I’m pleased to publish this guest editorial from Stephen Wolfe.
Cultural Christianity is frequently an object of scorn in American evangelical Christianity. Though elsewhere even atheists claim to be culturally Christian (e.g., Richard Dawkins), in the United States the term usually refers to those who identify with the Christian religion yet base their Christian identity solely on their civil and familial heritage. They are Christians only because their family, community, and nation are Christian, and their religious practices are merely social practices.
This damning Christianity has come under fire by many prominent evangelicals, notably Russell Moore, the current president of the ERLC. At first glance, the criticism seems to be directed at the cultural phenomenon itself. That is, its direct purpose is to call cultural Christians to true faith.
But something else is going on. The goal is not to make these social practices spiritual. Rather it is a repudiation of any political theology that could possibly produce such social practices and thereby produce such “fake” or “pretend” Christians.
Though Moore rarely gives names or points to any particular theological tradition, he often employs the term against any form of Christian dominion over political order and cultural space. In one recording, in which he remarks on the government approval of new mosques, he says that the government privileging of Christianity makes people “pretend Christians, and sends them straight to hell.” He continued: “The answer to Islam is not government power; the answer is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The civil realm is not a proper object of Christian dominion.
The Question of Cultural Power
The key word here is “power.” For Moore, the power of the Christian as a Christian is the power of persuasion, and the Christian doesn’t even possess this power with regard to proclaiming the faith, for only the Holy Spirit can bring one to faith in Christ. Moore would acknowledge the civil use of power, however. But such power is for human ends and not distinctively Christian ones. So Moore endorses a type of secular civil realm, albeit one that tolerates religious motivations in civil action.
The civil realm for the Christian is then a place for religiously motivated action, though the end of this action cannot be the establishment of anything positively Christian. “Positively” refers to something that actively excludes anything non-Christian or to the rejection of neutrality in favor of Christian dominance with toleration for non-Christians. Moore wants the government to merely tolerate anything distinctively Christian, as if Christians are religious conscientious objectors.
Christian civil action is persuading non-Christians to give Christians their own space for worship and to grant tolerance towards limited religiously motivated political action for human ends. The civil realm then is chiefly a modern secular space—a type of a-theistic realm—and Christians are to kindly stake out a claim for toleration.
In addition to cultural dominance and its false assurance of faith, Moore also objects to cultural Christianity’s tendency to obscure the mission field. The evangelists cannot distinguish the saved from the lost when everyone identifies as Christian, and therefore they do not know where to direct their attention. Moore calls for a civil society that outwardly distinguishes the believer from the non-believer and he patently rejects the notion of a Christian civil society or nation.
This approach is almost entirely wrong-headed. There is no conflict between the pursuit of genuine faith in Christ and the presence of cultural Christianity in a place. Indeed, far from undermining the preaching of the Gospel, cultural Christianity helps to advance it.
Political Theology and Christian Culture
Political theology is in part the attempt to provide a theological framework through which a Christian can understand politics and understand the relationship between the civil and the other institutions of human relations. I provide here a brief description of what I take to be a Reformed political theology that provides space for cultural Christianity, a term I will define precisely later in the essay.
We should first acknowledge that the civil recognition, establishment, and privileging of Christianity was the received and standard view for most of Christian history, amongst most major Christian traditions, including many Protestants, and only recently has it been rejected by a majority of western Christians. I’ve never heard Moore and his followers acknowledge this.
Reformed theologians and political theorists insisted that civil magistrates establish and enforce true religion. Though they all recognized the importance of prudence in civil politics, to deny in principle the magistrate’s duty toward true religion was a serious doctrinal error. As a Baptist, Moore naturally rejects this political theology, but he often speaks and is recognized as a leader of evangelicals, not only the Southern Baptists, which tends to conceal the important differences in theological principles between Protestant traditions.
Indeed, the way Moore dismisses the traditional view of the Christian civil magistrate would be flippant, if he came from many non-baptist Protestant traditions. And I fear that he teaches non-baptists a similar flippancy. Non-baptist admirers of Moore would do well to remember that they are not Baptists. Anyone who takes Reformed theology seriously must take seriously its traditional view of the civil realm in relation to faith. At the very least, we should be open to persuasion.
The theoretical justification for a distinctively Christian civil culture relies on a particular view of the Church as the people of God distinguished from the ecclesiastical or the institutional church. The people of God in any particular place is not solely identified by membership in the institutional church. The institutional church is the place of worship, the place in which the people of God most intensely praise God.
