“Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.”
So wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 travelogue Democracy in America. Religion as observed by the Frenchman enjoyed no prejudicial role in America. The country, unlike many in Europe, recognized no state church. Yet Tocqueville’s observation that religion was “the first of their political institutions” is equally revealing. A thousand denominations and spiritual movements flourished in the country, lending it a unique cast.
Americans have always been an insatiably spiritual people. Religious liberty, acceptance of foreigners, and a thriving para-church world offering social uplift have left a tremendous mark on this land. All this is now changing. America finds itself in a mortal struggle for its soul. The country, as represented by its founding fathers, came together as a unique alliance of genuinely religious leaders and Enlightenment partisans, as historian George Marsden has shown in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. John Witherspoon signed the same document as Thomas Jefferson. This coalition has fractured in 2015.
Today, the Judeo-Christian worldview is hotly contested in America, while the leading class of influencers skews skeptical or “progressive” in their views. America has been profoundly shaped by spirituality, and in particular evangelical spirituality. Now, genuine Christians find themselves on the cultural margins. The means of this marginalization? Sexual ethics, primarily. To oppose the enshrinement of same-sex marriage, transgender identity, and polyamorous practices is to mark oneself as an opponent of progress, liberty, and equality.
The Enlightenment, in sum, is engulfing the First Great Awakening. In such a cultural moment, what does the future hold for the followers of Christ?
First, we will face opposition and even persecution for our beliefs. Christians stand with God against the culture. The culture will not take kindly to this. We should expect that it will oppose us, marginalize us, and even persecute us. Christian organizations that hold to a biblical view of marriage and sexuality could lose nonprofit status. Perhaps most sweepingly, Christians who work in secular settings will likely face pressure to conform to the prevailing sexual code or else lose their position.
I believe that this may well constitute the next major push of the “new sexual secularism.” The academy has already introduced biased policies against Christian groups on campus—groups that require leaders to practice biblical ethics. The media has pounded Christians who dare to bring their faith to bear on their work. The state has passed legislation and handed down verdicts to normalize scandalously sinful sexual practices. Now, it is likely that the marketplace will prove the next battleground.
Second, Christian organizations may have to adjust the scale of their operations. It is possible that outcomes in upcoming elections could slow the momentum of the culture. But if current trends continue, churches and organizations doing vital work for Christ’s kingdom should prepare for a season of adjustment, even decreased fiscal capacity.
If we witness the spread of marketplace opposition, then giving to ministries will likely dip. If this is true, then now is the time for every church and parachurch outfit to plan for winter. We trust a great God, but like the industrious ant, we also work while there is day (Prov. 6:6). Financial discipline and gospel exigency must be practiced by all Christians. The church may face serious challenges as a result of political fallout. This does not mean that ministry will cease. Christ’s kingdom never dies; the light of the Word never goes out. But we may be led to minister in situations that challenge us as never before. If so, they call for fresh wisdom and fresh faith.
Third, we will minister to a people who are suffering the effects of rampant sin. There will be profound moral and spiritual consequences of the new sexual secularism. America is in the midst of a spiritual un-awakening. In everyday terms, this means that human suffering in America will increase. Children will be less protected. Families will feel pressure to pull apart. Marriages will prove harder to sustain. Lostness, the chief form of suffering in this world, will spread.
The witness of God on the human heart will be silenced by a culture that approves of what we naturally know is wicked and damaging. To isolate just one issue, as transgender identity spreads and is accepted, little boys and girls who years ago would have received sound counsel to inhabit their God-given bodies will instead be encouraged to undergo drastic surgery. They will experience profound confusion as a result, and will be—by some estimates—twenty times more likely to commit suicide than their peers. This is just one illustration of the baleful effects of the forces that now bully our body politic into conformity to anti-wisdom and anti-truth.
Fourth, we will discover countless gospel opportunities we did not previously notice. Despite these ill portents, we should see the darkening of our context as a gospel opportunity. The church was made for this. The gospel was given for this. The Spirit is ready for this. We might not have wished for these changes, but they have come, and God’s people must recognize that we are ready for them.
We might love the American past, but now is a time to see that our beloved country is, was, and will be fallen. It is not the New Israel. It is a unique place, a grand experiment, but like all the countries and cultures of the world, it needs the gospel desperately. This message is not supposed to make us tame and comfortable. Christ crucified and raised for our justification is intended to unleash us, embolden us, and put us to work. Christianity is much more about serious adventure than sentimentalized safety. It is much more about faith in suffering than ease in prosperity. It is much more about death—death to sin and self—than it is about personal affirmation and precious moments.
We are having the layers of easy-believism stripped away. We are being winnowed and woken up. But we do not flail as a result. We find ourselves in circumstances more like those which past believers faced. It shocks us, but we’re beginning to get a little taste of what Egypt might have felt like, or Babylon, or Rome.
There will be no retreat of the church. We will never stop witnessing unto life. We will never cease to minister the gospel. We will not forget the holy Apostles. We remember how they welcomed the jail cell, the Roman prison ship, the hair-raising tribunal. In any and all settings, they preached Christ. They went so far as to believe that God had not only permitted such moments, but had appointed them for His glory (Acts 5:41). They saw suffering with Christ as a privilege, much as this challenges our material sensibilities. We must not forget that if the church is unsettled, it is not by accident. It is by divine design, and it will be used for divine purposes.
While we live, like the priests of old in fallen Jerusalem, we may weep (Ezra 3:11–13). We cannot forget the millions of babies driven into the afterlife at abortion clinics. We cannot erase the suffering felt in fatherless homes and families detonated by selfish sin and bitter divorce. We cannot help but think back to past days, happy days, that celebrated the good of religious people and did not seek their undoing. All these trends speak to fallenness. All of them deserve our tears.
We will weep. But we will also dry our eyes. We will rise to our feet. Whether in a gated community, a busy city, a tense workroom, a chilly playgroup, or a prison cell, we will never cease to speak and to minister the gospel. The gospel was not made for quiet days and easy questions. It was made for the toughest stuff, the worst of times, the hardest of circumstances.
What does the future hold? The future will bring suffering. The days will be evil, as they have been (Eph. 5:16). But the future is bright, because God is real. The church must take heart. We have a living Lord. When history concludes, we will reign with unbroken bodies in a world of love. We will worship the Lamb of God, slain from before the foundation of the earth. There is no life like this life. There is no hope like this hope. There is no God like our God.