NASHVILLE (BP) — What model of political engagement should evangelical Christians adopt in current American culture?
Speakers addressed that question with various suggestions during “The Gospel and Politics,” a national conference sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Aug. 5 in Nashville.
It is a new day for evangelicals and other religious conservatives in the United States, conference presenters said before more than 600 attendees at the Music City Center.
The “illusion of a Christian majority is now gone,” said ERLC President Russell Moore.
It is fair to say conservative Christians “have lost the debate basically” about sexuality, said Ross Douthat, columnist for The New York Times. Religious conservatives “have become a sort of cultural or sociological minority whose view of sex is regarded at best as antique and at worst as potentially noxious,” he said.
While many speakers at the one-day event recommended approaches for evangelical political engagement, some panelists offered models with titles.
The Benedict Option has received attention in the last 18 months or so. Rod Dreher, a writer/editor with The American Conservative, proposed the model, naming it after a sixth-century monk who left Rome to pray and serve God. He started monasteries and wrote rules for living in community in culturally difficult times.
While the Benedict Option may be described as a strategic retreat to strengthen Christian communities and institutions, Dreher denied that it is “a call to head for the hills.” Christians can learn from the discipline and community of monks, he said.
“Even as we stay engaged in the public square,” Dreher told the audience, “… we have got to retreat somewhat, reclaim our own story as Christians, thicken our practices and build institutions that can be resilient in this post-Christian and, in fact, anti-Christian culture that is emerging.”
The Wilberforce Option also was proposed. Michael Gerson, columnist for The Washington Post and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, suggested the model named for William Wilberforce, the evangelical reformer who led the successful effort to halt the slave trade as a member of the British Parliament nearly 200 years ago.
Elements in evangelicalism “are oriented toward retreat” and are suggesting a “sabbatical from politics,” Gerson acknowledged. “My blunt reaction to that is only a comfortable Christian could make that claim.”
For an African parent with a child dying of malaria or an American inner-city parent with children in failing schools, “politics is not an option,” Gerson said. Such individuals feel compelled to pursue help through political means, and Christians should similarly feel “a relentless demand for justice” that drives them to take political action on behalf of the weak and vulnerable.
“I respect the Benedict Option, but I’m very much for the Wilberforce Option, which is for Christians to be on the cutting edge, the first responders when human dignity is at stake,” Gerson said.
The More Option was a third recommendation. Karen Swallow Prior, author and English professor at Liberty University, offered the model named after Hannah More, a contemporary and ally of Wilberforce who worked not only for the abolition of slavery but for other social reforms.
Prior, whose biography of More was published last year, cited on a panel four principles that characterized the approach of More and her colleagues:
— Christian commitment. In all that they did to bring social reform, “they were deeply rooted in their Christian faith,” Prior said.
— Moral imagination. “They didn’t rely just on the political process,” she said, adding they used art and literature. More wrote poetry, plays and a novel to change people’s thinking, Prior said.
— Extensive cultural engagement.
— Collaboration with conviction. “They were not afraid to work with people whose faith, whose commitments, whose principles were different from theirs on common cause,” Prior said. “They built those alliances to get the job done.”
Evangelicals “can’t retreat behind high walls,” said Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com. “We have to engage, but we can engage differently than we have in the past.”
Too often, the faith motivating political engagement has been “American Christianity, not Jesus Christianity,” Erickson said.
“The last I checked in the Gospels, I don’t remember Jesus waving an American flag,” Erickson said.