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Kristin Rudolph April 17, 2012
At a recent convocation of about 700 mostly young evangelicals in Washington, D.C., speakers politely debated how Christians can best address culture and politics. Urging some political detachment was Jonathan Merritt, a Southern Baptist critic of conservative Christian activism and author of the just published book “A Faith of Our Own." He accused "culture war” Christians of being "partisan, narrow, and divisive."
Many young evangelicals are disillusioned with politics and how Christians have engaged it, many speakers insisted at the April 2012 "Q Ideas" conference in the nation's capital. Only 25% of the 700 attendees reported approval of the tone of Christian political engagement over the past 30 years. A full 61% of attendees identified as “unaffiliated” with any political party or ideology.
The variety of discussions and viewpoints at “Q” suggested many young Christians are searching for a new, faithful way to think about political and social issues. In a time of extreme political and religious polarization, many are seeking common ground with Christians and non-Christians with whom they disagree.
Merritt, the son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president, argued that Christians should intentionally avoid partisan affiliation. Christian political engagement “is undergoing a change,” according to Merritt. He complained that in the past “culture warring Christians” have been “partisan, narrow, and divisive.” But he hoped “the new shape of Christian engagement” will be “independent, have a broad agenda, and be civil.”
In a “talkback session,” where attendees had the opportunity to interact with presenters, Merritt explained that because human nature is broken, we create broken human systems, so “we’ve gone wrong if we completely align with any human system.” In response, Gideon Strauss, of Fuller Seminary and the Center for Public Justice, argued: “The current generation of Evangelicals should not go independent … if you want to make a difference, you have to get involved with the structure.” He went even further, suggesting, “The real faithfulness is getting in there and getting bruised … join the party you disagree with.”
Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School and author of the controversial book, “Allah: a Christian Response,” in which he argues that Christians and Muslims worship the same God addressed Q-ers. Volf spoke on “Demonstrating a Public Faith,” presenting a defense of pluralism, and arguing that Christians should “give up on the idea of a Christian Europe, a Christian America, or a Muslim Egypt.” He warned of the “resurgence of authoritarianism” that attempts to “dominate the public space” with a single religion.
“Authentic pluralism,” focusing on commonalities among religions, is the way forward, Volf insisted. Because of globalization, “the fences are gone,” and different faiths cannot be “sequestered” as they once were, he explained. Radical secularism is also a serious problem, Volf said, but a single religion in the public space is “a recipe for conflict.” He suggested “[shaping] the public sector … with diverse faiths” as an alternative.
Volf rhetorically asked: “Does the exclusive nature of religion make pluralism based on a Christian foundation possible?” He answered yes, as “decisions of the soul must be free and not coerced.” Because “all truth is God’s truth … we can live common life without giving up on convictions,” Volf said. He asserted the “definition of being Christian is not simply that we are different,” but also “there are many commonalities” with other faiths.
Based on Volf’s controversial views on the Christian and Muslim God, a conference participant asked if he was a religious pluralist. The author answered he believes “the only true God is the one who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.” He further explained: “You can be a religious exclusivist while promoting political pluralism.” Rather than promote political pluralism, Volf argued Christians have used their faith as “a means for pre-set ends,” and engaged in “manipulation of God” instead of “fear of God.” “Making God a servant of our goals,” has led to the “functionalization of religion,” Volf warned.
In a closing session, Trinity Forum founder Os Guinness warned that “America is sinking down lower and lower” when it comes to protecting religious freedom. “America should be the [world] leader” on religious liberty, but is failing, as evidenced by the Catholic student group banned from Vanderbilt University, and the HHS contraceptive coverage mandate. Guinness explained Christians need to “fight for the common good, not just ‘us,’” and “stop short term thinking of culture wars.” Christians should “restore a civil public square” in the long term battle to protect “America’s distinctive ways,” he said. Ultimately, Guinness told attendees, “In the convulsion of the global era, the most important thing is human dignity.”
For a generation of Evangelicals disillusioned with the conflation of faith and politics, the message at “Q” to unite on central principles resonated. Young Evangelicals are unlikely to retreat from the public square. But they should be careful that finding “common ground” does not ultimately mean compromising on the fundamentals of their faith.
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