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Making Theology Public

February 17th, 2022 | 7 min read

By Flynn Evans

A steadily growing number of disillusioned evangelicals are finding comfort in the subversive doctrines of Christian Reconstructionism. As noted by Andrew Walker in an essay about the movement, those taking in the notions of Reconstructionism suffer mostly from dissatisfaction with how evangelicals have popularly handled secularism’s rejection of traditional values and religion’s role in public life. Crawford Gribben has documented its pocketed but influential resurgence in the Pacific Northwest with his newest work, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest. As he recounts, its humblest advocates simply find Reconstructionism’s mission dedicated to beginning a new Christendom more persuasive than what they see as hackneyed means of cultural engagement amongst mainstream evangelicals.

I believe Walker’s critique of Reconstructionism does excellent work in dealing with its tenets as well as its host of exegetical and theological problems, yet I want to draw attention to the evangelical deficiency that seems to give it clout it otherwise would’ve never had. In their current engagements, what Reconstructionists especially attempt to do is absolutize the biblical moral order without parlaying with any secular encroachments into the lives of the family and ultimately the church. Looking at how balkanized mainstream evangelicalism has become, some claim that firmer footing is found in moving past the need for nuance and opt instead for striving to bring forth the kingdom of God in this age.

Reading enough about trends which shape nations tells you attitudes are often more revelatory than axioms. I’m not here to detract from Richard Weaver since ideas certainly do have consequences, but ideology is always deeply affectional. Only by first taking roots in the hearts of the people does any revolution have a standard to bear, and it is just as likely that prevailing unease with the status quo will give scope and form to a whole new imaginary instead of novel proposals immediately precipitating its rise.

In recent decades, American evangelicalism’s popular rendering of social ethics has led to the truancy of faithfully engaged Christians that the church otherwise longs to see. A naïve Biblicism tells otherwise dutiful disciples that verse-by-verse memorization somehow provides an escape from moral complexity in ethical reasoning, thus ensuring a fundamentalist orientation. For those for whom this won’t prove sufficient though, they turn just as frequently to heterodoxy to soothe their internal dissonance (cue the exvangelical phenomenon, which is often a therapeutic mechanism for this inability to wade into the waters of a more meaningful orthodoxy).

Without possessing an account for the role of theology in the public square, a whole host of believers feel that they face either platitudinous moralism or Reconstructionist rage. To have an informed presence requires a fully formed worldview, for lacking such encourages a false ideological binary that offers no pipeline for long-term faithfulness but only eventual spiritual fatigue.

Trumpism sought to limit the capacity for evangelical political engagement by jettisoning its guiding message of redemption in favor of its conveniently conservative components. Indeed, the frailty of evangelical identity can be attributed to how many of its defenders woefully neglect its necessarily ecclesial foundation. By assuming a predominantly sociopolitical agenda instead of a prophetic one, decoupling one’s private spiritual life from public populism has never been easier. Hiding behind the safety of a keyboard offers affirmation of ideals without the expense of their embodiment.

I believe Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon best articulate the prospectus the church should adopt for itself in principle with regard to society by simply calling for it to be the church, a redeemed collective sent out to send others in proclaiming God’s victory in Christ over this present age. Unfortunately, this can be readily abused in favor of a reductionist approach that skirts around the raging of nations so much so that it allows for all of their idols to remain unchallenged. Yet picking up the gauntlet requires a schematic for the ordering of our temporal priorities as the church militant, even if the church triumphant is still a bit forthcoming.

A foil to Reconstructionism would be the neo-Kuyperianism found in some modern thinkers seeking to reckon with the need to love the city without being taken captive to its wholly secular loves. Abraham Kuyper’s proposals centered around Christianizing present institutions instead of attempting to directly subvert them, thus implying a need for rendering much of modern infrastructure sacred and worthy of preservation in the hopes of its eventual renewal. George Marsden claims in his work The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief that such a principled pluralism as proposed by Kuyper is the only way forward for a United States devoid of an awareness of the natural law tradition informing its basis. But this too can risk undermining a sound Augustinianism regarding the present, robbing the church of necessarily evangelistic capital in its efforts and the rigor to actively seek the preservation of the creation order.

My own suggestion for recalibrating evangelical social ethics is relatively straightforward: bring our theology out of hiding.

Of course any Christian social ethic is broadly theological in some way, but a great deal of Christian engagement in the public square shies away from God-talk entirely. Because the notion of deportment fits better with an aim toward cultural change than hard doctrine, we favor making men and women right, but not right with God.

