Big picture: How can religious traditionalists shift strategies in cultural conflicts?

Big picture, it would be hard to over-state the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage upon believers who uphold longstanding religious tradition. The resulting soul-searching is a theme worth careful journalistic treatment going forward.

One fruitful avenue would be seeking reactions from prime sources to three future options proposed by a package of articles in the current issue of Christianity Today, the influential evangelical monthly.

The cover offers a degree of optimism: “Have No Fear: How to Flourish in a Time of Cultural Weakness.”

That’s the tone of the lead article by two authors better known for politics than religion, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Both were speechwriters and then top policy advisors in the George W. Bush White House. Armed with a foundation grant, they interviewed many evangelical writers, academicians and non-profit leaders, with varied reactions, then drew their own conclusions.

Gerson and Wehner scan history, noting how rarely authentic Christians have exercised full political power. Key quote: “When Christians find themselves on the losing side of Supreme Court decisions, it isn’t cause for despair. Nor does it preclude them from doing extraordinary things.”

Realistically, they say, believers must simply adjust to a world of same-sex marriage. Any bids to reverse this culture shift “will be spectacularly unsuccessful.” But “this does not mean they have to endorse gay marriage.” Traditionalists must remain vigilant in protecting “vital religious liberty,” which is a mark of the healthy society. Fears of “progressive” and secular harassment are called “exaggerated in some quarters, but not baseless.” (Newswriters will note that far more alarm is expressed in conservative periodicals like World and First Things.)

The Court’s edict is a “milestone,” they say. Though it was once “plausible -- though not necessarily accurate -- for Christians to see themselves as part of a ‘moral majority’,” those days are over, at least on family and sexual issues. “Many evangelicals mistake alarming legal trends for across-the-board cultural decay,” which they say is misleading.

The writers propose “the Wilberforce option,” named for William Wilberforce, a devout evangelical and the politician most responsible for ridding the British Empire of slavery. Their point is that Christians should not and cannot escape responsibility for the broader society, and as a “faithful minority” must join others to build democratic majorities that resist injustices and “threats to human dignity.” 

Second, there’s “the Benedict option,” named for that great monk and  presented by a less optimistic Rod Dreher. He’s a senior editor of The American Conservative and Eastern Orthodox layman who is writing a book advocating a decreased emphasis on political activism, alone, with increased attention dedicated to cultural strategies to build stronger families and religious communities. “Given this post-Christian ‘dark age,’ we small-o orthodox Christians must pioneer new ways to bind ourselves to Scripture, to our traditions, and to each other, not for mere survival but so that the church can be the authentic light of Christ to a world lost in darkness.” First and foremost, argues Dreher, the church must focus on being the church, if it wants to survive and thrive.

Third comes “the Dr. King option” described by Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. He says white Anglo Christians may be suffering through “being on the periphery” of culture but black and Latino evangelicals never had power in the first place. Christians should emulate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “America’s most effective prophet,” he says. “Neither passive nor power-hungry,” King-style Christians will build a grass-roots societal movement from all races, drawing on the power that comes from “truth, love, and service.”

So, King, Benedict, Wilberforce, some combination, or something else entirely for perplexed Christian conservatives in 21st Century America? There are local and national stories linked to these debates. Over to you, reporters and editors.

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