My dad sent along a recommendation for this Cal Thomas essay (click here). Thomas's theme is one seen frequently, especially since the election, and I guess I would summarize it thus: "Christian conservatives, give it up. You tried to influence society through politics, and you failed. Acknowledge defeat and move on. Go back to church, practice what you preach, re-learn humility, and quit trying to impose your views on society; preach by example, and you will have much more success in winning converts to your point of view."
It is a powerful argument, and absolutely correct, as far as it goes. Far too many Christian conservatives have become enmeshed in the worldly struggle for political power and forgotten the example of Christ. I share Thomas's distaste for "radio and TV preachers and activists". I am in full agreement that "Scripture teaches that God’s power ... is made perfect in weakness. He speaks of the tiny mustard seed, the seemingly worthless widow’s mite, of taking the last place at the table and the humbling of one’s self, the washing of feet and similar acts and attitudes; the still, small voice." I am as disgusted and appalled as anyone at marchers with signs reading "God Hates Fags" or scenes of screaming protesters verbally assaulting staff and patients at abortion clinics.
And yet I feel that Thomas and other commentators who take this line are fundamentally mistaken in a couple of important ways. In the first place, it is not an either/or situation: either try to influence society through political means or set an example by living out your Christian ideals. In logic, this is known as the fallacy of the false dichotomy. The two avenues of action are presented as being mutually exclusive, but they are not. Why may not I demonstrate love for my gay friends and yet oppose legalization of same-sex marriage? Is the only way to show love by acquiescing in sin? Scripture has a lot to say on that score, too. Christ's example was not just meekness. He never failed to call sin by its right name and He became very angry when, for instance, he saw the corruption of the money-changers in the temple.
But a bigger flaw in this argument is found in passages such as these:
"... sought moral improvement through legislation and court rulings ..."
"... relied mainly on political power to enforce ..."
"... trying to use government to ... transform culture ..."
"... mistake political power for influence ..."
"... imposing a moral code ... on others ..."
The common theme in these phrases is that evangelicals are engaged in attempting to force changes in morality on others by law. They imply an offensive effort to change what is in place, when in truth social conservatives are engaged in a defensive action to preserve understandings already codified in law and informed by 2000 years of Western civilization. Take marriage. Our language and structure of society are predicated on the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman. Same-sex marriage is the new thing that is being attempted to be foisted on the rest of us. Jerry Falwell did not come along in 1979 with a newly invented right to "opposite-sex marriage" and try to impose it on an unwilling public.
Liberalism is engaged in a constant struggle to tear down the institutions of society and replace them with new ones (a struggle which cannot ultimately be successful, since as soon as an institution becomes established, it too becomes a target). Very often this is a good thing. Where injustice and oppression have become insitutionalized, as with slavery, then it is right and good for those institutions to be torn down. And it is always good to maintain an open mind towards change and new solutions.
But not all established institutions are bad. The ill effects on society of the erosion of traditional concepts of marriage and the family are plain to see all around in the high dropout rates and crime rates among the underclass where two-parent families are almost non-existent.
The founders of our nation devised a political system in which changes and ideas could be debated and tried out without destroying the fabric of society. Not even the Civil War, a time of far greater partisan division than today, could ultimately bring down the Constitution. The legislatures, executive offices, and courts are where the structure and shape of our society are formed. Conservative Christian ideals have every bit as much of a place in that process as any others. We should not unilaterally withdraw from participation just because we don't always prevail.