Yet basic theism makes for an unruly apologetic on its own. Flip through the folds of Eusebius’ Church History, and you’ll quickly admit to yourself that the unavoidable honesty of the early Christians against their pagan accusers makes for an odd cousin to contemporary approaches of establishment-sensitive accomodation to an equally paganized world. One of the most prophetic texts Carl F. H. Henry wrote was The Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift Toward Neo-Paganism, and his essential claim points out that as the West devolves into anti-religious and amoral anarchy, Christianity necessarily loses any ability to masquerade its true nature in its midst. Thus, the church inevitably begins to confront the same dilemma its apostolic forebears did: burn a little incense to the zeitgeist, or face the beasts.

One of the foremost roles the church has in modern society is to demonstrate the utter futility of its gods and reminding it of its penultimate significance when viewed according to the Christian perspective of human existence. Athenagoras might not have possessed the Establishment Clause to flaunt before Marcus Aurelius, but he nevertheless had the confidence to claim the innocence of Christians in the face of the Judge he actually feared. The court of conscience has always been precious to the church, and maintaining its purity is something that went far beyond the purview of civil liberties alone.

However, what matters most concerning the witness of the church is forthrightly offering its redeemed vision for the world, even when regnant sentiments find it distasteful. Historians such as Larry Hurtado and Robert Louis Wilken note that the Romans despised the Christians on account of how inimical their ethics and the beliefs which centrally shaped them were to the established imperial order. Despite how they were in innumerable ways model citizens, they nevertheless were “seditious” in rejecting what was understood as the core of Roman civitas: its expressly pagan civil identity. And so, the church occupied the fringe of society, lest it foster public disorderliness amongst those still lost on the Areopagus.

It appears then that we are not so distant from the same discordance our brothers and sisters who have gone before us caused for their pagan neighbors. If the post-Christian West has one thing to teach us, it’s that Christianity cannot last long hanging on the coattails of institutionalism. At a certain juncture, the social bedrock gives, and it bends toward that which brings harmony at the lowest revolutionary cost. Expressive individualism, told through its modern gospel of the autonomous self’s right to unrestrained actualization, stipulates that to challenge one’s personal beliefs is to contest their very personhood. Any attempts of claiming objective truth binding upon all of the new dogma’s acolytes is considered inherently oppressive.

As can be quickly theorized, this new milieu presents an immediate predicament to religious groups who view proselytization as a means for seeking the common good by offering to as many as possible the chance to partake in the greatest good of communion with God. Social ethics aside, Christians cannot entirely withhold the promise of what Henry himself called the “redemptive solution” of Christianity in public theology. Therefore, public theology becomes a matter of religious liberty as a component of defending the integrity of Christian social witness.

My head is always a bit askew when I notice so many evangelicals misappropriating a Christian understanding of religious liberty as solely an instrument for slandering our opponents. The shock jock impulse of engaging in punditry just to aggravate is “zeal without knowledge” in its deepest sense. Fundamentally, religious freedom for believers pertains to the right to share and behave in accordance with the raw proclamation of our faith without reservation. Thinkers such as Lactantius and Tertullian articulated religious liberty’s necessity in this constructive light not to keep the peace with Rome but due to one’s direct responsibility before God as one made in his image to account for either belief or unbelief in him. Religion isn’t something meant to be kept to ourselves; it’s innately meant to be one of the most important realities of our nature, so it must be shared in ways that prove its significance to an individual believer in the warp and woof of life. Man is absolutely a rational animal, but he is most basically a believing one.

That leads to the rub found when theology goes public amongst the competing votaries of our day. In Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Jonathan Leeman presents one of the more realistic designations of the public square as principally being a “battleground of gods,” ideological or otherwise. Therefore, presumed neutrality is always an illusion since everyone has a value they’re willing to render ultimate at the expense of the positive freedoms of others.

There are two equally unfaithful extremes evangelicals now face with such an arena at the threshold. One is to grow so this-worldly that we try to overtake the earthly city by charm or by force. Another is to simply deliver our apologetic, well, unapologetically. We are undoubtedly confronted with a resurgent paganism, one that desires that same pluralistic “ease” of civil religion which David Hume and Edward Gibbon longed to bring back from the ruins of Rome. Unfortunately, Christian theology can’t help but be public so as to keep the modern conscience on its toes, and it should come as no surprise that many who are already tilling vanity dislike being disturbed.

We’re left in the same predicament that any faithful disciple from the early church felt when confronted with the convenience of idolatry. Our boldness is called upon both in regards to present depravity and future judgment, and maintaining the balance of our investment in confronting them is that which needs a sober eschatology to propel it. Keeping our theology to ourselves does us no favors in courting secularity. Making it public is simply a matter of trust in knowing where our fleeting diligence ends and the true end of history finally takes hold.