A headline in a recent Wall Street Journal profile of me implied that I — and other evangelical leaders — are calling for a “pullback” from engagement in politics. But keeping the gospel as central in our engagement doesn’t mean pullback. If anything, it means even more engagement—with conviction, grit, and compassion.
My concern is not with a hyper-politicized form of Christianity so much as it is with younger evangelicals who—in an over-reaction to some of the rhetoric they hear—wish to disengage from the public square altogether. They want a theologically robust, mission-centered witness, and they don’t see that in movements that wink at theological heresy as long as it’s coming from an ally who is politically “with us.” But an over-correction would be a mistake.
This isn’t a matter of pullback, but of priority. It’s an engagement that doesn’t back down on the culture’s most controversial debates, but rather sees our ultimate mission as one that applies the gospel of Christ to the questions of the day. This approach is already present in one area, one that is resonating with a growing number of young Christians: the pro-life movement.
Evangelicals in the abortion debate have demonstrated convictional kindness in a holistic ethic of caring both for vulnerable unborn children and for the women who are damaged by abortion. The pro-life movement has engaged in a multi-pronged strategy that addresses, simultaneously, the need for laws to outlaw abortion, care for women in crisis pregnancies, facilitating adoption and foster care for children who need families, ministry to women (and men) who’ve been scarred by abortion, cultivating a culture that persuades others about why we ought to value human life, and the proclamation of the gospel to those whose consciences bear the guilt of abortion.
When we stand against legal abortion, we do so because we believe—because of the gospel—that life is better than death, and that a person’s value is more than his or her utility. We simultaneously speak of justice and of justification, prophetically standing up for the unborn in the public arena while extending the mercy of Christ, through the cross, to those who are guilty. The gospel means we must point to the sin—and call it that—but we do so with a focus that we’re not prosecuting attorneys, but defense attorneys. It says to those who hate us: There’s good news for those who repent and believe. It also means we speak and we vote and we mobilize. We engage on Capitol Hill, on issues ranging from stopping the abortion industry, to protecting religious liberty, to speaking out for human rights for the persecuted overseas. But we don’t do so as gloomy pessimists, continually wringing our hands or crying conspiracy. And we don’t do it as naïve utopians, believing we can organize our way back to Mayberry. We do it as those who weep for those around us who are being overtaken by darkness. We do it as those who are cheerily marching to Zion, knowing that whatever the short-term setbacks, we are on the winning side of history.
That means modeling a Christian political engagement that doesn’t start or end with politics alone. It starts and ends with the gospel and the kingdom of God. Those who oppose our convictions will hate us. Those who want to use our church voting lists as their political organizing tools won’t understand us. So be it. Kingdom first.
We teach our people that their vote for president of the United States is crucially important. But we teach them that their vote on the membership of their churches is even more important. A church that loses the gospel is a losing church, no matter how many political victories it wins. A church that is right on public convictions but wrong on the gospel is a powerless church, no matter how powerful it seems.
Pullback? No. Unless, that is, we mean pulling back to the ministry of Jesus—who addressed everything, body and soul, public and private, political and personal, but who did so with the cross in his vision at every point. That’s what the church has done in every era—from confronting 19th-century slavery to addressing the carnage left in the wake of today’s sexual revolution and de-stabilized family.
We want to see our so-called enemies out-voted when they’re doing harmful things, unelected from office when they’re hurting the common good. But we don’t stop there. We want to see them transformed by the blood of Christ. We don’t only want to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching As to War.” We also want to sing “Just As I Am, Without One Plea, But That Thy Blood Was Shed for Me.”
Don’t call it a pullback; we’ve been here for years.
— Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral concerns and public policy arm of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.