“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God,” Winthrop said. “. . . For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
In the nearly four centuries since, Christians of many denominations have sought to be that “city upon a hill” in America. Most of the time, we have enjoyed the appreciation and support of both government and people.Os Guinness, in his book "A Free People’s Suicide," notes that American democracy requires of its citizens freedom, virtue, and faith, requirements that the Founders—not all of whom were Christians—well understood. John Adams famously stated, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Reflecting this belief, the First Amendment to the Constitution puts religious liberty at the head of the line of rights, saying, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
And indeed, for much of our nation’s long history, Christians have taken advantage of their religious freedom to feed the hungry, build schools and hospitals, preach the gospel, and win converts. As befitting the “city upon a hill” metaphor, Christian influence on the culture is both deep and wide. A young minister in Massachusetts, John Harvard, died in 1638, leaving his library and half his estate to the institution of higher education he founded and which bears his name. Yale, with the biblical motto “Light and Truth,” was founded in 1701 to train ministers and political leaders.
“A rich legacy of Christian history has profoundly shaped the USA,” the daily prayer guide "Operation World" understates. “From the nation’s early days through today, no other country has been so strongly influenced by biblical Christianity.”
However, the light from America’s “city upon a hill” appears to be flickering. While many ministries remain both strong and faithful, the spread of biblical faith has plateaued or even tailed off in many areas and at leading cultural institutions—including Harvard and Yale.
Too often, Christian churches and ministries seem to be turning inward and serving themselves and their own members, rather than a society that has grown increasingly accustomed to spiritual darkness. The number of “nones”—Americans who have left the church and who profess no faith—has risen to an alarming level.
No longer considered a “city upon a hill,” Christians represent one of the few remaining groups in these politically correct times of whom mockery is not just allowed, but encouraged. Certainly the church has at times brought some of this abuse on itself, with sex scandals, ill-considered political partisanship, and failures in race relations.
No one in the media would dream of denigrating Muslims. But from Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photo to Johnny Carson’s nightly mocking of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, American popular culture has increasingly seen Christianity and the church as fair game for blasphemy or derision, perhaps partly fulfilling Winthrop’s frightening prophecy that we would become “a story and a by-word.” Meanwhile, “alternative lifestyles” that a mere generation ago were seen as immoral and destructive are today lauded as normal and healthy, a matter of civil rights. Those who stand up for biblical values are dismissed as bigots.
Further, the Founders’ respect for religious freedom seems little appreciated by today’s politicians, or by voters, as the recent election made clear. Defenders of religious liberty, known for centuries as “the first freedom,” must justify what many see as “special treatment” for religious groups.
For the last four years, President Obama has pursued policies that have attempted to restrict the definition of constitutionally protected religion only to what occurs within the four walls of a church. His party has attempted to force religiously based nonprofits—such as Catholic Charities, Wheaton College, and Tyndale House Publishers—to violate their convictions in order to provide contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs to female employees. Facing the prospect of punishing fines, these nonprofits have been forced to bring the administration to court.
Further, Mr. Obama has announced an “evolution” in his own thinking about the right of homosexuals to marry (for the first time, voters in three states agreed that such a right exists), and some Christian relief and development agencies are feeling administration pressure to hire avowed homosexuals. In addition, the president says not only that abortion on demand will remain the law of the land, but that taxpayers should subsidize it.
These hard-left, secular policies bring many believers into direct conflict with the powers that be. The Manhattan Declaration, of course, says that while Christians have many callings, three issues should take priority in today’s society: marriage, the sanctity of human life, and religious liberty. Christians who agree will necessarily find themselves at odds with the zeitgeist—and with Uncle Sam.
I am not a prophet, but I don’t think it takes one to see where all this is headed. Whatever your political party, the era of religious freedom is, like a historical parenthesis, quickly closing. The ever-present conflict between Christ and Caesar is about to break out into the open in the land of the First Amendment. Are we ready to respond, not with a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline?
Catholic theologians have long divided the church universal—the mystical Body of Christ across time and space—into three subsets: the church militant (fighting in this life against the world, the flesh, and the devil), the church suffering (in Purgatory), and the church triumphant (in heaven). Protestants (and many contemporary Catholics) don’t believe in Purgatory, though one could make a case that the church militant necessarily is also the church suffering, as battle and travail usually go hand in hand.
Here’s how Pius XII described the church militant: “We belong to the church Militant; and she is militant because on earth the powers of darkness are ever restless to encompass her destruction.” It is a never-ending conflict, and Christians, even in America, should not be taken aback when the battle reaches them. As the apostle Peter said, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Missionary Nik Repkin, in his new book, The Insanity of God, says that Christians who suffer in lands where persecution is the norm in a sense bring it upon themselves because they refuse to keep Jesus to themselves. They are faithful soldiers of the church militant, a “city upon a hill” as they display the justice and mercy of God, often at great personal cost. “Persecution,” Repkin says, “stops immediately where there is no faith and where there is no witness.”
So whether the larger society supports us or not—and a knowledge of history and God’s Word suggests that it will not—we Christians in America need to see ourselves not as the church triumphant, since ultimate victory comes only in the presence of the Lord, but as the church militant. Our ultimate objective is not to win the culture war, but to be faithful soldiers in the spiritual battle raging all around us. This is our calling, responsibility, and privilege.
Church militant, we did not ask for this, but the battle is already joined. Take up your sword.
Stan Guthrie is author of “All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century,” and coauthor of “The Sacrament of Evangelism.” He blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.