Acton Institute Powerblog

Let’s Change Hearts and Minds (and Laws, Too)

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Few clichés are so widespread within the evangelical subculture, says Matthew Lee Anderson, as the notion that our witness must be one of “changing hearts and minds.”

In careful hands, the idea is at best ambiguous. At worst it reinforces the sort of interior-oriented individualism that allows for and perpetuates a blissful naivete about how institutions and structures shape our dispositions and thoughts.

In less than careful hands, the phrase drives a wedge between law and culture by attempting to orient evangelicals’ public witness around the latter. Though unintended, the real distinction between the two tends to slide into a dichotomy: among many younger evangelicals, and those who share the temperament, the phrase bludgeons the pursuit of legal changes around issues like abortion in favor of the nebulous pursuit of “engaging culture.”

In short, many evangelicals have come close to catching an unfortunate case of political antinomianism. Unlike its theological equivalent, political antinomianism isn’t a heresy. But it does share a general distaste for Leviticus, a book that reminds us the question is not whether we shall have laws, but only what character they shall take.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Anderson fails to discriminate deeply enough the difference between law which emerges from a good precedent based judicial system and law which emerges from legislation.  Further he falls into the fallacy that law informs morality.
    If law really informed morality the communists would be right.  If we are each to share with one who is in need, and that is moral, why not pass a legislation making this mandatory?  Of course, we have such legislation, and most of it proves to be detrimental both to the givers and the recipients since economic calculation and incentives structures are inhibited. 
    If law really informed morality then all sorts of prohibitions would be justifiable.  Yandle’s “Baptists and Bootleggers” proposition would be irrefutably false.  The Baptists would overwhelm the Bootleggers.  That’s not what happened.
    The temptation to employ that sort of argument is attractive to statists of every stripe.  The fruit of which is always the same: more power to the state.
    Leviticus is a beautiful book.  Of rules.  Mostly for an exclusive class of priests.  What the Pentateuch provided Israel was a good head start in private property and common law processes.  Further, it dictated a set of peculiar laws which served primarily to set Israel apart from the nations around them.  These laws were costly, not efficient.  They were signalling mechanisms in modern terms.  They were acts of worship.  Sacrifice is never efficient for the person making sacrifice.
    To try to wrest consequentialist arguments from those Biblical standards which serve primarily to set God’s people apart is an act of futility.  To actually try to apply such standards as laws has negative consequences throughout.  It is as useful as trying to follow Jewish dietary restrictions as an attempt to achieve better health.  Or to practice a “Daniel fast” in order to lose weight.  (That always makes me chuckle since the passage says that after the fast Daniel and his friends were fatter than the others!)
    But Anderson and Carter are right to say that merely trying to change hearts and minds won’t work either.  Talking to people and preach goodness into them is as useful as preaching to brick walls.  To be sure, faith comes by hearing and that by the Word of God.  Expositional preaching is essential for the advancing of the Kingdom of God. (A nod to Shai Linne here.)
    What neither party has mentioned, and what everyone seems to want to avoid, is the essential role of sacrificial action in both bringing about justice and changing hearts and minds.  The appropriate action in regards to abortion is for Christians to offer to redeem babies and mothers through their own personal expense.  Many are doing this in pregnancy crisis centers.  We ought to offer up our homes and fortunes to mothers who get pregnant are are considering abortion, and to their children, on a permanent basis.  We ought to put our money where our mouth is.
    Legislation merely leads to Transitional Gains Traps where an injustice is corrected by doing injustice to someone else.  We as believers are to step in and deliberately have the injustice fall upon us in order to redeem both the victim and the perpetrator of injustice.  The state is utterly incapable of redemption.  We have been given the means to achieve justice, but we habitually shirk that opportunity and responsibility and turn toward the state instead.  What cowards we are.