Good Citizens in a Tumultuous Culture

by | Jun 24, 2019 | Current Events | 0 comments

I appreciate Carl Trueman (who until recently pastored a fellowship not far from ours) as, among other things, an insightful thinker on public issues. For instance, recently on the First Things website, he commented on disagreements among American Christians about how to approach the current political climate. He writes:

As Charles Taylor has argued, the rise of expressive individualism is connected to the breakdown of old, honor-based medieval hierarchies and the rise of an egalitarian emphasis on the universal dignity of all human beings. Christians should welcome this. The idea that we are all made in the image of God is vital to Christian ethics, especially in connection to the unborn, the vulnerable, and the infirm. This should temper any nostalgia we have for the pre-modern world, where such universal dignity was not practically acknowledged, and also lead us to reflect on how we might affirm such universal dignity without the problems of expressive individualism.   

I suspect that expressive individualism merely provides the general plausibility structure of the specific problems we face. That it has taken on the aggressive form of sexual identity politics is not a necessary concomitant of such but rather the result of a confluence of various social, cultural, and historically contingent conditions. The real problem is the abolition of the pre-political, that we now operate in a society where everything has been politicized and where (in the United States at least) this total politicization of culture finds its resolutions not through the ballot box, but through the judicial branch of government. 

This has two obvious effects. First, it renders the idea that we can have a confident pluralism…a practical impossibility. The politicization of everything means that all disagreements will be cast in moral terms, a simple clash of good and evil, which makes dialogue impossible.   

Second, the increasing focus on the judiciary makes for an atmosphere where politeness, respect, and decency simply carry no weight. When the judiciary plays the decisive role in the most pressing social decisions of the day, this fuels further social division by effectively bypassing the democratic process. When five Supreme Court justices can decide the fate of a nation on divisive issues, then those issues simply become yet more divisive as the “losers” lose all confidence that their voices will be heard. When one side loses at the ballot box, accepting the result is the price of living in a democracy. When one side loses in the Supreme Court, it feels utterly disenfranchised. 

Trueman argues that Christians in America should not give in to impulses which push us towards aggressiveness and anger. Instead, he says that while a “strategy of politeness is unlikely to prove politically successful, I still believe it is worth considering.”

And he points to the some of the earliest Christian history, the second century AD, as providing some helpful parallels to our time time: 

At that time, the church was a misunderstood minor sect in a vast empire.  It was not subject to widespread, coordinated persecution but it was often suspected of subverting the public good. So the Greek Apologists of that time taught Christian doctrine and ethics, and they made it clear to the pagan authorities that they intended to be good citizens and should therefore be allowed to function as members of Roman society. They spoke respectfully of emperors and made sure that any offense caused was demanded by the gospel, and not by some other ambition or agenda. 

This captures the New Testament emphasis on blessing when cursed, turning the other cheek, and speaking well of those who speak evil. Of course, Paul was capable of polemical sharpness (typically directed against enemies within the church, not the secular authorities) and he was quite happy to use the civil rights that he possessed as a Roman citizen. But at no point does he say that it is legitimate for Christians to be as brutal and ferocious in opposing pagan enemies as those enemies are in opposing the church.

He admits that this strategy may not “succeed” in terms of politics or even cultural influence. But he finishes his article with this final thought:

…Christians do not do things because they think they will succeed. They do them because the New Testament tells them that this action or this way of speaking is the right way to reflect the character of God to the world.