It is not a polis, or a political society, or a civil association. Nor is it the site from which Christians declare to the secular authorities the true principles of civil order, authority, and law. It is not a political deliberative body, nor a weekly podium for prophetic judgment, nor an assembly area for the spiritual resources of social transformation. It is the place where man achieves, as Calvin says, his “chief object of life”—the heaven-oriented worship of God.
For earthly matters, however, the people of God have the civil realm, which has its own, separate principles of order and is oriented to earthly good. The civil authority derives it principles of order from God the Creator apart from ecclesiastical authority and judgment. That is, the principles of civil order and justice originate from nature, not the ecclesiastical. Neither derive the authority to accomplish their particular ends from the other.
Christians ideally learn their civic morals and principles of order from the civil, not the ecclesiastical institutions. The role of the ecclesial in relation to civic morals is to teach and exhort Christians to do civil deeds spiritually, i.e., according to the proper internal motivation, namely to the glory of God in Christ, and thereby perfect one’s work unto ultimate goodness. The civil teaches what must be done outwardly and the ecclesial teaches what must be done internally. Both have distinct and separate roles and yet both roles are complementary and necessary for good works.
A Christian people in the outward sense submit to both the civil and the ecclesiastical, and they do this not because the latter directs them to submit to the former. Rather, both are independently deserving of one’s submission. For this reason, a “Christian commonwealth” or a “Christian communion” is a people submitted to both the civil and ecclesiastical administrations.
Put differently, the civil and ecclesiastical are the twin species of the same genus, Christian communion. The people of God submit to these mutually supporting, separate and independent administrations because Christ is both the Creator and Ruler of creation and the Mediator of eternal life. The Christian communion is not coterminous with ecclesiastical membership, but is rather the same people submitted to both the civil and ecclesiastical.
Hence, one is a Christ-follower in the civil realm, but not as an ambassador from the ecclesiastical. Christians follow Christ in the civil realm because he is the Creator and Ruler of the civil realm. For this reason, Christians can relate to one another in the civil realm as fellow Christians without reference to their ecclesiastical membership.
The civil realm, which was constituted at creation apart from the ecclesiastical, can itself be Christian independent of the chief work of the ecclesiastical. Put simply, the church as institution is not the assembly area or the chief source for the resources for Christian civil action, nor the place from which Christians derive the ground of their civil relations. Christ does not rule the civil realm through the institutional church, but independent of it.
Christ-followers therefore can relate to one another in the civil sphere according to the terms of that rule in all aspects of civil life, including culture. The positive establishment of cultural Christianity (i.e., cultural dominance) in a particular cultural space is therefore a natural consequence of acknowledging Christ’s present rule over creation.
The civil, as distinct from the individual, the family, and the ecclesiastical is an entity itself, meaning that it is not simply the sum of its parts (viz., not simply a composition of individuals). As such, it takes on social obligations, including the obligation to acknowledge the one who created and sustains it, namely God, and to direct itself towards its ultimate end. This end is usually expressed through constitutions, charters, and government action, but it is also through various cultural practices, social obligations and expectations, symbols, manners, etc.
A Christian people are more than a formally covenanted body; they are a people adorned with Christianity even in everyday public and domestic life. A Christian family, for example, is Christian not only because it calls itself Christian and attends worship together, but because the daily, quotidian aspects of family life are infused with Christian language, manners, expectations, etc. The same is true with the civil realm.
It is important to recognize, however, that while the civil and ecclesiastical are separate and equal institutions, their principal ends are not equal. The civil has authority over the outward man and his outward good. The ecclesiastical, however, speaks to the inward man, calling him to faith and repentance unto eternal life. Eternal life is the ultimate end of man and temporal life only facilitates the accomplishment of that end.
So the civil realm, which concerns the temporal, is penultimate, meaning that its activities are not the ultimate end of man. It serves the ultimate and, for this reason, must be arranged with prudence and in light of circumstances to facilitate and support man’s ultimate end.
It is complicated by the fact that the most ideal civil arrangements often conflict with the attainment of spiritual good, for the attempt to bring about a true Christian civil society might cause so much civil disruption that it undermines the ability for Christian ministers to conduct worship and preach the Gospel. The point here is that the civil obligation to Christianize the civil realm does not permit a few to force it on an unwilling populace. This would undermine spiritual/eternal/ultimate good for earthly/temporal/penultimate good. Prudence and wisdom are indispensable when confronted with a disordered world with competing goods.
Further, the resulting form of christianization is not monolithic. Christians can exercise cultural dominion only to the degree that circumstances allow. Despite these limitations, there is nothing wrong with a Christian commonwealth and a Christian civil culture; and when possible (viz., when spiritual good will not suffer), these ought to be established and conserved due to the present reign of Christ. Cultural Christianity in these Christian communions is the civil relationship that encourages proper belief and behavior toward man’s ultimate end (eternal life) within the limits of civil (or social) action. It cannot bring about a spiritual effect; it cannot make true believers. It plays one role in the Christian’s walk; it is not a sufficient role for spiritual life, and it was never meant to be sufficient.
