Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Death of Cultural Christianity?

Baptists historically have distinguished themselves as champions of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Some in more recent times have waffled on that commitment, especially those affiliated with the Religious Right. A kind of re-writing of history has taken place that recasts the Founding Fathers in a stance more amenable to evangelicals and extols them as a group thoroughly committed to establishing the U.S. on Judeo-Christian principles. Many undoubtedly did hold to a personal faith in God, but many as well were at best Deists--recognizing the existence of a Supreme Being but distancing themselves from a commitment to a personal Creator who has made man in His own image and who continues to actively exercise His sovereignty in the affairs of men.

As a student and former professor of Baptist history, I find it particularly distressing that many Baptists today are willing to sacrifice our forebears' marked commitment to religious liberty for all and the separation of church and state in an attempt to buttress up the role of religion in the public (and especially the political) arena. Early Baptists firmly resisted any attempt to institutionalize religion by the state, arguing that a coerced faith was no faith at all. They were more than willing to defend even the right of atheists to not believe and be free from a state-imposed religion.

Modern-day Baptists it seems are far more fearful of losing political clout in a post-denominational era and an age where the church's influence on society appears to be waning. I read an interesting quote yesterday in a daily devotional I receive online entitled A Slice of Infinity that's published by the Ravi Zacharias ministry. Jill Carattini, the managing editor and an outstanding writer, quotes John Stackhouse in Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 36. Stackhouse writes, "[M]ulticulturalism and extensive religious plurality can offer an opportunity for Christians to shed the baggage of cultural dominance that has often impeded or distorted the spread of the gospel. It may be, indeed, that the decline of Christian hegemony can offer the Church the occasion to adopt a new and more effective stance of humble service toward societies it no longer controls."

I think Stackhouse is on to something here. Why should the church (and Baptists in particular) rely on the state to assist them in proclaiming the gospel? What typically is heard from such a platform featuring a government-sponsored or supported religious entity is a distortion of the gospel and not the embodiment of Christ's message. If we can overcome the fear of losing cultural predominance, we just might learn anew and afresh to focus on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. I'm convinced that a watching world would be far more blessed by that kind of lifestyle than political maneuvering to ensure that the 10 Commandments can be displayed in some government facility. The way of humble service that Stackhouse suggests reflects far better the stance of Jesus who reminds us that as the Son of Man He came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.


John Notestein said...

Very well said! I have always felt it cheapened faith to tie it to a civil organization, a political party, or even a culture. You know history a lot more than I, but it seems the church flourished more under persecution that it did when it cozied up with the government. I still run into people, both in and out of church, who are sure God is both American and Republican. I have my own views how a society is best run, and I am a patriotic retired military officer. But I still am a follower of Christ first. My citizenship is not in this world. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I pray more believers feel that way.

Gary Snowden said...


Thanks for your comments. Hope you're enjoying spring break and the time off.

John Notestein said...

I'm mainly enjoying not commuting during spring break. The flights are packed this time of year. The only time that is worse is Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which is the craziest. I am enjoying probably my last big chunk of time with Amy, ever. After this, it's graduation, college, and then her life. You'll probably have to console Joni after the empty nest in May!