As conservative evangelicals what we are asking for is not all that difficult to understand, nor to grant. Rather than wanting to exert a form of cultural hegemony we wish to exercise spiritual humility in articulating our beliefs, without fear of prejudicial treatment or social ostracisation. We are pleading for true tolerance, where each person is free to state and act upon their opinion within the law, and to be able to strongly and honourably disagree with those who are on the opposite side of the debate. We wish to live in a society whose mind is big enough to understand disagreement, and whose heart is grand enough to make comfortable room for all. As evangelicals facing into the headwind of strident cultural secularism, these are our concerns, and our understanding of how a fair society operates.
The only problem is, we can’t necessarily say that this has always been our position. There was a time when the wind blew at our backs, when the forces of politics and culture were more attuned to our concerns and our convictions, and we were not pleading for the same balance then. There was a time when our understanding of marriage and sexuality were mainstream (even if habitually transgressed), when apologetics had no business in the bedroom, and when identity was more strongly defined by our ethnic background than our affective concerns. There was a time when the culture served as a virtual doorman/enforcer for our principles and priorities, meaning that engagement and tolerance never had to be dealt with in our living room. Undoubtedly many were advocating for a tolerant society at that point, but theirs was not always the dominant voice. In a world where we are pleading for true tolerance, where we bristle against the overreach of policed thinking and proscribed vocabulary, we must admit that we ourselves are recovering intolerants, that our once enjoyed ascendency bred complacency and indifference to the mechanics of what tolerance truly is.
Multiple instances of this can be unearthed from each cultural background as evidence of our less than glorious track record on showing tolerance for those who are different to us, are opposed to us, or who are even antagonistic towards us. In my own context it has at times been the case that we have heaped coals of fire on the heads of those opposed to the gospel, not by exercising kindness but by exploiting our ascendancy for social control. We have a legacy of picketing free expression in the theatres, we have locked the gates to the playpark in a society ignorant to the true joy of what Sabbath means, and we have at times implicated God’s name in enforcing borders which have nothing to do with the gospel. In the light of these things our insistence on true and thoughtful tolerance does not sound like us recalling secularism to the virtues we have embodied, but more like us bargaining for better terms in the wake of losing a bloody cultural war.
To quote Patrick Kavanagh, we live in ‘important times’, and there can be no argument that in epistemological terms we are facing down the backdraft of the postmodern inferno ignited in the academy half a generation ago. There is no doubt that the battle for truth, and the struggle to be heard clearly are of crucial importance – nor is this a time for evangelicals to get lost in a simpering form of fashionable repentance about our history. We must, however, be self-conscious, we must be reflective, and we must be clear about our past mistakes and misdemeanours. If we are none of these things, then we are simply embodying a form of hypocrisy in our interactions with the world which we are asking to give us a hearing.
In his book Prepare, J. Paul Nyquist has written on the theme of coming persecution for Christians in the United States specifically, and in the Western world generally. His analysis of how cultural change happens is perceptive, and his portrayal of how persecution operates is helpful. What is missing, though, in all of the preparations urged upon his evangelical readership is reflective repentance for the misuse of cultural influence which the church has periodically engaged in.
What would that kind of repentance and recovery look like? First and foremost it should not be culture shaped, but gospel shaped. Evangelicals do not need to apologise that they haven’t treated all opinions as equivalent (I firmly believe that they’re not), and they do not need to bow at the altar of postmodernism. Our repentance must be that we have not done unto others as we would have them do unto us, that we have not done good to all, that we have not used our liberty and perceived legitimacy well. We must repent of resting on the weight of numbers rather than the power of the Spirit to do our work, of tacitly using the pen-shaped sword of governmental bureaucracy to ring-fence our concerns, of ignoring the welfare of the minority when we held the majority. We must also resolve to listen humbly, and to argue clearly for the rights which we now cherish, all the while confessing our purblindness in the past.
As part of our future recovery we must be suspicious of all instincts in our hearts to marry political expedience to kingdom advance, we must eschew the free ride home that high office invites the church to avail of when evangelicalism carries currency for politicians, we must be careful to embody the respect for others diametrically opposed to us that we demand from them, and we must season our words with salt. We must also recognise that we are only ever recovering intolerants at best, that the mistakes of a past generation’s evangelical ascendency (or our own) will readily be repeated in our day if we are not careful and intentional. Finally, we must take seriously the fact that even in doing all of this we will still suffer persecution and opposition – but we will do so knowing clarity of conscience, gospel integrity, and the assurance that the Apostle Peter urges upon his readers that they not suffer for wrongdoing, but for right-living. Contra the imperialism of postmodern discourse we will not alter one iota of the matter of the gospel, but we will adjust our manner to show the reality of the gospel standing on its own two feet.
Under God, all of this might just have a compelling effect on a world which hates Christ, and stands opposed to the proclamation of his name and glory. We should celebrate the new tenderness of pastoral tone that our best contemporary conservative evangelical books have realised on the toughest moral issues, and we should be thankful that we have come to understand that sensitively chosen words and persuasively lived lives are a tremendous tool in God’s hand to reach the hearts of people engulfed in personal sin. We should, however, be alive to our heritage of not approaching difference in these ways, and willing to own up to that in the name of honesty.