But what about the use of power to maintain cultural Christianity? We should first keep in mind that God has granted to the civil realm power over the outward man to secure the best possible conditions conducive to his achieving his spiritual/ultimate end. Any civil society ought to aim at procuring the good of those in the society within the limits of its power and authority. Spiritual good is not only a good but the chief good.
Therefore, civil society ought to aim to procure this spiritual good within limits of its power and authority. Since it lacks any spiritual weapons, its actions are limited to external supports and favorable conditions. Hence, it aims at procuring spiritual good only indirectly. Still, the purpose of civil authorities is not “only to fat up men like hogs and to see that they have their mash,” as Richard Hooker quipped. There is a natural (or creational) command that civil authorities establish and enforce laws and customs aiming at the procurement of people’s spiritual good. This God-ordained civil power with regard to spiritual good is not limited to legal authority but also includes social authority, which comes in the form of various social pressures, customs, and expectation.
Since civil order originated at creation, the principles of civil/social power come from nature, not the Gospel. Whatever falls under these principles is subject to enforcement by the civil “sword.” If nature dictates that cultural space ought to be distinctively and positively shaped and adorned by the true God, then such cultural space is an appropriate object of civil power. And since the Christian God is the true God, the cultural space ought to be Christian. Logically, then, Christian civil culture can be secured and conserved by civil power.
Notice that the ground or underlying principle of this christianization and its enforcement is not the Gospel, though the Gospel, as the full revelation of the true God in Christ and the means of salvation, would necessarily shape and, as I like to say, adorn civil society. That is to say, the civil by becoming Christian is not handed a spiritual sword to make everyone true believers. Rather it retains its natural power to enforce natural principles, which includes the command to shape human society in conformity to the true God as revealed.
In sum, the underlying principle that justifies a christianized civil realm is a natural civil principle and therefore the christianization of civil society is an appropriate object of civil defense. A Christian people can use outward, civil force or coercion (within the limits of nature justice) to conserve their Christian civil culture. (For more on the civil defense of Christianity, see here).
Christian culture can therefore dominate a particular space, be exclusive or privileged in that space, and be an object of civil power for protection and conservation. This theoretical presentation admittedly shows only how cultural Christianity might be possible and consistent in a Protestant political theology. It falls short in proving it, and there is much more to it. But it shows the logical possibility of cultural Christianity and challenges the dismissive condescension against the idea.
Worrying about pretend Christians misses the point.
The pretend Christian argument fails to distinguish the roles of the civil and the ecclesiastical in one’s spiritual life. As I stated above, though the civil realm lacks the power to directly procure spiritual good, it can seek to procure it indirectly within the limits of its power. It can establish and conserve the best possible external conditions for advancing one’s ultimate good, but it lacks the spiritual weapon to strike one internally. The civil realm plays therefore a supportive role in spiritual life, which might include certain laws such as Sabbath laws.
Culture plays an important role as well by normalizing behavior through mutual expectations of conduct, and society usually enforces conformity by compelling softly, meaning that people come to do what they do because that is what one (of that culture) does. In cultural Christianity, the culture normalizes certain Christian practices, driving people to do them willingly, or at least to do them in obedience to the social code.
To be sure, melding into the flow of legal and social custom is certainly not adequate for the true worship of God and the receiving spiritual good. But we must distinguish between principal and supportive roles in motivating one for action. It is true that doing something out of social conformity is not the proper motivation to do anything if it is the principal motivation.
The shame or embarrassment of having to confess sin to an accountability partner, for example, plays a supportive role in preventing one from sinning. The chief motivation ought to be obedience to God, but there is a place for external support as well, and this is confirmed by basic human experience. Denying the legitimacy of supporting motivations undermines all sorts of good practices and behavior.
Furthermore, the fact that any given motivation is not itself sufficient to make any action ultimately good doesn’t mean that the motivation is itself bad or wrong. You may not want to read the Bible or attend worship, but you do both sometimes because you ought to do them. Your assent to the command, however inadequate for proper motivation, is at least initially your primary motivation, and we ought to do what is right even when we lack the proper heart for it. In many areas of life we affirm that while some motivations are not themselves enough to make one’s action ultimately good, they still are enough to necessitate the action.
The social pressure to conform to Christian practices are not therefore sufficient to make one’s actions truly good in the sight of God, but it is a sufficient motivation to do those Christian practices and is not wrong in itself. Given the conclusions of this essay so far, if one role of the civil realm is the indirect procurement of spiritual good by means of outward order and proper cultural practices, then there ought to be social forces conforming people to Christian practices. Cultural Christianity can and ought to play a positive role in a Christian’s walk with God.
