by Russell Moore
In order to preserve our heritage of advocacy for religious liberty, we must protect the centrality of the church. Many contemporary Christians argue that social and political engagement is for individual Christians, not for churches. The problem with this argument is that there is no understanding in the New Testament of a Christian who is not ecclesiastically located. A churchless Christian is, for the apostles, simply lost (Heb 10:23–31; 1 John 2:19).
All of the Christian life is situated within the life of the community, a covenant community that models for the world the realities of the coming kingdom of Christ. The fight for religious liberty means more than just advocacy by Christians for protection from the government. It means maintaining the freedom for churches to be the church before the watching culture.
This is why Paul, after commanding the church to pray for ruling authorities in the context of the free offer of the gospel, turns to what it looks like for a free church to live “godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). The men of the congregation must not be quarrelers. They must be holy. They must pray diligently. The women of the congregation, meanwhile, must likewise not be conformed to the culture around them. They must not be entranced by outward beautification. They must not usurp the headship of men. In short, Paul calls on the church not only to attend to the culture, chiefly through prayer, but also to attend to forming, through the Spirit and the Word, a counterculture.
If we are to preserve our commitment to religious liberty, we must confront within our own people what they get perpetually from the culture and the state—the notion that they are autonomous individuals living individual stories and claiming individual rights. Too often even Christians see themselves as isolated individuals who come together at the voting booth to decide who runs the Congress, or who come together at a congregational business meeting to decide whether to buy a lawn mower. Is it any wonder that we often find community more in our political commonalities than in the church?
The spirit of Jim Crow laws fell in Southern Baptist churches not because civil rights activists appealed to the Fourteenth Amendment. White supremacy fell because churches appealed to Ephesians 2 and Ephesians 3 and Galatians 3—passages on the unity of the people of God in the church. This carries the weight not of a political agenda but the weight of the authority of God himself, as revealed in his inerrant Word. We need not only the religious liberty to live out the calling of the church; we also need to live out that calling. We need not only to claim the rights to have crisis pregnancy centers; we should have them. We need not only to claim the rights of elderly people and orphans to live; we should take them in and care for them. We need not only to maintain that the welfare of the impoverished is principally the role of the church and not the state; we need to take care of the poor as churches. We need not only to express outrage when a renegade court forbids students from freely gathering to pray; we need to engage our churches to teach teenagers to be praying men and women.
Creating countercultural Christian churches also implies that our political alignments will be provisional and loosely held. We should never feel too comfortably at home with any political movement—or even with American culture itself. If Christian conservatism is going to “conserve” a Christian counterculture, we must understand the ways in which our interests are subverted not only by an overreaching government but by an overreaching socioeconomic culture as well. After all, it is not tax policy alone causing hordes of evangelical and Roman Catholic mothers to pursue full-time careers while their children sit in day-care centers watching Veggie Tales. And do not be deceived; it will take much more than a weekly hour of Sunday school and moralistic lessons from singing vegetables to transform the character formation built into a child by two parents chasing the corporatist vision of the American dream into the fruits of the Spirit.
Most conservative Christians would concede that there is more to life than what is advertised on the high-definition television screens at Walmart. But do our churches and our pastors lead them to ask whether there might be something different to life than this? Yes, we believe that children are a gift from the Lord. But do our own congregants roll their eyes in dismay at the godly Christian husband and wife who actually seek to raise a multitude of Christian children, or at least a “multitude” as defined by our antiseptic contraceptive culture? How can we decry Planned Parenthood if the way our churches view family size and parent- ing is being formed by the culture of death Planned Parenthood promotes, and our pastors say nary a word (1 Tim 2:15)?
If we are to be a church that maintains religious liberty, we need to love the religion as much as the liberty—indeed more so. And that means we will be increasingly odd in American culture. We may have less and less in common with libertarian Republicans and libertine Democrats. If the outside culture pronounces this anathema, so be it—it always has. And if Caesar decides to add his sword to the disapproval of the culture, so be it—he has done it before. The church still stands. We will claim our mantle of dissent not simply by standing in the public square demanding our rights—though we must sometimes do that. We claim it first of all by being an alternative community, the people of Christ.
Maintaining religious liberty has more to do with vacation Bible school than with the Supreme Court. If we are to ensure that the next generations of churches have liberty, we must remember why we claim that liberty: for the gospel and for the church.
We must therefore rear a generation of children and grandchildren who so love the gospel, who so love the church, that they are willing, when soldiers with AK-47s line them up against the walls for the faith, to go to their deaths for the Christ who is alone King. They will not learn to do that through a weekly diet of “how to” sermons and moralistic Sunday school drivel. They will not do that for a political party, or even a cultural way of life. They will learn to do it through identifying with the same gospel and same churches that our ancestors carried in their hearts as they were drowned for insisting that they would baptize the way Jesus ordered, not the way the state church commanded. They will find religious liberty—and every kind of liberty—not in the word of the Constitution or in the “natural rights” of humanity—but by being hidden in Christ, and living together in his Body. They will be free only if they realize that they must be conservative Christians, not just Christian conservatives.