"Chosen & Exiled" was the sermon title at the First Baptist Church of Edmond, Oklahoma, on a recent Sunday.
Pastor Blake Gideon's main text came from 1 Peter 1:1-2:
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
While interviewing Gideon for stories on Oklahoma culture-war politics that I wrote for the Washington Post and Religion News Service, I asked the 40-year-old Southern Baptist pastor about the context of his planned sermon that day.
A part of that conversation:
Gideon: He (Peter) talks about how Christians are exiles in a foreign land, and when you're an exile, you live differently. So I'm going to be addressing that and just talking about how, as Christians, we are exiles in a foreign land. And we are to respect and honor the government, but not to the degree that we compromise our moral convictions.
Me: Do you feel like Christians are becoming more exiles in America?
Me: In Oklahoma, or is it still a little easier here?
Gideon: I think being a Christian conservative is a little easier than other parts of the nation, but it's not going to remain that way.
I recalled that discussion this week as I read Associated Press national religion writer Rachel Zoll's excellent deep dive into the changing status of evangelicals in America:
The opening scene takes readers inside an evangelical church in Kentucky:
BENTON, Ky. – Pastor Richie Clendenen stepped away from the pulpit, microphone in hand. He walked the aisles of the Christian Fellowship Church, his voice rising to describe the perils believers face in 21st-century America.
"The Bible says in this life you will have troubles, you will have persecutions. And Jesus takes it a step further: You'll be hated by all nations for my namesake," he said.
"Let me tell you," the minister said, "that time is here."
The faithful in the pews needed little convincing. Even in this deeply religious swath of western Kentucky — a state where about half the residents are evangelical — conservative Christians feel under siege.
For decades, they say, they have been steadily pushed to the sidelines of American life and have come under attack for their most deeply held beliefs, born of their reading of Scripture and their religious mandate to evangelize. The 1960s ban on prayer in public schools is still a fresh wound. Every legal challenge to a public Nativity scene or Ten Commandments display is another marginalization. They've been "steamrolled," they say, and "misunderstood."
This 2,500-word piece — about as long a story as you'll ever see on the AP wire — has it all from a journalistic storytelling perspective:
• Regular people (such as the Kentucky pastor and others at his congregation).
• Respected experts (such as Lifeway Research's Ed Stetzer and Southern Baptist public policy guru Russell Moore).
• Real nuance (as opposed to boiling down the issues and concerns to cardboard caricatures, as so often happens).
I like, too, that Zoll gives readers a sense of place:
If culture wars and the outside world once felt remote amid the soybean and tobacco farms around Marshall County, Kentucky, change of many kinds is now obvious to Clendenen's congregants.
Latino immigrants are starting to arrive in significant numbers, drawn partly by farm work. Muslims are working at chicken processing plants in the next county or enrolling at nearby Murray State University. On a recent weeknight, a group of women wearing abayas shopped in a Dollar General store near campus. Some gays and lesbians are out in the community, and Clendenen says he occasionally sees them at Sunday worship.
Have evangelical Christians become exiles in their home country?
Many believe so, according to Zoll's report:
It has come to this: Many conservative Christians just don't feel welcome in their own country.
They say they are either mocked or erased in popular culture. "When was the last time you saw an evangelical or conservative Christian character portrayed positively on TV?" Stetzer asked.
"The idea of what we call biblical morality in our culture at large is completely laughed at and spurned as nonsense," said David Parish, a former pastor at Christian Fellowship and the son of its founder. "The church as an institution, as a public entity — we are moving more and more in conflict with the culture and with other agendas."
How to navigate this new reality? Most conservative Christians fall into one of three broad camps.
There are those who are determined to even more fiercely wage the culture wars, demanding the broadest possible religious exemptions from recognizing same-sex marriage.
There are those who plan to withdraw as much as possible into their own communities to preserve their faith — an approach dubbed the "Benedict Option," for a fifth-century saint who, disgusted by the decadence of Rome, fled to the forest where he lived as a hermit and prayed.
There is, however, a segment that advocates living as a "prophetic minority," confidently upholding their beliefs but in a gentler way that rejects the aggressive tone of the old religious right and takes up other issues, such as ending human trafficking, that can cross ideological lines.
That's the kind of below-the-surface insight that characterizes this timely, thoughtful piece.
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