The Feb. 6 edition of NEWSWEEK features a story on the debate program at Liberty University, in a bit by Susanna Meadows, “Cut, Thrust and Christ: Why evangelicals are mastering the art of college debate.” The story trots out a number of tired old formulas, with the lede referencing the fact that fundamentalists (used interchangeably with the term evangelicals) view of the imminence of the second coming: “When you believe the end of the world is coming, you learn to talk fast.”
But what really makes this an item worthy of notice on GetReligion is an illustrative misquote of Jerry Falwell. “We are training debaters who can perform a salt ministry, meaning becoming the conscience of the culture,” says Falwell. That’s what he actually said.
Apparently, though, “in the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK quoted Falwell as referring to ‘assault ministry.’ In fact, Falwell was referring to ‘a salt ministry’—a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ We regret the error.” No doubt NEWSWEEK still considers it an “assault,” albeit of the verbal and intellectual variety rather than physical.
Still, the story does illustrate one of the more important growing trends in contemporary evangelicalism: the emphasis on the use of political power as a means for furthering the aims of the Church: “Falwell and the religious right figure that if they can raise a generation that knows how to argue, they can stem the tide of sin in the country. Seventy-five percent of Liberty’s debaters go on to be lawyers with an eye toward transforming society.”
“I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans’ godly heritage,” says freshman debater Cole Bender.
Meadows writes, “Debaters are the new missionaries, having realized they can save a lot more souls from a seat at the top—perhaps even on the highest court in the land.” The article does implicitly raise the challenge to politics-minded evangelicals to recognize the difference between moral suasion and political coercion. The former addresses matters of the heart and soul, while the latter necessarily addresses externals. A religion that focuses too much on externals to the detriment of the heart will at some point become legalistic and Pharisaical.
And it remains to be seen if and when evangelicals achieve the political victories they desire if they will be willing to only seek to enact public policy that addresses clear moral matters and issues of justice, as the governing authority is “God’s servant to do you good” and “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV).
I’m simply not convinced that the “top-down” method of evangelization is the right way to view things. Falwell says, “So while we have the preaching of the Gospel on the one side—certainly a priority—we have the confronting of the culture on moral default on the other side.”
I would think that a necessary part of evangelism is “confronting the culture,” but can’t that be done as part of the proclamation of the Gospel (see the Second Use of the Law)? After all, the conscience can falsely justify as well as condemn, and the “conscience of culture” is no different.
I’m always suspicious when I hear “the Bible and…” or the “the Gospel and…”. It signals to me that the Church is getting away from its calling, the commission to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Engaging, critiquing, and transforming culture are all important things. But we’re wrong if we think that the primary means to accomplish these goals is something other than the preaching of the Word.
The other activities of the Church (moral suasion, charitable work) need to be consciously and intentionally connected to this ultimate purpose of the Church (or viewed as simply as penultimate). Otherwise, they run the risk of subverting the Church’s mission through distraction. They are never simply ultimate goods unto themselves.
Even Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the “father of modern liberal theology,” knew better. He writes:
That a Church is nothing but a communion or association relating to religion or piety, is beyond all doubt for us Evangelical (Protestant) Christians, since we regard it as equivalent to degeneration in a Church when it begins to occupy itself with other matters as well, whether the affairs of science or of outward organization; just as we also always oppose any attempt on the part of the leaders of State or of science, as such to order the affairs of religion.
While we would differ on what the concerns of “religion” or “piety” consist in, I do agree with Schleiermacher that the tendency of a Church to emphasize “the Gospel and…” is a degeneration. Perhaps this is just an infelicitous coordination between the two on Falwell’s part. But it isn’t the only place I’ve heard such things, and I do think it’s illustrative of broader trends in evagelicalism.