Up until the night of the Presidential election, I was telling people that Mitt Romney was going to win, and win big. I reasoned that the things going for Barack Obama in 2008—the historical significance of the first African-American president, a Republican ticket that failed to gain traction beyond the base, growing dissatisfaction with the Bush administration (call it “Bush Fatigue”), and the promise of “change” from an unknown but charismatic and oratorically gifted Chicago politician—were not in his favor this time around.
Instead, there was a lingering recession, mounting national debt, increased deficient spending, and record levels of unemployment and joblessness that could only be defended with “it could’ve been worse.”
Then there were actions that were clearly against a center-right country: an “evolved” position on same-sex “marriage”; repeal of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy; doubling down on the support of Planned Parenthood and reproductive “rights”; and the vastly unpopular signature accomplishment, Obamacare.
Added to that, were the misadventures of Solyndra-Gate and “Fast and Furious” and a swirl of troubling questions over the Benghazi tragedy.
But in the end, none of that mattered—or, at least, mattered enough to enough people.
A time of reflection
Since the election, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, asking myself how I could have been so wrong. I’ve listened to pundits of diverse leanings explain (or excuse) the outcome.
One of them, Karl Rove, has put the blame on no less than 19 factors: everything from Hurricane Sandy to campaign spending. Others have attributed it to Governor Romney’s flip-flopping on social issues and health care, his “47%” comment, his inability to articulate his message to the middle class, and his Party’s failure to reach out to Latinos, blacks, women, and young adults.
No doubt each of these had some effect on the election, but I’m not convinced that, collectively, they were sufficient to account for the outcome. Instead, as I thought back over past elections in recent decades, something occurred to me that should have been clear all along.
What I realized was that sometime in the last 50 years, our nation boarded a train headed for a particular destination; and while we’ve changed conductors and onboard staff numerous times, we haven’t changed trains. Each change may have resulted in new cabin assignments or a different course and speed, affecting our comfort, scenery, and time of arrival, but not our final destination.
For instance, although social conservatives are fond of casting the Democratic Party as the political proxy of the lifestyle left, they are quick to forget that it was Republicans and Republican appointees who were responsible for two of the most socially liberal policies ever enacted: “no-fault” divorce and abortion-on-demand.
What’s more, in the last few years the GOP leadership has been talking about backing off or, at least, soft-pedaling on social issues. There is even talk of changing the party’s stance on same-sex “marriage.” And in light of what happened in the states on election night, there is every reason to suspect that they will. I mean, who wants to stay on the “wrong” side of history?
One night, four defeats
After over a decade of victories at the ballot box in 32 states, in one night, traditional marriage lost in four states. Voters in Maine, Washington, and Maryland approved the legalization of same-sex “marriage” and voters in Minnesota voted down an amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. This was inevitable, although some in the pro-marriage fold may be reluctant to admit it.
Popular approval of same-sex “marriage” has been gaining steadily over the last fifteen years. According to the Pew Research Center, only 27 percent of the general public approved of SSM in 1996 (compared to 65 percent disapproval); by 2011, public approval of SSM exceeded disapproval, 46 percent to 44 percent. Among Generation Xers and Millennials, approval was 50 percent and 59 percent, respectively.
Another thing that happened on election night: For the first time, the recreational use of marijuana was legalized in two states, Colorado and Washington.
Throughout the presidential campaign, people everywhere were saying that this election was the most important in our nation’s history. And it was—not primarily because of what it means about our nation’s future, but, more importantly, what it tells us about our national soul. And just what is that? you ask.
‘Reading’ the election
If we are willing to listen, it tells us that, despite the influence of Christianity on our nation’s founding, Constitution, and rule of law, Christian values no longer shape the national moral consensus.
Given that 80 percent of Americans profess to be Christian, it further confirms what pollsters like George Barna have been telling us for over a decade—namely, that “To the naked eye, the thoughts and deeds (and even many of the religious beliefs) of Christians are virtually indistinguishable from those of nonbelievers.” (Emphasis added.)
What else can explain the fact that a candidate who is pro-abortion, pro-gay “marriage,” and who has demonstrated, time and again, a certain disregard for our first constitutional freedom—religious liberty—received 20 percent of the “born-again/evangelical” vote?
You read that right. Twenty percent of the “born-again/evangelical” vote. That amounted to 6 million votes in an election that was won by 3 million! However, the real margin of victory may have been closer than that, much closer. It has been suggested that the race turned on a razor-thin 400,000 votes in a few key precincts in a few states.
No doubt, many of those votes were cast in the sincere belief that care for the needy is the most important social issue for Christians and that the policies of the incumbent were better aimed at that end than those of the challenger.
While that belief is certainly arguable among Christians, what is not is that the dignity of human life at all stages of development and decline, the sanctity of natural marriage, and the freedom of religious expression are non-negotiables of the Christian faith. The fact that 20 percent of “born again” Christians are unaware of that, don’t believe it, or have chosen to ignore it should provoke serious self-examination in the Christian community.
When combined with Barna’s observation that, behaviorally, Christians are “statistically indistinguishable” from the ambient culture, the 2012 evangelical vote indicates that despite all of the positive influences the church has had on society, it is failing in its core mission: making disciples—individuals who are learning to think like Jesus and live like Jesus.
The day after the election, the airways were filled with speculations about 2016 and the saviors waiting in the wings to take America back—as if the cure to our national ills were one election and one political messiah away.
The truth is, we didn’t get here overnight, nor in the previous election, nor during the last four years. The condition of our national soul took decades, and it will take decades to restore it—not one, two, or three election cycles, or until the “right” people dominate all three branches of government.
I could imagine that we are already 10, 20, 30 years into a “70-year exile” period, with 40 to 60 years to go. If so, there is no easy fix, no short cut, no end-around. Let me explain.
If Christian values are to regain their cultural hold, they must be embodied by Christians as disciples of Jesus. But the bracing reality is that scarcely 3 percent* of American Christians could qualify as a “disciple” according to the biblical meaning of the word. Increasing that number to a culturally significant value of, say, 20 percent or more, means growing the discipled population to over six times the current level.
To get there, we can’t just do more of what we’ve always done, or get better at doing it; we will have to do something radically different than “church as usual.”
The enduring idols of imposing edifices, celebrity preaching, and state-of-the-art sound systems may fill the pews and stuff the coffers, but apart from a discipleship process integrated into the fabric of church life, they will not lead to faith that transforms.
Fundamentally, we must move from a program-driven model of church growth to a process-oriented model of spiritual formation. (More about the process-oriented model can be found in “Getting Intentional About Discipleship.”) If history is any teacher, such a move, let alone the desired effect, could consume the better part of a pastor’s career. But that is our challenge.
Nothing has changed
In times like these, there is always the temptation to disengage from the culture and hole up in safe enclaves of the like-minded. But that would be wrong, because this election hasn’t changed a thing—except, perhaps, to put an exclamation point on the reminder that the church is to be a shaper of culture rather than a product of it.
As best I can make out, the Great Commission has no expiration date or qualifiers. Thus, the charge for every Christian, in season and out of season, is as it was 2000 years ago: to go and make disciples of all nations, beginning with our own.
So whether or not we have entered a 70-year exile, we are to be salt and light, to push against the gates of hell, and to advance the kingdom by the gospel, proclaimed and practiced. Anything less is a dereliction of duty, a desertion of post.
*In 2011, George Barna found that “only about 3% of all self-identified Christians in America have come to the final stops on the transformational journey—the places where they have surrendered control of their life to God, submitted to His will for their life, and devoted themselves to loving and serving God and other people.”
Image courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor.
Regis Nicollis a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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