It is being said, and often, that the upcoming election is the most important in our nation’s history. Among conservatives and liberals alike, there’s a belief that fixing the problems of joblessness, economic recession, spiraling debt, creeping socialism (or unchecked capitalism), political corruption, and moral decay is a matter of getting the right folks in office.
Well, this election is important, as every election is. Civil servants who uphold the Constitution and perform the duties of their office with integrity and honor are essential to the formation and maintenance of a just society. That makes voting one of the greatest responsibilities of citizenship.
But while electing competent and honorable individuals to office is important, it is never the solution to a nation’s woes. Unless political change is accompanied by cultural change, any improvements in the social conditions of a country will be limited and temporary, regardless of who is at the helm.
If history has taught us anything, it is that neither politics nor politicians will save us. Over the last few decades, we have seen that political corruption, abuse, and scandal are no respecters of parties or persons, and that political party affiliation is no guarantee that values social conservatives hold dear, like the sanctity of life and traditional marriage, will be upheld.
I am of an age to remember that in 1969, Republican governor Ronald Reagan pioneered “no-fault” divorce with the California Family Law Act. Later, in 1973, Roe v. Wade was decided during a Republican administration by a Supreme Court in which six out of the nine judges had been installed by Republican presidents. And today, there is a movement within the GOP to back off social issues, and even change its position on gay “marriage.”
Those actions, as well as the ones being blamed for our current state of affairs, did not emanate from the hats of our government leaders; they were informed by the real or perceived values of society. That’s because culture shapes politics, and not the other way around. Consequently, any real and lasting solution to our nation’s problems must address its moral climate.
Addressing the cause
Over two hundred years ago, William Wilberforce observed that “the religion and morality of a country, especially of a free community, are inseparably connected with its preservation and welfare [and] … that a people grossly corrupt are incapable of liberty.”
In his day, Great Britain was the economic and military leader of the world; but it was also the world leader in slave trade. It was a time in European history that Charles Dickens aptly described as the best of times and the worst of times.
For the “haves,” there were plenty of shops, clubs, theaters, and servants to attend to their every need. But for the “have-nots,” there were hazardous factories, 16-hour workdays, child labor, forced labor, hunger, and poverty. Tragically, many sought relief from the crushing conditions of life through cheap gin, which led to rampant alcoholism and an era known as the “gin age.”
In the streets of London there were gambling, drunkenness, prostitution, and public executions. Political offices were bought and sold, and politicians were corrupt and self-serving. The prevalence of crime, vice, and corruption in the nation’s capital earned it the epithet “the devil’s drawing room.”
It was in that cultural setting that Wilberforce entered public life to pursue two “Great Objects”: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners,” or what we might call today the moral revival of society.
Wilberforce realized that although politicians and their policies bore responsibility for the execrable conditions and practices of the day, they were not the cause. The cause was the moral decline of society, which was owing, in large part, to the failure of the Church.
In the 18th century, the Church of England was in full retreat from historical Christianity. Pew and pulpit were marked by nominal-to-heterodox beliefs. Laity non-attendance was widespread, as was clerical neglect in congregational care and ministry.
Particularly telling is what pastor Joseph Milner had to say about church leadership: “It is an affecting consideration to reflect what a number of clergymen there are whose lives demonstrate them to be wholly devoid of any religious sensibility whatever… [and without] any concern for their own salvation or that of the flocks committed to their charge.”
To raise the moral vision of his countrymen, Wilberforce pushed for the reissuance of the “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue,” enlisting the support of the Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury.
The proclamation was a perfunctory decree published by the Crown whenever a new monarch assumed the throne and, afterwards, summarily ignored for all practical purposes. But with the enthusiastic backing of Church and State, the 1787 reissuance gained wider public respect, enabling Wilberforce to launch the Society for the Reformation of Manners. That spawned hundreds of volunteer organizations devoted to raising biblical literacy, easing the plight of the disadvantaged, and addressing the corrupting influences of vice.
Over the next few decades, changes in the moral character of the country helped Wilberforce pass numerous social reform laws and live to see the fulfillment his life’s dream: the end of slavery in the British Empire, and the exportation of the abolitionist movement to America.
It is no coincidence that the death of William Wilberforce marked the beginning of the Victorian era—a period marked by charity, benevolence, and uncommon commitment to personal moral formation.
Back to the present
According to a recent Pew survey, nearly two thirds of members in mainline churches attend services less than once a week, only one half consider religion very important in their life, an astonishing 40% believe the Bible is a work of man and not the Word of God, and more astonishing still, 27% either doubt or disbelieve God’s existence.
Those figures closely align with the nation as a whole, suggesting that the Church, instead of transforming the culture, is being transformed by it. It has led Christian leaders like Dallas Willard to echo what pollsters have been telling us for over a decade: Among Christians there is “no real difference in the spiritual and moral quality of life from the mass of non-Christians.”
Yet the vast majority of Americans claim some church affiliation. And since our true beliefs are revealed not in what we profess, but in what we practice, it would appear that we are a nation of “belonging non-believers.”
Are we surprised then to find that lying, cheating and stealing among young people have reached alarming levels; out-of-wedlock births are at an all-time high; television networks air primetime shows that would have earned an X-rating on the silver screen a few decades back; relationships are being blessed and celebrated in churches that wouldn’t have been topics for polite company a generation ago; political scandal and corporate corruption have become so commonplace they barely provoke a collective yawn; lack of acceptance (or enthusiasm!) over a person’s sexual preferences is called intolerant; and moral objections to lifestyle choices are being threatened as hate speech?
If we are, we shouldn’t be. For in conforming to the culture, the Church has been absorbed by it, relinquishing its moral authority to the sirens of selfism and sensualism.
Lost is the moral vocabulary of sin, evil, guilt, repentance, and submission. Gone are the days when a pastor could dare to challenge the moral character of his flock, much less call out specific congregational sins. If Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were addressed to a congregation today, the “man caught in adultery” would have him brought up on charges of libel, and he would win his case!
Most tragically, the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ has given way to the gospel of self-improvement through therapeutic technique, a gospel that palliates but neither heals nor transforms.
Shortly we will have the privilege, once again, of taking part in the democratic process. It is a privilege that carries the civic and moral duties of knowing the candidates and their political positions, particularly on the non-negotiables of traditional marriage, the dignity of the human person at all stages of life, and religious liberty.
But as we earnestly exercise that solemn privilege, we need to remember that our responsibility does not stop there, at the ballot box. For even if all three branches of government were suddenly filled with “our people”—officials who share our values and execute their duties with wisdom and integrity—it would not bring the lasting change our country needs without transformation: transformation that starts at ground level in the Church with each member, and spreads outward and upward to our families, communities, schools, businesses, corporate boardrooms, and halls of government until true justice blankets our nation.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. 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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