national discourse. As Smith observes, it’s “a natural consequence of the shift from a situation of open and legitimate contestation to a discourse structured in terms of constitutional orthodoxy (political secularism) versus constitutional heresy (political providentialism).”

The Long Crusade

Today’s secularists tend to scorn the notion that there exists in America any so-called “war on Christianity.” Comedian and TV personality Jon Stewart, for instance, offered up this sardonic prayer:

Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion . . . perhaps around their necks? And maybe—dare I dream it?—maybe one day there can be an openly Christian president. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.

There is a campaign taking place, not against Christianity but providentialism in general. Christianity is simply the most prominent example.

Stewart’s clever sarcasm should serve as a warning against overstating the case. Measured against other times and places, Christians have it easy in America. What cannot be denied, on the other hand, is the reality of the ongoing cultural struggle described by Smith and Hunter. There is a campaign taking place, but it’s not against Christianity per se. It’s against providentialism in general. Christianity is simply the most prominent example.

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This development is no illusion. It’s a predictable aftereffect of the constitutional shift recounted in Rise and Decline. It was triggered seventy-some years ago when the secular interpretation of America was declared the cultural winner. Its social and political agenda, empowered by a now weaponized Constitution, began a steady, easily-documented advance through the second half of the twentieth century. It was inevitably a messy, inconsistent, up-and-down affair, but the overall trend was clear.

Then, after the turn of the century, that trend hockey-sticked up. Fresh developments signaled a new secular aggressiveness. On issues such as gender, homosexuality, marriage, the unborn and religious freedom, providentialist resistance by voters or legislators was summarily slapped down by the courts. The legal thumb that had always weighted the scale in favor of America’s “first freedom” shifted to the anti-discrimination cause. Livelihoods hung in the balance as conscience-driven proprietors resisted the secular push. Massive corporate boycotts were organized against states daring to buck the tide. The full weight of the executive branch of the federal government swung in behind the radical agenda. On campus, language and thought police ratcheted up the enforcement of their PC rule book. Dissenting voices were shouted down at the podium or punished by social media mobs. With few notable exceptions, the culture’s elites—intellectual, legal, media, entertainment, corporate—appeared to be singing in unison from the same secular score.

It began to dawn that this was not just more of the same. A spate of new books with alarming titles began to appear, arguing that America had passed some sort of tipping point. Evangelicals found themselves not only out-of-step with their secularized culture but increasingly in its cross hairs. Not just in official settings but in America’s broader culture, taking a stand on the truth claims of the Bible generated accusations of bigotry and intolerance. Such claims were no longer merely mistaken; they became hate speech that creates hostile environments that make others feel excluded and unsafe. Those who offered such claims found themselves castigated as sexist, racist, misogynist and homophobic. Traditional Christian and pro-family groups were newly labeled social extremists.

These seemed to be ominous new developments. In truth they were in large measure the predictable fruit of the constitutional shift chronicled in Rise and Decline:

In a regime of open contestation it is possible to disagree respectfully. . . . [But] where disagreements are framed, not in terms of legitimate contesting conceptions but rather in terms of an official position or orthodoxy versus heretical and illegitimate deviations, respectful disagreement becomes difficult; it is replaced by a discourse of accusation, anathematization, and abuse.

The Trump Enigma

Ever since the 2016 election, pundits have been scratching their heads over the high percentage of evangelical Christians who voted for Donald Trump. For many this remains an ongoing puzzle. How can those who so willingly censured the moral failures of previous Oval Office occupants, they ask, now so conveniently overlook the shortcomings of this one?

The preferred answer of those on the left, as well as the some of the never-Trumpers on the right, seems to be that evangelical support for Donald Trump represents a hypocritical sacrifice of moral principle. Speaking of conservatives in general, opinion writer Bret Stephens put it this way in the New York Times:

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It was once the useful role of conservatives . . . to stand athwart declining moral standards, yelling Stop. They lost whatever right they had to play that role when they got behind Trump, not only acquiescing in the culture of shamelessness but also savoring its fruits. . . . Trump-supporting conservatives — the self-aware ones, at least — justify this bargain as a price worth paying in order to wage ideological combat against the hypostatized evil left. In fact it only makes them enablers in the degraded culture they once deplored.

Is this a fair assessment? In the case of some Trump supporters, perhaps it is. They seem willing to back Mr. Trump no matter what he says or does. In other cases, however, this simplistic analysis misses the mark. The stories told by Smith and Hunter offer a more nuanced key to solving the evangelical/Trump riddle.

The 2016 election did not offer evangelicals the luxury of voting for a candidate to their liking. They were forced to choose among four unattractive options: not voting at all; squandering their vote on a meaningless independent candidate; voting for a continuation or acceleration of an aggressively secular agenda they believed was toxic for America; or voting for the mercurial Donald Trump. The first two options seemed an abdication of their electoral duty. Their only real choice was between options three and four. This dilemma forced them into an any-port-in-a-storm strategy. Whatever the downsides of option four, they calculated, at least it wasn’t option three. So they cast their vote accordingly.

In the 2016 election evangelicals found themselves forced to decide: Which of two unlovely things would live? This continues to be the civic quandary many evangelicals face in today’s polarized America.

For many of these Trump voters their decision felt like a mirror-image of “Sophie’s choice.” In William Styron’s searing story, Sophie was forced to decide which of two lovely things, her son or daughter, would die. In the 2016 election evangelicals found themselves forced to decide: Which of two unlovely things would live? This was, and continues to be, the civic quandary many evangelicals face in today’s polarized America.

How Then Should We Live?

Our focus has been on “understanding our times.” Space precludes turning now to framing a godly response. For starters, though, an excellent way to begin might be to steep ourselves in the godly counsel of 1 Peter, a letter addressed to first century “exiles and sojourners” whose allegiance to Christ and his word also placed them at odds with their prevailing culture.

In any case, this much is clear. No superficial assessment of America’s current struggles will do. Evangelical Christians need to think deeply about what they’re facing: the mounting cultural dominance of a very different—and increasingly intolerant—“system of moral understanding,” one that is anchored in the purely horizontal assumptions that became official America’s established “religion” (“worldview,” “set of ultimate beliefs”) 75 years ago. The cultural battle lines of today are but the latest ripple effects of that irreversible shift.

Crafting a godly response to this reality must begin with the recognition that our society’s illness is not a temporary ailment; it is now a chronic condition, one which is likely to demand of America’s 21st century evangelicals a much more costly Christ-like response than many of us have yet contemplated. “Behold,” Jesus said, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Duane Litfin is Wheaton College President Emeritus and author of numerous articles and books, including, most recently, Paul’s Theology of Preaching (IV Press).