In today’s age, it is increasingly difficult to be meaningfully Christian in the public square. To many believers, it seems that merely expressing orthodox Christian doctrine can get one labeled a bigot, or worse. Neither has this been a gradual change in Western culture — the change from a West at least nominally supportive of Christian practice and doctrine to one that is much less so has been swift. In America, while the percentage of those in evangelical Protestantism and the black church has stayed more or less constant, the number of Catholics and Mainline Protestants has plummeted, with the unaffiliated rising dramatically. Though the passionate (a cynic might say, those who actually were believers) have remained true to Christianity, the vast middle has, for the most part, abandoned orthodox Christianity.
There is a debate to be had on whether this outcome is good or bad. (Here is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, arguing that it is a good thing. Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, offered a nuanced analysis of religious trends in America. And here is Rod Dreher, author and writer at The American Conservative, with the perspective that this is a bad thing.) Either way, that is the way things are, and there are no signs that in the near future things will change in the direction of a broadly believed Christian orthodoxy.
How then should Christians respond? The culture war is over, and the Christians lost it — the only question now is how merciful the secular side of American culture will be. Must Christians retreat from public life? Should they — we — fight for some of our old turf back? Should Christians even worry about how the larger culture perceives them?
Here is an unknown church father, writing all the way back in the second century A.D., with the timeless Christian response to the age:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. [Literally, “cast away fetuses.” — TP] They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; They are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, and yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum up all in one word — what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world.
How should Christians respond to an increasingly secular age? By being Christian.