But wouldn’t cultural Christianity give many a false assurance of genuine faith? Yes, it could. But this is not the civil realm’s problem. It is a ecclesiastical problem. The church as an institution is the ordinary instrument by which one receives spiritual good. Moore and others have taken a possibility of cultural Christianity (viz., false assurance of saving faith) and forgotten the distinctive and essential role of the ecclesiastical in both correcting such false assurances and providing the message of saving faith. Indeed, the production of “pretend” Christians by the civil realm shows that it is doing its job.
The civil and ecclesiastical have mutually supporting roles that together point to the same ultimate end, but they do not have the same roles. Churches, not civil magistrates or civil society, call people to faith and repentance. Churches call people to stop pretending. Of course the civil realm on its own creates pretend Christians. But this is not a failure of religious civil culture, for it is not its role to make true believers. Indeed, nothing in the civil realm can create true believers, and I’ve never heard or read anyone say that it could. Why condemn something for failing to produce what it cannot produce?
Moore should direct his criticism to the churches that are failing to call people to true faith and repentance and failing to proclaim the indispensability of church membership and worship attendance. Do not attack cultural Christianity. Attack the institutions that actually can have a spiritual effect—the churches.
Moore’s preference for a perfectly transparent mission field betrays a similar confusion. If cultural Christianity draws people into churches to hear the Gospel, then the false believers will hear the Gospel. The Gospel is still being proclaimed to non-believers, and the effectiveness of the spiritual sword of the Word does not depend on a transparent mission field. Indeed, the need for transparency indicates a reliance on the outward for the effectiveness of the Gospel.
That is, the need for public clarity concerning who is true and who is false suggests that the spiritual sword of the Gospel needs external means to be more effective. There is no reason, however, to believe that God ordinarily regenerates people when there is such outward transparency. There is no difference between having or lacking this transparency, except that cultural Christianity usually assures that more people hear the Gospel because they are more likely to attend worship.
Cultural Christianity also prepares people for the reception of the Gospel both by supporting church attendance and by being a place in which the Gospel is openly discussed. The idea of preparation is not original with me. Christian theologians, including Reformed theologians, have throughout church history talked of the praeparatio evangelica. Certain beliefs and cultures lend themselves to Christian belief.
Moore seems to affirm the opposite view, namely that Christian cultures hinder reception of the Gospel and non-Christian cultures prepare for its reception. Or perhaps he would say that there is no praeparatio evangelica at all. Baptists in particular should know the praeparatio evangelica very well, however: they train their children in the ways of the Lord to prepare them for belief in the Gospel. If a Christian family prepares children for reception of the Gospel, why not the civil?
Indeed, it seems that most of the criticisms of cultural Christianity would criticize the basic duties of the Christian family. But just as the Christian family is a place of preparation for the Gospel and yet cannot itself bring about its reception, the civil society is a place of preparation for the Gospel and yet relies on the ecclesiastical to speak to men’s souls.
As someone who has lived in the South for a number years, I can attest to some of the problems one finds in cultural Christianity. But Moore and others typically do not challenge any particular problems but the concept itself. There are good, principled, and theologically consistent reasons to believe in the legitimacy of cultural Christianity, including its civil defense and conservation
The way forward in discussing this and related issues must begin with this important truth: there is no united and coherent evangelical political theology. I say this because when evangelical leaders of different denominations get together to discuss politics and Christian cultural engagement, they rarely discuss distinctives and disagreements between their traditions. The result is a mixture of incoherent ideas.
The Gospel Coalition, for example, is a strange alliance of Calvinistic Baptists, Neo-Calvinists, and Presbyterian traditions, and they talk politics as if they are united on underlying principles. Their unity on soteriology has somehow led to unity on political theology. The crucial differences are obscured in such an approach and we get the illusion of a true evangelical political theology. But that does not and, indeed, cannot exist.
The various evangelical denominations should seek common ground by approaching each other through the lens of their own traditions. Each one has an extensive tradition of political theology. Instead of obscuring differences with fuzzy formulations, providing clarity on differences would help us state the questions properly and work out answers and solutions. After all, different principles can lead to similar conclusions. The obfuscation of denominational differences, however, does not serve the Christian Church well. And I suspect that if we cleared up the confusion, we would discover the many robust ways Christians can relate to, belong, and be in the world.
Stephen Wolfe is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. His research interests include the American founding, modernity, aesthetics, and politics, and meaningful work. He is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. You can find more of his work on his personal blog.