Evangelicals in the Public Square: Straw-Men Need Not Apply

By Rob Schwarzwalder Published on October 31, 2015

There is much to commend in Mike Gerson and Pete Wehner’s Christianity Today article on Christian flourishing “in a same-sex world.”  Indeed, as they contend, “this moment can turn out to be not a calamity but a greater and grander stage for the true, enduring, and life-giving message of the gospel.”

Both of these men are friends of mine. I continue to learn from and be challenged by them.  Yet in this latest piece, their many prescient observations are laced with the presentation of a straw-man which, in my experience, doesn’t exist.

For example, the authors quote a New Testament scholar as saying that “there are perhaps half a dozen brief references to (homosexual conduct) in all of Scripture.” Perhaps so — but how is this relevant? Social conservatives are not inventing an issue or elevating homosexuality to some horrifying “super sin.” Indeed, Leviticus 20 makes clear that heterosexual adultery is as offensive to God as homosexual behavior.

Rather, gay and lesbian activists are forcing the hand of Evangelical Protestants and orthodox Catholics who refuse to surrender their religious liberty. Many of today’s homosexual activists are insistent upon silencing all who differ with them about the institution of marriage and wish to impose on all facets of society a mandatory legal affirmation of their political agenda. Thus, the movement to deny religious institutions tax-exempt status unless they provide same-sex housing (if colleges) or restrooms (if churches), provide benefits to same-sex partners, etc.

Politically conservative Christians oppose the “mainstreaming” of homosexuality in public institutions. Thus they support opt-out provisions for parents in schools that instruct small children in the vagaries of human sexuality and resist forcing such instructions on religious schools. Not to resist such repressive efforts would be an abandonment of civic duty and the abrogation of Christian love; not to oppose evil is not only to acquiesce to it but, at least passively, to affirm it.

Human sexuality is a massive issue in the Evangelical church. Pornography, divorce and premarital sex may be less common than in society at large, but they have all taken a toll.

Additionally, many Evangelical young people have gay and lesbian friends and neighbors who are kind individuals not seeking to impose any social agenda. Given the dearth of biblical teaching they have received in their churches (and their homes), many of them are mystified by the fuss over same-sex marriage.

Their failure to grasp the implications of the Obergefell ruling are understandable. What they and some other Evangelicals don’t get is that if consent and affection are the only criteria for marriage, as the Kennedy opinion implies, then any consensual unions, involving all manner of multiple partners, should be legal. And if the Supreme Court can find a “right” in the Constitution where there is none and, in doing so, sweep-aside the 31 state ballot initiatives and legislative actions that affirm marriage as the union of one man and one woman, we truly are living in what the late Harvard Law School professor Raoul Berger called a “government by the judiciary.”

This is what Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, referred to when he used the phrase, quoted by Gerson and Wehner, “the downfall of America.” He did not say that Obergefell itself would be the downfall of the nation. Here’s what Tony said, in context:

… five unelected judges, lawyers in black robes, who have the ability to dictate law and policy for this country. Think about that for a moment: Everything we have in this country that we’ve been able to obtain, the freedoms we’ve enjoyed for 239 years, (has) come down to five lawyers … dictating some of the most fundamental policies that affect our country. I don’t care how you look at it — that’s not right, and it will be the downfall of America.

Judicial tyranny is a grave threat to representative self-government. Tony’s remarks are both correct and, for conservatives, quite conventional.  A former boss of Gerson, Wehner, and mine, George W. Bush, said something quite similar in 2008:

Our Founders gave the judicial branch enormous power. It’s the only branch of government whose officers are unelected. That means judges on the federal bench must exercise their power prudently, cautiously … the Constitution is not a living document, it is an enduring document, and good judges know the difference. And I made a promise to the American people during the campaign that if I was fortunate enough to be elected my administration would seek out judicial nominees who follow that philosophy … Instead we would seek judges who would faithfully interpret the Constitution — and not use the courts to invent laws or dictate social policy.

Gerson and Wehner also criticize what they call “the Religious Right’s top-down model of transformation,” according to which political action will by itself reverse social problems. But who has ever made that argument? Politically conservative Christians know that culture matters. They also recognize that if all the “right” people were elected and all the “right” laws were enacted and all the “right” court decisions made, a subsequent national election could reverse many of the gains made. Our political opponents will not simply throw-up their hands and retreat into permanent political exile after an electoral loss. They are as committed to their ideas as we are to ours, and public transformation will never be even close to sweeping and enduring unless there is comprehensive societal renewal. We get it.

True renewal includes the surrender of all believers to the Lordship of their Savior and the faithful living-out of its implications. It includes acts of mercy and generosity at home and abroad outside the restricted confines of politics. Pregnancy care centers, the adoption movement, anti-poverty efforts at home and internationally, and so many other ministries — through churches, denominations, para-church organizations, and individual initiatives — are bringing the love of Christ and the transforming grace of the Gospel to what Carl Henry once called “a famished and fainting race.”

Political action is only one part of Evangelical public engagement, but it is a part. Unlike those to whom Paul and Peter addressed their political injunctions, in America we have the tools of citizenship by which to advance “the welfare of the city.”

Through voting and mobilizing voters, we can elect men and women who will work to protect the unborn and their mothers from a predatory abortion industry. We can elect people who will encourage such pro-family measures as increasing the child tax credit, sustaining the charitable deduction, and alleviating the marriage penalty. And we can elect those who will protect religious liberty from assaults which, if successful, would render impotent the public work of churches and religious charities and also curtail the simple practice of deeply-held faith at work and in school.

Will such political action be permanent, adequate, or complete? No. But can it help Christians “do good unto all men” (Galatians 6:10) and demonstrate faithful allegiance to those whose lives and human dignity are at risk, or worse? Yes.

Are some believers surprised, angered, and frightened by the recent actions of the Supreme Court and the rapid advancement of the Left’s agenda of social recombination? Yes, as they should be. Many Evangelicals are preoccupied with their own lives and, like most people, are not attentive enough to cultural dynamics.  But personally, I know few, if any, whose concern is descending into terror or whose surprise is accreting rage.

Instead, I see more and more concerned Evangelicals working in every sphere to graciously but uncompromisingly stand for the virtues of Scripture and the rights given by God and articulated in the Constitution. They should not receive our condemnation but, instead, our gratitude.


Schwarzwalder has served as chief-of-staff to two Members of Congress and was a presidential appointee in the Administration of George W. Bush.

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